SHAJARAT AL-DURR

In June 1249CE, the Seventh Crusade under the command of the Frankish King Louis IX landed on the port of Dimyat at the mouth of the Nile River. The Ayyubid Sultan, Al-Malik Al-Salih Najmuddin Ayyub, upon hearing these sad news, rushed back to Egypt from Syria and organized an army at Mansurah. He also raised a commando force that effectively put the Crusaders at bay. He was already critically ill, however, at that time and now his wife, named Umm-Khalil Shajarat al-Durr, entered the stage and played an important role in this critical hour of Egyptian history.

Umm-Khalil Shajarat al-Durr was a beautiful, talented and intelligent lady. She was originally a slave bought by Al-Salih Najmuddin Ayyub, and after giving birth to Al-Mansur Khalil, the Sultan married her. Shajarat al-Durr was a Mamluk and a Turk, belonged to the family of Bahri Mamluks, the Turkish tribe who had settled in the islands around the Nile.

That fateful day, she met all the war generals, made them to swear to fight for the last while the Sultan ordered them to abide all the orders came from his wife. Thus she became the commander-in-chief of the Ayyubid force. She quickly made Mansurah strongly fortified, built a fleet of war galleys and placed them at strategic points along the Nile. Any Crusaders’ attempt to approach Mansurah was severely repulsed by the Egyptian Greek fire, they even tried to build bridges to cross the Nile, but only to be destroyed by the Egyptian galleys.

However, King Louis IX successfully launched a surprise attack on the Egyptians later, crossed the Nile heading towards Mansurah. This was possible thanks to a bribed Arab guide leading the Crusaders to a secret ford. In the meantime, the Sultan also died, now Shajarat al-Durr had to face the situation with utmost intelligence and bravery. She ordered to conceal the Sultan’s death in the meantime while had her Mamluk generals fought valiantly and win the battle.

Meanwhile Turanshah, Al-Salih Najmuddin Ayyub’s son from another wife, claimed himself as the legitimate heir of the Ayyubid sultanate and started to threat Shajarat al-Durr. He crowned himself as the new Sultan, marched to Mansurah from Hasankeyf. Turanshah blocked Crusader reinforcements from Dimyat by using Egyptian galleys, and the intensified battle led to the surrender of the Crusaders. King Louis IX was captured and arrested, later he was ransomed and sailed to Acre.

Shajarat al-Durr was reluctant to give the rulership to Turanshah as he used to drink alcohol, and had a low intelligence with an abusive character, and she complained about these points to the Mamluks. The Mamluks later assassinated Turanshah on the banks of the Nile. On 2nd May, 1250, she was crowned as the Queen of Egypt by the Mamluk Emirs, having the title “al-Malikah `Asmat al-Dīn Umm-Khalil Shajarat al-Durr”.

When the news reached Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliph al-Musta`sim disapproved the queenship of Shajarat al-Durr, sarcastically wrote to the Mamluk Emirs, “If you lack in men, let it be known to us in order that we may send you one”. This was a blow for the queen, as it was a tradition since the days of Salahuddin al-Ayyubi that every sovereign Ayyubid sultans would have recognition from the Caliph at Baghdad.

Nevertheless, she had already ruled Egypt for 80 days, ordered coins to be minted by her name, and even had her name mentioned in the weekly Friday Khutbahs. And she was the first Muslim lady to do so. Later, because of the Caliph’s disapproval, the Mamluk Emirs made Atabey `Izz al-Din Aybak as the new Sultan as he married Shajarat al-Durr, thus passing the throne to him. Atabey Aybak accordingly became the first ruler of the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt, a sultanate that will dominate the Middle East for centuries before the arrival of the Ottomans in 1517.

Shajarat al-Durr had a happy marriage with Atabey Aybak for seven years. But that seems to fade way when Aybak had to marry the daughter of Atabey Badruddin of Mosul, to meet geopolitical needs at that time. Now jealousy kicks in, she could not tolerate of sharing power with her husband’s second wife, so she planned to kill him. A plot was taken, Atabey Aybak was assassinated when he visited a palace bath. Soon afterwards, the Mamluks discovered her role, and she was killed too. Her body was buried in front of a compound of a school she had established.

