Ancient Secrets Of The Damascus Steel – Legendary Metal Used By Crusaders And Other Warriors

Ellen Lloyd - - When the Crusaders reached the Middle East in the 11th century, they discovered swords made of a metal that could slice a hair in half in mid-air, and yet it was strong enough to strike fear into even the bravest and most persistent warrior.

Syrian shamshir, The Royal Armoury, Stockholm Sweden.

A shamshir (Persian/Iranian sword with a radical curve. The Royal Armoury, Stockholm, Sweden.  Unknown author - LSH 77113 - Public Domain

Knowledge of the legendary metal spread, and it became known to the Europeans as the Damascus steel, named after the capital of Syria. Sometime in the 18th century, the formula for Damascus steel was lost, and the original method for producing Damascus steel remains an ancient secret.

Through the ages, armorers who made swords, shields, and armor were rigidly secretive regarding their method, and the formula of the Damascus steel was only known to a few persons.

Many modern attempts have been made to reproduce the metal, but no one has succeeded due to differences in raw materials and manufacturing techniques.

Damascus Steel And Its Remarkable Characteristics

From around the fourth century A.D., Damascus steel was manufactured in several regional locations. The swords produced with Damascus steel were extraordinary because the blades remained devastatingly sharp through battle after battle.

The Damascus steel gave rise to many legends, such as the ability to cut through a rifle barrel or to cut a hair falling across the blade. According to Dr. Helmut Nickel, curator of the Arms and Armor Division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, legend had it that the best blades were quenched in "dragon blood."

The swords were easily recognized by a characteristic watery or" damask" pattern on their blades." Damascus steel was not only a remarkable feat of engineering but also a thing of aesthetic beauty.

The metal was derived from Wootz, a type of steel originating in India unusually rich in carbon.

Based on archaeological evidence, it has been determined that the production fit the steel started in present-day Tamil Nadu before the start of the Common Era.

Ancient Secrets Of The Damascus Steel – Legendary Metal Used By Crusaders And Other Warriors Watered pattern on iranian sword blade. Close-up of an 18th-century Persian-forged Damascus steel sword. Image credit: Rahil Alipour Ata AbadiGFDL

The Arabs introduced the Indian wootz steel to Damascus, where a weapons industry thrived. Wootz steel was highly prized across several regions of the world over nearly two millennia, and one typical product made of this Indian steel came to be known as the Damascus swords.

From the 3rd century to the 17th century, India was shipping steel ingots to the Middle East.

Lost Knowledge Of The Damascus Steel Formula

By 1750, the production of Damascus swords gradually declined, and the process was lost to metalsmiths.

Why the swords were no longer produced is still a mystery. It has been suggested that Damascus steel production declined because firearms replaced blades, and there was less demand for metal. Another option is that the knowledge of the Damascus steel formula was only known to a small group and thus lost with time. Swordmakers succeeded in concealing their techniques from competitors and posterity.

It is also possible that the trade routes supplying Wootz from India were disrupted or that raw material supplies no longer had the same essential characteristics.

Modern Attempts To Re-Create Damascus Steel

A significant problem in scientific experiments on Wootz Damascus steel is the inability to obtain samples for study. Such a study requires that the blades be cut into sections for microscopic examination, and small quantities must be sacrificed for destructive chemical analysis.

Ancient Secrets Of The Damascus Steel - Legendary Metal Used By Crusaders And Other Warriors

A sword maker of Damascus, Syria. Image source 

When researchers at the Technical University of Dresden used X-rays and electron microscopy to examine Damascus steel, they discovered the presence of cementite nanowires and carbon nanotubes. The study showed that these nanostructures are a result of the forging process.

Jeffrey Wadsworth and Oleg D. Sherby, two metallurgists at Stanford University, may have unraveled the mystery of the Damascus steel. According to Dr. Wadsworth, as suspected by several early metallurgists, an essential requirement is a very high carbon content.

Dr. Wadsworth and Dr. Sherby believe it has to be from 1 to 2 percent, compared to only a fraction of 1 percent in ordinary steel. Another critical element in Damascus blade production is forging and hammering at relatively low temperatures - about 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit. After shaping, the blades were reheated to about the same temperature, then rapidly cooled, as by quenching in a fluid.

"Modern Damascus" is made from several types of steel and iron slices welded together to form a billet, and currently, the term "Damascus" (although technically incorrect) is widely accepted to describe modern pattern-welded steel blades in the trade. The patterns vary depending on how the smith works the billet. The billet is drawn out and folded until the desired number of layers is formed. To attain a Master Smith rating with the American Bladesmith Society, it is necessary to forge a Damascus blade with a minimum of 300 layers.

Recreating Damascus steel is a subfield of experimental archaeology. Many have attempted to discover or reverse-engineer the process by which it was made, and several researchers have come a long way, but to completely reproduce the process has so far not been possible.

Damascus steel is, without doubt, magnificent art and cutting-edge technology that may be lost to humankind forever.

Written by Ellen Lloyd –

Updated on Aug 13,  2023

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Expand for references


JOM Journal

 Wes Sander, Intermediate Guide to Bladesmithing

New York Times