The first and only woman to rule as Sultana of Egypt, Shajarat AlDurr is a woman of extraordinary ability, who rose against all odds from the position of Mamluk slave to the height of Sultana and the founder of an empire. With a name which in Arabic translates to “The Tree of Pearls,” her name is prophetic of one who in her time was unmatched in beauty, intelligence, and strength.
Born in the Asian Steppes of modern-day Turkey or Armenia, she was registered in 1239 as a “mamluk” in the harem quarters of the palace of Al-Musta’sim, the powerful caliph of the Abbasid empire in Baghdad (modern-day Iraq). She was to serve as a concubine of the court.
The Arabic word “Mamluk” means “one who is owned” - a slave, and even more specifically, a white slave. When one hears the term “Mamluk” he or she tends to think of the Mamluk army; consisting of male slaves, they were captured at a young age and trained to serve in the elite military ranks of the palaces that had bought them. Eventually, this army went on to overstep their masters to create a dynasty of their own. It is an extraordinary feat indeed to learn that this remarkable progression from slave to sultan would not have been accomplished in Egypt had it not been for the cunning shrewdness of Shajarat Al-Durr.
From the harem of Al-Musta'sim in Baghdad, Shajara was later presented as a concubline to Al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub, the Sultan of Egypt and descendant of Salah al-Din Al Ayubi - the famed hero of the Crusades.
She became his concubine, and in a great show of loyalty in his time in captivity at the hands of Al-Salih Ismail (the Emir of Damascus), Shajara stayed firmly rooted by his side - even giving birth to their son Khalil in prison until they were released a year later. Deeply touched by her devotion, he married her and had her serve as his advisor, partner, and confidante.
Shajarat Al Durr proved to be exceptionally competent in politics and military strategy; even joining him on the battlefields in military campaigns. She served by the King's side at the height of the Seventh Crusade against Egypt, which saw the French King, Louis IX lay siege on Egypt for 2 years (1248 CE - 1250 CE). Amidst the chaos of warfare, the Sultan was taken ill and fell to his death, which saw his wife Shajara take matters into her own hands. Concerned that the death of her husband would be a cause for uncertainty and chaos in the rnks of the military, she ruled on the behalf of the Sultan in secrecy, concealing. Brilliant in just as much as she was brave, Shajarat Al-Durr led the Mamluks to crush the invading French Army and took their King as hostage. He was released on ransom following careful negotiations made between Shajarat Al Durr and the King's wife, Queen Margaret of Provence. And in a great show of diplomacy between two women - one Muslim and one Christian - the Seventh Crusade war came to a rapid end.
But the remarkable story of Shajarat Al-Durr does not end there!
The Mamluk army were notably impressed with Shajarat Al-Durr and pledged their allegiance to the shrewd Queen. Two men; however, stood in her way in firm opposition. The first was her late-husband’s incompetent son, Turan Shah, and the second was none other than Caliph Al-Mustasim, the man from whose harem her journey reigned from.
In the case of her step son, Turan Shah quickly brought on his own demise upon his return to Egypt to rule - at Shajara's request - as the new Sultan following the death of his father; however, his inability to gain the respect of the Mamluk Army led to his assassinated at their hands, serving as the last blow to the Ayyubid Dynasty. In his place, the army nominated the shrewd Shajara to rule in his as the first (and only) Sultana to sit on the Egyptian throne; thus began the rule of the Mamluk Dynasty in Egypt in 648/1250 CE.
The Ayubbid Dynasty: 1171-1250 CE | Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
The new Sultana ruled Egypt as absolute ruler for a period not exceeding 80 days, after which she was met with resistance from the Abbasid Caliph. At the time, the Caliph was the highest ruling authority in the Muslim world and thus, his approval offered spiritual legitimacy to any monarch who wished to rule over a muslim territory (Source: Shayyal, p.109/vol.2). But when he received the request for approval for Shajara’s rule, the Caliph famously rebuked her request with the misogynistic message to the Mamluks which stated, "if you do not have men there [Egypt] tell us so we can send you men" (AlMaqrizi, 1997). The Mamluks desperately needed the legitimacy of rule that only the Caliph could give in order to rise up the ranks from the status of slaves to becoming the kings of their own dynasty, and so after only 80 days on the throne as sole sovereign, Sultana Shajara was deposed. But, she was not one to be dissuaded not so easily. The shrewd Queen uncovered the name of the Mamluk general who was to replace her, Izz Al-Din Ayback, and as soon as the Caliph granted him the Sultan-ship, Shajara married him.
Gold dinar of Shajarat al-Durr, Sultana of Egypt (r. 1250 CE).
The British Museum, London
They co-ruled Egypt; with Shajara seeing to it that in all the mosques of Cairo the “khutba” or Friday sermon was said in her name and that of her husband’s. She also made certain that coins were minted in the names of the two sovereigns, and that no official document left the palace without their two signatures.
After 7 years of love and rule, Izz Al-Din husband set out to remarry the daughter of the King, Badr al-Din Lu'lu', the atabeg of Mosul, a move which was to cause the Sultan and Sultana their lives. Humiliated and betrayed, Sultana Shajara, who had given her husband a kingdom, schemed to have the servants and "jawari" or concubines of her husband, kill him in his moment of deepest relaxation, suffocating the Sultan to death in his bath. a move which ultimately also led to the Sultana's demise.
Captured by the Mamluk army that had brought her to power, she was taken to the Burj al-Ahmar (Red Fort) and thrown over a cliff to her death. The remains of her body are to be found buried in the same spot today, in the Jami' or Mausoleum of Shajarat Al Durr.
The Mausoleum of Shajarat Al-Durr, Al-Khalifa Street, Cairo
Recommended ReadingsThe Forgotten Queens of Islam by Fatima Mernissihttps://arce.org/resource/sultana-pearls-preserving-dome-honors-historic-female-ruler/https://khalifa.atharlina.com/monuments/al-khalifa/the-mausoleum-of-shajar-al-durrhttps://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shajarat-al-durrhttps://www.worldhistory.org/Shajara_al-Durr/https://egyptianstreets.com/2022/02/18/shajarat-al-durr-egypts-supreme-sultana/al-Maqrizi (1997), al-Sulūk li-maʿrifat al-duwal wa-l-mulūk. Dārr al-Kutub