Shajar al-Durr (d. 1259)

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Shajar al-Durr (d. 1259)

Sultana of Egypt. Name variations: Shajar al Durr; Shajarat; Shagrat al-Durr; Spray of Pearls. Died in 1259 (some sources cite 1258) in Cairo; married Najm ad Din also known as al-Salih Ayyub or Salih II Ayyub, Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, in 1240 (died 1249); married Aybak, Mamluk sultan of Egypt, in 1250; stepchildren: Turan or al-Muazzam Turanshah.

Shajar al-Durr, one of the few women in Muslim history to have ruled as sultana, played an important role in the defeat of the Seventh Crusade. Little is known about her family background except that she was Turkish and had been a slave before her marriage. In 1240, she became the wife of Salih II Ayyub, the sultan of Egypt. In 1249, she acted as regent of Egypt while her husband was on a military campaign in Damascus. The Crusading army led by the French king Louis IX had captured the port city of Damietta in June 1249; Shajar organized the Egyptian army against the Crusaders. When Salih II died shortly after his return to Mansourah in November 1249, Shajar concealed his death by claiming he was too ill to leave his tent. In this way, she ruled alone in his name, successfully keeping his death a secret until the heir to the sultanate, her stepson Turan, returned from Syria to take power. In the spring of 1250, she and Turan organized the defense of Cairo against Louis, defeating the Crusaders and capturing the king. Louis was ransomed and had to surrender Damietta in April, after which he sailed for Palestine. Turan was then assassinated in May by Mamluk (Turkish) military officers of the Egyptian army who wanted a Mamluk sultan.

Their choice fell on Shajar, who thus became the first Mamluk (Turkish) sultan of Egypt and the first female sultan to rule in her own name. (The Mamluk period would last for two centuries.) With the strong support of the Egyptian military leaders, Shajar began to consolidate her power, issuing coins in her name. However, because she was a woman, the overlord of Egypt, the caliph of Baghdad, refused to recognize her rule as legitimate. Shajar was forced to abdicate after only a few months. The caliph sent the Mamluk soldier Aybak to take her place. Shajar, still ambitious for power, arranged to marry Aybak, and together they consolidated Mamluk rule in Egypt, making a new capital at Cairo. During their eight years of joint rule, Shajar, called sultana, promulgated laws and issued decrees; according to contemporary reports, she was a more active ruler than her husband. When Aybak tried to take a second wife in 1259, however, Shajar became jealous of his bid for more power and had him assassinated. Soon two military factions were fighting over the future of the sultanate: those who supported Shajar's continued rule, and those who wanted Aybak's son by his former wife to rule. Shajar's faction was defeated, and she was murdered at the instigation of Aybak's son. Later her bones were removed to a mosque named in her honor where they remain today.


Jackson-Laufer, Guida M. Women Who Ruled. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1990.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Cambridge, Eng.: Polity Press, 1993.

Waddy, Charis. Women in Muslim History. NY: Longman, 1980.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California