Although Shajarat al-Durr only ruled as a queen for a short time, her reign witnessed 2 very significant events in history: the defeat of the Seventh Crusade, and the birth of the Mamluk dynasty, which ended 80 years of the Ayyubid rule in Egypt. Shajarat al-Durr was a learned lady and a patron of learning, and had established several schools under her name. Nevertheless, she was indeed a beautiful, gifted, a good writer, and an ambitious player in politics.

Little is known about her origins, including her given name and her year of birth in the early 13th century. The name she was known by, “Shajarat al-Durr” (“Tree of Pearls”), is said to have been inspired by her fondness for the jewel of the sea. Legends say she came from royal Arab stock, but historians agree she was most likely born in present-day Armenia to a family of nomadic Kipchak Turks, known to Western medieval chroniclers as “the blonde ones” and among whom women often held high status. “I have witnessed in this country a remarkable thing, namely the respect in which women are held by them,” recalled 14th-century traveler Ibn Battuta.

Around the time of Shajarat al-Durr’s birth, Mongols were sweeping west across Asia, absorbing some Kipchak tribes and settlements while displacing and dispersing others. Some were taken captive and sold to other peoples—including the ruling Ayyubids of Egypt. Shajarat al-Durr’s first husband, Sultan Al-Malik al-Salih, in fact, was the first to bring large numbers of Kipchaks to Cairo. The men became military servants, known as Mamluks, while Shajarat al-Durr, like other women, entered the harem.

In his history of the Egyptian Mamluk sultanate, Cairo-born Al-Makrisi, a biographer, historian and poet of the 14th and 15th centuries, wrote that the sultan

loved her so desperately that he carried her with him to his wars,
and never quitted her…”

In 1239, she bore a son, Khalil, and in 1240, Shajarat al-Durr and the sultan were married. This freed the bride of servitude, but their son died in infancy, and she bore none further.


A novel about Shajarat al-Durr (Source)
Arabic: شجر الدر, “Tree of Pearls” (Shaggar, Shagar, Shagarat)

Al-Salih, however, already had a son in southeastern Turkey, the troublesome Turan Shah, a child by his first wife. As a result, al-Salih relied greatly on his wife, whose Kipchak roots aided the Ayyubid sultan in mobilizing Mamluk troops to task—first in maintaining his immediate domain, Egypt, and then in extending dominion into Syria. It was this, “her ability to counsel her husband on matters of the state, including military campaigns,” that has garnered Shajarat al-Durr the most attention from biographers today, says historian Mona Russell of East Carolina University and author of Creating the New Egyptian Woman (2004). Writing not long after Shajarat al-Durr’s own lifetime, one Syrian chronicler called her “the most cunning woman of her age.”

Her acumen became widely apparent in the spring of 1249. Sultan al-Salih, campaigning in Syria, learned that the armies of the Seventh Crusade, led by Louis ix of France, were sailing for Egypt, aiming to land 1,800 ships and 50,000 men in the Nile Delta city of Damietta. Shajarat al-Durr, acting as regent in Cairo, dispatched al-Salih’s top commander, Fakhr al-Din, to Damietta while she led the Mamluks in garrisoning Cairo.

The Seventh Crusade ended with the diplomacy of two queens – one Muslim and one Christian

Then came more bad news: The sultan had been wounded in battle. He was on his way back to Egypt by stretcher.


Falsely attributed to Shajarat Al-Durr on the internet is William Clarke Wontner’s (1857-1930), “The Turban” (1920 ) (Source)

Louis landed at Damietta on June 6, 1249. Overwhelmed, the outnumbered Muslim troops abandoned the city, reported the 13th-century historian Ibn Wasil. They regrouped on the east bank of the Nile, about 100 kilometers northeast of Cairo, at al-Mansoura. There, the ailing al-Salih arrived, and he was joined at his bedside by Shajarat al-Durr. By late August, al-Salih’s health began to deteriorate with each passing day. Ibn Wasil described the situation as “a disaster without precedent … there was great grief and amazement, and despair fell upon the whole of Egypt.”

