Women who were "powers behind the throne" are always fascinating. But those who move out of the shadows to sit on the throne itself can be even more so. Shagrat al-Durr took upon herself the title of Sultan and regrouped the Egyptian army to take Damietta back from the Frankish Crusaders.
Why She Is An Historic Hero?
The time is 1250 A.D. The sultan of Egypt, Salih Ayyub has just died at the moment when the crusading armies of France are threatening Egypt. Salih Ayyub's wife is Shagrat al-Durr, who had been a slave of Turkoman origin.
In 1249, the French army under Louis IX, King of France landed at Damietta, at the mouth of the Nile River. Shagrat, acting as Salih's regent while he was away in Damascus, organized the defense of the realm.
Soon after Salih Ayyub returns, he dies. Shagrat, conceals the fact of his death by saying he is "sick" and having a servant be seen taking food to his tent. She thus is able to continue to lead in his name.
Turan, his son and her stepson, appears and Shagrat hands the reins of power over to him, finally announcing her husband's death. Still, Shagrat retains control, and a crushing defeat is rendered on the Crusaders at Damietta. The leaders of the army don't respect Turan; they want Shagrat, seeing her as a Turk, like themselves. They plot against Turan and have him murdered. On May 2, 1250, they put Shagrat al-Durr on the throne, thus beginning the Mamluk dynasty.
As sultan, Shagrat al-Durr has coins struck in name, and she is mentioned in weekly prayers in mosques. These two acts only can be done for the person who carries the title of sultan.
Peace is made with the Franks. Louis IX is ransomed and allowed to return home.
Egypt at this time is under the authority of the Caliphate at Baghdad. Baghdad does not approve of Shagrat. She is a woman, and women must not hold the title of ruler. The Caliph of Baghdad sends a message to the Egyptian amirs: "Since no man among you is worthy of being Sultan, I will bring you one." Shagrat is deeply humiliated, but she steps down after being Egypt's sultan for only two months.
A successful Mamluk soldier, Aibak, is appointed in her place. Shagrat al-Durr's moment of power, however, is not over. Either for love or political ambition, she manages to seduce Aibak. He marries her to legitimize Mamluk rule. Reports tell of their great love for one another.
With her experience at administration and leadership, for seven years Shagrat rather than Aibak really rules. An historian who lived at the time comments: "She dominated him, and he had nothing to say." Shagrat continues to sign the sultan's decrees, has coins struck in both their names, and dares to be addressed as Sultana.
Shagrat al-Durr is a jealous woman, and one who does not want to share power. When she married Aibak, she had him divorce his wife, with whom he had a son. In 1257, Aibak proposes to take another wife. In Shagrat's eyes this act is unthinkable. In a fit of jealousy, she plots his murder and carries it out when he is having a bath after a game of polo.
In desperation, Shagrat al-Durr tries to conceal the crime. But her past deeds come back to haunt her in the person of Aibak's former wife and his son, who now seek revenge. The army divides over those continuing to support Shagrat and those opposing her. Rioting breaks out, and Shagrat is cornered. Spurred on by Aibak's former wife, Shagrat is beaten to death by the slaves of the harem with their wooden clogs. Her half-naked body is thrown into the moat of the citadel.
Eventually, Shagrat al-Durr's bones are taken and placed in the mosque known today as the mosque of Shagrat al-Durr.
Coins minted in Shagrat al-Durr's name