The Irish Consulate in Cairo is located at Shajar al-Durr St.  I don’t know what led me to look up the meaning of the name in English, but that is how I came to learn of a remarkable woman of the same name.  There is little written about this extraordinary woman who rose from the rank of slave to become the first female Muslim ruler of Egypt and the first woman to be named a Sultan. Shajar as-Durr translates as “Tree of Pearls“.

Shajarr al-Durr’s stolen childhood

Shajar al-Durr was reputed to be not only beautiful but intelligent and educated, even before entering the harem of As-Salih Ayoubbi.  The harem was the living quarters reserved for wives and concubines and female relatives in a Muslim household.  No men were allowed enter except family members and the eunuchs.  Captured by raiding Mongols from her family home, possibly in Armenia, at about the age of 11, she was taken to the Damascus slave market, where she was purchased either directly by the Palace or by someone who then gifted her to As-Salih.  Whichever version is true, the whole ordeal must have been terrifying and traumatic for a young girl.  We do not know if Shajar al-Durr was her original birth name or was given to her because she was wearing a dress covered in a multitude of pearls when captured, as it was not uncommon for slavers or owners to rename slaves.

The Reality of a Royal Harem

To end up in the harem of the royal palace in Damascus was not the worst fate that could have befallen Shajar a-Durr in those times; in fact, it would have been, for many, a path to a life of ease and comfort.  The women of the harems were not, for the most part, treated unkindly.  They ate well, were attended by physicians, clothed, given a monthly allowance, and were also educated in many subjects so they would be interesting and pleasing to their owners or husbands.  If one was not fortunate enough to become a favorite concubine of the Sultan, there was also the possibility that one would be given in marriage or gifted out of the harem for either political or personal reasons.

The Eastern World of the Middle Ages was a realm of opulence and influence, where the wealthy elite maintained harems filled with countless wives, concubines, and slaves.  Amidst this world of abundance, family relationships simmered with understandable instability.  Mothers fiercely vied for key positions for their sons, igniting paranoia in the minds of fathers, who then became suspicious of their sons’ intentions.  The harem of Al-Kamil was no different and Al-Kamil himself was an exceptional man.

Francis of Assisi and Illuminatus of Arce with the Sultan al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade. 15th century. By Benozzo Gozzoli.

It’s not certain how many wives or concubines were in the harem of Al-Kamil.  However, we do know the names of two wives.  One was called Sawda bint Al-Faqih, who produced a son named Adil II for Al-Kamil.  The second was a serving maid to Sawda bint Al-Faqih, and her name was Ward Al-Muna from Nubia. She caught the eye of Al-Kamil, and he married her after she produced another son for him; this son was As-Salih.  One might imagine that relationships between these two wives could be less than amicable.

As-Salih Ayyub: Ruler of Egypt, faithful husband and lover to Shajar al-Durr

Born into a world of opulence and splendor, As-Salih was raised within the grand palace of Saladin’s Citadel in Cairo, where the aroma of spices wafted up from the bazaar below the palace balconies, mixed with the seductive perfume of oils that snaked their way through the passageways surrounding the hammam every evening, and at night the alluring yet allusive scent from the jasmine trees filled the air.  Colorful tapestries adorned every wall and the hallways danced with the shadows thrown from the skillfully crafted lantern.  The palace halls and waiting chambers were always filled with travelers, ambassadors and scholars seeking audience with the Sultan.

As he grew, so did his curiosity and thirst for knowledge.  Gifted with a keen intellect, he devoured books on history, philosophy, and the arts with an insatiable appetite.

Adil II: half-brother to As-Salih

Adil II was the half-brother of As-Salih, born to a different mother within the same harem. Unlike As-Salih, Adil II was more inclined towards a life of pleasure and indulgence. He lacked As-salih’s thirst for learning and more often preferred to immerse himself in the pleasures of the palace rather than in the manuscripts and scrolls that filled his father’s chambers.  His activities, while not appreciated by his mother either, were indulged by her but were kept when possible from reaching his father’s ears

In the year 1234, As-Salih’s harmonious relationship with his father began to falter under the weight of mistrust.  As-Salih, also a fine horseman and swordsman, was given to frequenting the barracks of the Mamluks, by whom he was well regarded and on friendly terms with the commanders there.  In May of that year, the entire citadel began to echo with false innuendos and whispers that As-Salih was conspiring with commanders among their Mamluk army against his father, further entangling the threads of power and familial loyalty.

