Saturday, August 25, 2012

Women Who Ruled: Shajar al-Durr of Egypt

By: Lisa J. Yarde

Mameluke Soldier
On May 2, 1250 AD, the Mameluke slave-soldiers of Egypt declared the widow Shajar al-Durr as their ruler. When the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad al-Musta'sim heard the news, he expressed the religious view, "Unhappy is the nation which is governed by a woman." He also suggested that if the Mameluke warriors had no men to lead them, he would happily provide acceptable candidates. Shajar's rise to power is even more remarkable because of her humble origin and status. How did an enslaved woman from the Eurasian steppes become ruler of an Islamic state in the medieval period, when her counterparts remained confined traditionally to the harem?

More than a decade before her ascendancy, the woman who became Shajar al-Durr, or Spray of Pearls, joined the retinue of slaves in the service of her future husband, as-Salih Ayyub. One of Saladin's great-nephews, as-Salih Ayyub chose Shajar as his favorite concubine. The death of as-Salih's father in 1238 threw Egypt into turmoil, as his sons and relatives battled for control of the region, a vital part of the Abbasid Empire that stretched from North Africa to Iraq. The conflict abated in 1240, when Shajar shared her husband's imprisonment. During their confinement, she gave birth to a son Khalil, who unfortunately lived for only three months. After her husband's release and his rise to power in Egypt, he gave Shajar authority to act in his stead whenever he was away from Egypt on various campaigns that consolidated his power. He delegated his power to her as Umm Khalil, the mother of his deceased son, and she held an official seal with that title.

The Mameluke Empire
In July 1429, as part of the Seventh Crusade, King Louis IX of France landed at Damietta on the Nile. Within five months, his army marched toward Cairo. Shajar returned with her husband from a campaign against one of his uncles. The ruler of Egypt faced a precarious situation; the Crusader army had landed on his shores while he endured a painful infection in his leg that became abscessed. He suffered an amputation, but within days left Shajar a widow. She acted decisively, by secretly sending word to Turan Shah, her husband's son by another woman and having her husband's servants go about their normal routines, including bringing meals to his tent. Later, Turan Shah defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of al-Mansurah. Turan became ruler of Egypt in February 1250. He didn't endear himself by drinking alcohol against religious proscriptions, or by removing his father and Shajar's confidantes from positions of power and replacing them with his own men. The Mameluke soldiers assassinated Turan three months later with Shajar's blessing.

Coinage minted in Shajar al-Durr's name
She had ruled Egypt in her husband's absence and would do so again. Among her titles, she became Queen of the Muslims. Friday prayers in the mosques mentioned her by name and she had coins minted with her titles. Yet, she could not perform the traditional tasks a new Islamic ruler would have completed, including the reception for princes and judiciary in which she would have accepted their personal oaths of loyalty, or the traditional procession of a new monarch through the streets of Cairo. After the Caliph's stinging rejection, the Mameluke government tried another solution. In August 1250, they suggested a marriage between Shajar and Aybak, the commander-in-chief of her army. Although he reigned with her, she never truly ceded power to her new husband. She made him divorce his first wife. Coins of the kingdom now bore both their names and all official documents required both their signatures. He even needed her permission before coming into her presence.

Shajar al-Durr's tomb
In April 1257, Shajar decided to move against Aybak. Not only had her government forced her to share power with him, but she also learned he intended to marry another woman. She arranged for his murder while he took a bath and later, feigned ignorance about his fate. Aybak's men did not believe her. They delivered her to the first wife of Aybak and her servants, who beat Shajar to death with wooden clogs and threw her body outside the palace. Her body remained in a ditch, defiled for several days until her interment.

For just 80 days, Shajar had ruled the Islamic state of Egypt without relying on the power her husband held. Ultimately, the traditional expectations of women and her own miscalculations about the exercise of power brought about her ruin.

From History and Women

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