Armenia or Turkey
Sultana of Egypt
"Capable and beautiful, [she] must have been one of very few women in history who commanded an army in a major battle, as she did against Louis IX, King of France."
—Sir John Glubb, Soldiers of Fortune: The Story of the Mamlukes.
One of a handful of strong female Muslim leaders at the time of the Crusades, Shajarat al-Durr was a slave who rose from the ranks of mistress, or lover, to become the wife of the sultan (Muslim leader) of Egypt. Following the death of her husband during the Seventh Crusade (1248–54), she assumed joint control of the Muslim forces with two other counselors and helped defeat the Crusader armies of French king Louis IX (see entry) at the Battle of Mansurah. After a palace revolt, she was made sultana, or female leader of Egypt, a position she held for three months. She was displaced by those uncomfortable with a female leader and replaced by a Mamluk soldier, Aybeck. Yet Shajarat would not give up her power so easily. She went on to marry Aybeck and in essence continued to rule Egypt on his behalf as he fought enemies abroad until her execution for treason in 1257. Shajarat al-Durr's tale is full of plots, high adventure, and tragedy—the stuff of fiction. However, there was nothing fictional, or imaginary, about her defeat of the French forces during the Crusades. The Egyptian victory at Mansurah in effect ended enthusiasm in Europe to send more Crusaders to the Holy Land or Egypt. Shajarat al-Durr is often called the "Joan of Arc of Islam," after that famous fifteenth-century French heroine (c. 1412–1431) who also led her armies to victory.
A Trio of Strong Women
Shajarat al-Durr was not the only powerful woman involved in the events of the Seventh Crusade. While she helped rally the Egyptian troops after the fall of Damietta and contributed to the victory at the Battle of Mansurah, the French camp also had its fair share of strong women.
Louis IX's mother, Blanche of Castile, was the granddaughter of the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine (see entry), who was queen of England. Blanche inherited some of her grandmother's strength of character, marrying Louis VIII, the future king of France, when she was only eleven. Once queen, she showed such leadership abilities that her husband, when lying on his deathbed, named Blanche to rule jointly with their young son, Louis IX. She became the first queen with real power in French history, putting down revolts by lesser nobles in order to secure the crown for herself and her son, finally defeating them and winning the respect of the French people. When Louis IX left for the Seventh Crusade, he put his mother in charge of affairs in France.
The king was also lucky to have a very capable and loyal wife accompany him to Egypt. Queen Margaret, who was nine months pregnant, was left in charge of Damietta when the king moved his forces to Mansurah to fight the Egyptians. Three days after her husband's capture by the Mamluks, she gave birth to a son. That same day she also learned that part of the Crusader forces were planning to abandon Damietta, thus leaving the place undefended against the Muslims. The queen realized that if they did not hold Damietta, they would have nothing to offer the Egyptians in exchange for King Louis IX. Queen Margaret managed to persuade these Crusaders to stay on, using her own money to feed them. Thus Damietta was held, and Louis IX was later released—all owing to the quick thinking of his queen.
From Harem to Battlefield
Little is known of the early life of Shajarat al-Durr, who is also called Shajara, Shagrat, Shagar, Shaggar, and Shagarat. Her name has been translated as "Tree of Pearls," "String of Pearls," or "Spray of Pearls." It is supposed that she was born in Armenia or Turkey sometime in the early 1220s. The first historical record of her dates from 1239. At that time she was listed as a Mamluk, or female slave living in a harem, a special area reserved for women who were the wives or mistresses of a Muslim man. According to Islamic law, men are allowed to have up to four wives. This harem belonged to al-Musta Sim, the powerful caliph, or religious leader, of Baghdad (in modern-day Iraq).
It is clear that Shajarat was not only a beautiful young woman but also a very intelligent one. In 1240 she was presented to al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub, the sultan of Egypt and the last member of the Ayyubid dynasty, which had begun when the powerful Muslim leader Saladin (see entry) conquered Egypt in 1169. Settled in Cairo, Shajarat al-Durr steadily gained in influence and won the favor of the sultan, becoming one of his wives. When the sultan was captured by a rival Muslim in 1248 and thrown into prison for a year, Shajarat al-Durr accompanied him and gave birth to their son, Khalil. After this show of loyalty, Shajarat al-Durr became al-Salih's favorite wife.