In an act that sent shockwaves through not only the palace but the entire Ayyubid dynasty, Al-Kamil summoned As-Salih to his presence and handed him the scroll that was to change his future.  He was to be officially excluded from the Egyptian succession, and given the governorship of Damascus, a distant city and less prestigious role.  Furthermore, he was to leave immediately.  Al-Kamil would not risk hearing appeals from the citizens, the Amirs, or the Mamluk commanders who held As-Salih in high esteem.

Shajar becomes As-Salih’s favourite concubine

While obedient to his father’s command, As-Salih nevertheless felt the pain of banishment.  Yearning for distraction from his feelings of betrayal, As-Salih found himself intrigued by a new young girl he had noticed in the hareem.  Yes, she was beautiful, as were all his other concubines, but something about her drew him, and so two kindred spirits, both torn suddenly from their homes and families, found each other.

By 1238, when As-Salih received news that his father had passed away, Shajar had become his favorite concubine, much to the jealousy of the other women.  He also received news that his half brother was to become ruler of Egypt while he was to stay where he was.  Obeying his father’s wishes was one thing, but he knew his brother and neither would now be content to let things be as they were.  And so began a tug of war for the land between them that would only intensify over the coming months.

Bound by Circumstance, Strengthened by Love

While the Emirs of Egypt were begging As-Salih to save them from Al-Adil, a cousin entered the arena, and in a cruel twist of fate, As-Salih found himself abandoned by his soldiers and taken prisoner.  He was to be held captive indefinitely in Kerlac.  Shajar al-Durr and one of his Mamluk commanders insisted on going with him into captivity.

As-Salih and Shajar al-Durr’s relationship not only endured for the following 8 months, but they also formed a deeper and more meaningful bond with each other.  As-Salih kept her amused with stories of his childhood.  One that she constantly sought to hear more about was his time as a hostage of the crusaders for a period of 8 years from the time he was only 16 – another thing in common.  He never realized how unusual his life had been until he saw it through Shajar’s eyes as he recounted his adventures.  She, in turn, distracted him with funny little stories and childhood games.

In 1240, their jailer, Al-Nasir Dawud, had a serious disagreement with As-Salih’s cousin and not only released his captives, but also allied with him against his cousin and half brother.  By now, the Mamluks in Cairo, having had enough of Al-Adil’s bad behavior, had revolted and imprisoned him.  As-Salih returned home to Cairo, a triumphant Sultan.  In his newfound wisdom, he recognized the value of true allies – the Mamluk commander, Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Salihi. and his beloved concubine, Shajar.  Baybars, whose bust you can see below would later become Ruler of Egypt.

Baybars, Mamluk Commander, Ruler of Egypt – Abdeen Museum, Cairo

About 3 months after their return to Cairo, Shajar gave birth to a son, whom they named Al-Khalil.  However, their joy was short-lived, as the baby died only three months later.

Shajarr al-Durr and As-Salih move to Egypt

The following nine years passed swiftly, with As-Salih’s sovereignty being challenged from several sides, not least by his uncle, who had taken Damascus and was conspiring with one sect of Cairo’s Emirs to depose As-Salih and take over the throne of Egypt.  As-Salih built up his personal Mamluk army to over 2000 men and formed them into two divisions, one he stationed on Rawda Island on the Nile, where he also built a new palace, and the second smaller unit became his personal bodyguard.

When As-Salih left Cairo on campaigns, he made it clear that Shajar al-Durr, now his wife and closest advisor, would be in control of all matters of the harem, the palace, and the state, a decision that stirred whispers and discontent among not only the hareem, where an older wife, mother to As-Salih’s only surviving heir, Turanshah, resided, but further afield among the lesser Ayubbid rulers.

One of the most difficult and ultimately disastrous political decisions As-Salih had to make was to allow his allies, the Khwarezmians, who had formerly been allies of his uncle,  to capture Jerusalem.  His father, Al-Kamil, had conceded the Holy City to the Crusaders in the 6th Crusade peace negotiations.  Afterward, the Khwaremzmians joined him in the fight to retake Damascus from his uncle, but eventually he came to distrust them and defeated them in battle.  The capture of Jerusalem led to the Pope calling for another crusade.

The Seventh Crusade

King Louis IX of France was possibly the most enthusiastic European monarch to answer the call to crusade.  By now, most of Europe had enough problems of its own to deal with and had grown weary of the pattern of winning and then losing the Holy City of Jerusalem.  Lack of finance, delays, and weather conditions all affected Louis’ plans badly at the outset.  Later in the campaign, bad decisions and disobedience among various lesser commanders would take a heavier toll.  Once in Cyprus, Louis set his sights on Egypt, a strategic and wealthy region in the heart of the Islamic world.  His plan was to use Egypt as a launching point, as well as a supplier of food and provisions for further campaigns in the region.  Being delayed in Cyprus longer than planned meant that some crusade leaders ran out of money and food for their soldiers.

