An Introduction to the Persian Sword Shamshir

Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani
This article will introduce readers to the historical background and design elements of the Iranian sword known as the shamshir, which was used by Iranian warriors during the Safavid, Afsharid, Zand, and Qajar periods.  Before going into details, it is important to note that this article will only concern itself with curved swords used during these eras.  During these periods, one of the hallmarks of the craftmanship of Iranian smiths was the manufacture of the curved sword that is known today as a classical shamshir among scholars and collectors.  However, one should note that the word shamshir is a generic term for “sword” in Persian, meaning that shamshir denotes different types of swords, regardless of blade curvature.  Additionally, the origins of this word predate the Islamic era in
Iran.  There is a widespread assumption that the shamshir achieved the greatest degree of curvature during the reign of Shah Abbas Safavid, who ruled from 996 to 1038 hegira (1587-1629 A.D.) (for the date, see Sarfaraz and Avarzamani, 2004/1383:244-247).  Based on this assumption, Allan and Gilmour (2000:198) differentiate between the saber and the shamshir, the former having a shallow curvature and the latter having a much greater curvature.  However, as noted above, the term shamshir was already used in the Pahlavi language in pre-Islamic Iran, whereas in early New Persian, the “sword” was called sneh (snyh), or shamsher (shmshyl) (see MacKenzie, 1971).    According to the Digital Lexcicon of Dehkhoda, the term shamshir consists of two different parts; sham stands for “tail” and shir denotes “lion.”  Thus, these words together mean “the tail of the lion.”  It is important to take into consideration that, contrary to a certain widely accepted belief, the term shamshir, of itself, does not refer to the curve of the blade. Thus, the term does not mean “curved like a lion’s tail,” but rather merely “lion’s tail.”  This is clear, as the origin of this word derives from the Pahlavi word shamsher,  which was used in the Pre-Islamic period when swords were characteristically straight and double-edged.  The word shamshir also does not mean “curved like the tiger’s nail” as suggested by Haydar (1991:171). 

Good quality Persian shamshir blades are made of crucible or wootz steel.  After a complex process of crucible smelting and subsequent forging, various patterns of steel were produced.  These patterns were created by varied compositions of the ingredients used in the crucible charge and by mechanical manipulations of the surface of bars of steel. After smelting and forging, for desired mechanical and artistic characteristics, these patterns were revealed on the surface by treating it with an acidic liquid that revealed the surface pattern, or “grain”, of the steel.  Period Persian manuals such as Nowruzname, attributed to Omar Khayyam Neishaburi (1048-1131 A.D.), indicate that different names were used to describe different patterns of wootz, such as lolo (round like pearls), sim (having white traces looking like silver), payhaye murche (the pattern looks like blazing ants’ feet), and bustani (garden pattern; tends to be blackish in color) (Khayyam Neishaburi, 2003/1382:52-56; Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006:119-121).  Another manual entitled Adab-e al-Harb va al-Shojae (The Customs of War and Bravery), written by Mobarak Shah Fakhr Modabar (1131 A.D. or 1141 A.D. – date of death unknown) in Persian, presents further wootz patterns, namely paralak, taravate, ruhina, moje darya (sea waves), and pare magas (fly’s wings).  Partly based on the accounts of European travellers, other wootz patterns such as sham (striped) pattern, wave pattern, begami pattern, water pattern, woodgrain (mottle) pattern, bidr or qum pattern, rose pattern, and kirk nardeban have been identified in modern publications (see Zeller and Rohrer, 1955:95; Sachse, 1994:72-73; Figiel, 1991:70).