In early 1249 a Crusader army under the leadership of Louis IX arrived at the mouth of the Nile River. They, like other Crusaders before them, had made plans to capture Cairo and then move on to the Holy Land and recover Jerusalem. By this time the Crusades had been going on for more than 150 years. These Crusaders quickly captured the city of Damietta. The sultan was dying of tuberculosis (a fatal lung disease) and perhaps also some form of cancer. As his favorite wife, Shajarat al-Durr probably aided al-Salih during these difficult days, but it is not clear how much power she held while he was still alive. Al-Salih decided to direct matters from the battlefield and so left Cairo to set up defenses at the small town of Mansurah, site of a historic victory over the Crusaders during the Fifth Crusade (1218–21). This victory had been won by al-Salih's father, Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil (see entry), and now his son hoped to perform the same miracle.
He gathered his elite, or most highly trained, professional soldiers, called Mamluks, or foreign slaves, such as Shajarat al-Durr had been. These trained fighters had been taken as youths from outside the Muslim world—in areas of Turkey, Russia, and even northern Europe—and given a thorough and difficult education in the arts of war. Once they had undergone this training, they were considered paid soldiers; although they were no longer slaves in the literal sense, they were still referred to as Mamluks. Many of them converted to Islam.
Shajarat al-Durr accompanied the sultan to the field, and when he died on November 23, 1249, she plotted with his two advisers—Fakhr al-Din, the second in command of the troops, and Jamal al-Din, who was in charge of the palace—to keep the sultan's death a secret. They simply told the troops that he was very ill and even had a servant bring food to his tent as usual. Meanwhile, Shajarat al-Durr sent an urgent message to the sultan's son (and her stepson), Turan Shah, in Mesopotamia to return to Egypt with his men.
During this same period the French had been gathering new forces and were preparing to attack the Egyptian camp, which was on the other side of a river that separated them. In February a spy showed the French where they could cross the river. Led by Robert of Artois, the king's brother, the French attacked. They quickly took the Egyptian camp and then, contrary to their orders, followed the Egyptians to Mansurah without waiting for reinforcements. At this point the Egyptian Mamluks, led by their young general, al-Zahir Baybars (see entry), counterattacked and cut down the Crusaders once they had entered the narrow streets of the town. The rest of the Crusader forces were still crossing the river and were powerless to help. The French had no choice but to retreat, leaving behind the bodies of a large number of their most important knights, or professional soldiers, including the king's brother. Also killed in the battle was the Muslim commander Fakhr al-Din.
Not long after this victory, Turan Shah, the sultan's son, arrived in Egypt with his forces and finished off the French, capturing the king and most of his army. The rest of the Crusader force at Damietta held out, hoping to trade the city for the return of their king. During all these events Shajarat al-Durr had shown herself to be a strong and capable leader, helping run the government and the military following the death of Fakhr al-Din. With the arrival of Turan Shah, however, this role ended. Instead of showing gratitude to Shajarat al-Durr or to the Mamluks, such as Baybars, for saving his empire, he began awarding high offices, or posts, to his own men, which ultimately brought about a revolt.
The Cairo Mamluks under Baybars and Shajarat al-Durr would not let themselves be shoved aside. On May 2, 1250, the Mamluks, led by Baybars, attacked Turan Shah at a feast he was giving. Wounded, the sultan's son managed to escape to a fortified (strengthened) tower in the Nile River. When the Mamluks set the tower on fire, Turan Shah jumped into the river. Baybars himself finished the job by killing Turan Shah with his sword. After this assassination, there were no living relatives of Sultan al-Salih to inherit the throne. Even Khalil, the son of the sultan and Shajarat al-Durr, had died by this time. Thus Shajarat al-Durr, the sultan's widow, was declared the sultana and was also proclaimed Umm Khalil, "Mother of Khalil."
Placing Shajarat al-Durr on the Egyptian throne was a way to make the new rulers seem more legitimate, or lawful and rightful heirs to the throne, for she could be considered the next in line for the Ayyubid crown. But Shajarat al-Durr had also proved herself a capable leader. It is clear that her rule was not ceremonial—that is, she did not rule in name only. In fact, she had coins made up with her name stamped on them, and her name was also mentioned during the Friday sermon at the mosques, or Islamic places of worship. Both of these honors were reserved for true leaders. In addition, she continued Turan Shah's negotiations with the French for the ransom (payment) for the king's release. The French paid a large sum, after which Louis IX was released and sailed to Acre in the Holy Land.