Louis IX – This painting belongs to the Portraits of Kings of France, a series of portraits commissioned between 1837 and 1838 by Louis Philippe I and painted by various artists for the Musée historique de Versailles. This painting is by Auguste de Creuse

As-Salih was in Syria in September 1248 on yet another campaign against his uncle, where he sustained a wound, initially believed to be not serious, when he received the news that Louis was in Cyprus and that his plan was to go to Egypt, not Jerusalem.  He abandoned the campaign and set out for home with his army.

The beginning of the end for As-Salih

On 5 June 1249 the crusaders landed in Egypt, and the siege of Damietta began.  Through a series of mistakes on the Muslim side, Louis’ forces captured the town, and he garrisoned his troops there for the summer while waiting for the Nile waters to go down.  Meanwhile, the ailing As-Salih was moved to the palace at Mansurah.  His leg wound had not healed, and his health was deteriorating.  It was decided to amputate the abscessed leg in an effort to save his life.

By October, As-Salih, at the age of 44, knew he was not going to recover.  It was the worst possible time for the Sultan to die.  Fearing that the citizens and the army would be demoralized by his death, he conspired with Shajar Al-Durr, Emir Fakhr ad-Din ibn as-Shaikh, commander of the Egyptian army, and Tawashi Jamal ad-Din Muhsin, chief eunach of the palace, that when he would die, they would keep his death secret until the crusaders were defeated or until his son, Turanshah, arrived.  He signed blank parchments, which could be used for letters, to relay orders, and/or to make decrees and announcements.  Visits to his chambers by anyone other than the Chief Eunach and Shajar were forbidden.  Music was played outside his bedroom door for his entertainment.

On 22 November 1949 As-Salih, Sultan of Egypt and Damascus, passed away.

The political rise of Shajar al-Durr to Sultan of Egypt

The conspirators played their parts with unwavering dedication, preserving the illusion of As-Salih’s rule in the face of danger.  Meals continued to be brought several times a day to his chambers, the musicians played in the anteroom; reports and dispatches came and went.  Shajar al-Durr sent his body in secret to the palace on Rawda Island and dispatched a messenger to Turanshah, asking that he come.  They succeeded in keeping up the pretense that the Sultan was still alive until Turanshah arrived, whereupon they announced the death of the Sultan As-Salih and Turanshah was installed as Sultan.

On 6 April 1250, at the Battle of Fariskur, the crusader army of the 7th Crusade was defeated and King Louis IX was taken prisoner.

Turanshah – trouble for Shajar al-Durr

When one trouble ends, another begins.  Turanshah was not content to rule under the guidance of Shajar al-Durr or his departed father’s loyal advisors, Turanshah took decisive action.  With shrewd calculation, he imprisoned several officials who dared to stand in his way and swiftly replaced several key figures with his own trusted followers, brought from Hasankeyf.  Turanshah ensured his grip on the realm tightened like a vise.

Turanshah also sent a message to Shajar al-Durr, urging her to relinquish the wealth and jewels that once belonged to his late father.  His actions had set in motion a perilous dance between power and loyalty within the army, the palace, and Cairo itself.  The distressing request and audacious demeanor of Turanshah weighed heavily on the tired but indomitable spirit of Shajar al-Durr.  Seeking advice and support, she turned to the formidable Mamluks, recounting the menacing threats and ungratefulness that emanated from Turanshah.

Adding fuel to the already smoldering fire, Turanshah’s character was marked by his indulgence in alcohol, a vice that rendered him prone to unspeakable acts.  In his drunken stupor, he mistreated the concubines and servants of his father’s hareem and even went so far as to issue threats against the Mamluks.  He would swing his sword at lighted candlesticks, cutting the tops off, while speaking the names of individual Mamluks with each swipe.

Turanshah’s rash actions cost him not only the throne that had been handed peacefully to him but also his life.  On the fateful day of 2nd May 1250, Turanshah’s life was abruptly ended at the hands of the Mamluk commander, Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Salihi, and a group of loyal soldiers.

A momentous gathering took place, bringing together the powerful Mamluks and Emirs.  Amidst whispers of intrigue and shifting loyalties, they met to decide the fate of the kingdom and reached a momentous decision – Shajar al-Durr was to ascend the throne as the new monarch.  Alongside her, the venerable Izz al-Din Aybak was chosen to stand as Atabeg, the commander in chief, in steadfast support of the new sovereign.

At the Citadel in Cairo, Shajar al-Durr received this weighty proclamation, and with great humility, she graciously accepted the mantle of power.  Her name was to be included in the Friday prayers in all the mosques, a matter of great recognition and importance if she were to hold the throne.

