Shajarat (Shaggar, Shagar) al-Durr And her Mausoleum in Cairo

Shajarat (Shaggar, Shagar, Shagarat) al-Durr
And her Mausoleum in Cairo

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza

Today, it is not difficult for most westerners to believe that women are completely repressed in the Islamic world. Indeed, there are some Muslim cultures that seem to do so, but these should not be taken as completely typical, for there are a number of well known Muslim women with considerable power and influence. A notable example is Queen Rania al-Abdullah of Jordan. In Egypt, examples are fairly easy to find, beginning with Suzan Mubarak, the outspoken wife and social leader of the country's president. Many others hold high government offices and may also be found in various professions.

One of the most interesting women of Egypt's archaic Islamic period was Sultana Shajarat al-Durr, who ruled Egypt for a short period at the end of the Ayyubid period. Shajarat (sometimes Shagarat, Shaggar or Shagar) al-Durr was the wife of Sultan Al-Salih Najm Al-Din Ayyub. Largely, he was responsible for importing a whole corps of slaves to Egypt, who would become known as the Mamelukes, which meant those who are owned. These slaves would eventually rise to rule Egypt, and one of the Turcoman slaves that he purchased from the Caliph Musta'sim's harem was none other than Shajarat al-Durr, who would also become his wife.

When Al-Salih was captured by his cousin, al-Nasir Da'ud, in 1248, Shajarat accompanied him to his confinement at al-Karak. There she gave birth to their son, Khalil. A year later, both the future sultana and her son accompanied Al-Salih back to Cairo where she was named by his favorite wife.

In the midst of a Crusader campaign in the Nile Delta, where the Franks under Louis IX and landed in hopes of pressing on to Cairo, Sultan al-Salih Ayyub died of a fever. Louis's crusade occurred at a horrible time for the Ayyubid regime. The French king's forces had taken Damietta and waited for an opportunity to strike at Cairo. Al-Salih's death on November 23, 1249 seemed to offer that opportunity. However, Shajarat then took the chief of the Mameluke guard, Fakhr al-Din, and the Sultan's chief eunuch, Jamal al-Din into her confidence in order to conceal the sultan's death. Hence, she controlled Egypt long enough to recall al-Salih's son, Turan Shah, home from northern Syria to assume command.

The French King about to  be taken prisoner, Painting by Guillaume de Saint-Pathus

By the time word leaked out of the palace concerning Al-Salih's death, Shajarat's coalition was in firm control of affairs. Louis, hearing of this coalition, marched his army towards Cairo and even managed to eliminate Fakhr ad-Din in an ambush. However, the future sultana managed to stabilize the political and military situation until Turan Shah arrived on February 19, 1250. With this powerful woman in command behind the scenes, the Mameluke army defeated Louis's forces in February 1250 at Mansoura and captured the French king and his forces. Shajarat's presence also preserved order after Turan Shah was murdered by the Mameluke after the battle due to his favoring soldiers from the provinces over the established order. In the face of imminent disaster, Shajarat held Egypt together and managed a victory against the crusaders.

While Shajarat's position was certainly precarious, she was highly thought of by the Mamelukes, probably because of her cunning. They raised her to the throne and gave her the title, Umm-Khalil, meaning "mother of Khalil". Her Mameluke origins and performance in the recent crisis inspired her counterparts to break with Islamic tradition and allow her to become the first female leader to have coins struck and the Friday sermon pronounced in her own name. To begin her reign, she continued Turan Shah's negotiations with Louis, preserved the lives of the French prisoners, regained Damietta and ransomed the French king for 1,000,000 bezants. During the remainder of her reign, Egypt remained peaceful.

Coins struck in the name  of Shajarat

She ruled Egypt for eighty days as sultana, a very rare feat indeed for a woman in medieval Islam. The Abbasid caliph who was her original owner was outraged over this and dispatched a note from Baghdad saying, "Since no man among you is worthy of being sultan I will come in person and bring you one. Know you not that the Prophet - may he be exalted - has said, 'Woe unto nations governed by woman'."

