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IN THE COURSE OF HER LIFE and political career, the Egyptian sultana, Shajarat al-Duff played many roles and held great influence at the Ayyubid and Mamluk courts. She served as a military leader, a mother, and a sultana successfully until her fall from power in 1257. G[acute{o}]tz Schregle has suggested that Shajara's political importance resulted from the role she played during an important period of Egyptian and Middle Eastern history. [2] The Egyptian sultanate shifted from the Ayyubids to the Mamluks in the 1250s. Louis IX of France led the Sixth Crusade into Egypt, took Damietta and advanced down the Nile before the Mamluks stopped this army at Mansura. In the midst of this hectic environment, Shajara rose td preeminence, reestablished political stability and held onto her influence for seven years. Her life has served as a fascinating example of achievement in an arena usually closed to women in her culture.

However, historians' accounts have differed widely in their treatment of her. For example, some historians have emphasized only certain events in her life, those acts needed to explain the particular events on which their focus rests. Others have granted her either a passive or active role in political affairs according to their own scholarly agendas. Western Crusades' historians have relegated her to a minor role in their respective dramas. Middle East historians have marginalized her for different reasons. In direct contrast, feminist accounts have pushed Shajara into the limelight at the cost of the events themselves. Unfortunately, these depictions have offered only fragmentary pictures of Shajara for the reader's consideration. With this in mind, this paper, after some attention to the sultana's biography and career, will consider her depiction by these academic camps. With this approach, the paper will analyze the differences between these scholars' approaches to this topic and suggest a path to a more complete view of this important Egyptian sultana and her career.


Shajara's life progressed through a series of stages as she ascended and declined from power. Each of these steps was marked by a significant political event. This section will discuss and differentiate these points in the sultana's life: her early career in the harem and marriage to Sultan Aiyub, [3] the situation during the Sixth Crusade, her brief sultanate, her marriage and co-sultanate with Aybek and her fall and subsequent execution in l257. [4] These historically significant events helped to shape the sultana's life and Egypt's fate.

Shajara's early career has remained a mystery. She first appeared in the historical annals in 1239 as a mamlukah inmate of Turkish or Armenian origins in the Caliph al-Musta'sim's harem. [5] In 1240, Aiyub acquired her for his harem. From this point onward, the future sultana steadily gained influence in the sultan's eyes. For example, when al-Nasir Da'ud captured Aiyub in 1248, Shajara 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 Aiyub back to Cairo where the latter named her his favorite wife. During her early career, Shajara's good fortune raised her to an influential position. Aiyub's death and Louis' invasion allowed the future sultana to establish her political mettle in her fellow mamluks' eyes. As noted above, Louis' crusade occurred at an inopportune time for the Ayyubid regime. The French king's forces had taken Damietta and waited for an opportunity to strike at Cairo. Aiyub's death on 23 No vember 1249 seemingly offered that opportunity. Through her political savvy and alliances with the Mamluk generalissimo, Fakhr al-Din, and the Sultan's chief eunuch, Jamal al-Din, Shajara managed to conceal her husband's death from the world outside of the palace. [6] She accomplished this feat by denying official dignitaries access to Aiyub's chamber, having meals sent there, allowing Fakhr ad-Din to establish control over the Egyptian army and forging Aiyub's signature on official documents. By the time word leaked out of the palace, Shajara's coalition was in firm control of affairs. Louis, hearing of this coalition, marched his army toward 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 Aiyub's heir, Turanshah, arrived on 19 February 1250. With this powerful woman in command behind the scenes, the Mamluk army defeated and captured Louis' forces in February 1250 at Mansura. Her presence also preserved order after the Mamluks murdered Turanshah, after the battle in reaction to the latter's preference for provincial soldiers over those troops already in Cairo. In the face of imminent disaster, Shajara held Egypt together and managed a victory against the crusaders.

After Turanshah's murder, Shajara rose to the sultanate and ruled well for a brief period. The Mamluks' exact reasoning for this act has remained an intense subject of debate. Did this event occur because of her links to Aiyub and Khalil, her military and political leadership in the recent crisis, or both? One would suspect that the third option is correct. The Mamluks, needing a link to the Ayyubids and their legitimacy, elevated Shajara to the throne and gave her the title Umm Khalil, "Mother of Khalil." Her mamlukah origins and performance in the recent crisis inspired her counterparts to break with Islamic tradition. Along these lines, Shajara became the first female leader to have coins struck and to have the Friday sermon pronounced in her own name. In addition, she continued Turanshah's negotiations with Louis, preserved the lives of the French prisoners, regained Damietta, ransomed the French king for 1,000,000 bezants and liquidated the Crusaders' holdings in Egypt. During the remainder of her reign , Egypt remained peaceful. Finally, the caliph ended her sole rulership by threatening to send a potential sultan to Egypt if the Mamluks could not find a suitable male candidate. To avert this crisis, Shajara abdicated her position to her new husband, Aybek. [7] Thus, for a brief period, Shajara reigned effectively in her own name.

Over the last seven years of her political career, the former sultana maintained effective de facto control until the end. Because of her abdication and the Caliph's wishes, Aybek ruled as the nominal sultan. However, due to his campaigns against the Syrian Ayyubids in Damascus and Aleppo, Shajara exercised de facto power over Egypt and maintained political stability in her second husband's absence. [8] Eventually Aybek grew tired of his wife's control and proposed a new marriage with the lord of Mosul's daughter. However, Shajara, discovered this plan and plotted to murder her husband. On 29 April 1257, she lured Aybek to her bath and her eunuchs brutally murdered him. [9] As a result, the Mamluks arrested the former sultana and imprisoned her in one of the Citadel's towers. From this place, the Mamluks took her to the mother of the new sultan, Ali. There, the latter's slaves beat Shajara to death before tossing her corpse over the wall of the Citadel. Her remains were collected in a basket and interred in her mausoleum. In this fashion, Shajara finally lost a political gamble and her life as well.

