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Shajar al-Durr

Shajar al-Durr

Sultana of Egypt
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Sultana of Egypt
A.K.A. Shajarat al-Durr
Gender female
Death 2 May 1257
Spouse: As-Salih Ayyub
Shajar al-Durr
The details

Shajar al-Durr (Arabic: شجر الدر, "Tree of Pearls") (Royal name: al-Malika `Aṣmat ad-Dīn Umm-Khalīl Shajar ad-Durr (Arabic: الملكة عصمة الدين أم خليل شجر الدر) (nicknamed: أم خليل, Umm Khalil; mother of Khalil)) (? – 28 April 1257, Cairo) was the second Muslim woman (after Razia Sultana of Delhi) to become a monarch in Islamic history. She was the wife of As-Salih Ayyub, Egypt Sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty and later Izz al-Din Aybak, Egypt Sultan of the Bahri dynasty.

In political affairs, Shajar al-Durr played a crucial role after the death of her first husband during the Seventh Crusade against Egypt (1249–1250). She became the Sultana of Egypt on May 2, 1250, marking the end of the Ayyubid reign and the start of the Mamluk era. There are several theories about the ethnic roots of Shajar al-Durr. Many Muslim historians believed that she was of Turkic origin and some believed that she was of Armenian origin.


Several sources assert that Shajar al-Durr took the title of sultana (Arabic: سلطانه‎‎ sulṭānah), the feminine form of sultan. But The Cambridge History of Islam disputes the claim, stating that "a feminine form, sultana, does not exist in Arabic: the title sulṭān appears on Shajar al-Durr's only extant coin." Nevertheless, westerners often referred her as sultana, because in their perspective, sultana was used for women and sultan for men.


Shajar al-Durr was of Turkic origin, and described by historians as a beautiful, pious and intelligent woman. She was purchased as a slave by As-Salih Ayyub in the Levant before he became a Sultan and accompanied him and Mamluk Baibars (not the Baibars who became a Sultan) to Al Karak during his detention there in 1239. Later when As-Salih Ayyub became a Sultan in 1240 she went with him to Egypt and gave birth to their son Khalil who was called al-Malik al-Mansour. Some time after the birth, As-Salih Ayyub married her.

In April 1249, As-Salih Ayyub, who was gravely sick in Syria, returned to Egypt and went to Ashmum-Tanah, near Damietta after he heard that King Louis IX of France had assembled a crusader army in Cyprus and was about to launch an attack against Egypt. In June 1249, the crusaders landed in the abandoned town of Damietta, at the mouth of the river Nile. As-Salih Ayyub was carried on a stretcher to his palace in the better-protected town of Al Mansurah where he died on November 22, 1249 after ruling Egypt for nearly 10 years. Shajar al-Durr informed Emir Fakhr ad-Din Yussuf Ben Shaykh (commander of all the Egyptian army) and Tawashi Jamal ad-Din Muhsin (the chief eunuch who controlled the palace) of the Sultan's death but as the country was under attack by the crusaders they decided to conceal his death. The coffined body of the Sultan was transported in secret by boat to the castle on al-Rudah island in the Nile. Although the deceased Sultan had not left any testimony concerning who should succeed him after his death, Faris ad-Din Aktai was sent to Hasankeyf to call al-Muazzam Turanshah, the son of the deceased Sultan. Before he died, the Sultan signed a large number of blank papers which were used by Shajar al-Durr and Emir Fakhr ad-Din in issuing decrees and giving Sultanic orders and together they succeeded in convincing the people and the other government officials that the Sultan was only ill rather than dead. Shajar al-Durr continued to have food prepared for the sultan and brought to his tent. High officials, the Sultan's Mamluks and soldiers were ordered – by the will of the "ill" Sultan – to swear an oath of loyalty to the Sultan, his heir Turanshah and the Atabeg Fakhr ad-Din Yussuf.

