Pearls Are Made of Grit

Excerpt from Pharaohs, Emperors, and Other Women who Ruled.

Shajar al Durr: Egypt, 1250

In one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in history, Shajar al Durr went from slave girl to sultan of Egypt.

We know very little about Shajar’s early life, which is not surprising: no one keeping records would have cared much about a slave girl. Her name means “tree of pearls” and was almost certainly a name applied to her as a slave, rather than one her parents gave her (slave girls often had such “poetic” names). She may have been of Turkic origin. She enters history when she was acquired by As-Salih Ayyub, the son of the sultan of Egypt. She was more than just a pretty face, for in 1240 she accompanied As-Salih and his Mamluk soldiers to Egypt, where he took over from his deposed brother as sultan of Egypt. In Egypt Shajar gave birth to their son Khalil, and they were eventually married. From slave to sultan’s wife was a pretty big step up, but concubines who bore sons often moved up the harem ladder. Shajar’s next promotion would be much more spectacular.

In 1249 things looked shaky in Egypt. The sultan was ill, and an army of French Crusaders under Louis IX, possibly the strongest king in Europe, had landed in Damietta. Then As-Salih died (timing!). The death of the sultan would have been a huge blow to the Egyptian side, so Shajar, along with the top general and eunuch, told everyone that the sultan was just sick. She even had a servant continue to deliver food to his tent, and through the use of signed blank documents, was able to issue orders from the ‘sultan’. As-Salih’s son Turanshah was sent for (Shajar’s own son had died by this point), and in the meantime the Fatimid generals displayed tactical brilliance. The Crusaders had attacked the (empty) town of al-Mansour, and soon found themselves trapped and slaughtered inside. At the next battle the French king was taken prisoner, and the Seventh Crusade was pretty much done.

The Mamluks and Shajar had done a pretty good job of things, and only somewhat grudgingly handed over power to Turanshah when he arrived. Things got a lot more grudging, as Turanshah seems to have been less than politic in his conduct. He replaced his father’s Mamluks with his own servants, and was drunk in public more than once. He also demanded the sultan’s treasure from Shajar, but she did a “jewels, what jewels?” act. In short, his reign was short: the Mamluks murdered him and installed Shajar al-Durr as sultan in May 1250.

Why might they have chosen to place a woman on the throne? Shajar was an Abbuyyid widow, and represented a link with the dynasty of her husband. She might have been of a similar ethnicity to the Mamluks, who may have seen her as one of their own; she’s considered the first Mamluk sultan. She had also helped hold things together during the Crusade.

Whatever the reason, Shajar got to work: Within days Louis IX had agreed to pay an eye-watering ransom and the Crusaders had been shipped home. She had coins minted with her own name and the title malikat al-muslimin “queen of Muslims”, and her title (although not her name) was mentioned in Friday prayers, a sign of respect given only to rulers.

But the former slave girl was not an acceptable sultan to everyone. The Caliph of Baghdad refused to recognise her as sultan, and suggested that if the Mamluks couldn’t find a man to be sultan he would send one. The Caliph represented political and religious legitimacy, and so a man was found: Aybek, a Mamluk general. Shajar married him after about three months on the throne.

Things seem to have gone okay as long as Aybek was away at war, but less well when they spent more time together. Shajar, a capable woman who had been sultan, even if only briefly, was a threat to Aybek’s own authority, and the last straw seems to have been when he proposed taking a third wife. Shajar had Aybek murdered during his bath. However, she was unable to organise enough support to retake power, and the story goes that she was beaten to death with clogs on the orders of Aybek’s first wife, and her body thrown from the roof. The bones of the former Sultan were eventually gathered up and placed in the tomb she had had built for herself.

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