In November, Sultan Al-Malik al-Salih passed away. Bereaved yet determined to ensure the continuity of her husband’s dynasty and avoid revealing weakness to the Crusaders, Shajarat al-Durr recalled Turan Shah from Turkey and, until his arrival, arranged to conceal the sultan’s death.

She summoned Fakhr al-Din and al-Salih’s head eunuch, Jamal al-Din, who was in charge of the Mamluks, “to inform them of the death of the sultan, and to request their assistance in supporting the weight of government at such a critical period,” wrote Al-Makrisi.

Their deception required an elaborate conspiracy. All orders from the sultan were in fact signed by Jamal al-Din, who forged his master’s signature. (Other sources say Shajarat al-Durr had al-Salih sign batches of blank documents before he died.) A doctor was also let in on the secret, and he was seen visiting the sultan’s chamber daily.

Meals were brought to the door and tasted while singers and musicians performed outside the chambers. Meanwhile, Shajarat al-Durr arranged for a boat, and disguised in black robes, she accompanied her husband’s body under cover of night up the Nile to Roda Island south of Cairo, where the Mamluk troops were stationed. There, she hid the corpse and issued orders—also forged—for construction to begin on al-Salih’s mausoleum.

In this way, for nearly three months, Shajarat al-Durr secretly directed the sultanate. Although Fakhr al-Din fell in battle, his forces began to repulse the Crusaders, and Turan Shah arrived in time for the defeat and capture of Louis.

Yet as successor to his father, Turan Shah quickly began making missteps.
“He had no confidence but in a certain number of favourites, whom he had brought with him from [Syria],” Al-Makrisi recorded, and this sidelined the Mamluks.

He demanded that Shajarat al-Durr hand over both his father’s treasure and her own jewels and trademark pearls. “The sultana, in alarm, implored the protection of the Mamluks,” reported Al-Makrisi. They were only too glad to come to her aid, considering “the services she had done the state in very difficult times” and the fact that Turan Shah was “a prince universally detested,” and Turan Shah was slain on May 2, 1250.

The Mamluks decided that “the functions of Sultan and ruler [of Egypt] should be assumed by Shajarat al-Durr,” Ibn Wasil recorded, adding that “decrees were to be issued at her command and … [from] that time she became titular head of the whole state; a royal stamp was issued in her name with the formula ‘mother of Khalil,’ and the khutba [Friday sermon] was pronounced in her name as Sultana of Cairo and all Egypt.”

[Royal name: Fatma al-Malikah ad-Din Umm-Khalil Shajarat al-Durr (Arabic: الملكة عصمة الدين أم خليل شجر الدر]
[nicknamed: أم خليل, Umm Khalil; mother of Khalil]

Although—to recall Ibn Battuta’s observations—the Mamluks were not unaccustomed to female potentates, she was entirely up to the job, “endowed … with great intelligence” and capacity for “the affairs of the kingdom,” noted Khayr al-Din al-Zirikli, a modern biographer and poet from Syria.

One of her first acts as sultana was to conclude a treaty with the Crusaders that returned  Damietta and ransomed Louis ix. These terms she negotiated with her French counterpart, Queen Margaret of Provence. Thus the Seventh Crusade ended with the diplomacy of two queens—one Muslim and one Christian.

Not all supported her. The most stinging objection came from Baghdad, where Caliph al-Musta’sim is said to have declared: “We’ve heard that you are governed by a woman now. If you’ve run out of men in Egypt, let us know so we can send you a man to rule over you.” Wary of the far reach of Abbasid influence, the sultana and her council knew they needed to capitulate if they were to ultimately endure.

To this day she remains one of Egypt’s most popular historical figures and, as such, she has been many things to many people.

