Historical Figures

Chajar ad-Durr, slave who became queen

Shajar ad-Durr (date of birth unknown – 1257) was a woman born into slavery who became the wife of a sultan of Egypt and then the regent in charge of organizing the defense of the country.

The sultan's slave and son

The origin of Chajar ad-Durr and her real name are unknown and historians assume her to be Armenian, Georgian or Turkish. Son of the Sultan of Egypt Al-Kâmil, Al-Salih Ayyoub is sent into exile to the fortress of Kayfa, on the banks of the Tigris, within the framework of a negotiation with the crusaders who march on Egypt. It was there, between 1232 and 1238, that he was offered a slave whom he fell in love with and whom he nicknamed "forest of pearls":Chajar ad-Durr. They will have a son, Khalîl, who will die in infancy. In 1238, on the death of his father, Al-Salih Ayyoub went to Cairo to succeed him, Abandoning his previous wives as well as his children, he took with him only Shajar ad-Durr.

The defense of Egypt against the 7th Crusade

In 1244, King Louis IX "Saint Louis" of France decided to launch a Seventh Crusade. The troops left France in 1248 and reached Egypt the following year. As Al-Salih Ayyoub is in Damascus, it is Shajar ad-Durr who organizes the defense of Egypt as regent. When Al-Salih Ayyoub returned, he was very ill and died in November 1249.

In order not to panic the troops, Chajar ad-Durr concealed his death and retained power. When the news can no longer be concealed, Sultan Turan Shah's son inherits the throne. Having grown up in Mesopotamia, he is not known to the Egyptians and struggles to establish his legitimacy, especially since he is considered unfit and the capture of the city of Damietta is a first disavowal. After this first victory, the Crusaders besieged the city of Mansoura. If the battle allows them to gain the upper hand, Louis IX is captured. He will be released, along with the rest of the prisoners, against a heavy ransom and the withdrawal of his troops from Egyptian territory.

Queen of Muslims

Tûrân Châh tries to claim from Chajar ad-Durr the power and the domains it retains and threatens Mamluk leaders (militia formed of freed slaves), among whom Baybars, the craftsman of the capture of Louis IX in Mansoura. In May 1250, during a banquet given to celebrate the victory, the Mamluks assassinated Tûran Châh and carried Chajar ad-Durr to the throne. She is proclaimed "Queen of Muslims". Egypt was then under the authority of the Abbasid Caliph of Bagad Al-Musta'sim who refused to see a woman bear the title of sultan and ordered the Mamluk emirs to appoint a man in his place. Chajar ad-Durr stands up to them for a few weeks but the emirs end up designating the Mamluk Al-Muizz Izz ad-Din Aybak. Shajar ad-Durr seduced him and, after obtaining his divorce from his first wife, married him in July 1250.

During the following years, Shajar ad-Durr ruled more than her husband, calling herself Sultana, signing decrees and coining coins in her name. The situation greatly displeases her husband, who would have considered having his wife murdered and taking a second. In April 1257, Shajar ad-Durr had her husband assassinated. He was strangled when he got out of the bath. The Sultana fails to hide her crime and, during a riot three days later, she is killed in turn by the slaves of the harem. It is the son of Aybak who succeeds him on the throne.

Her body rests in a mausoleum that she had built during her lifetime, in Cairo.