Shajarat al-Durr ruled as sultana for almost three months, until criticism in the rest of the Islamic world put pressure on Egypt to have her unseated (removed from the throne). It was a new thing for a woman to rule in Muslim countries. The caliph in Baghdad threatened to send troops to remove her if the Egyptians did not. A compromise was finally reached. In July 1250 Aybek, a high-ranking Mamluk, was made sultan. Although Aybek already had a wife and a son, Shajarat al-Durr realized that her power would be lost if she did not become his partner. She first won him over to her side and then married him, becoming unofficial leader of Egypt. The marriage was more than one of convenience, however, for it seems that Shajarat al-Durr really loved this military leader. For most of their marriage Aybek was far from Egypt, busily fighting Ayyubids in Syria, who claimed that the Egyptian throne rightfully belonged to them and not to the former Mamluks. In Aybek's absence Shajarat al-Durr was the real power center in Cairo. She made sure the government ran smoothly while her husband attended to military matters.
This arrangement worked well for seven years, until Aybek decided to replace her with a new wife, a woman he wanted to marry in order to secure a political alliance with the city of Mosul, in present-day Iraq. Discovering this plan, Shajarat al-Durr grew jealous and plotted the death of her husband, a man she had sacrificed so much for and who was now going to toss her aside. Despite learning of her plot to murder him, on April 29, 1257, Aybek was tricked into coming to her, where her paid assassins killed him. If Shajarat al-Durr thought that she could take over control of the empire through this action, she was wrong. Ali, Aybek's son by his first marriage, was named sultan. Aybek was so powerful that his death would not go unpunished. Shajarat al-Durr must eventually have realized this—too late. After crushing all her jewels into powder so that no one else could have them, she was arrested several days later. She was turned over to Ali's mother, the woman from whom Shajarat al-Durr had taken Aybek. The former sultana was beaten to death with the wooden shoes of this woman's slaves and her body thrown over the high walls of the Citadel of Cairo (the fortress of Cairo) to be eaten by dogs. Later, her remains were gathered up and taken to a mausoleum, or burial place, that Shajarat al-Durr had earlier constructed for herself. It can still be viewed in Cairo today.
Many legends and romantic stories have grown up around the life of Shajarat al-Durr. While some historians all but ignore her, treating her as just another wife of a sultan, others place her front and center during the Seventh Crusade and the Mamluk power grab in Egypt. The truth lies somewhere between these two viewpoints. Shajarat al-Durr not only ruled on her own for a brief time but also successfully (though unofficially) ran the government of Egypt for seven years. Her symbolic importance as one of the few women to gain power in the medieval Muslim world is nevertheless greater than her achievements as a leader.
For More Information
Glubb, Sir John. Soldiers of Fortune: The Story of the Mamlukes. New York: Stein and Day, 1973.
Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades through Arab Eyes. Translated by Jon Rothschild. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.
Mernissi, Fatima. The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Waddy, Charis. Women in Muslim History. New York: Longman, 1980.
Ziada, Mustafa. "The Mamluk Sultans to 1293." In A History of the Crusades. Edited by Kenneth M. Setton. Vol. 2, The Later Crusades, 1189–1311. Edited by Robert L. Wolff and Harry W. Hazard. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.
Duncan, David J. "Scholarly Views of Shajarat al-Durr: A Need for Consensus." Arab Studies Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 51–69.
"Infamous Women: Shajar al-Durr." Mabelyn.com.http://www.mabelyn.com/infamous_women/shajar.htm (accessed on July 22, 2004).
"Seventh Crusade." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies.http://the-orb.net/textbooks/crusade/seventhcru.html (accessed on July 22, 2004).
"Shagrat al-Durr." Women in World History.http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine1.html (accessed on July 22, 2004).
"Shajarat (Shaggar, Shagar, Shagarat) al-Durr and Her Mausoleum in Cairo." Tour Egypt.http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/shajarat.htm (accessed on July 22, 2004).