The secrets of Damascus steel were shared by armorers in many parts of the ancient world, notably in Persia, where some of the finest specimens were produced. It was in the quenching that many believed it acquired magical properties. According to Dr. Helmut Nickel, curator of the Arms and Armor Division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, legend had it that the best blades were quenched in ''dragon blood.''
In a recent letter to the museum a Pakistani told of a sword held in his family for many generations, quenched by its Afghan makers in donkey urine. Some medieval smiths recommended the urine of redheaded boys or that from a ''three-year-old goat fed only ferns for three days.''
For eight centuries the Arab sword makers succeeded in concealing their techniques from competitors -and from posterity. Those in Europe only revealed that they quenched in ''red medicine'' or ''green medicine.'' A less abrupt form of cooling, according to one account, was achieved when the blade, still red hot, was ''carried ina furious gal lop by a horseman on a fast horse.''
Writings found in Asia Minor said that to temper a Damascus sword the blade must be heated until it glows ''like the sun rising in the desert.'' It then should be cooled to the color of royal purple and plunged ''into the body of a muscular slave'' so that his strength would be transferred to the sword.
In the ancient accounts there is more than one reference to such homicidal quenching. In a recent interview, Dr. Nickel pointed out that while many of the quenching techniques were based on superstition, they may have contributed to the success of the process, as by adding nitrogen to the alloy.
Most, if not all, Damascus steel was derived from blocks of ''wootz,'' a form of steel produced in India. A mystery, to those seeking to recapture the technique, was the property of wootz that produced such blades - malleable when heated, yet extraordinarily tough when cooled.