Book Review
Medieval Islamic Swords & Swordmaking:
Kindi's Treatise "On Swords and Their Kinds" (edition, translation, and commentary)

Robert G. Hoyland and Brian Gilmour
Oxford: The E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust, 2006. 216 pp, illus.

Not much of the medieval literature dealing with swords and their manufacture has survived to our time, and this applies to any of the world's major civilizations. We are indeed fortunate that several manuscripts of this important ninth-century text are still in existence. However, these have not been heretofore accessible by way of translations or reprints to those outside the academic world. A scholarly edition of the copies preserved at Leiden and Istanbul was published by the late 'Abd-al-Rahman Zaky in the mid-twentieth century, but this has not been readily available for many years. At last, we have a fully-annotated English translation based on the Leiden MS, with the original Arabic text on facing pages. Furthermore, Dr. Hoyland includes in his text a reconciliation of words and phrases which differ in the other known MSS. Following the translation is a detailed technical commentary on the text by Dr. Gilmour, who is well-known for his expertise on the history of Near Eastern metalworking.

Ya'qûb ibn Ishâq al-Kindi, a scion of a noted family of scholars and a descendent of one of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, achieved fame as a philosopher and scientist during the golden age of Arab civilization known as the 'Abbâssid Caliphate. He pursued a distinguished career under several of the caliphs, and wrote this treatise, entitled in Arabic "Al-suyûf wa ajnâsuhâ" for his patron, the Caliph Mu'tasîm. The text is a detailed catalog of all the types of swords known in the Arab world of his day. Al-Kindi classified swords according to the origin and nature of the iron or steel of which they were made. His survey indicates a wide array of materials (soft and hard iron, lamellar or pattern-welded structures, and crucible steels) used in blades from an amazing number of sources in western and southern Asia as well as Europe. The latter include areas such as Yemen and Sri Lanka which we do not associate with high quality or quantity of steel production in our time.

Today's gladiophiles will find al-Kindi's text to be dense and dry reading not only because of the characteristics of medieval prose, but also because he did not provide illustrations of the various swords or the details of their metallurgy and decoration. However, the information therein is invaluable, and not just because of the rarity of this genre of technical literature. Modern swordsmiths with the desire to experiment with pre-modern manufacturing techniques will find much to learn here. The origins of the diverse varieties of crucible steels provided in this treatise are an important corroboration for the field research of current scholars such as Dr. Ann Feuerbach, who are researching the production of crucible steels in central and south Asia. Descriptions of the "watering" or surface patterns on blades are provided in considerable detail and indicate a sophisticated level of connoisseurship during the period. The author's classification of swords into "new" and "antique" categories, with the latter regarded more as a function of superior quality than of age, says much about the reverence for a glorious past which characterizes the mind-set of most traditional Eastern civilizations.

This edition is further enriched by a chapter on swords in medieval Arabic poetry. This, a translation of a German monograph by Mark Mühlhäuser, provides insight into the exalted status of the sword as artifact and symbol, and helps explain why a noted intellectual such as al-Kindi was commissioned to write this treatise in the first place. In addition, there are two appendices consisting of critical translations of two medieval texts on the smelting and working of iron, one by Ahmad al-Bîrûnî and the other by Jâbir ibn Hayyân. Here again is a wealth of information on the technology of the day. Today's readers may be surprised to learn from these that the differential heat treating of the edge portions of blades via the use of a refractory clay coating (which some Japanese like to claim is unique to their culture) was well-known to 'Abbâsid smiths. This reviewer has observed that the technique remained in use in Iran and Turkey to harden crystalline damascus blades, down to the 19th century, as evidenced by the controlled and drastic color change, often delineated by a crystalline border, along the edges of shamshir and kilij blades.

Wrapping up the book are facsimile copies of the existing MSS of al-Kindi's work, along with an excellent glossary of important technical terms in English and Arabic.

This book is a "must-have" for anyone interested in the swords of the medieval Near East, and in metals culture in early Islamic civilization.

Philip Tom
10 November 2006

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