One of the few women to rule in her own right in Muslim history, Shajar al-Dur was a slave who had been bought by Sultan Al-Malik as-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub, the second last Ayyubid Sultan. It is thought she was either of Turkmen or Armenian descent. She bore al-Salih Ayyub a son, who died in infancy. She joined him when he had been ransomed in 1239 by Crusaders and when he became Sultan in 1240. During the 7th Crusade in the year 1249, the city of Damietta was attacked by Crusaders. Al-Salih raced to defend it, but died on route. Shajar al-Dur, working with Emir Fakhr ad-Din Yussuf Ben Shaykh (leader of the army and the Atabeg) and Tawashi Jamal ad-Din Muhsin (chief Eunuch of the Palace) hid the news and issued writs and instructions in his name. They feared that if the news got out, the Crusaders would attack more ferociously and the Ayyubid Empire would fall apart.
She called for her step-son, al-Malik al-Muazzam Ghayath al-Din Turanshah to come succeed his father. The Crusaders had heard of the death of the Sultan but were defeated by future Sultans Baibars, Aybak and Qalawun. Turanshah, fearing he would not have full power until Shajar was disposed of, wrote a letter to her demanding all her money and jewelry from her. She complained to the Bahri Mamluks, who became enraged and assassinated Turanshah in 1250. He was the last Ayyubid Sultan. Shajar was voted in by the Emirs of Ayyubid Egypt to become Sultana with Izz al-Din Aybak as Atabeg but this was not agreed with by the Emir of Syria.
She ruled in her own right for 3 months. However, due to extreme pressures from Syria and other Mamluk factions, she married Aybak and abdicated the throne. However, she did not give up the power. They ruled jointly for 7 years. She was his second wife, but their love story became famous. It turned to hatred when Aybak decided to get a third wife, a daughter of Badr ad-Din Lu’lu’, the Emir of al-Mousil to solidify his rule. Feeling betrayed by the man she loved and made Sultan, he was drowned in a bath. Aybak’s Mamluk faction, the Mu’iziyya, were enraged and imprisoned her. Aybak’s first wife and son had their revenge on Shajar having her being beaten to death by wooden clogs by the harem servants and her body thrown out of the citadel. Her bones were collected and then buried at the Mausoleum or Dome of Sultana Shajar al-Durr.
It is behind the the Mausoleum of Al-Sayeda Nafisa, in the old brassmakers’ district of Cairo. She is also mentioned in the epic Sirat al-Zahir Baibars, which contains both fact and fiction about Shajar. Aybak and Shajar set up the Mamluk dynasty, which successfully repelled both Crusader and Mongol incursions, before falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1516.
Shajar al-Durr: A Case of Female Sultanate in Medieval Islam by Amalia Levanoni. From Medievalists.net.
From slave to sultan: the career of Al-Manṣūr Qalāwūn and the consolidation by Linda Northrup. Via Google Books.
The Middle East: a brief history of the last 2,000 years by Bernard Lewis. Via Google Books.
God’s war: a new history of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman. Via Google Books.
The Middle East in the Middle Ages: the early Mamluk Sultanate 1250-1382 by Robert Irwin. Via Google Books.
Eternal Egypt: Shajar al-Durr.
Eternal Egypt: Mausoleum or Dome of Sultana Shajar al-Durr.