In Damascus, I was keen to find some good steel blades, gracefully curved daggers, scimitars, swords, menacing but attractive. But every shop in the souq had the same selection of tacky knives with ornate but badly finished scabbards. The vaginas were disappointing enough, what they contained was worse. (Couldn’t resist that comment. ‘Vagina’ is Latin for ‘sword sheath’).
I began asking why the blades we were being offered were so badly made. What I learned was that the low end of the market was being served exclusively by knives made outside Syria, mainly in India. Real Damascene steel knives were big and expensive, most were snapped up by Gulf Arabs who prized them, and who had been flush with cash these past five years.
On our last evening in Syria’s capital, we walked into a shop which had expensive-looking objects, high quality filigreed lamps, carpets and inlaid wood coffee tables. Asked if he had real Damascus steel blades, the owner nodded and led us upstairs. He pulled out a long knife and placed it on the counter. Even to our inexperienced eyes, it looked like more of the same stuff we’d been seeing, and we told him as much. He smiled and said, “I showed you that one just as a test. That’s from India. This one is real Damascus steel”. The blade he now produced was gorgeous grey-black crescent emerging from a wooden hilt, with a cover that combined leather and embroidered fabric.
The price quoted, 27,000 Syrian pounds (about the same in rupees, approximately 550 dollars) was beyond what we could have paid even after bargaining the price downwards. But we left the shop happy that Damascus had not completely lost its centuries’ old tradition of making the finest steel knives and swords.