An Unexpected Queen of Egypt
By Amir Ashraf
In June 1249CE, the Seventh Crusade under the command of the Frankish King Louis IX landed on the port of Dimyat at the mouth of the Nile River. The Ayyubid Sultan, Al-Malik Al-Salih Najmuddin Ayyub, upon hearing these sad news, rushed back to Egypt from Syria and organized an army at Mansurah. He also raised a commando force that effectively put the Crusaders at bay. He was already critically ill, however, at that time and now his wife, named Umm-Khalil Shajarat al-Durr, entered the stage and played an important role in this critical hour of Egyptian history.
Umm-Khalil Shajarat al-Durr was a beautiful, talented and intelligent lady. She was originally a slave bought by Al-Salih Najmuddin Ayyub, and after giving birth to Al-Mansur Khalil, the Sultan married her. Shajarat al-Durr was a Mamluk and a Turk, belonged to the family of Bahri Mamluks, the Turkish tribe who had settled in the islands around the Nile.
That fateful day, she met all the war generals, made them to swear to fight for the last while the Sultan ordered them to abide all the orders came from his wife. Thus she became the commander-in-chief of the Ayyubid force. She quickly made Mansurah strongly fortified, built a fleet of war galleys and placed them at strategic points along the Nile. Any Crusaders’ attempt to approach Mansurah was severely repulsed by the Egyptian Greek fire, they even tried to build bridges to cross the Nile, but only to be destroyed by the Egyptian galleys.
However, King Louis IX successfully launched a surprise attack on the Egyptians later, crossed the Nile heading towards Mansurah. This was possible thanks to a bribed Arab guide leading the Crusaders to a secret ford. In the meantime, the Sultan also died, now Shajarat al-Durr had to face the situation with utmost intelligence and bravery. She ordered to conceal the Sultan’s death in the meantime while had her Mamluk generals fought valiantly and win the battle.
Meanwhile Turanshah, Al-Salih Najmuddin Ayyub’s son from another wife, claimed himself as the legitimate heir of the Ayyubid sultanate and started to threat Shajarat al-Durr. He crowned himself as the new Sultan, marched to Mansurah from Hasankeyf. Turanshah blocked Crusader reinforcements from Dimyat by using Egyptian galleys, and the intensified battle led to the surrender of the Crusaders. King Louis IX was captured and arrested, later he was ransomed and sailed to Acre.
Shajarat al-Durr was reluctant to give the rulership to Turanshah as he used to drink alcohol, and had a low intelligence with an abusive character, and she complained about these points to the Mamluks. The Mamluks later assassinated Turanshah on the banks of the Nile. On 2nd May, 1250, she was crowned as the Queen of Egypt by the Mamluk Emirs, having the title “al-Malikah `Asmat al-Dīn Umm-Khalil Shajarat al-Durr”.
When the news reached Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliph al-Musta`sim disapproved the queenship of Shajarat al-Durr, sarcastically wrote to the Mamluk Emirs, “If you lack in men, let it be known to us in order that we may send you one”. This was a blow for the queen, as it was a tradition since the days of Salahuddin al-Ayyubi that every sovereign Ayyubid sultans would have recognition from the Caliph at Baghdad.
Nevertheless, she had already ruled Egypt for 80 days, ordered coins to be minted by her name, and even had her name mentioned in the weekly Friday Khutbahs. And she was the first Muslim lady to do so. Later, because of the Caliph’s disapproval, the Mamluk Emirs made Atabey `Izz al-Din Aybak as the new Sultan as he married Shajarat al-Durr, thus passing the throne to him. Atabey Aybak accordingly became the first ruler of the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt, a sultanate that will dominate the Middle East for centuries before the arrival of the Ottomans in 1517.
Shajarat al-Durr had a happy marriage with Atabey Aybak for seven years. But that seems to fade way when Aybak had to marry the daughter of Atabey Badruddin of Mosul, to meet geopolitical needs at that time. Now jealousy kicks in, she could not tolerate of sharing power with her husband’s second wife, so she planned to kill him. A plot was taken, Atabey Aybak was assassinated when he visited a palace bath. Soon afterwards, the Mamluks discovered her role, and she was killed too. Her body was buried in front of a compound of a school she had established.
Although Shajarat al-Durr only ruled as a queen for a short time, her reign witnessed 2 very significant events in history: the defeat of the Seventh Crusade, and the birth of the Mamluk dynasty, which ended 80 years of the Ayyubid rule in Egypt. Shajarat al-Durr was a learned lady and a patron of learning, and had established several schools under her name. Nevertheless, she was indeed a beautiful, gifted, a good writer, and an ambitious player in politics.
Abdul Ali, Islamic Dynasties of the Arab East – State and Civilization during the later Medieval Times, (New Delhi: M D Publications PVT LTD, 1996).