Shajar al-Durr: the GOOD SULTANA

Shajar al-Durr, now firmly seated upon the throne, wasted no time in displaying her astute diplomatic prowess.  Her first act as Sultan was to enter into negotiations with Queen Margaret of Provence, wife of the French King Louis IX, who had accompanied him on the crusade, seeking to secure a triumphant end to the war.  In this remarkable diplomatic enterprise, two queens—one Muslim and one Christian—sought common ground to establish a new era of peace. Through their efforts, it was agreed that Damietta would be returned to Egypt, the crusading army would leave, and a substantial ransom would be paid for the release of Louis IX .

In the wake of Shajaral-Durr’s diplomatic triumph, the coffers of the kingdom swelled with the substantial ransom paid for Louis IX.  She issued coins in her name and began construction on her husband’s tomb and other architectural projects.

Mausoleum of As-Salih Nagm Al-din Ayyub
Mausoleum of As-Salih Nagm Al-din Ayyub husband of Shajar al Durr

Unfortunately, not everyone supported the idea of a female sultan.  When the news of Turanshah’s death and the crowning of Shajar al-Durr as the new Sultana reached Syria, the Emirs there absolutely refused to bow before her.  In Damascus, the Emirs handed over the city to an-Nasir Yusuf, the Ayyubid Emir of Aleppo. 

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the heart of the Abbasid Caliphate, the news of Shajar al-Durr’s ascent to power in Egypt was met with resolute resistance. The Abbasid Caliph al-Musta’sim refused to acknowledge her authority, casting a shadow of doubt over the legitimacy of her rule.  During the Ayyubid era, the recognition of the Abbasid Caliph was the foundation upon which a Sultan’s legitimacy rested, and the absence of such recognition posed a significant setback for the Mamluks in Egypt.

Shajar is to be married off – political expediency

Faced with mounting challenges and in search of a resolution, the Mamluks made a pivotal decision.   They decided that Shajar al-Durr would marry Izz al-Din Aybak and hand over the throne to him.  While Aybak would be the figurehead, the true authority would remain Shajara al-Durr.

In a short time, Aybak wanted more than the minor role he was forced to play, and there were frequent arguments with Shajar about the treasure al-Salih had left behind.  He felt she was keeping it from him to restrain his power.  To please Shajar al-Durr, Aybak had to divorce his first wife.  To please the Caliph and secure his recognition, Aybak announced that he was merely a representative of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad.  To please the Emirs of Syria, he pretended to be the Sultan instead of Shajar.  A frustrated man!

Greed leads Aybak to his death

By 1257, disputes and suspicion had become part of the relations between Aybak and his wife, Shajar al-Durr.  Aybak, fearing the growing power of those Mamluks loyal to Shajar al-Durr,  had their leader, Faris ad-Din Aktai, murdered.   Fearing for their own lives, Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Salihi and many Mamluks fled Egypt.  (Baybars would go on to be Sultan of Egypt later).  Aybak also decided to take another bride, the daughter of the Emir of Mosul, Badr al-Din Lulu’, in a bid to increase his power.  When Shajar heard this, she had Aybak move out of their chambers to the pavilion, and it was there that he was later found murdered in his bath.  He had ruled Egypt with Shajar for seven years.

A mother’s revenge ends in the horrific DEATH of Shajar al-Durr

Many believe that Shajara al-Durr had Aybak assassinated to retain control, but she maintained that he died suddenly.  Aybak’s Mamluks did not believe her and under torture, some of her servants admitted the murder before being executed.  Shajar was implicated in the murder and arrested.  Aybak’s mamluks wanted to kill her, but her allies among the other mamluks protected her, and she was taken to the Red Tower.  They installed the 15 year old son of Aybak, named al-Mansur Ali, as the new Sultan.  Ali handed Shajara al-Durr to his mother for judgment and punishment.

A pair of ladies wooden and silver shoes on display at Islamic Museum in Cairo

Aybak’s former wife exacted a terrible revenge:  on 28 April 1257, Shajar al-Durr was beaten to death with wooden shoes, by the serving maids of al-Mansur Ali and his mother, then her body was dragged to the top of the citadel and thrown over the ramparts, naked from the waist up.   Her body lay in the moat for three days, until one night a man dragged her out for the cloth around her waist, which was made of silk and adorned with pearls.  It is not known who gathered up her remains, but it is said they were taken to the mausoleum she had constructed for herself.

The remains of Shajar al-Durr are buried in her mausuleum in Al Khalifa Street in Cairo

Mausoleum of Shajar al-Durr in Al Khalifa Street, Cairo