Through her political maneuvering, Shajara had come full circle in court affairs. She started as a lowly harem slave, rose to preeminence, ruled both alone and in concert with her husband and finally was reduced by the mother of Ali, the new sultan, to the lowly harem inmate again before her brutal death. Given the events of her life and career, historians have depicted her in different ways.


Twentieth century scholars have tailored their depictions of Shajara to fit the scope of their studies. For example, Karen Armstrong, Christopher Marshall and Ulrich Haarmann have focused on only certain parts of her life. Other scholars, such as Amin Maalouf, Desmond Stewart, R. Steven Humphreys, John Glubb, Robert Irwin, Susan Staffa, Syedah Sadeque and Fatima Mernissi have looked at every stage of her political drama. In addition, each scholar had a different agenda in recounting Shajara's career. Given the attention which she

has received over the centuries, what have scholars written about this sultana? What have they thought of her? Why have they written about her in those fashions?


During the last century, Shajara has received limited attention from Crusades historians. Fatima Mernissi has suggested that the French "remember" her role at Mansura. [10] But what of the Crusades historians in general? Have they shared this same recollection? In the introductory essay to The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, Jonathan Riley-Smith has traced western Crusades historiographies throughout the twentieth century and he has concluded that:

[ldots] although until comparatively recently it [the crusading movement] tended to be thought of something exotic and peripheral, it has never lacked historians. The foundations of modern scholarship were laid in the second half of the nineteenth century. This golden age, which ended with the outbreak of the First World War, was followed by a period of consolidation [ldots]. [11]

Riley-Smith has added that, despite this extensive historiography, certain questions have remained unexplored, unanswered or even unasked, such as "What exactly was a crusade?", "What was the nature of the armies in the Levant?" "Which social structures were prevalent in the European kingdoms in the Middle East?" and "What role did numismatics play in this society?" In short, historians have focused on these issues in terms of Europe's drive east against its Islamic counterparts and the main "isms" behind the crusading movement. Therefore, except for the "great men", other individuals, especially Muslims and women, did not appear in these accounts. Just as with the chroniclers before them, European scholars have based their accounts on the former group of works. In this regard, these historians have tended to cite Jean de Joinville's Life of Saint Louis most often. [12] Except as an historically fascinating curiosity, a woman, and especially a Muslim woman, has merited no more than a brief summary or perhaps a few pages. Accordingly, the western scholars' versions of Shajara's drama have differed in length and content depending upon when they were written. For example, Riley-Smith, despite what he has noted above, has dismissed this sultana in two sentences, [13] while Sir Steven Runciman has devoted five pages to her career. How did each historian write about Shajara? Which details from her life did each scholar choose to include in his or her account? Which sources did each author use in his or her account? This section will ask these questions of works by several well-known Crusades historians.

Runciman's A History of the Crusades has revealed more details concerning the sultana's political career. This scholar has mentioned how Shajara held Egypt together through her coalition with Jamal al-Din Mohsen, the chief eunuch and Fakhr ad-Din, Sultan Aiyub's viceroy, during the sultan's illness and summoned Turanshah from the Jezireh where he had been serving as a viceroy for the late sultan. [14] Runciman, with copious citations, has combined Christian and Muslim authorities including Maqrizi, Abu 'I Feda, Abu Shama, Ibn Khallikan, Joinville and Matthew Paris. Runciman has illustrated that Shajara still needed the Mamluks' support in order to rule at three points: during the initial regency when her position appeared precarious to the Franks, against the threats of Turanshah and finally, after the victory against the Crusaders. In fact, according to this account, she only retained power at the third of these points because she "represented [Ayyubid] legitimacy" which Aybek, her second husband, needed as the new sultan. [15] As a result, in the last decade of her political career, Shajara could no longer control the court's affairs. For example, in order to control her second husband, the sultana had to kill him. As Runciman has noted, Shajara did not have the support of most Mamluk soldiers in the army either. Her purpose in the political picture concerned her links to Sultans Aiyub and Turanshah. Once she had Aybek murdered in an act of desperation, the Mamluks dethroned Shajara. Three days later, the former sultana met her fate. Runciman's narrative has emphasized the Mamluks' support as the essential element behind Shajara's successes and failures.

Joseph R. Strayer's "The Crusades of St. Louis" has briefly examined the first stage of Shajara's career. This account has depicted the sultana's tenacity and political savvy in holding the Ayyubid kingdom together. However, as with Runciman before him, Strayer has offered some mitigating circumstances which diminished Shajara's ability in that "the adjustment was aided by the slow advance of the Crusaders." [16] He failed to mention the Mamluks' electing Shajara as their leader in this piece. In fact, Strayer had implied that she had no further authority in Egyptian politics in any capacity due to the Mamluks' coup d'etat. at. In his version, the army only preserved Shajara's political position as long as she was useful. After that point, she disappeared from the account. Strayer's account has made no direct reference to specific sources, so the reader must guess at his specific sources. Overall, the piece has credited Shajara with a strong regency for Turanshah after Sultan Aiyub's death but has swept her aside soon thereafter.

H. A. R. Gibb's "The Aiyubids" has mentioned Shajara in her regal position following the Mamluks' victory. Like Strayer, Gibb has asserted that as soon as "their [the Mamluks'] position was threatened they asserted themselves and disposed of the royal power in their own interests." [17] This rationale caused them to murder Turanshah, although, the author also has mentioned that "the Mamluk officers [ldots] proclaimed Shajarat-ad-Durr sultanah of Egypt and queen of the Moslems." Gibb had detailed the subsequent political difficulties caused by the remaining Ayyubids in Syria and Palestine who elected rival sultans to preserve Egypt for their dynasty. These events caused political difficulties for Shajara and so, she "married Aybeg [ldots] and abdicated in his favor." Shajara blended into the political background and did not play any further role after that point.

