Egypt: History - Ayyubid Period

Ayyubid Period

Ayubbide rulers

  • King Nasser Saladin (1171-1192AD)
  • King Aziz Emad Eddin (1192-1198AD)
  • King Mansour Nasser Eddin (1198-1200AD)
  • King Adel Seif Eddin (1200-1218AD)
  • King Kamil Nasser Eddin (1218-1238AD)
  • King Seif Eddin Abu Bakr (1238-1240AD)
  • King Salih Nigm Eddin (1240-1249AD)
  • King Turanshah (1250AD)
  • Queen Shagarat El-Dur (1250AD)

Egypt had become a rich prize for two rival outsiders who were much more powerful and aggressive than the Fatimids. The first Christian crusaders appeared in Palestine in 1096 and began fighting with the Seljuk Moslems over the Holy Land and Egypt as well. These two groups invaded Egypt at the same time and at that point the invasion of Egypt was inevitable. The Fatimids that were still in Kahira preferred the Crusaders to the Seljuks and tried to pay Christian King Amaury two hundred thousand gold pieces to help them get rid of the Seljuks. He agreed to the deal. The first attempt to conquer Egypt ended in a stalemate when both the Christians and the Seljuks withdrew from the area. They had agreed among themselves to withdraw. Amaury the Christian returned in 1168 and killed everyone in Belbeis. He marched on to Kahira and Shawar, the effective ruler of Egypt, ordered Fustat-Misr to be burned to the ground. Shawar had been the Fatimid governor of Upper Egypt five years before, but had deserted them and joined the Seljuks in Damascus. He had made a deal with the Sultan of Damascus, Nur ed Din, for Shawar to become the first minister in Egypt. When Amaury came to attack Kahira, Shawar asked for help from the Sultan and the Sultan agreed. He sent his general Shirkuh and Salah al-Din Yusif al-Ayyubi (Saladin), who was Shirkuh's nephew, to get rid of the crusaders. This turned out to be not very difficult since they had become so unpopular after the massacre of Bilbeis. Amaury fled and the Seljuks were victorious.

Nur ed Din appointed Shirkuh as vizier of Egypt, but he did not live long enough to make any serious decisions. His nephew, Saladin inherited his position and problems. He became vizier on March 2, 1169 when he was thirty-two years old. His first job was to replace the Shi'i doctrines with the orthodox Sunni faith. It took over a year before he ordered Friday prayers to be said for the Abbasid caliph instead of Shi'i. He had been afraid that the people would be very upset after the destruction of Fustat-Misr, but no one got upset. This essentially ended the rule of the Fatimids more than anything else.

The Fatimids still lived in their palaces in Kahira and Saladin didn't bother them at first. It was only when the young Caliph al Adid died that Saladin moved in. He expelled eighteen thousand members of the Fatimid family that lived inside the enclosure. He took none of the wealth for himself and didn't even live in the palaces. He opened the gates and allowed the population to build inside and around the royal city. After two hundred years, Kahira was no longer a royal enclosure. This was the beginning of a city called Cairo, which was Saladin's city.

Saladin had a completely different concept of a city than the Fatimid's did. He wanted a city that was protected by strong walls and defenses, but was a thriving, unified city that had a lot of cultural and commercial freedom. He didn't want private palaces or royal enclaves, but a city that belonged to the people within it with him as absolute ruler. Many historians believe that his reasonings were purely militarily based, but that is not entirely true. The Fatimids were trying to hang onto a corrupt empire while he was defending a culture as well as a territory. He was trying to hold onto a religion as well as ideals. It was also a collecting house for the vast amounts of wealth that he needed to defend this city.

Saladin laid out plans to build a fortress, the Citadel, in 1176 - 1177 on Cairo's most easily defended hill and began expansion of the Fatimid walls to enclose the city. He had the Pharaonic canal that fed the oasis of Fayoum repaired and also built madrasas (colleges), making Cairo a great center for Islamic scholarship. It still retains this position today. Saladin not only fortified the city, but also built five colleges and a mosque in eleven years. Not one of these exists today and only a small part of the Citadel is his. These madrasas that he had built were very important to the re-emergence of Cairo from the position it had been in thanks to the Fatimids. It was in 1176 - 1177 that he ordered a madrasa to be built near the grave of the founder of one of the main schools of the orthodox Sunni sect, Imam el Shafi'i. El Shafi'i had been born in Giza and was buried in the cemetery called Khalifa, which was south of Cairo. The madrasa no longer exists, but the mausoleum is still there with a fairly new mosque.

Saladin did not remain in Egypt long, for as soon as the country was secure, he turned it over to his brother, al-Adil and his vizier, al-Fadil, and left to drive the Crusaders from the Holy Land. He left in 1182 and never returned. He died in Damascus in 1193 after having liberating all Palestine from the English, French, Austrians and Sicilians. Essentially, he liberated them from the power of the Pope. Many times he was aided by the eastern Christians. They were as much the victims of the crusaders as anyone. The epitome of Muslim chivalry, he won the respect of the European knights against whom he fought, and they incorporated many of his ideals into their own codes. He charmed the Westerners with his knowledge and culture and became a primary character in Sir Walter Scott's novel "The Talisman". From Saladin's forces, Christian knights learned firsthand about Islamic improvements in fortifications and arms as well as medical knowledge.

Saladin gave his family name to the Egyptian dynasty that followed him, and his successors were able rulers. They expanded irrigation systems and secured travel and trading routes. The spice trade flourished, and in spite of a bout with famine caused by several low Niles, plague and earthquakes, Egypt prospered. Saladin's brother, al Adil, succeeded Saladin and faced a terrible famine in the Middle Ages. The crusaders returned in 1218 but were thoroughly defeated by Adil's son, al Kamil. Al Kamil is the one responsible for finishing the first Citadel. Al Kamil was knighted by Richard Coeur de Lion on Palm Sunday in 1192.

Al Salih Ayyub and his Mameluke wife, Shaggar ad Durr were partly responsible for the Mameluke slave system becoming a very important part of Egyptian history. Shaggar ad Durr was one of his slaves. Eventually the Ayyubid sultans became too weak to keep the succession of their family going. Cairo became full of Mameluke soldiers and emirs. Al Salih Ayyub died when he was too young to have an heir, so his widow, Shaggar ad Durr decided to rule herself. She was respected enough by the Mameluke lords that they did support her at first. She ruled for eighty days as an absolute monarch.

Eventually the Bahri Mamelukes grew tired of her ruling alone and they elected Ayback, who was their commander in chief, to marry her. She may have married him, but Shaggar went on ruling Egypt alone. She made no secret of her contempt of him and even made him divorce his favorite wife. Later on he wanted to marry another wife and Shaggar had him murdered in the Citadel as he was taking a bath. The Mamelukes were furious and had her locked in the Citadel. Shaggar smashed all of her pearls and jewels into dust so that no other women could have them. They then drug her out into the street and beat her to death with the shoes of the young girls that belonged to the wife of Ayback that Shaggar had made him divorce. She was thrown out of the Citadel and left in the ditch below. Eventually someone took pity on her and took her body to the tomb that had been built for her. Her tomb is on the southern edge of Cairo and was built in 1250.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011