So, after 80 days of titular rule, Shajarat al-Durr married and relinquished her title to a minor Mamluk officer, Izz al-Din Aybek, who “had nothing to say,” observed one contemporary. She insisted Aybek divorce his first wife, Umm ‘Ali. Although that command proved fateful, for the next seven years “the power of decision and administration” remained in her hands, as contemporary historian Ibn ‘Abd al-Zahir noted. She signed all royal decrees, dispensed justice and issued commands.

She made her marks culturally, too. She is said to have instituted a nightly entertainment at the Citadel that featured acrobatics by torchlight to the rhythms of music. Popular legend also credits her with founding the tradition of the mahmal, a decorated palanquin on the back of the lead camel in Egypt’s annual pilgrimage caravan to Makkah—a tradition that survived into the mid-20th century.

 
(Left) Salaf Fawakhergy,playing Shagaret el Durr in an Egyptian TV series (Source)
and (Right) Ghada Abdel Raziq as Shajarat Al-Durr (Source)

By 1254 Aybek began to tire of his nominal role. He quashed a rebellion or two and fought bitterly with Shajarat al-Durr over al-Salih’s treasure, which she kept hidden. In 1257, seeking to increase his power, Aybek intended to take a second wife, a daughter of a powerful prince. To Shajarat al-Durr, this was treason against both queen and sultanate. Aybek moved into a pavilion by the polo fields.

On April 12 he received an apologetic summons from Shajarat al-Durr. Arriving at the palace fresh from a polo match, Aybek was greeted by the swords of the sultana’s eunuchs.

She claimed Aybek had died in his sleep, but this time the Mamluks refused to protect her. Accounts say she passed several days under arrest in the Citadel, grinding her jewels and pearls to dust. Aybek’s 15-year-old son Al-Mansur Ali—son of the jilted Umm ‘Ali—succeeded as sultan. He offered Shajarat al-Durr up to the justice of his mother, who had her former rival “dragged by the feet and thrown from the top” of the Citadel, according to 15th-century historian Ibn Iyas. Her remains were interred in the tomb she had commissioned for herself, one of Cairo’s most exquisite. Its mihrab, or prayer niche, is decorated in Byzantine glass mosaics, the oldest in the city, and its centerpiece is a “tree of life,” adorned with pearls.

 
Tomb of Shajarat el Dur / Darih Shajarat al-Durr in Cairo 1980s (Source) and Early 20th century (Source)

To this day she remains one of Egypt’s most popular historical figures and, as such, she has been many things to many people. To Western historians of the Crusades, she was incidental. To medieval Muslim chroniclers, she was a respected ruler who shrewdly negotiated an end to the Seventh Crusade and brokered the transition of two great dynasties—the end of the Ayyubids and the beginning  of the Mamluks. With “outstanding talents … realized through crisis, and frustrated by law, tradition, and brute force,” as American University of Cairo scholar Susan J. Staffa contended, her story remains today “a woman’s story from first to last.”

शजारत अल-दुर्र, वह महिला थी जो सुल्तान के रूप में मिश्र में शासन की और सातवें क्रूसेड को रोक दिया, वह एक आकर्षक महिला थी। शजारत अल-दुर्र ने मिस्र के सुल्तान के लिए तुर्की से खरीदी गई गई एक गुलाम थी। जाहिर है, उसने एक अच्छी नौकरी की क्योंकि एक वर्ष के भीतर सुल्तान उससे शादी कर लिया और एक बच्चा भी हुआ। अफसोस की बात यह है कि आगे उसके लिए एक बड़ी परेशानी आनी वाली थी.

