Halfway up Al-Muezz St. in the medieval part of Old Cairo stands the impressive complex of Qalawun. Across the road from Qalawun complex is the mausoleum which houses the body of As-Salih Nagm Al-din Ayyub. His grandfather was brother to Saladin who defeated and captured Richard the Lionheart of England during the Crusades. Personally, I am more interested in the story of his wife, Shajar al-Durr (Tree of Pearls) than I am in As-Salih himself. This is just one of the sites we visit on our tour around Medieval Cairo.
SHAJAR AL-DURR FROM SLAVE TO WIFE OF A SULTAN
As-Salih became ruler of Damascus when his father died but there was a lot of fighting within the family for the full rulership of surrounding areas. At some point As-Silah became his cousin’s prisoner in Jordan. His favourite concubine was Shajar al-Durr, a tukish slave, and she became his companion in captivity. I guess there is nothing like being locked up with someone to either bring you closer together or drive you mad. It would seem they became close in many ways and she learned a lot from him…including getting pregnant along the way, but unfortunately their baby boy died 3 months after he was born.
MANAGING AFFAIRS OF STATE
While he was in captivity As-Salih learned who his real friends and allies were. Once he was free and in Cairo he proceeded to put those friends and allies into powerful and key positions, and also expanded his own personal Mamluk army. While he was away on militiary expeditions he left his wife Shajar al-Durr in complete charge of state affairs – not something usual in those times.
DEATH OF HER HUSBAND THE SULTAN
In 1249 As-Salih became gravely ill. In June of the same year King Louis IX of France decided to take advantage of the sitution and invade Egypt. Louis landed at Damietta as part of the 7th Crusade and As-Salih died in November in his tent at Mansura. Shajar decided it was best not to let the fact become known in the midst of an invasion. She only told the commander of his Mamluk Army. They continued to pretend As-Salih was alive, even taking food to his tent several times each day to keep up the charade.
As-Salih’s son,Turanshah, son by another woman, the legitimate heir to his father, arrived in Cairo in Feb. Then Shajar publicly announced the death of As-Salih. The crusaders at Damietta launched the attack and the commander of the Mamluk Army was killed. The crusaders then advanced to Mansura and Tanshah went to join the battle there.
SHAJAR IS DECLARED RULER BY THE MAMLUK SOLDIERS
In April the French were defeated at Mansura and the French King Louis IX captured. With the threat of the French now gone, animosity between Turanshah and the Mamluk Army/Shajar quickly boiled over. Turanshah was murdered. The Mamluks decided that Shajar should become their ruler. At the same time they choose Izz al-din Aybak as their commander-in-chief. Aybak was one of the heros of the battle at Mansura.
MARRIAGE AND MURDER!
The rulers in Syria were not happy with the arrangement in Cairo so Shajar married Aybak. All went well for a while but Aybak became paranoid that the Mamluks who put him in power might turn against him so he had their commander murdered. This didn’t do his relationship with Shajar any good.
When Aybak announced he was going to take another wife … that was the beginning of the end… Shajar had him murdered.
VIOLENT MURDER OF SHAJAR AL-DURR
Beside herself with rage, Aybaks first wife (Oom Ali) ordered her servants to beat Shajar to death with wooden shoes. Her naked body, apart from some red material around her waist, was thrown from the Citadel walls. Rumour has it that her body lay in the moat for 3 days. Then a man jumped in and cut the material from around her waist because it was made of silk and adorned with pearls.
Eventually what remained of Shajar al-Durr’s body was gathered up and placed in a tomb she had built in 1250. I wonder if she had a premonition?
WHERE IS THE TOMB?
I have searched online for the tomb of Shajar al-Durr and, though I have found photos, I have not found the location. One account says it is in disrepair and covered in garbage. Sad. There are so many places in Egypt these days suffering the same fate.