In his book, The Crusades: A Short History, Jonathan Riley-Smith has painted a picture of an intense power struggle occurring after Sultan Aiyub's death in 1249 and has suggested that Shajara's power was based solely on the Mamluks' shifting political interests. After assassinating Turanshah, the Bahriyah Mamluks "proclaimed as 'queen' al-Salih's former concubine, Shajarat ad-Durr." [18] Riley-Smith has noted that her Turkish origins helped Shajara to this position and that Aibek became her husband. He had briefly mentioned the murder of Aibek by Shajara "who was herself disposed of soon afterwards." [19] Riley-Smith had mentioned nothing of her role in preserving the Egyptian government before Turanshah's arrival or her governing role following his death. Curtailing the story after 1250, he has portrayed Shajara merely as a Mamluk puppet.

Other scholars of the Crusades have mentioned Shajara in the context of Mansura. Jean Richard's Saint Louis: roi d'une France feodale soutien de la Terre sainte has only mentioned Shajara's role at Mansura and the agreement between Shajara and Fakhr al-Din to conceal the sultan's death until Turanshah's arrival. [20] Karen Armstrong's Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World has merely stated that "[ldots] when a strong detachment of Crusaders marched on Mansurah on 20 November, the Muslims braced themselves for the coming struggle, and when the Sultan finally died three days later, the Sultana Shajarat ad-Durr acted swiftly and efficiently and kept his death a secret." [21] Others have concurred with this synopsis. Christopher Marshall, in Warfare in the Latin East, 1192-1291, has reported Shajara's role at Mansura but little else. [22] Ulrich Haarman, in Geschichte der arabischen Welt, has observed the marriage between Aybek and the sultana, adding the Caliph's objections and the plot again st Aybek. Unfortunately, he had failed to mention Shajara's role in the defensive preparations against Louis' invasion. [23] Other differences have surfaced in these accounts. Armstrong, for example, has only mentioned Shajara as "Sultana" and has presented her as acting by herself. On the other hand, Marshall has emphasized the role of the other military commanders and advisors who had served the dead sultan while adding that she was Aiyub's concubine. Finally, Haarman has referred to the sultana as the widow of Aiyub. [24] Most of these accounts have relied on western primary or secondary sources. Only Marshall has maintained some balance in his citations with references to Ibn 'Abd al-Zahir's Life of Baybars, Al-Makrisi's Historie d'Egypte, Ziada's "Mamluk Sultans Until 1293" and Irwin's The Middle East in the Middle Ages: The Early Mamluk Sultanate 1250-1382. These texts have provided several pieces of Shajara's life and career, but none of these sources have rendered a complete picture of the sultana's l ife. Rather, Shajara's presence in these scholarly depictions has reflected what is seen as her "minor" role in the ebb and flow of Louis IX's first crusade. The Middle Eastern historiographies have provided similarly one-sided accounts of Shajara's career but for different reasons.


In addition to these brief accounts, other scholars have developed their own versions of Shajara's story with greater complexity. Why would they treat this sultana in such a fashion whereas their counterparts briefly skimmed over her career? Their access to Arabic sources has granted them more details for their accounts. In addition, Shajara has fit into these scholars' studies much better than their western counterparts examined above. Certain Arab historians such as Glubb, Irwin, and Humphreys have described Shajara's career as it affected Egyptian history. Other writers have honored Shajara and the other heroes of the Arab conflict against the crusaders in their works. Amin Maalouf explained in his Foreword that: "The basic idea of this book is simple: to tell the story of the Crusades as they were seen, lived, and recorded on 'the other side'-- in other words, in the Arab camp[ldots]"[25] Shajara had proven to be a "providential personality" through her actions in the face of Louis' impending invasion [2 6].

Maaloufs account has portrayed Shajara as a powerful woman who held control right up to her demise. In addition to listing the usual events portrayed in most histories, this author has presented a rather unique picture of the sultana which kept with his personal agenda for writing this work. First, he has listed several crucial events, only some of which were noted in other secondary accounts, including her regency for Turanshah, the concealment of Aiyub's death, her sultanate, Aybek's murder and her subsequent death. [27] Maalouf has also noted that the sultana ruled as Umm Khalil, minted coins in her own name and had the Friday sermon pronounced in her name. In addition, he has praised Shajara for the successful negotiations with Louis and the departure of the crusaders from Egypt. This account remained unique from its counterparts for its portrayal of the sultana's career. First, during the crisis following Aiyub's death, Maalouf has mentioned that Shajara asked Fakhr alDin to write a letter pronouncing t he jihad to the Muslim faithful during the crisis following Aiyub's death. Then, during Aybek's murder, the sultana beat her husband and rubbed soap in his eyes. After Aybek's son had spotted her holding the murder weapon, Shajara tripped and fatally struck her head on the marble floor as she fled from the pursuing Mamluks. Maaloufs sources included Jamal al-Din Ibn Wasil's chronicle of the Ayyubids and Mamluks in addition to the popular medieval epic, Sirat al-Malik al-Zahir Baybars. In keeping with his theme, Maalouf has described the sultana's career and downfall in this fashion: "However highly romanticized, this version is of genuine historical interest inasmuch as it is in all probability a faithful reflection of what was being said in the streets of Cairo in April 1257, just after the tragedy[ldots] [28] In this account, the sultana's fall was tragic. She had accomplished great deeds in her career and maintained the Egyptian ship of state even in the choppiest political tempest but was eventually wrecked upon the shore by forces she could not control.