सुल्तान की मृत्यु हो जाने पर चीजें सब कुछ बिगड़ गई और एक दुखद मोड़ ले गईं। उनका समय और भी खराब हो गया क्योंकि फ्रांस के लुईस IX ने सातवें क्रूसेड के हिस्से के रूप में मिस्र पर आक्रमण शुरू कर दिया था। इसलिए वह जितनी मजबूत और सशक्त महिला थी, शजारत अल-दुर्र ने सुल्तानों की मौत के बाद चुपचाप देश पर आक्रमण करने वालों को अपने पति के मुख्य कमांडर की मदद से युद्ध के लिए तैयार हो गई।

उन्होंने फ्रांसीसी आक्रमणकारियों को हराया और लुईस IX को कैदी बना लिया गया, जिसे फ्रांसीसी को अपनी शक्ति के लिए जाना जाता था यह उसके लिए अविश्वसनीय रूप से अपमानजनक था। फ्रांसीसी ने हार को एक संकेत के रूप में देखा कि गॉड ने उन्हें त्याग दिया था (कुछ क्रुसेडर भी बाद में इस्लाम में परिवर्तित हो गए!)।

जब यह समाचार फ्रांस पहुंचा, तो दस हजार किसान अपने राजा को बचाने के लिए मिस्र की ओर बढ़ गए। उनका संगठन बहुत गड़बड़ हो गया जिसके परिणामस्वरूप 400,000 livres tournois (+/- फ्रांस के कुल वार्षिक राजस्व का 30%) के लिए अपने राजा को वापस करने के लिए एक संधि हुई। शजारत अल-दुर्र के साथ इस संधि पर फ्रांसीसी शर्मिंदा थे। वह एक मुस्लिम देश में अपने शासन के पहले कुछ महीनों में गुप्त रूप से एक संधि पर बातचीत करने वाली महिला थीं।

और फिर लुइस को संधि के तहत वापस ले गए. बेशक वहाँ रुकना उनके लिए शर्म की बात होती। शजारत अल-दुर्र के लिए अब अगला टक्कर सिंहासन का उत्तराधिकारी था. तुरानशाह इसके लिए तैयार था। हालंकि वह शायद शासक बनने वाला सबसे बुरा था।

उन्होंने एक मुस्लिम देश में खुले तौर पर उन लोगों का विरोध करना शुरू किया जिन्होंने उन्हें उसे शक्ति दी। उन्होंने उन लोगों को बदलने के लिए नौकरों का एक दल स्थापित किया जो उन्हें पहले स्थान पर स्थापित कर सकते थे। और जब पता चला कि तुरानशाह षड्यंत्र रच रहा है, शजारत अल-दुर्र ने तुरानशाह को सेना के हाथों मरवा डाला और खुद को आधिकारिक तौर पर सुल्तान के रूप में स्थापित किया । उसने अपने सिक्के मुद्रित किए ।

दुर्भाग्य से मिस्र में अन्य गुट सिंहासन पर एक महिला होने पर शांत नहीं थे। बगदाद शजारत अल-दुर्र को मंजूरी नहीं देता था और मानता था है कि किसी भी महिला को शासक का खिताब नहीं रखना चाहिए। बागदद का खलीफा मिस्र के लोगों को एक संदेश भेजा, ‘चूंकि आप में से कोई भी व्यक्ति सुल्तान होने योग्य नहीं है, इसलिए मैं आपके लिए एक सुल्तान लाऊंगा’। शांति बनाए रखने के लिए, शजारत अल-दुर्र अपने पति के पुराने एकाउंटेंट अय्यूब से विवाह किया। वह सुल्तान बन गए लेकिन शाजर ने अभी भी राज्य के अधिकांश मामलों को अपने पास रखा। उन्होंने सुल्तान के रूप में संबोधित होने की भी हिम्मत की।

कुछ सालों बाद,अय्यूब ने अपनी शक्ति को मजबूत करने के लिए तीसरा विवाह किया। कहानी के इस बदलाव के बाद शजारत अल-दुर्र इस ट्रिपल-विवाह करने वाले सुल्तान से बहुत खुश नहीं थी। शजारत अल-दुर्र जिस राजवंश को शुरू किया था वह ममलुक राजवंश था और 300 साल तक यह राजवंश चला जब तक कि ओटोमैन राजवंश नहीं आए और फिर यह राजवंश समाप्त हो गया।

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