The city of Damascus is in the news for all the wrong reasons in 2012 as the awful bloodshed goes on in Syria. Forgive me if, for a moment, I sidestep the political and humanitarian issues and instead look at the glories that have been. For Damascus once meant luxury and craftsmanship for us, here in the west of Europe.
Damascus, whose name comes from roots meaning “a well-watered place”, is the capital of Syria and its second-largest city. It is in the south-west of the country and is sometimes called the “City of Jasmine”.
It has been inhabited since at least the 2nd millennium BC and stands at the gate to the old silk road to China, as well as the trade routes to Arabia, Palmyra and Petra. This led the Romans to take an interest in the 2nd century, as they were very keen on luxuries from the East.
It is these luxuries I am fascinated by, having spent my childhood with my head in a big dictionary full of wonderful words such as damask and damascene.
For starters, “damask” is both a rose and a wonderful silken cloth.
The damask rose is highly fragrant and is the source of rose oil (attar or otto of roses), rose water and rose powder. These add perfume to various foods such as ice-cream, Turkish delight and some versions of marzipan. On the savoury side, the Persians apparently liked chicken with rose. The petals themselves are edible.
Historically, the damask rose may have been brought from Syria to Europe by Crusader Robert de Brie at some time between 1254 and 1276. Alternatively, it may have been brought to Britain by the Romans and/or Henry VIII’s physician may have given him a damask rose around 1540.
Technically, this rose hybrid is Rosa x damascena, derived from Rosa gallica and Rosa moschata and has some DNA association with a third rose, Rosa fedtschenkoana. There are two sorts of damask rose in cultivation, summer damasks with a very short flowering season and autumn damasks that keep blooming longer.
Damask is also the name given to a wonderful woven fabric, once made of silk but also now made of linen, cotton or even wool. It is a “figured” fabric, meaning it has pictures woven into it.
It’s a bit like brocade, but damask is reversible, with the pattern on both sides, while brocade has only one figured side. Both can be made using a Jacquard punch-card loom (a process invented in France in 1801) and these days the loom is usually computerised. There’s a pretty good explanation of the differences between brocade and damask here.
Damask and brocade were particularly popular as luxury fabrics among the European nobility in the 14th and 15th centuries and their creation became big business in Italy.
The word damask is still with us today and has been extended to apply to some luxury wallpapers. Of course these are not woven on a loom but have the same raised effect. As the pattern is only on one side, perhaps they should be called brocade, but the word damask sounds far more romantic. The word brocade comes from the Italian for a small nail…
Then there is the damascened blade. Damascus sword blades were reputed to be tough and shatter-resistant on impact, but also capable of being honed to a keen edge.
The blades’ strength came from several pieces of steel being beaten together with a hammer after being heated in a forge. This is called pattern welding – because it left a pattern on the blade.
Damascened steel production began around 300 BC but declined and by about 1750 metalsmiths had forgotten how to make it. Although many have tried to reproduce the effect since, it could be that the wootz steel ingots from India used originally to make it contained traces of tungsten or vanadium and it is these hard-to-reproduce impurities that gave the steel its strength.
Damascening can also mean inlaying one metal in another for decorative purposes. Apparently it’s called damascening because of its resemblance to the fabric, not the swords…
Then there are Damascene pigeons, which I admit I hadn’t heard of. The breed is maybe 3,000 years old and has its followers among the “fancy” in the UK. Here’s one man’s website – John Ross.
What else could there be, named after Damascus? Ah yes, damsons! Who’d have thought it? Apparently the Romans brought these “Damask plums” to Britain – they called the damson prunum damascenum, although now the Latin name is Prunus domestica or Prunus insititia.
Finally, we come to a Damascene conversion. According to the Bible, Saul of Tarsus persecuted the early Christians but had a revelation when on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, where he intended to persecute more Christians. This was around AD 33-36.
He saw a blinding light and heard a divine voice and thenceforward changed his name from Saul to Paul and himself became a follower of the teachings of Jesus. “A Damascene conversion” has now come to mean any such great turnaround in one’s beliefs.
Everywhere you look in the past, the word Damascus has epitomised such beautiful things – and now it has come to this. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on July 22, 2012, that at least 19,106 people had been killed in the civil war between government and opposition in Syria since March 2011. Half of these were ordinary non-fighting civilians.
I hate to end this post on such a depressing note but I hope peace will come to the people of Syria soon…