Sir John Glubb's Soldiers of Fortune: the Story of the Mamlukes has provided a view of Shajara's career following Aiyub's death. He has noted that his work would present the layman's version of the historical events. Accordingly, he did not cite any primary sources for his observations. In the beginning of his account, Glubb has depicted Shajara as a regent in complete control of affairs after the sultan's demise, taking command of these affairs and later on, the Egyptian army against Louis' forces at Mansura. [29] In justifying her accession to the throne, Glubb has suggested that "[t]he Mamlukes were Turkish nomads, among whom women took more part in public affairs than they did among the Muslims." They enthusiastically proclaimed Spray-of-Pearls to be Queen of Egypt for her courage had shown her worthy to rule." [30] Glubb also criticized al-Musta'sim's role in Shajara's abdication and marriage to Aybek. According to this scholar, the marriage was an unhappy one due to each partner's conceptions of their authority. These disputes included Shajara's refusals to tell Aybek about the location of Aiyub's treasure, Aybek's attempted marriage to the daughters of Bedr al-Deen, the lord of Mosul, and Malik al-Mansoor, the Ayyubid prince of Hama and Aybek's treatment of the River Mamluks. Eventually, these conflicts erupted in Aybek's murder and Shajara's subsequent arrest and execution. In this fashion, Glubb has offered a sympathetic and heroic view of this sultana.

Robert Irwin has offered the reader a brief account of Shajara's career from 1249 onward in The Middle East in the Middle Ages: The Early Mamluk Sultanate 1250-1382. He opened his discussion of the sultana with a description of her role during the interim government after Aiyub's death: "[T]he dominant figures in this junta seem to have been Shajara[ldots] , Fakhr al-Din ibn al-Shaykh, [ldots] Baha' al-Din ibn Hanna and Jamal al-Din Muhsin." [31] As with Marshall and Armstrong, Irwin has credited Shajara with holding a firm resolve and playing a strong part in preserving the Egyptian sultanate during the crisis. However, he has skipped over the sultana's role in the battle and the subsequent negotiations in order to proceed directly to her struggle for power with Aybek. In this regard, Irwin has suggested that Shajara's enthronement was "bizarre" and that she ruled, despite her trappings of power, without any real support. When al-Musta'sim, the Abbasid caliph, opposed her reign, the sultana abdicated and ma rried Aybek. Then, according to Irwin, Aybek and al-Ashraf Musa, an Ayyubid child puppet, pushed her out of the political arena and shared the sultanate. [32] Shajara only appeared again in this piece during her plot to kill Aybek and the subsequent events leading to her own death. In this manner, Irwin has portrayed Shajara as a powerful figure before the crusade. However, this account has also depicted her as a victim of her own political revolution.

Desmond Stewart's Cairo: 5500 Years has depicted Shajara's whole career. In addition to the usual listing of events, his account has described the sultana's origins as "derived from a nomadic society in which women rode unveiled and held equal standing with men." [33] Then, he has detailed Shajara's role at Mansura, her elevation to the sultanate and her rule as Umm Khalil, her "abdication" and continued de facto rule. [34] Stewart has also explained Shajara's discovery of Aybek's intended marriage and how she invited one of Aybek's Syrian enemies to come to Egypt, many her and become sultan. However, as Stewart has reported, "[ldots] the Syrian emir either feared that the proposal concealed a trap, or felt that the queen's proposals were those of a praying mantis. In his alarm, the sultana's intended consort consulted the Emir of Mosul, who in turn warned Aibek[ldots]" [35] Despite this warning, Aybek rode to the Citadel a few days later and was murdered in his bath. During the act, Stewart has noted that S hajara wanted the Mamluks to stop before it was too late but they continued to beat the sultan until he died. She tried to conceal this act and attempted to marry the new chief Mamluk. But he confined her in the Citadel. Subsequently, Ali, the new sultan, handed the former sultana to his mother. This woman, Aybek's first wife, stripped and insulted Shajara before her serving women beat her rival to death. Subsequently, they threw Shajara's corpse into the pit "to feed the pariah dogs which haunt the desert parts of eastern towns[ldots]" [36] Finally, the former sultana's remains were collected and interred in the mausoleum which she had erected for herself. Stewart has depicted Shajara as a woman firmly in command of palace and harem politics until her downfall.

Mustafa Ziada, in contrast to most of the historians described above, has detailed Shajara's rise to power and early political career. According to his article, "The Mamluk Sultans to 1293", the future sultana influenced affairs first as a mamlukah inmate in the Caliph's and Sultan Aiyub's respective harems. [37] After detailing Shajara's early career at Aiyub's court, Ziada covered her role in concealing the sultan's death at Mansura. Instead of detailing her advantages over the Crusades, this author has credited the sultana with a great accomplishment under adversity as the crusaders had ambushed and murdered Fakhr-ad-D in, the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army, in his bath. After describing Shajara's victory over the Crusaders, Ziada had turned to her later career. He has considered her sultanate as a temporary measure only. Ziada thought that the Mamluks used her as a pawn against their competitors for the Egyptian throne. As he has noted, Shajara confirmed Turanshah's treaty with Louis IX and "sho wer[ed] favors and appointments with suitable fiefs on the Bahri Mamluks, to whom she owed her position." [38] Then, Ziada had depicted the caliph's objection to his former concubine's authority, her abdication and the subsequent marriage to Aibek in July 1250. The Bahri Mamluks' animosity toward Aibek's election may have led them to aid Shajara in her plot to murder this sultan in 1257. The former sultana, for her part, still held de facto power behind the scenes at this point. Ziada's account culminated with Aybek's death followed by Shajara's arrest and execution. Through this account of her deeds, Ziada has depicted Shajara's political capabilities in the face of the Mamluks' opposing interests.

