Fatma al-Malikah ad-Din Umm-Khalil Shajarat al-Durr (try saying that three times fast) was Sultana of Egypt and a historical femme fatale. Few Islamic women ever had the chance to achieve infamy: they were kept secluded in the women’s quarters (in the case of princes, in the palace Harems), and not allowed to interfere with the affairs of men. One who succeeded in that man’s world was Shajarat al-Durr. (Her name means “Tree of Pearls….”) She was born in Armenia and became a slave in the Harem of Caliph al-Musta Sim in Baghdad: he gave her as a present to his vassal, Sultan al-Salih Aiyub of Egypt, who found Shajarat very much to his taste. Sharjarat bore the Sultan a son, who died in childhood, but regardless, she became his favorite concubine.
Shajarat entered history only because her husband died at a moment of crisis. King Louis IX of France, who was later made a saint for his efforts, was leading the French army against Egypt- the Seventh Crusade. When Aiyub died suddenly, his only son, Turanshah, was far away, serving as viceroy in Mesopotamia. If Aiyub’s army learned of the Sultan’s death, the Egyptian Mamluk Ayyubid Kurdish Sultanate might collapse. So, with the aid of Jamal al-Din Mohren, the chief eunuch, who controlled the palace, and Fakhr al-Din, a soldier, Shajarat concealed her husband’s death. They forged orders in his name appointing his son his heir, announcing that the Sultan was ill, and naming Fakhr to be chief general during the illness. Food was brought in everyday for the Sultan, and Shajarat kept up the deception: meanwhile a messenger sped to bring Turanshah back to Egypt.
It took ten months for Turanshah to reach Egypt: all that time Shajarat held Egypt’s government together. By the time Turan arrived, the French were defeated, and King Louis, who was a better saint than general, was captured. But Turan showed no gratitude to those who had saved his kingdom: instead of rewarding them, he gave power to his friends from Mesopotamia. The Mamluk corps of soldiers- slaves from Turkey and Circassia, the proudest unit of the army, who had won the battles- were particularly offended when Turan responded to their protests with drunken threats. Turan was known as a alcoholic, a very undesired trait among Islamic people. Then Turan threatened Shajarat, whom he accused of holding his father’s treasures from him. She asked the Mamluks for help.
In 1250, as Turan was leaving a banquet, a group of Mamluks headed by Baibars, their most savage commander, burst in with drawn swords. They wounded Turan, who fled to a wooden tower beside the Nile. They set the tower on fire; Turan jumped into the river, begging for mercy and offering to abdicate. Turan was speared and yet continued to run into the river. When the soldiers’ arrows failed to kill him, Baibars jumped into the river and finished him off by hacking him to pieces with his saber.
Since there was no adult heir to the royal family, Shajarat was proclaimed Sultana of Egypt. She reigned eighty days, but her subjects were disturbed at the idea of having a woman rule over them. Her former master, the Caliph, offered to send them a man to rule since they had no men among them. The Mamluk amirs (princes) decided that their senior officer, Izz ad-Din Aibek would marry Shajarat and become Sultan, and Shajarat promptly married him. A six-year old child, al-Ashroof, a relative of the late Sultan was made co-Sultan, but he soon came to a bad end.
Although Aibek was Sultan, Shajarat continued to control the country. She helped Aibek get rid of his Mamluk rivals, by were exiling or executing them. But Aibek tired of being second place to his wife and often quarreled with her. She even had forbade him from seeing his first wife to whom he was still married. When Shajarat started hiding official government affairs from him, he snapped. He took of to Syria and allied himself with Badr ad-Din Lo’alo’a the Ayyubid Emir of al-Mousil and married his daughter. Shajarat resented his ingratitude and decided Aibek was dispensable. Sometime after he returned, after a ball game in the royal palace in Cairo, she ordered his eunuchs to murder Aibek while he was bathing. The story was given out that Aibek died a natural death, but the truth leaked out. Shajarat had fewer supporters than she had thought, and her supporters decided to sacrifice her in order to prevent civil war. After Aibek’s death, Shajarat was beaten to death with wooden shoes by the salve woman of Aibek’s first wife. They say her body was stripped and mutilated and her body was thrown from the tower.
Shajarat had one child with her first master, Sultan al-Salih Aiyub of Egypt who did not live to adulthood. She never had anymore children.
Shajarat is significant because she is one of few women in history that actually was recognized and a female sovereign and bore the official title of Sultana (even though it was only for a few months). Many other Consorts were called “Sultana,” but it was just a courtesy title and not official. Most royal consorts bore the title “Sultan” after their name to represent that they had given a Sultan and male heir. Sultana meant that a woman was actually a ruler.
Shajarat al-Durr has not been depicted in film since 1935, in the Egyptian film titles “Shajarat al-Durr,” so I would say it is about time another is made.