BIOGRAPHIES

Female Heroes from the Time of the Crusades

Shagrat al-Durr

Sultan of Eqypt (died, 1259)

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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?

  • Her life links the last victories of the Crusaders to the transition to a new period and dynasty, the Mamluks (the powerful army made up of Turkish slaves and who eventually supplanted their masters). Want to find out why slaves could become so powerful?
  • During this new period, that of the Mamluks, Cairo was to become the center of power. The Mamluks kept their power for more than two centuries in Egypt and Syria.
  • It was the Egyptian Mamluk army who were the only institution that eventually stopped the Mongol drive, in their ambitions to conquer the entire Middle East.
  • Shagrat al-Durr is one of the very few women in Islamic history to ascend to the throne. Her melodramatic life illustrates the fact that an ambitious woman had to depend on the good will of men to be able to lead.
  • Shagrat's dismissal as Sultan by the Caliph of Baghdad reaffirmed the Islamic concept that the spiritual head and political head of a country must be one, and that such a position cannot properly belong to a woman.

Her Story

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
References:
Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, University of Minnesota Press, 1993
Charis Waddy, Women in Muslim History, Longman, 1980
Wiebke Walther, Woman in Islam, Abner Schram, Montclair, NJ, 1981


Commentary

Why could slaves become so powerful? Within the Islamic world, an outstanding slave trained in the elite army could be freed and integrated into the military caste within the palace. In Egypt, the military officers were an elite caste. They were seen as defenders of Islam. This was particularly true during the time of the Crusades and threats of the invading Mongols.

Mamluks were slaves captured from the Asian steppes. In Islam, in principle it was forbidden to enslave another Moslem. Non Muslim boys, however, were taken, converted to Islam, and trained to serve in the military. For a young Turk from the steppes living in poverty, the chance to have a career in an elite army was a step up. Not all boys were accepted into the army. The criteria to be eligible for training was very high.

Mongol drive: Under Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Mongols stacked Baghdad in 1258. But Syria and Egypt were bravely defended by the Mamluks, and Hulagu's defeat by them in 1260 put an end to Mongol advance into Syria.

Salih Ayyub was a descendent of the Ayyub or Ayyubid dynasty, founded by the famous Salah-al Din.

Louis IX, King of France. (1226-1270). Louis's reign is considered the "golden age of medieval France." His mother was Blanche of Castile, a grand daughter of Eleanor of Acquitaine. She was another "power behind the throne" because she was regent while Louis was too young to rule. As regent, her use of power to maintain the throne against challengers was extraordinary. Like Shagrat al-Durr, her right to rule because she was a woman was challenged.

Louis went on his first crusade (1248) against Blanche's advice. During his absence, he entrusted the kingdom to his mother again. Again, through her political brilliance, Blanche preserved the throne and even extended it. As for Louis IX, the defeat of his army at Damietta and his capture proved that his mother's resistance to his crusade was right.