Shajar al-Durr, a name as anonymous as it seems. History does not remember when she was born, who her mother was, or where she comes from. And why not? who would have been interested in recording details of a mere enslaved girl? Her story did start as an insignificant slave girl yet her achievements made people rethink the fate of one’s life. From being a concubine of the king to being the Secret Monarch of Egypt, Shajar al-Durr rose up the ladder like a queen.
This is her story.
1220 AD marked the beginning of the story of Shajar al-Durr
Born somewhere around 1220 AD, Shajar al-Durr was a Turkic or Armenian girl- beautiful, pious, and intelligent. She was sold as a slave to As-Salih Ayyub, the then soon-to-be Ayyubid ruler of Egypt. It was a time when enslaved boys were trained as military personnel to join the army of the kingdom and girls were made concubine for the pleasure of the royals. Shajar al-Durr was also trained to be a concubine but her immense beauty and wit made her one of the favorites to As-Salih Ayyub.
In 1240, she gave birth to the son of As-Salih Ayyub. The couple named their son ‘al-Malik al-Mansour’. Soon after his birth, the duo married. In the meantime, Ayyub has also been announced the Sultan and so Shajar al-Durr became the Royal Queen. But their story came to an abrupt end when As-Salih Ayyub became gravely ill in 1249 and soon died on 22 November 1249 after ruling Egypt for nearly 10 years. It was when King Louis IX of France had assembled a crusader army in Cyprus and was about to launch an attack on Egypt. The sudden death of the king left the kingdom unprotected and so Shajar al-Durr took up the command herself.
She knew that if the news of the king’s death comes out, the citizens would fear their lives and the dirty politics of the palace would ignite their defeat. Shajar al-Durr along with Emir Fakhr ad-Din Yussuf Ben Shaykh (commander of the Egyptian army) and Tawashi Jamal ad-Din Muhsin (the chief eunuch of the palace) decided to keep the news hidden. His body was safely placed inside a coffin and kept at a faraway palace. To make everyone believe that the king is ill and not dead, she ordered servants to regularly provide a meal to the king’s room. With the help of one of her servants, she forged Sultan’s handwriting and would forge the signature of decrees to govern the sultanate. She also directed the military personnel about the strategies of the battle.
However, soon the rumors went out and Sultan’s death was no longer a secret. The army was also losing its grip on the French invaders. But under the commandership of Shajar al-Durr, the Egyptian army was able to defeat the French army and capture King Louis IX. But this victory alone was not able to convince the royals of a woman ruling them. In 1250, when the son of the sultan, Al-Muazzam Turanshah arrived in Egypt, he was enthroned at Al Salhiyah. And with his arrival, the queen officially announced the death of the Sultan.
In the beginning, she and her mamluks would support her stepson, but later he began to threaten her position. But the mamluks had known the leadership qualities of the queen and were certain that she would make a better ruler than her unfaithful stepson. They together planned to execute Al-Muazzam Turanshah. After the assassination of Turanshah, Shajar al-Durr was declared the Sultana of Egypt. The first role she did as the Sultana was to negotiate with the French king and reoccupy the occupied territories of Egypt. His surrender proved the credibility of Shajar al-Durr as the Sultana of Egypt but was not enough to convince the orthodox members of the sultanate. In the meantime, she launched coins under her name and would sign decrees under her new designation ‘Walidat Khalil’.
The Overthrow of Shajar al-Durr
But the growing revolt forced Shajar al-Durr to marry. She was married to her new husband under one condition that he have to divorce his first wife. After marriage, she maintained her status as the Sultana of Egypt. She did many works including building a mausoleum for her ex-husband. But her new husband started threatening her position and planned to rule himself. Being known about his conspiracies and his betrayal, Shajar al-Durr decided to assassinate him. He died after ruling Egypt alongside Sultana for seven years. When the news of his assassination reached the ears of his first wife, she planned to kill Shajar al-Durr.
Shajar al-Durr was arrested and Aybak’s Mamluks took her to the Red tower. Meanwhile, her second husband’s son was enthroned as the new Sultan. Shajar al-Durr was stripped and beaten to death by the Aybak’s Mamluks who threw her body from the tower. Her body lay naked outside the Citadel for three days. The mob came and took off the only cloth covering her waist because it was made of silk and pearls.
Her body was anonymously buried in a tomb. She left no belongings behind yet her legacy lasted. Her museum made under the name ‘Tree of pearls’ reminds us about the heroics and life and death of this secret Queen of Egypt, who singlehandedly combat the Egypt’s military crises.