R. Steven Humphreys, in From Saladin to the Mongols: The Ayyubids of Damascus 1193-1260, has used a broad range of primary sources to present an illuminating view of Shajara's political career. [39] The sultana's first appearance in this work came during Aiyub's confinement at al-Karak by his cousin, al-Nasir Da'ud. As Humphrey has pointed out, the sultan only had two companions during this time, Shajara and Baybars. Then, Humphreys summarized the various stratagems with which Shajara and Fakhr al-Din hid Aiyub's death from outsiders. In the face of the victory over the crusaders and the issue of Ayyubid legitimacy, the Mamluks decided that Shajara would serve as their next leader. Here Humphreys has made two important points: first, that despite Shajara's abilities, her ties to the Ayyubid dynasty put her on the throne; and second, in contrast to the other scholars' views described above, her sultanate was only intended to be a temporary measure. The Mamluks, according to Humphreys, never wanted her to be w ithout a guardian. Accordingly, they appointed Aybek, whose political decisions they could easily influence. Having skirted the issue of Shajara's political influence in this manner, Humphreys did not have to mention the caliph's order for the sultana's abdication. In this version of the tale, Shajara held no influence or power at the end of her career. According to Humphreys, Aybek had already married the lord of Mosul's daughter and Shajara only acted out of a self-preservation, not political intrigue. Despite the wamings and objections of several key officials, her plot succeeded. A week later, Aybek's Mamluks revolted and took power for themselves. These soldiers crucified the murderers, raised Ali to the sultanate and handed Shajara over to Aybek's first wife who beat the former to death. Humphreys has portrayed Shajara as a woman who was ruled by the Mamluks' whims even at the height of her power.

Syedah F. Sadeque's Baybars I of Egypt has also discussed Shajara's reign in relation to the growing power of the Mamluks during this period. [40] She has assessed Shajara's reign as strong during her sultanate and marriage. However, she has noted that Aybek's political moves in the last stage eroded her power base. Sadeque has first credited the sultana with preserving political stability in Egypt against the impending tide of disaster rushing up the Nile in the form of Louis' crusading army. The next mention of Shajara concerned her ascent to the Egyptian throne. Sadeque has simply stated that "The Bahri generals placed Shajara on the throne. [ldots]" [41] This author did not link Shajara's placement on the throne to the issue of legitimacy, noting that "an Ayyubid prince--a child six years of age" was named co-sultan with Aybek. [42] In fact, she had failed to explain the rationale behind the Mamluks' actions. Following this remark, she has maintained that "the real power remained with Shajara, who ruled the kingdom in the name of the joint kings, in cooperation with the leading Bahri amirs such as Aqtai, Baybars and Balaban." The sultana's power came from the Bahri Mamluks, whom Aybek took great pains to disband between 1251 and l254. [43] Sadeque has summed up the final events in this drama in one phrase: "[ldots] Aybek was killed by his queen, Shajara." [44] This study has stressed the importance of balanced (Christian and Muslim) source materials and has provided a textual overview and a good summary. However, despite these successes, Shajara's story only served as a backdrop to Baibars' rise to power.

Abdul-Aziz Khowaiter's portrayal of Shajara's reign, in Baibars the First: His Endeavors and Achievements, has placed the Mamluks in complete command over the sultana during her reign. [45] Although Shajara and her advisors ran the government well after the Mamluks' coup d'[acute{e}]tat, she was removed from power through a multiple step process. The first step was her marriage to Aybek. Then, the Mamluks installed Musa ibn Yusuf, a great-grandson of the Sultan al-Kamil, as co-ruler. Finally, Aybek's purge of the Bahri Mamluks eliminated Shajara's influence over court affairs. Khowaiter has disputed the traditional reasoning behind the sultana's plot against Aybek. He has presented Shajara as a victim of the Mamluks' continuous revolution. In her attempt to influence court politics, she had erred in murdering Aybek. In this account, the Mamluks decided that the former sultana had outlived her usefulness. Consequently, this group of soldiers, not Ali, handed Shajara over to Aybek's first wife for execution. S imilar to Humphreys' account, Khowaiter's study has placed the Mamluks in control of every aspect of Shajara's reign.

As with the Crusaders scholars, these Middle Eastern scholarly accounts have summarized Shajara's life. However, given the fact that a woman's role in history and society was covered up until recently, such brevity, though expected, should not be tolerated. The feminist scholars examined in the next section have granted a larger place to Shajara's role in the course of events.


The historical record contains comparatively few cases of women who wielded political power in an official capacity or played leading roles on the political scene. These, however, reveal the essential character of women's power as well as their principal mode of obtaining it. Like most other civilians, women achieved their political ends through channels to the elite who were the keystone in the power structure, and their special status facilitated access even as it denied them ultimate authority. [ldot] [46]

In contrast to the historical accounts detailed above, those of the feminist historians had a different agenda, i. e.; glorify the woman's role as a leader. Two authors, Susan Staffa and Fatima Mernissi, have focused on the sultana, emphasized her life and minimized the events of the Crusade and the male supporting cast around her. As Staffa has suggested in the quotation above, the woman's accomplishments are pushed into the background for the sake of the male status quo on too many occasions. She has also pointed out that "the story of Shajara is a woman's story from first to last; outstanding talents brought into play through a clientage, realized through crisis and inevitably frustrated by law, tradition, and brute force.[ldot]" [47] Shajara rose from the lowest depths of Aiyub's harem to political preeminence before sinking back into the morass of the changing politics at the Mamluk court. As with H[ddot{u}]rrem Sultan's control of the late sixteenth century Ottoman court, as long as women stayed in the harem and continued to exercise power from behind the scenes, they continued unabated in this role. However, as both Shajara and H[ddot{u}]rrem Sultan discovered, when a woman posed an obvious threat to male patriarchy, she was eliminated without consideration of her talents. Furthermore, according to Staffa, Shajara's career "also shows how completely women were involved in affairs of state even in the early sultanate." [48] Mernissi has made a similar lament at the beginning of her book, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, asking if anyone had heard of a Muslim queen (or any woman for that matter) in a prominent role. This author has embellished this point when she advised her audience to keep quiet lest the establishment's secret police should catch them telling such tales. Are such allegations correct? The histories described in the previous two sections have tended to focus on three things: great events, great men and, especially in the European accounts, great white men. Through the inclusion of Staffa's "D imensions of Women's Power in Historic Cairo" and Mernissi's work, this section will attempt to provide a counterbalance to the other sources noted above.

