Shajar al-Durr c. 1220-1257

Shajar al-Durr (also known as Shajara, Shagrat, Shagar, Shaggar, ior Shagarat) ruled Egypt in between the Ayyubid dynasty and the Mamluk era, playing a crucial role in the Seventh Crusade. An ambitious, passionate and ruthless woman, she rose from the status of a concubine to become the Sultan in her own right for a brief period, and continued to act as the power behind the throne until she was killed. Her name means string or tree of pearls.

Shajar al-Durr’s history begins when she was purchased as a slave by Salih Ayyub. Her life before that is unknown, but she may have been of Turkic origin. Ayyub was a descendent of the Ayyubid dynasty, founded by the illustrious Salah-al Din. Ayyub added Shajar to his harem while he was exiled in the Levant. She became his favourite concubine, sharing his prison when his cousin captured him. She bore him a son, conceived under imprisonment. In 1240, Ayyub overthrew his elder brother to take the throne, later marrying Shajar.

Ayyub recruited numerous Mamluk mercenaries to reinforce his power against internal and external threats. In 1249, Egypt was embattled by French crusaders who were making incursions at the mouth of the river Nile. Shajar had already been coordinating the defence of the realm whilst Ayyub had been travelling in Damascus. Upon his return, he became ill and died suddenly. With the support of two of his military advisors, Shajar contrived to disguise the fact of Ayyub’s death, in an attempt to maintain stability during a turbulent period. She ordered servants to deliver food to his tent to maintain the pretence he was still ill, and wrote decrees to the armies on blank sheets of paper which Ayyub had signed before her death. When the news of Ayyub’s death reached the crusaders, they marched upon Cairo and the camp closest to Shajar’s position. Mamluk forces, led by Izz al-Din Aibak, trapped the crusaders in the town and annihilated them.

Shajar’s step-son Turanshah claimed the role of Sultan, at which point Shajar officially announced Ayyub’s death and relinquished her power. Despite the final defeat of the French occurring under his tenure, Turanshah was left in an insecure position due to Shahjar’s popularity, her influence over the army and his own personality flaws, which included a bad temper and a taste for alcohol. He demanded that Shajar  return his father’s wealth in a petulant attempt to undermine her status. Upset, she complained to the Mamluk army, conspiring with them against Turanshah, who had inadequately rewarded the mercenary forces who had secured victory over the French. Mamluk soldiers murdered him in response. With no surviving heirs to Ayyub, Shajar was enthroned.

When the Egyptians had finally routed the crusaders, they had managed to take Louis IX captive. Shajar ransomed him back to France for a sum equivalent to 30% of France’s annual revenue, marking the end of the war as well as France’s ambitions to conquer the Mediterranean basin. Shajar had coins struck bearing her name, and she was referred to as Sultan in weekly prayers in the mosques for over two months, during which she was the sole ruler of Egypt. However her audacity offended traditionalists. The Caliph of Baghdad sent a message to the Emirs of Egypt, decrying the existence of a female Sultan as counter to the rules of Islam. As a successful general, Izz al-Din Aibak was appointed as Sultan in her place. This established the Mamluk era in Egypt.

However, Shajar and Aibak married; they may have been married even before his appointment. Shajar had a strong influence over her husband, the nominal Sultan: the coins of the realm bore her name alongside his, her signature appears on the Sultan’s formal decrees and she ran the state treasury. Aibak, meanwhile devoted his military skills to securing Egypt’s borders.

By 1257, her relationship with Aibak had soured. Shajar was intensely jealous of his first wife and demanded that he divorce her. When Aibak sought to take a second wife for diplomatic reasons, Shajar ordered her servants to kill him while he was bathing. After the murder, she desperately attempted to conceal her crime, claiming that he had died of natural causes. His first wife pressed for justice and her son, Aibak’s heir, was declared Sultan. Shajar was imprisoned, but supporters of Aibak’s son accessed the tower where she was confined and  beat her to death with shoes. Her body was suspended by a rope from the tower, dangling in the moat for three days before it was retrieved. It was later buried in a location named after her. It features a ‘palatial garden complex that probably included a mosque, minaret, bath and oratory, all surrounding a domed mausoleum.’

Shajar was the second female ruler in Islamic history (coming a few years after Razia Sultan) and the first who was not originally from a noble family. Her extraordinary legacy as a slave girl who rose to become the Sultan of Egypt  and initiated over a century of Mamluk rule, has been memorialised in folklore, such as the heroic poem Sirat al-Zahir Baibars, expressing her symbolic importance as an extraordinary female ruler.

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