Afterwards, this ambitious woman married the chief of her husband's Mamelukes and had him proclaimed sultan. However, not only did she insist that he first divorce his wife Umm Ali, but she continued to hold the reigns of power herself. Afterwards, all went well for seven years. Because of her abdication and the Caliph's wishes, her husband, Aybek, was the nominal sultan. However, due to his constant struggle with the Syrian Ayyubids in Damascus and Aleppo, the sultan remained on campaign for much of his early reign. Thus, Shajarat exercised de facto power over Egypt and maintained political stability in her second husband's absence.

However, one day she learned that her Mameluke husband was planning to take a Turkish princess as a second wife (he was allowed four by law). Perhaps she was jealous, but more likely she was protecting her position when she summoned her husband to the Citadel. Interestingly, an astrologer had told him he would die by the hand of a woman and so he had to be cajoled into leaving a polo match in the western suburbs of the city. However, it was not her hand that killed him, but rather five assassins who fatally stabbed him on the way to the palace.

Apparently Shajarat realized that this would cause problems, so she crushed her jewels in a mortar so that they could never fall into the hands of another woman. Soon after, Ali, her husband's son by his first wife stormed the palace with an angry mob. They hauled the sultana from her residence and flung before her dead husband's ex-wife, who struck her and hurled insults before having her female servants strip Shajarat and beat her to death with wooden bath clogs. Then, as the fifteenth century historian Ibn Iyas recounts, "She was dragged by the feet and thrown from the top of the moat naked, with nothing but a garment around the waist. She remained there in the moat for three days, unburied, until is is said, one of the rabble descended into the moat under cover of night and cut off the sash of her garment because it was of red silk with a circle of pearls and because it smelled of musk". Eventually, after the jackals and gods had their fill, her remains were gathered in a basket and she was buried in her own magnificent tomb, which she had built in 1250 AD in an admirable spot near the shrines of female saints.

Exterior of Shajarat's  Mausoleum in Cairo, Egypt

The Mausoleum

The small mausoleum of Shajarat has a dome with an interesting profile. Like that of the Abbasid Caliphs, it has a keel-arch curve. This is very different than the mausoleum of her first husband's as is the facade treatment. This dome has an entrance on every side except the quibla wall. Originally, the building, with its three entrances, must have been surrounded by an enclosure. The quibla wall itself has a prayer niche that protrudes outside. It, and the southwest wall still retain some ornamentation, including lozenges and medallions carved with flutes and keel-arched niches with fluted hoods.

Within, the three sides around the quibla are adorned with a stucco keel-arch niche above each entrance. These are shallow, fluted, with the flutes carved and radiating from a central panel. The frames of the niches are composed of stalactites, or two rows of carved small niches, and the spandrels of the niches are finely carved with floral motifs, appearing so lacy that the details are hardly recognizable. Then, the whole is framed by an inscription band of naskhi script on an ornate background. Within the dome, the transitional zone is reduced because of its size. Painting decorates the stucco squinces.

Looking up into the top of  the Prayer Niche in the Mausoleum of Shajarat

The qibla wall is decorated with a keel-arched prayer niche. It is concave, with a conch that starts above a wooden frieze that runs around the whole chamber above the entrances. There is a stalactite triple frame that borders the niche, which is adorned inside with Byzantine style glass mosaics forming a tree with mother-of-pearl pieces set in the foliage. This may be an allusion to the sultana's name, which means "Tree of Pearl". The wooden frieze running along the walls with carved inscriptions and arabesques may be dated to the Fatimid era, and therefore must have belonged to an earlier building. The upper inscription band underneath the transitional zone of the dome was once covered with black paint, no doubt by her enemies. However, it was later repainted white, and carries her name and titles.


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Islamic Architecture in Cairo, An Introduction Behrens-Abouseif, Doris 1998 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 4247 2013 3
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