Staffa has offered a brief account of Shajara's life in her article. She opened her account with Aiyub's death and Shajara's role at Mansura in preserving the Muslim victory over Louis IX's crusading army, followed by her three-month rule as regent for Turanshah, her rule as the widow of Aiyub, in "[recognition] of the courage and capability she had shown" and as Umm Khalil. [49] The account has depicted her continued de facto rule after her marriage to Aybek, the sultan's murder, her own capture and death as well. This author has shown that women could successfully carry out political statecraft under most conditions. Staffa's article has shed light on the sultana's accomplishments in the face of the Egyptian patriarchy. The author has listed Shajara's accomplishments. Furthermore, Staffa has provided a great deal of analysis despite her lack of specific primary sources. As noted above, the questions that Staffa raised can be applied to any potential woman ruler throughout Islamic history. As long as women allowed men to keep the de nomine authority, i. e., the royal title, the latter allowed the former to rule. When Shajara crossed that boundary, the caliph and the male patriarchy realized her potential threat and reduced her influence and authority accordingly.

Mernissi's The Forgotten Queens of Islam has also listed the sultana's accomplishments and has criticized her at certain points. [50] This author's sources, including most of the "official" Arab histories, have provided a good basis for her argument. Shajara, as this author has pointed out, was known for numerous achievements including her handling of the crisis preceding the Sixth Crusade and her regency for Turanshah. In addition, Mernissi has mentioned several key attributes which served Shajara well, such as great military leadership: "She brought the Muslims a victory which the French remember well, because she routed their army during the Crusades and captured their king, Louis IX." [51] This account has noted that even after her abdication, Shajara was still successful at manipulating palace politics to her advantage. Thus, through such high praise, Mernissi has endorsed Shajara's ability to lead Egypt in this period. However, this author has reported that Aybek's polygynous practices and the caliph's actions doomed the sultana's political fortunes. Aybek's strategy in terms of remarriage worked against Shajara's control over him. As Mernissi has pointed out, monogamy favored a woman while polygamy supported patriarchy. While Shajara loved Aiyub, their marriage was a matter of convenience. In short, she used monogamy as a political leash to control the sultan. Mernissi has seen Shajara's abdication, in the face of Aybek's second marriage as "more than a gesture of allegiance to Caliph al-Musta'sim[ldots]It was a pathetic act of her weakness, a desperate attempt to gain his good will[ldots]" [52] The Mamluks granted her the post partially out of her racial origins and family ties. The caliph al-Musta'sim, on the other hand, applying the Q'uran and his own personal prohibitions to this situation, failed to admit that she was the best candidate and split the Mamluks in order to have her dethroned immediately. Although Mernissi's description has revealed her twentieth century agenda, it has aptly illustrated the barriers against a woman in Mamluk Egypt during this period and has illuminated Shajara's life with surprising clarity given the lack of depth available in most sources. As with Staffa's work listed above, this quality has separated Memissi's work from other accounts of Shajara's life and career.

These sources on the life of Shajara have revealed differing qualities of scholarship relating to each scholar's purposes. Most scholars of the Crusades, for example, have used Shajara's story as a brief backdrop for their preferred subjects. These authors, as noted above, have varied their coverage of the sultana's life and deeds. Only Runciman has concerned himself with all six stages of her career. Many of these works have described only the first stage and have chosen to show Shajara's role in the coalition government after Aiyub's death. In these accounts, the perceptions of the sultana have ranged from a collaborator (Richard) to a Mamluk puppet (Strayer). The inter-pretations of the second stage of her career, from the victory over the Crusaders to the sultana's abdication on 30 July 1250, have contradicted each other as well. Riley-Smith, following Strayer, has portrayed Shajara as an impotent figure, but has credited her with the approval of the treaty with Louis IX. Riley-Smith has also illustrated how she ruled effectively for 80 days in her own name. The third stage, Shajara's last years (1250-1257), was also depicted differently in each of the accounts. Who was in control of the political cat and mouse game? Runciman's account has granted Aybek dominance over his wife in court affairs and thereby, reduced Shajara's final plot to an act of desperation. The authors' aims and intentions have affected the coverage of the sultana in their works. Ziada and Runciman have granted the reader a complex view of Mamluk history during the Crusades, an approach warranting a complete view of Shajara's political career. Strayer and Gibb have detailed the Egyptian government and the Crusaders' defeat in April 1250, thus emphasizing only the first two stages. In contrast, Riley-Smith's discussion has barely touched on the sultana and the Mamluk regime. Marshall and Armstrong have included her in their works only to explain how the Egyptians rallied against Louis' troops. To Haarmann she was less important; he had bar ely mentioned her enthronement as Aiyub's widow. In this fashion, the account has deflected the credit for this deed away from her talents. Maalouf, in concentrating on the Arab historiography of the Crusades, has placed himself in a different camp by praising the sultana and granting the reader a picture of her career. Feminist scholars such as Mernissi and Staffa have explained these events and their significance to the Islamic world, to Ayyubid and Mamluk Egypt and to Shajara herself. These scholars have differentiated themselves from the others by telling the woman's side of the story. Staffa's account, as noted above, has clearly stressed the woman's ability to manage political responsibilities in a largely patriarchal society. Mernissi' s study, while unduly critical at points, has also presented a feminist view of royal authority in medieval Islam and has expanded upon Staffa's contentions with plenty of supporting evidence.

Uniquely, Schregle has combined all of these scholarly aspects in his meticulous study. In addition, he had combed the archives for every chronicle from Shajara's day up to the modern era, producing a balanced and complete study of this sultana's historical and legendary personas. Through such scholarship, as Mernissi herself has pointed out, it can be seen that Shajara was not just a ruler and a political opportunist but a woman with great attributes as well.


