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Badass Women of History: Shajar Al-Durr

Opinion | November 16, 2015

Shajar Al-Durr’s life didn’t have great beginnings. Born around the 1220s, she was a Turkish slave, or mamluk, who was sold as a servant/wife to the Sultan of the Ayyubid Sultanate, an area that included parts of present-day Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

Within a year, she married the Sultan, gave birth to a son, and was freed from slavery. Life was pretty good.

And then France happened. Under the leadership of Louis IX, Egypt was invaded as part of the Seventh Crusade. At the time, France was one of the most powerful countries in the world and Louis IX was a well-loved ruler. On top of all this, the Sultan, with his great timing, got sick and died. Shajar’s son also died shortly after.

With a dead husband and son, and the imminent threat of the French army, what was Shajar to do? She hid the fact that her husband was dead, telling everyone that he simply wasn’t feeling well (the French were giving him a headache), and basically took over the country.

With the help of her late husband’s trusted advisors, Shajar directed an army that stomped out the French invaders and took Louis IX hostage, bringing an abrupt end to the Seventh Crusade. For many French, this defeat signified that they had lost favor with God and most of the French nobility and clergy weren’t too enthusiastic about going to rescue their king. This spawned the short-lived Shepherd’s Crusade, where tens of thousands of farmers left their homes to rescue their king. However, farmers aren’t very good at the whole search and rescue thing, and within a couple of months they were running around France expelling Jews, throwing priests in the Seine, and just generally causing havoc.

In the end, Shajar negotiated a deal to return Louis IX to France for 400,000 livres tournois—about 1/3 of France’s annual revenue. Their bank account suffered but France agreed and Louis IX was sent home.

But Shajar didn’t stop there. Her next goal was official succession to the throne. One of her late husband’s sons arrived to take the throne but was mysteriously murdered by some soldiers. Curious…

Afterwards, in 1250, Shajar was officially installed as Sultan. She printed coins with her own title and led prayers, two signs of power that were unheard of for a woman of the era. She ruled in her own name for 80 days, marking the beginning of the Mamluk Sultanate, which lasted until 1517. Unfortunately, as you might imagine, many men of the nobility didn’t like the fact that they were being ruled by a lady (and a former slave lady, at that). Things went downhill from there.

To try to appease these men, Shajar married the unpopular Aybek, her late husband’s former cupbearer/accountant. When Aybek decided to take another wife, things got murderous. Although historians have different explanations for key players’ motivations, all accounts end with Aybek being cryptically murdered by servants in the bathtub. Unfortunately, Shajar was implicated in this mystery and was executed by Aybek’s first wife. According to legend, she was beaten to death by servants with wooden clogs and her naked corpse was thrown over the wall of the city. However, many of the Mamluk people, amongst whom Shajar was very popular, believed she slipped and fell while attempting to kill Aybek’s son, and saw her as a patriot fighting against her unloved husband.

In any case, the fact remains that Shajar was a heck of a lady.