Since ancient man threw away his last club and picked up his first knife, cold steel has almost always been his favorite weapon. From broadsword to bowie knife, from saber to switchblade, man has instinctively reached for a trusty blade to fight his wars, settle his quarrels, defend his honor and avenge his wrongs. Even today when most men rarely need a keen blade for anything more challenging than a day's crop of whiskers, the habit survives—nowhere with more fervor than in the Middle East where the sight of a Damascus blade once sent chills down a warrior's spine and where the Sword of Allah was once the key to Paradise.
The Arab world has always been famous for its weapons—as Frankish knights, galloping ponderously toward the Holy Land, learned to their dismay. With their great, two-handed broadswords, the knights were confident that they could easily crush the thin-bladed, elegant, curved scimitars of the Arabs. What they didn't know was that the shape of the blade was not decoration; in curving the blade Arab swordsmiths did decrease the contact area of the blade, but also increased the depth of the blade's cut. Furthermore, by adding a half round ridge to the center of the blade, they gave the blade great strength without adding much weight. The result was a weapon that was very light, very strong and cut deeply—deeply enough, at least, to inflict galling defeats on the overconfident knights.
Swords and daggers, of course, are no longer in use as military weapons, but in the Arab world they are still popular as ceremonial ornaments—especially the khanjar, the famous curved Arab dagger. The deadly khanjar, in fact, with its layers of silver and gold and its gem-studded scabbard, is often the most striking part of a man's attire at formal dinners, weddings or important civic or military events, much like the dress swords or sabers worn during certain ceremonies in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
It takes a great deal of skill to make a khanjar and its magnificent scabbard, a skill which has been passed on through the ages, through the time-honored show-and-do-method which, without any regulated craft system of education, or even a formal apprentice program, has enabled Arab craftsmen to continue to practice a craft older than written history.
One of these craftsmen is Yasin ibn Ali an-Nasir, a silversmith near the suq of Dammam, capital of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Yasin imports his blades from Yemen and the Hadhramaut, where for thousands of years Arab craftsmen have been learning to forge and shape, harden and temper what the ancients called the "white metal" and we call malleable steel, and then begins the slow, careful process of adding and decorating a handle and a matching scabbard.
The first step is to fit the blade with a handle of wood or horn. The second is to cover the cutting edges of the blade with slabs of wood cut to fit the curvature of the blade, but continuing to curve past the point. This is done for artistic purposes and gives the curious impression that the blade, once it's inside the scabbard, won't be able to come out again.
Finishing the basic scabbard, Yasin glues colored leather or felt to it, and then adds the final layer—the layer that gives the scabbard its personality and beauty. First he pulls rods of gold and silver through holes in a hard steel file to produce drawn wire. The holes—and thus the wire—gradually get smaller and smaller until the wire is finally reduced to the diameter of sewing thread. These "threads" are twisted into ropes, and shaped into circles, squares, diamonds, or any other pattern that the metalsmith can create. They are then soldered onto plates of gold or silver that have been shaped to fit over the leather-covered scabbard. Like the khanjar's handle, the scabbard may also be adorned with one or more precious stones of various colors. Often silver or gold rings, made either from wire or from cast metal, are also soldered to the scabbard. They serve not only as decorations but also as loops to support the finished weapon on a belt.
Craftsmanship of this kind, of course, takes time. Metalsmiths usually spend weeks, and have spent as long as three or four months on just one dagger. It also takes money. But in the Arab world time and money are trivialities when spent on such treasured symbols of a reckless and glorious past
Kenneth R. Blevins holds a Master's Degree in Industrial Education, has taught in California and is now an instructor for Aramco.