Where does the word “damask” (damascene) come from and What does damask mean?

Although Chinese weavers had long engaged in the production of beautiful woven designs in their silken fabrics, it remained for the weavers of Damascus, in the eleventh or twelfth century, to outstrip all other countries in the creation of silken textiles of unusually rich and curious design.

These fabrics, sometimes with colors woven into the pattern, became the choice possessions of such nobles and others as could afford them, and were carried by traders to all parts of Europe.

English merchants, after their usual practice of describing each cloth by the name of the city or town from which it came, gave this the name damask. The name has continued in use, although fabrics bearing it are now rarely of silk and do not often come from Damascus.

Damascus was formerly also noted for a certain beautiful and blush-colored rose. This, too, was called damask when introduced into England, and poets, Shakespeare among them, told of fair ladies with damask cheeks.

But the city was, as well, the habitat of many artificers in fine metal. Some of them possessed the rare skill of beating steel and iron together into a combination of curious elasticity and fine temper. Swords of such metal were especially prized; the best could be bent without injury until the point touched the hilt and could be used, with a powerful blow, to cut through an iron bar.

Such steel, or a blade produced from it, was also known as damask. Other workers in metal created a type of beautiful inlay known only in Damascus.

First, making fine incisions in the surface of the steel or other metal to be decorated, the workman would then beat a silver or gold wire into the depression until it became firmly united. By the use of both gold and silver, or gold of varying shades, skilled artisans were able to produce masterpieces of delicate elegance.

Again, from the city of its source, such figured surfaces were said, in England, to be damascened or damaskeened.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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