Defeat of the Seventh Crusade

The news of the death of as-Salih Ayyub reached the crusaders in Damietta and with the arrival of reinforcements led by Alfonso, Count of Poitou, the brother of King Louis IX, they decided to march on Cairo. A crusader force led by Louis IX's other brother Robert I of Artois crossed the canal of Ashmum (known today as Albahr Alsaghir) and attacked the Egyptian camp in Gideila, two miles (3 km) from Al Mansurah. Emir Fakhr ad-Din was killed during the sudden attack and the crusader force advanced toward the town of Al Mansurah. Shajar al-Durr agreed to Baibars's plan to defend Al Mansurah. The crusader force was trapped inside the town, Robert of Artois was killed and the crusader force was annihilated by an Egyptian force and the townspeople, led by the men who were about to establish the state which would dominate the southern Mediterranean for decades: Baibars al-Bunduqdari, Izz al-Din Aybak, and Qalawun al-Alfi.

In February 1250 the dead Sultan's son Al-Muazzam Turanshah arrived in Egypt and was enthroned at Al Salhiyah as he had no time to go to Cairo. With his arrival, Shajar al-Durr announced the death of as-Salih Ayyub. Turanshah went straight to Al Mansurah and on April 6, 1250 the crusaders were entirely defeated at the Battle of Fariskur and king Louis IX was captured.

Conflict with Turanshah

Once the Seventh Crusade was defeated and Louis IX was captured, troubles began between Turanshah on one side and Shajar al-Durr and the Mamluks on the other. Turanshah, knowing he would not have full sovereignty while Shajar al-Durr, the Mamluks and the old guards of his late father were around, detained a few officials and started to replace old officials, including the deputy Sultan, with his own followers who had come with him from Hasankeyf. He then sent a message to Shajar al-Durr while she was in Jerusalem warning her and requesting her to hand over to him the wealth and jewels of his late father. The request and manners of Turanshah distressed Shajar al-Durr. When she complained to the Mamluks about Turanshah's threats and ungratefulness, the Mamluks, particularly their leader Faris ad-Din Aktai, were enraged. In addition, Turanshah used to drink alcohol and when drunk he abused the bondmaids of his father and threatened the Mamluks. Turanshah was assassinated by the Mamluks at Fariskur on May 2, 1250. He was the last of the Ayyubids Sultans.

Rise to power

A sketch depicting Shajar al-Durr

After the assassination of Turanshah the Mamluks and Emirs met at the Sultanic Dihliz and decided to install Shajar al-Durr as the new monarch with Izz al-Din Aybak as Atabeg (commander in chief). Shajar al-Durr was informed of this at the Citadel of the Mountain in Cairo and she agreed. Shajar al-Durr took the royal name "al-Malikah Ismat ad-Din Umm-Khalil Shajar al-Durr" with a few additional titles such as "Malikat al-Muslimin" (Queen of the Muslims) and "Walidat al-Malik al-Mansur Khalil Emir al-Mo'aminin" (Mother of al-Malik al-Mansur Khalil Emir of the faithfuls). She was mentioned in the Friday prayers in mosques with names including "Umm al-Malik khalil" (Mother of al-Malik Khalil) and "Sahibat al-Malik as-Salih" (Wife of al-Malik as-Salih). Coins were minted with her titles and she signed the decrees with the name "Walidat Khalil". Using the names of her late husband and her dead son were attempts to gain respect and legitimacy for her reign as an heir of the Sultanate.

After paying homage to Shajar al-Durr, Emir Hossam ad-Din was sent to King Louis IX who was still imprisoned in Al Mansurah and it was agreed that Louis IX would leave Egypt alive after paying half of the ransom imposed on him earlier and surrendering Damietta in exchange for his life. Louis surrendered Damietta and sailed to Acre On May 8, 1250 accompanied by about 12000 freed war prisoners.

