Sultana Shajar al-Durr (d. 1257)


Shajar Al Durr

Fatma al-Malikah ad-Din Umm-Khalil Shajar al-Durr (try saying that three times fast) was Sultana of Egypt and 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, the palace Harems), and not allowed to interfere with the affairs of men. One who succeeded in that man’s world was Shajar al-Durr. (Her name means “string 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 Shajar very much to his taste. Shajar bore the Sultan a son, who died in childhood, but she became his favorite wife and Sultana.

Shajar 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, Turan-shah, was far away, serving as viceroy in Mesopotamia. If Aiyub’s army learned of the Sultan’s death, it might collapse. So, with the aid of Jamal al-Din Mohren, the chief eunuch, who controlled the palace, and Fakhr al-Din, a soldier, Shajar 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 Shajar kept up the deception: meanwhile a messenger sped to bring Turan-shah back to Egypt.

It took ten months for Turan-shah to reach Egypt: all that time Shajar 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 Mameluk 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. The Turan threatened Shajar, whom he accused of holding his father’s treasures from him. She asked the Mameluks for help.

in 1250, as Turan was leaving a banquet, a group of Mameluks headed for 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. When the soldiers’ arrows failed to kill him, Baibars jumped into the river and finished him off with his saber.

Since there was no adult heir to the royal family, Shajar was proclaimed Sultana of Egypt. She reigned eighty days, but her subjects were disturbed at the idea of having a woman over them. Her former master, the Caliph, offered to send them a man to rule since they had no men among them. The Mameluk amirs (princes) decided that their senior officer, Izz ad-Din Aibek would marry Shajar and become Sultan, and Shajar 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, Shajar continued to control the country. She helped Aibek get rid of his Mameluk rivals, who were exiled or killed. But Aibek tired of being second and quarreled with his wife. This was foolish of him: Shajar resented his ingratitude and decided Aibek was dispensable. 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. Shajar had fewer supporters than she had thought, and her supporters decided to sacrifice her in order to prevent civil war. After Aibek’s death, Shajar was beaten to death with wooden shoes by the salve woman of Aibek’s first wife. Her body was thrown from the tower.


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