A Brief History Of Damascus Steel

A look at one of the world's most highly prized steels and its history.

During the long years of the Crusades, the armies of Europe found themselves badly outnumbered. Not only were there more Saracens than Crusaders in the Holy Land, but the armies of Islam were much better equipped. They rode sleek, swift horses bred for the hot desert climate, wore a chainmail light enough to provide them maximum mobility yet strong enough to stop European blades, and used weapons made of a steel so well-forged that it bent under pressure without breaking, yet held an edge so sharp it could cleave a man in half with only the force behind one arm. What was this secret steel of the Near East, its forging guarded so well by the swordsmiths of Syria?

That steel was called Damascus steel, a term used by Crusaders to describe the metal used by the artisans and swordsmiths of Damascus, Syria. These metalworkers, particularly during the Middle Ages, were famous for their ability to hammer and temper wootz steel into fine and supple blades.

Wootz was not a type of steel, but rather a way of transporting and forming steel by casting it in the shape of a flat cake. Wootz steel is described as early as 400 BC, by Aristotle. The iron in wootz steel was processed in a bellows charcoal furnace by heating together magnetite iron ore and charcoal. Non-metallic impurities were then removed from the iron by repeated hot working, called folding, and the metal that was left was formed into massive blocks called billets. The final product, wootz, was made by removing any excess carbon from the metal through reheating the blocks to a temperature just below melting point. Careful hammering, shaping and treating of the metal by Damascus armorers produced a steel so perfect that the sword blade could be bent from point to hilt without breaking or warping, and could also be honed to a very sharp edge.

Persian swords were renowned for this high-quality metal, making use of what was, in Persia, called "watered" steel. It was called this because the surface alternated with bands of dark and light wavy line, like watermarks. This strong, beautiful amalgam of iron and carbon was the forerunner of Damascus steel.

The "watered" effect of Persian, and later Damascus, steel was achieved by forging the blades from steel containing very high proportions of carbon. The dense, dark areas of the blades surface were the residual carbon marks, whereas the lighter areas were formed by particles of bonded iron carbide. The contrast was very often enhanced by acid-etching. The surface colour of the blade could also be altered with the careful application of different chemicals, and by repeated etching.

Steel manufacturing was carefully studied and documented by Islamic scientists. Their texts were available to swordsmiths throughout the Islamic world, who guarded their secret jealously. Damascus steel was especially valuable because it combined hardness with elasticity, and would hold an edge for a long time.

Though steel manufacture has expanded and improved over the centuries since the Crusades, Damascus steel remains one the most prized of blade metals in the world, outdone only by the invention of stainless steel.

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