It is also important to consider that although the majority of Iranian shamshirs are highly curved with no fullers in the blade, there are also a number of other variants of shamshirs that have slight curves and/or fullers (see Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006:141-145).  The majority of Iranian shamshirs have a pommel set at 90 degrees to the grip.  The pommel cap, which was normally made of steel or iron, was called kolah (Zeller and Rohrer, 1955:99) or sar daste (Guruhe Tahgigh va Pajuhesh Muze Nezami, 1984/1363:29) in Persian.  The Kolah was attached to the handle by means of both a rivet and the application of zaje sefid (white adhesive material).  The handles themselves were typically made of two scales of organic material such as walrus ivory, elephant ivory, stag antler, black (buffalo) horn, and in rare cases even of wood.  The area between the two handle scales, which encased the tang on its top and bottom, was covered by handle straps or tangbands.  These handle straps were called ahanak in Persian.  Ahanak were attached to the tang and handle scales via  zaje sefid.  There was also a wide variety of forms among the handles of Persian shamshirs; some of them have a hilt known as karbala (for the orginis of the meaning of karbala hilts, see Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006:180, cat. 80).  The handguard of Persian shamshirs was called a bolchaq and is generally made of steel or iron (see Afshari and Madayebi, 1381:123, and Zeller and Rohrer, 1955:99).  The handguard is also attached to the tang and to the end of the forte of the blade by means of zaje sefid.  The width of the handguards varied considerably.  The majority of handguards ended in rounded knobs.  Some of these rounded, cone-shaped knobs were faceted to resemble the dome of a mosque.  There were also other types of guards which had spatulate quillons (see Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006:180, figures 169-170; cat. 76, cat. 77).  Some examples of Persian shamshirs even had quillons ending in dragon heads(see Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006:180-181, figure 172, cat. 79; figure 174, cat. 114; and figure 176, cat 125).

Persian shamshir blades were generally not decorated, as the beauty of this weapon was seen in the beauty and contrast of the wootz pattern.  Therefore, decoration played only a minor role on these weapons.  Compared to Turkish and Indian weapons, the majority of Persian weapons look very simple and modest.  In this respect, the tradition of Persian swordmaking closely resembles that of pre-modern Japan: the simpler, the more venerable (Zeller and Rohrer, 1955:94-95; 101).  The decoration on the blades of Persian shamshirs was typically restricted to gold-inlaid or chiseled cartouches.  Generally, these cartouches ranged from one to a maximum of three cartouches.  Some of the cartouches bore the name of the maker, such as Amal-e Salman Gholam (The work of Salman Gholam), found on the blade of a shamshir attributed to Shah Safi Safavid (see Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006:168, figure 139, cat. 72).  Although the majority of blades with makerss cartouches were signed with the real name of smiths, many blades were signed with Amal-e Assadollah Isfahani (The work of Assadollah Isfahani) and Amal-e Kalbeali Isfahani (The work of Kalbeali Isfahani).  Many of the extant cartouches of Amal-e Assadollah Isfahani and Amal-e Kalbeali Isfahani have been dated. They have been found on blades whose date of manufacture spans a period  of 200-300 years, and engraved in different styles of handwriting. Thus, it is clear that these swords were made by many different smiths.  Historical research indicates that Assadollah and Kalbeali were titles that used by seyyeds (the descendants of the family of the Prophet Mohammad) to indicate their association with the Prophet Mohammad’s family.  It is safe to assume that these titles were also used by different smiths who wanted to express their devotion to Ali, to reinforce their claim to descent from the family of the Prophet Mohammad  or possibly to express their mastery in their craft (for a detailed discussion of the meaning of these cartouches, see Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006:148-167).

The scabbard of Iranian shamshirs was made from a wooden core consisting of two pieces of wood fastened to each other with glue.  After the core was shaped and glued, two varbands (lens-shaped scabbard fittings) were inserted on the scabbard.  The scabbard was then decorated with extra wooden threads in a geometrical design, and then covered with three pieces of shagreen leather.  Shagreen leather was called saghari in Persian (Zeller and Rohrer, 1955:98), and was obtained from the hindquarters of a donkey.  The end result was very beautiful, providing a simple but very elegant and magnificent-looking scabbard for the blade.  Various methods of decoration were used on the scabbard fittings.  Some decorations were chiseled and some were gold-inlaid or overlaid.  Some of them were made of wootz steel with no decoration, so that the wootz pattern itself served as the only necessary adornment.  The decorations on varbands showed a variety of different motifs, including depictions of animals, inscriptions from the Qur’an, and geometric or floral designs.  Some of the scabbards have a thread-knitting, which is called rismanbafi, close to their tip (see Moshtagh Khorasani, 2006:146).  Some scabbards also have a scabbard chape (tah-e ghalaf) (see Zeller and Rohrer, 1955:98).    Shamshirs were carried suspended from swordbelts, which were called band-e shamshir (Zeller and Rohrer, 1955:98) or hamayel (Shahidi, 1380:398).

© M.Khorasani Consulting