In his Die Sultanin von [ddot{A}]gypten: Sagarat ad-Durr in der arabischen Geschichtsscheibung und Literatur, Schregle has presented a complete report with two fulfilled purposes. First, he has generated a creative depiction of Shajara predating Mernissi's analysis of her career and Maalouf's search of the chronicles. Schregle had perceived Shajara's unique importance as the transitional link between the Ayyubid and Mamluk dynasties. [53] As a result, he has extended his coverage beyond the traditional summary and into the realm of complex analysis. For example, in his examination of the contemporary scholarship, Schregle had concluded that "A woman as Queen over the Egyptians in the thirteenth century--in view of the established place of the woman in Islam, that is an irregularity which necessarily implies an abundance of questions of a historical, legal and cultural sort[ldots]" [54] Thus, he has posed the crucial question that has plagued scholars throughout the ages: are they studying her historical figu re or her legendary figure? Schregle has noted that many twentieth-century scholars have fallen into this deadly trap over the last century. To avoid this dilemma, he has delved into both sides of the issue and has recounted the stories of other scholars and chroniclers such as Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Wasil with only a brief mention of his own view in the Introduction. Furthermore, unlike the other works noted above, this work's focus on Shajara's life and career has allowed Schregle to consider several themes within his treatise. In Part A, his "Search for the Historical Portrait of Shajarat al-Durr," he has grouped primary sources into several categories: thirteenth century Arab sources such as Ibn Wasil and Ibn Halikan, later fourteenth-sixteenth century histories, Christian-Western sources, "foreign" portraits in addition to letters and memoirs of the Crusaders. To complete his investigation, Schregle has also examined coinage, and the sultana's tombstone for cultural information on her life. [55] Parts B-D a nalyzed the sultana's image over the centuries. Part B examined accounts written before 1600 and asked several questions of Shajara' s life, acquaintances, the meaning of her name, her relationships with Aiyub and Turanshah and her personality. Part C looked at how the Baibars-Roman chronicle presented Shajara's life while distorting her historical portrait. This account illustrated her roles as the founder of the Mahmal and as the Caliph's daughter. [56] Part D noted the use of the sultana's life by nineteenth and twentieth century historians. In that period, Egypt had sought to forge a new destiny separated from both the Ottoman Empire and the European colonial powers. Shajara' s accomplishments, as detailed in the historical annals, inspired Egyptians to work toward independence.

Nationalistic writers such as Ali Mubarah, Amir Ali and Zainab Fawwaz had spread this view in their works. [57] Furthermore, Schregle has pointed out that feminist writers latched onto Shajara's image as a justification for their cause as well. In this way, scholars such as Qadriya Husain, Mahmud Badawi, Umar Rida Kahhala, al-Zirikli and Fu'ad Abu Hatir have shown that leadership qualities crossed gender and class boundaries. Such a connection should not prove surprising, as French feminists had adopted Joan of Arc's image in the 1920s for the same reasons and in search of the same result. Abu Hatir has made this comparison in his "Shagar el Dorr et Baibars" by referring to Shajara as the "Jeanne d'Arc of Islam." [58] Schregle has attempted to present an unbiased view of Shajara's life to his readers and let them decide on the exact meaning of her life. Schregle's work has stood out in this field of scholarship for many reasons: he has considered the sources and legends expanding his coverage to all accounts from all areas (East and West) and from all periods. In this fashion, Schregle should inspire future scholars to discover exactly who Shajara really was.

However, despite Schregle's labors, the question of "Who was Shajara?" and "What did she accomplish?" have remained unanswered due to the differing agendas and conflicting facts in each account. The complexity and depth of these scholars' individual accounts of the sultana have varied according to her relevance to their respective works. Armstrong, Marshall and Haarman have only skimmed the surface of the sultana's life in the context of the Crusades. Irwin, Glubb, Khowaiter, Maalouf and Sadeque have summarized her career's importance to the foundation of the Mamluk regime but have added little analysis of her achievements. Staffa and Mernissi have shed the most light on this powerful woman by listing and explaining her personal achievements.

Having brought all of these sources together, however the task of writing an authoritative biography of Shajara remains to be done. Section II and Schregle's summaries have provided an initial sketch of this woman's life, but problems still confound this project. First, there is an attitudinal adjustment to be made. This essay has detailed the various agendas in Levantine historiographies as related to the sultana's career. Scholars, in trying to piece together the institutions and protect their own confessional backgrounds, have formed the three historiographical traditions seen above. In order to write successfully about Shajara, these conflicting opinions somehow must be brought together. [59] The story of the blind men and the elephant is relevant here. Shajara's career has progressed through many stages differing in terms of her personal influence and position. Given the complexity of her story, these scholars, like the blind men, have tried to piece together enough pieces of this account to suit their purposes. Second, Shajara's home region and many details of her life have remained undetermined. Third, other Muslim women's biographies may unlock some aspects of Shajara's story. For example, H[ddot{u}]rrem Sultan's biography contained a similar pattern: a mamlukah beginning, the ruler's enamorment, the birth of a son, a junta at court in alliance with the ruler's elite guards, temporary ascendancy, competition with other harem women and her eventual demise. K[ddot{o}]sem Sultan's life in the seventeenth century Ottoman Empire has provided similar parallels. Bringing together all of the facts on Shajara's life and molding them into such a framework may make it possible to construct an authoritative biography of this fascinating woman.

David J. Duncan is Reference Librarian in the Humanities, Ablah Library, Wichita State University, Kansas.


(1.) I would like to thank Dr. Linda T. Darling for her help and suggestions on this essay.

(2.) G[ddot{o}]tz Schregle, Die Sultanin von [ddot{A}]gypten (Wiesbaden: Otto Harassowitz, 1961), 3-7.

(3.) Hereafter, I will refer to this sultan as "Aiyub" or "Sultan Aiyub".

(4.) I am using these divisions because most commentators utilize them as well. Schregle, for example, has laid out this plan in pp. 6-7 of his work. Much of this section has been based on Schregle, 3-7 and the Concise Encyclopedia of Arabic Civilization, ed. Stephan Ronart and Nancy Ronart (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1960), 481.