Conflict with the Ayyubids

News of the murder of al-Muazzam Turanshah and the inauguration of Shajar al-Durr as the new Sultana reached Syria. The Syrian Emirs were asked to pay homage to Shajar al-Durr but they refused and the Sultan's deputy in Al Karak rebelled against Cairo. The Syrian Emirs in Damascus gave the city to an-Nasir Yusuf the Ayyubid Emir of Aleppo and the Mamluks in Cairo responded by arresting the Emirs who were loyal to the Ayubbids in Egypt. In addition to the Ayyubids in Syria, the Abbasid Caliph al-Musta'sim in Baghdad also rejected the Mamluk move in Egypt and refused to recognize Shajar al-Dur as a monarch. The refusal of the Caliph to recognize Shajar al-Durr as the new Sultana was a great setback to the Mamluks in Egypt as the custom during the Ayyubid era was that the Sultan could gain legitimacy only through the recognition of the Abbasid Caliph. The Mamluks therefore decided to install Izz al-Din Aybak as a new Sultan. He married Shajar al-Durr who abdicated and passed the throne to him after she had ruled Egypt as Sultana for about three months. Though the period of Shajar al-Durr's rule as a monarch was of short duration, it witnessed two important events in history: one, the expelling of Louis IX from Egypt, which marked the end of the Crusaders' ambition to conquer the southern Mediterranean basin; and two, the death of the Ayyubid dynasty and the birth of the Mamluk state which dominated the southern Mediterranean for decades .

To please the Caliph and secure his recognition, Aybak announced that he was merely a representative of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. To placate the Ayyubids in Syria the Mamluks nominated an Ayyubid child named al-Sharaf Musa as a co-sultan. But this did not satisfy the Ayyubids and armed conflicts between the Mamluks and the Ayyubids broke out. The Caliph in Baghdad, preoccupied with the Mongols who were raiding territories not far from his capital, preferred to see the matter settled peacefully between the Mamluks in Egypt and the Ayyubids in Syria. Through negotiation and mediation of the Caliph that followed the bloody conflict, the Mamluks who manifested military superiority reached an agreement with the Ayyubids that gave them control over southern Palestine including Gaza and Jerusalem and the Syrian coast. By this agreement the Mamluks not only added new territories to their dominion but also gained recognition for their new state.

In addition to the conflict with the Ayyubids of Syria, the Mamluks successfully countered serious rebellions in Middle and Upper Egypt. Then, Aybak, fearing the growing power of the Salihiyya Mamluks who, with Shajar al-Durr, had installed him as a Sultan, had their leader Faris ad-Din Aktai murdered. The murder of Aktai was followed instantly by a Mamluk exodus to Syria where they joined the Ayyubid an-Nasir Yusuf. Prominent Mamluks like Baibars al-Bunduqdari and Qalawun al-Alfi were among those Mamluks who fled to Syria. Aybak became the sole and absolute ruler of Egypt after the Salihiyya Mamluks who were the supporters of Shajar al-Durr left Egypt and turned against him.


