Unknown - 1257

The Mumluks

The Mamluks (from an Arabic word meaning "the owned") were non-Arab, mostly Turkish or Kurdish slaves owned by men who had themselves once been slaves. After being purchased in the slave markets as young boys, they were raised in special segregated barracks in Spartan fashion, their education consisting almost wholly of military and religious training. When they reached adulthood, they were freed, issued a horse and weapons, and then admitted into the service of their amir ("commander"), their former owner, whom almost without exception they served until the end of their lives with fierce loyalty and devotion. The Mamluk emphasis on youth and vigor is reflected in the fact that their salaries decreased as they grew older! When the reigning sultan, himself a former slave raised in this manner, died, one of the amirs replaced him, but usually not without a bloody power struggle between himself and other ambitious amirs.

Thus unfolds the history of the Mamluk sultans, a series of rulers who governed Egypt for nearly three hundred years, from the death in 1257 of Shajrat al-Durr ("Tree of Pearls," the only woman sultana in all Islamic history and the first to rule Egypt since Cleopatra), until the Ottoman conquest in 1517.

The Mamluks are a case study in the principle of the survival of the fittest. The paradoxes and quiddities of their character defy many of he standard lessons of history. No one quite knows how the constant Mamluk conspiring, intrigue, and in-fighting (the average reign of Mamluk sultans was only six years!), and the dog-eat-dog approach to determining the sultanic succession could have possibly resulted in so long and stable a period of rule and in such a wealth of artistic, commercial, and cultural life.

the only female sultana to rule in Islam


Further Reading

Harem : The World Behind the Veil

Dreams of Tresspass

Contrary to popular belief, harems were not the luxurious places we like to imagine and the images of voluptuous women clad in diaphonous robes preparing for endless nights of debauchery are oftentimes false. Heavily made-up, bejewelled, bare-breasted women lounging seductively and playing board games beneath lush courtyards are all part of the mythical fabrications of the 19th Century European painters. Ingres' Odalisques' and Gerome's idealized bathing scenes where nude maidens are attended by muscular servants only serve to cement our romanticism of the harem.

In truth, the harem was much more like a prison than a luxury hotel. Girls were obtained as prisoners of war, brought in as slaves, or received as gifts from nobles. Since Islamic law forbade the enslavement of Islamic women, Jewish and Christian women were brought to the harem from distant parts such as Circassia (north of the Caucasus Mountains in Russia) and other regions. Upon entering the harem the women were taught reading and writing, dancing, embroidery and etiquette. They remained ladies in waiting to the Sultan's concubines and their children, then to the sultan's mother and if they were good they eventually had the chance to see the Sultan, which rarely ever happened.

The harem was a place full of intrigue and treachery and each woman did their best to outwit the others in order to gain the sultan's attention. Harems tended to be gloomy instead of glamorous. Guarded by black eunuchs, the harem contained as many as 300 rooms interconnected by dim corridors. Baths were chilly affairs in spite of the efforts made to decorate them. Likewise, courtyards prevented women from looking out and passerbys from looking in. Windows were usually placed towards the ceiling and were barred with elaborate grilles.

It was such a fate that awaited Shajar al-Durr, whose name means 'String of Pearls' and were it not for the untimely death of Sultan al-Salih Aiyub of Egypt she would have been just another woman among hundreds of women to live and die in the harem. Shajar al-Durr was born in Armenia and became a slave in the harem of the Caliph al-Musta Sim in Baghdad. A few years later, he gave her as a present to his vassal the Sultan al-Salih Aiyub of Egypt, who became enamored of Shajar's exotic beauty almost immediately. It was not before long that Shajar bore the Sultan a son, who died in childhood. Regardless of the death of her first born, Shajar became his favorite wife, and his Sultanah.

In 1249 the Sultan's unexpected death from cancer and tuberculosis caused Shajar al-Durr to think quickly and do what no other Islamic woman would ever be able to do again; to zeize control of Egypt. When Aiyub died, his only son, Turan-shah, was far away serving as viceroy in Mesopotamia and Egypt was at war with King Louis IX of France during the 7th Crusade. Knowing full well that if Aiyub's army learned of their leader's death they might disband, Shajar decided to conceal her husband's death. She sought the help of Jamal al-Din Mohren, the chief eunuch who controlled the palace, and Fakhr al-Dim, a soldier sworn to protect the palace. First, they circulated a rumor that the Sultan was ill, then they forged orders in Aiyub's name appointing his son as heir and Fakhr as chief general during his illness. Food was brought in every day for the Sultan, and Shajar kept up the deception, while a messenger sped to bring Turan-shah back to Egypt.