(5.) In Baibar-Roman's account from either the fourteenth or fifteenth century, Shajara was identified with the Caliph's daughter Fatima. However, no other account has made this claim. See Teil C in Schregle's work for more information on Baibar's writings concerning Shajara.

(6.) The sultana's exact role has remained a question of debate ranging from views of her as an absolute empress down to that of a Mamluk puppet.

(7.) Fatima Mernissi, as shall be noted below, has commented that Shajara yielded too easily to the Caliph's demands for her abdication. Given how easily Turanshah had been overthrown and assassinated, however, she probably made the right move. The Mamluks' opposition to Shajara's plot against Aybek and her subsequent arrest and execution in 1257 seem to support this conclusion.

(8.) There has also been debate over when Aybek married Shajara. Most sources seem to agree that they were married in 1250 but others suggest 1251 and one even put the marriage as late as 1255.

(9.) Shajara's motivation and her desire to carry through with this plot has also remained a topic of debate.

(10.) Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 11.

(11.) Jonathan Riley-Smith, "The Crusading Movement and Historians" in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, ed. Jonathan Riley-Smith Oxford: (Oxford University Press, 1995), 5. At this point, I have to respectfully disagree with Dr. Riley-Smith's findings. In certain conservative circles, this paradigm has continued to hold sway over the historiography of the Crusades.

(12.) Ibid., 5-13.

(13.) Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986, 200-201.

(14.) Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, vol. 3 of 3, rpt. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 265, 269.

(15.) Ibid., 265, 269, 272-273.

(16.) Joseph R. Strayer, "The Crusades of St. Louis" in The Later Crusades, 1189-1311, ed. Robert L. Wolff and Harry W. Hazard, vol. 2 of A History of the Crusades, ed. Kenneth M. Setton, et al. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

(17.) Hamilton A. R. Gibb, "The Aiyubids" in The Later Crusades, 1189-1311, ed. Robert L. Wolff and Harry W. Hazard, vol. 2 of A History of the Crusades, ed. Kenneth M. Setton, et al. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. All quotations are from p. 712.

(18.) Riley-Smith, Crusades, 200.

(19.) Ibid., 200-201.

(20.) Jean Richard, Saint Louis: roi d'une France feodale soutien de la Terre sainte (Fayard, 1983), 222. I have also consulted the translation of this work by Simon Lloyd and Jean Berell as well Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, but only to check my own rough translation.

(21.) Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 444.

(22.) Christopher Marshall, Warfare in the Latin East, 1192-1291 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 30.

(23.) Ulrich Haarman, et al., Geschichte der arabischen Welt (M[ddot{u}]nchen: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1987, 210, 220.

(24.) Haarman states concerning the marriage of Aybek and Shajara that Aybek married the sultana because she was "the widow of his lord" (Witwe al-Saliah Aiyubs. This reference came from page 220 of this work.

(25.) Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, trans. Jon Rothschild (London: Al Saqi Books, 1984), xi.

(26.) Ibid., 238.

(27.) Ibid., 238-245.

(28.) Ibid., 245.

(29.) Sir John Glubb, Soldiers of Fortune: the story of the Mamlukes (New York: Stein & Day, 1973), 39. "Capable and beautiful, she must have been one of very few women in history who commanded an army in a major battle, as she did against Louis IX, King of France.[ldots]"

(30.) Ibid., 49-50.

(31.) Robert Irwin, The Middle East in the Middle Ages: The Early Mamluk Sultanate 1250-1382 (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 20.

(32.) Ibid., 26-27.

(33.) Desmond Stewart, Cairo: 5500 Years (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968), 105.

(34.) Ibid., 105-106.

(35.) Ibid., 108.

(36.) Ibid., 109.

(37.) Mustafa Ziada, "The Mamluk Sultans to 1293" in The Later Crusades, 1189-1311, ed. Robert L. Wolff and Harry W. Hazard, vol. 2 of A History of the Crusades, ed. Kenneth M. Setton, et al. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 735-758. Ziada's piece, while complimenting its companion works by Strayer and Gibb in Setton's A History of the Crusades, belongs with the articles in this section due to the preponderance of Middle Eastern sources in its citations.

(38.) Ibid., 741.

(39.) R. Steven Humphreys, From Saladin to the Mongols: The Ayyubids of Damascus 1193-1260 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 260-330.

(40.) Syedah F. Sadeque, Baybars I of Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 13-14.

(41.) Ibid., 13.

(42.) Ibid., 13.

(43.) Ibid., 13-14.

(44.) Ibid., 14.

(45.) Abdul-Aziz Khowaiter, Baibars the First: His Endeavors and Achievements (London: The Green Mountain Press, 1978), 34-35.

(46.) Susan J. Staffa, "Dimensions of Women's Power in Historic Cairo" in Islamic and Middle Eastern Societies: A Festschrift in Honor of Professor Wadie Jwaideh, ed. Robert Olson, et al. (Brattleboro: Amana Books, 1987), 67.

(47.) Ibid., 68.

(48.) Ibid., 68.

(49.) Ibid., 68.

(50.) Mernissi, 91, 99.

(51.) Ibid., 14.

(52.) Ibid., 90.

(53.) Schregle, 3.

(54.) Ibid., 4. ("Eine Frau als Herrscheiein [ddot{u}]ber das [ddot{A}]gypten des 13 Jahrhunderts--das ist angesichts der bekannten Stellung der F[r]au im Islam ein Errignis, das notwendigerweise eine ganze Fulle von Fragen historicher, rechtsolcher und kultureller Art in sich schleisst[ldots].")

(55.) Ibid., 34.

(56.) Ibid., 97 and 104.

(57.) Ibid., 123.

(58.) Fuad Abu Hatir, "Shagar el Dorr et Baibars," Le Caire (1951), n.p, cited in Schregle, 135.

(59.) Armstrong, iv-xvi.
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Author:Duncan, David J.
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Date:Jan 1, 2000

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