By 1257 disputes and suspicion had become part of the relations between Aybak, a Sultan who was searching for security and supremacy, and his wife Shajar al-Durr, a former Sultana who had a strong will and managed a country on edge of collapse during an external invasion. Shajar al-Durr wanted sole rule of Egypt. She concealed Sultanate affairs from Aybak; she also prevented him from seeing his other wife and insisted that he should divorce her. Instead, Aybak, who needed to form an alliance with a strong Emir who could help him against the threat of the Mamluks who had fled to Syria, decided in 1257 to marry the daughter of Badr ad-Din Lo'alo'a the Ayyubid Emir of al-Mousil. Badr ad-Din Lo'alo'a warned Aybak that Shajar al-Durr was in contact with an-Nasir Yusuf in Damascus. Shajar al-Durr, feeling at risk and betrayed by Aybak, the man whom she had made a Sultan, had him murdered by servants while he was taking a bath. He had ruled Egypt for seven years. Shajar al-Durr claimed that Aybak died suddenly during the night but his Mamluks (Mu'iziyya), led by Qutuz, did not believe her and the servants involved confessed under torture. Shajar al-Durr and the servants were arrested and Aybak's Mamluks (the Mu'iziyya Mamluks) wanted to kill her, but the Salihyya Mamluks protected her and she was taken to the Red Tower where she stayed. The son of Aybak, the 15-year-old al-Mansur Ali, was installed by the Mu'ziyyah Mamluks as the new Sultan. Shajar al-Durr was stripped and beaten to death with clogs by the bondmaids of al-Mansur Ali and his mother. Her naked body was found lying outside the Citadel. According to the historian Ibn Iyas, Shajar al- Durr was dragged from her feet and thrown from the top naked, with a cloth around her waist. She stayed in the moat for three days, unburied, until one night a mob came and took off the cloth around her waist because it was silk with pearls and had a smell of musk. The servants who were involved in the killing of Aybak were executed.

Shajar al-Durr was buried in a tomb, not far from the Mosque of Tulun, which is a jewel of Islamic funerary architecture. Inside is a mihrab (prayer niche) decorated with a mosaic of the "tree of life," executed by artists brought from Constantinople specifically for this commission. The wooden kufic inscription that runs around the interior of her tomb, while damaged, is also of extremely fine craftsmanship.


Al-Durr was well known for adopting the indigenous architecture of Bahri Mamluk tombs and combining them with Madrasas or schools of Islam. She was the first Islamic Sultan of Egypt to use this culturally-syncretized architecture. Al-Durr's burial structures would continue to be adopted by leaders in the Mamluk Sultanate, which shows that madrasas of Islam were embraced, and they remained in use to the Bahri Mamluks long after Islamic rule.


Before their deaths, Aybak and Shajar al-Durr firmly established the Mamluk dynasty that would ultimately repulse the Mongols, expel the European Crusaders from the Holy Land, and remain the most powerful political force in the Middle East until the coming of the Ottomans.

Shajar al-Durr in Egyptian folklore

Shajar al-Durr is one of the characters of Sirat al-Zahir Baibars (Life of al-Zahir Baibars), a folkloric epic of thousands of pages that was composed in Egypt during the early Mamluk era and took its final form at the early Ottoman era. The tale, which is a mix of fiction and facts, reflects the fascination of Egyptian common people for both Baibars and Shajar al-Durr. Fatma Shajarat al-Durr, as the tale names Shajar al-Durr, was the daughter of Caliph al-Muqtadir whose kingdom in Baghdad was attacked by the Mongols. She was called Shajarat al-Durr (tree of pearls) because her father dressed her in a dress that was made of pearls. Her father granted her Egypt as she wished to be the Queen of Egypt and as-Salih Ayyub married her in order to stay in power as Egypt was hers. When Baibars was brought to the Citadel in Cairo, she loved him and treated him like a son and he called her his mother. Aybak al-Turkumani, a wicked man, came from al-Mousil to steal Egypt from Shajarat al-Durr and her husband al-Salih Ayyub. Shajarat al-Durr killed Aybak with a sword but, while fleeing from his son, she fell from the roof of the citadel and died. In addition, Shajar al-Durr's name actually means Tree of Pearls, which is why, in poetry, her mention shows a fruit tree that is formed by pieces of mother-of-pearl.

Coins of Shajar al-Durr

The following names and titles were inscribed on the coins of Shajar al-Durr: al-Musta'simiyah al-Salihiyah Malikat al-Muslimin walidat al-Malik al-Mansur Khalil Amir al-Mu'minin. (The Musta'simiyah the Salihiyah Queen of the Muslims Mother of King al-Mansur Khalil Emir of the faithful) and Shajarat al-Durr. Also the names of the Abbasid Chaliph were inscribed on her coins: Abd Allah ben al-Mustansir Billah.

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