It took ten months for Turan-shah to reach Egypt and during all that time Shajar held Egypt's government together. By the time Turan returned, the French were defeated, and King Louis had been captured. Turan, however, showed no gratitude to those who had saved his kingdom and facilitated his ascent to power.. Instead of rewarding them, he granted power to his friends in Mesopotamia. Needless to say, his actions offended many and among them were the Mameluks. The Mameluks were corps of soldiers, who were slaves from Turkey and Circassia. They were the proudest unit of the army; the ones who had bravely fought and won the battles and the ones most offended when Turan answered their protests with drunken threats and curses.

When Turan threatened Shajar, whom he accused of holding his father's treasures from him, she appealed to the Mameluks for help. Already disgruntled with the Sultan's poor taste in company and his obvious disregard for those who helped him climb the ladder to power, the Mameluks agreed. On May 2 1250, as Turan was leaving an opulent feast, a group of Mameluks lead by Baibars, their most savage commander, burst in with drawn swords. In the skirmish, Turan was wounded and he managed to escape to a nearby wooden tower near the Nile. The Mamaluks set the tower on fire and watched as Turan flung himself into the river. The frightened Turan, fearing for his life, yelled apologies and offered to abdicate but it was too little too late. Whan the soldiers' barage of arrows failed to kill him, Baibars jumped into the river and finished him off with his sabre.

Since Shajar's own child had died and there was no other adult heir of the royal family, Shajar was proclaimed Sultana of Egypt. She reigned for eighty days until her subjects protested at the idea of having a woman rule over them. Her former master, the Caliph al-Musta Sim in Baghdad, offered to send them a man to rule but the Mameluk amirs decided that their senior officer, Izz ad-Din Aibek could marry Shajar and become a Sultan. Being interested in real power and not the trappings Shajar promptly agreed to the marriage.

A six-year-old child, al-Ashroof, a relative of the late Sultan, was made co-Sultan, but that arrangement didn't last long and soon he came to a bad end. Although Aibek was Sultan, Shajar continued to control the country. For seven years she ruled, minted coins under both their names, received ambassadors and had the audacity to demand that she be addressed as Sultana. She aided Aibek in extinguishing his Mameluk rivals, who were either exiled or killed, but Aibek continues to desire more power and resents his wife's manipulation. Here she received ambassadors and conducted the affairs of state while Aibek was left to begin to struggle to acquire some real power in his own right. Secretly Aibek was busy arranging a marriage between himself and the daughter of the Syrian Amir of Mosul, in an attempt to broaden his power base. He had ample reasons to be worried about his current wife and to compound his worries an astrologer had forewarned him that he would be slain by the hand of a woman. Highly superstitious, Aibek took the warning to heart.

Tipped off by one of her husband's Mumluks, the incensed and jealous Shajar resolved to murder her ungrateful husband. To protect herself from her husband's supporters, Shajar scribbled a hasty note to a known enemy of her husband's that read, "Learn this: after putting the Sultan to death, I intend to marry you and place you on the throne of Egypt." Fearing a trap, Aibek's enemy told him of his wife's plans to murder him. A royal dowshah ("quarrel") of epic proportions took place as Aibek confronted his queen about her treachery. He left her chambers in a rage and went to play a game of Polo. Immediately Shajar ordered five of her husband's eunuchs to muder him while he bathed. It is said that halfway through the grisly task she was overcome with unusual remorse and begged the murderers to stop. Knowing that if Aibek lived they would all be killed, Shajar's pleas were ignored.

Terrified, the guilt striken queen tried in vain to spread the word that her husband had died a natural death but the truth leaked out and with it the realization that she had a lot less alies than she had thought. She was jailed in the citadel with her jewels that she supposedly groud to dust with a mortar and pestle. Aibek's son, al- Mu'izz is appointed as the next sultan and he delivers Shajar to the slavewomen of Aibek's first wife who, after stripping the sultana proceed to insult her and finally to bludgeon her to death with wooden shoes. Her brutally lascerated body is flung from the red tower of the citadel into the moat. Compassionate supporters collect the remains of the former sultana and bury them in a small mausoleum that she had built for herself. The Mosque of Shajar al-Durr still stands today as a testament to the life of the Islamic world's first and last Sultana; a slave girl who managed to rule Egypt.

The Qubba of Shajar al-Durr: (1250) Built by Shajar al-Durr with attached charitable institutions near the mausolea of a number of `Alid women saints.