My name is Tony Sculimbrene and I am steel junkie. I love new, high tech steels. I love looking at their chemistry charts. I revel in their HRc numbers. If it has iron in it and is used to cut stuff I am interested. As silly as it is, I have been known to buy one or two or even five different versions of the same knife just to try out new steels. I can’t help it. I am a steel junkie.
But who was the first steel junkie? When did folks start going crazy for new steels? I am sure that Otzi and others loved showing off their new metal edged tools, but if historical records are any indication the first steel junkie was Saladin, leader of the Muslim forces during the Crusade. There are few knives or swords in history that have been written about more often than Saladin’s sword. And for good reason — it was made of wootz damascus steel, and it was a truly incredible performer.
Even compared today’s modern cutlery with its powder metal steels, wootz damascus steel holds up quite well. Its not better than the best we have now according to material scientists, but given that it was made when people didn’t have cars, penicillin, or effective shoes, its pretty darn incredible. It would be like finding a trebuchet that flung projectiles 900 miles and could be effective against modern battleships.
The historical record is replete with references to Saladin’s amazing sword. But before we jump into some metallurgy, a few notes about Saladin himself.
Saladin is the western version of the famous Muslim leader’s name, which in Arabic, is Salah ah-Din Yusef ibn Ayyub. He was the leader of the Muslim forces in the Levant that fought the European Crusaders. He was also the head of state for a country that occupied much of modern Egypt and Syria. He was of Kurdish origin and he played a large role in turning the tide of the Crusades in favor of the Muslims. Though he was a monarch of sorts, all of his personal fortune was distributed to his subjects upon his death. Additionally, he was a man of extreme honor. A story documented in many sources tells of a time that he learned that his Christian counterpart, Richard the Lionheart, had fallen gravely ill. Because he wanted to defeat his worthy opponent on the battlefield, Saladin sent aid. Saladin thought that his Muslim doctors were far superior to their European counterparts, so he sent his physicians to tend to the English king. Though there are imprints and paintings showing the two meeting, it never happened, though sources do think the house call story is at least partly true. He also let religious pilgrims of any sort worship at places he conquered, allowing, for example, Christians to come to Jerusalem even when Muslim troops were garrisoned there.
Saladin’s sword, however, is the thing that interests us gear geeks the most. The key to the sword was the use of wootz. Wootz steel was originally made in India. The steel was then adapted and made in Syria, around Damascus, and it became known for its place of origin. Unlike the pattern welded varieties that exist today, wootz-based damascus steel was materially different from other steels, not just a pretty pattern made from combining different metals in layers. The process produced a very high carbon content isteel. The techniques used to produce wootz steel were unknown in Europe, and thus no European steel could match Saladin’s blade. There are legends of its cutting performance. Many sources claim that Saladin’s sword could clean cut falling silk or slice a pillow in half. The steel was also said to be able to cleave European steels in two and still have a razor edge. Undoubtedly a good deal of this is just mythmaking, but its not all baloney, and scientists have recently figured out why.
The problem was testing these claims is impossible as the precise methods and materials used to make wootz damascus have been lost for centuries. We have plenty of gorgeous pattern welded stuff out there now, but no one knows how to make true wootz damascus. The remaining pieces are all highly prized and many are in museums.
However, recently a team of scientist at Technical University of Dresden uncovered the secrets of Saladin’s sword (or more accurately its steel). Using powerful microscopes and x-rays the team discovered something truly astounding about a sample of wootz damascus that they were given access too. The secret of Saladin’s sword was the fact that it contained cemetite nanowires and carbon nanotube structures.
“Chiraltube” by Taner Yildirim (The National Institute of Standards and Technology – NIST)
Until this discovery scientists had believed that these carbon nanostructures, which allow for amazingly light and strong materials, were discovered in the 21st century. Note that carbon nanotubes and carbon fiber are not the same thing. Carbon nanotubes are much lighter and much stronger. That’s right, stronger and lighter (if your mind just got blown, so did mine when I read the scientific paper). As it turns out, swordmakers in the Middle East had discovered carbon nanostructures almost a thousand years before modern science. The incredible strength and weight properties of the carbon nanostructures in the Damascus steel gave it a razor sharp and incredibly hard edge, with a body made of tough, light steel. The blades could very easily have cut their European counterparts in half and not been critically damaged. The edges would have been much harder and the rest of the blades much more pliable and resistant to breaking. Damascus steel, like that found in Saladin’s sword, was a miracle material, all mythmaking aside, one that it took us another thousand years to rediscover.
The sword itself is lost to history, but given the Muslim weaponry of the time, it was probably a curved blade with a single edge. And since it was the sword of a sultan, it was probably also highly ornamental. But Saladin was clearly a fighting king, and his sword had steel that was literally a thousand years ahead of its time. It may not have been able to cut free falling silk, but I am certain, given the microstructures, it would have been able to pull off cutting tests and cutlery-related parlor tricks that would have blown people’s minds. Perhaps this why there are so many historical accounts of what Saladin’s sword could really do. It would have seemed as advance to the Europeans of the day as a working lightsaber would seem us.
Given all that, I think its fair to say that Saladin was the first steel junkie. I’d trade him my ZDP-189 Dragonfly for his scimitar.