SOAS University of London


15 October - 12 December 2003
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 10.30 – 1700

Steel and the Princely Patronage

Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. The grade of the carbon varies from 0.2 to 3% and is obtained through carbonised wood or plant. The mixture is placed in airtight crucibles and for a few hours the temperature is raised to and maintained at a point where fusion occurs. The compound is then left to cool down gradually and is later recovered in the form and size of small "loaves", measuring approximately 10cm in diameter by 2 cm in thickness. Next, the alloy is subjected to another long firing process, at temperatures of between 800° and 1000°, which prepares it for further steps of ironwork. With its superior qualities of hardness and flexibility relative to iron, from the start steel lent itself to the production of swords and lances. As early as the 1st millennium B.C., princely patronage unquestionably contributed to the expansion of the steel industry in association with the establishment of political and military centres. The 11th century epical poems of 'Shahnmeh' or 'Book of the Kings', that retrace the accomplishments of the sovereigns ruling over ancient Iran, depict Hushang as the inventor of the process of extraction of iron from ore through melting, and portray Jamshid as the first blacksmith who moulds metal into arms and armours. In a letter addressed to the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu'tasim (r. 833-842 AD) in Baghdad, the Arab scholar, al-Kindî, discusses different types of metal; he mentions India as the supplier of steel for equipping the Caliph's army with swords. Recent excavations have revealed remnants of Persian steel production in the 10th and 11th centuries. From the 16th century, the Safavid dynasty regarded this alloy significant and encouraged the development of the steel industry. Shâh Abbas I (r. 1588-1629) did not consider it beneath him to work personally with steel in the workshops of his capital city of Isfahan. In that he was the heir to an ancient tradition which made this precious metal the exclusive privilege of Gods, kings and heroes.