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Shajar al-Durr had quite the resume: Muslim sultan who ruled in her own name, stopped the Seventh Crusade dead in its tracks, captured one of the most powerful monarchs in the world and ransomed him back to his own freakin’ country, and, finally, died in rather embarrassing fashion when killed by a group of shoe-wielding assassins.
But that’s jumping ahead. Shajar started life as a Turkic servant, purchased for the Sultan of Egypt. Evidently she did pretty well in that role, since, within a year, they had a kid and were married. For a while, life was pretty rad for Shajar.
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the crappy when the Sultan got sick and died. He could not have picked a worse time to do it, either: Louis IX of France had JUST begun invading Egypt as part of the Seventh Crusade, with the aim of toppling the Sultan’s dynasty and using Egypt as a springboard to sack Jerusalem. At this point in time, France was one of the most powerful countries in the world, and Louis IX was a well-loved and intimidating ruler.
So, with a dead husband and an invading army marching on Cairo, what did Shajar do? Hid the fact that the Sultan had died, saying he wasn’t feeling well and refusing to let anyone into his chambers. Meanwhile, she quietly took the reins of the country and, with the help of her late husband’s chief commander, prepped for war.
In short order, they stomped out the invaders and took Louis IX prisoner, in an incredibly humiliating defeat for the French. How sure was Louis IX that he was going to win? Well, at the beginning of his invasion, he sent a letter to the Sultan. This letter served absolutely no diplomatic purpose, other than to talk smack at length, detailing how Louis was going to crush the Sultan. In it, he swore that even if the Sultan were to convert to Christianity, Louis would still track him down and kill him “at your dearest spot on Earth.”
Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, the French forces, after a couple small victories, rushed into a town they thought was empty – only to be slaughtered by secretly-waiting soldiers and townsfolk. Concurrently, Egyptian soldiers carried boats over land, dropped them into the water so as to stymie any French reinforcements, and torched the crusaders’ ships with Greek fire. The Egyptians took Louis IX hostage, and killed the majority of his forces. Thus ended the Seventh Crusade.
It is hard to state how soul-shattering this was to the French people. To many, the defeat signified that God had forsaken them — some crusaders actually converted to Islam afterwards. When word of the defeat reached France, it spawned an uprising known as the Shepherd’s Crusade, where tens of thousands of farmers lost their minds, left their homes, and headed towards Egypt to rescue their king. They weren’t big on organization, though, and within a couple months, they were running around France throwing priests into rivers and setting things on fire. Mistakes were made.
Within a couple months, they were running around France throwing priests into rivers and setting things on fire. Mistakes were made.
In the end, Shajar al-Durr negotiated a treaty to return the captured monarch to his country for 400,000 livres tournois – about 30% of France’s total annual revenue.
Stop and think about that. That would be like Obama being captured while on a tour of Iraq, and ransomed back to the US for 5 trillion dollars. That’s borderline unfathomable.
And it was due to the orchestrations of a woman. In a Muslim country. In secret. Over the first couple months of her rule.
And Shajar did not stop there. Her next obstacle was the successor to the throne, Turanshah, who’d been away for much of the aforementioned events. By all accounts, Turanshah was a total prick, who drank openly (in a Muslim country!) and immediately began ungratefully antagonizing those who put him in power. One of his first acts was to install a bunch of his flunkies to replace all the competent people who’d installed him in the first place. His to-replace list included Shajar, which is what we in the biz like to call a “huge mistake.” In response, she was like, “hey, military guys? Did you know Turanshah is being a real assface?”
In short order, Turanshah died in a series of violent acts so lengthy it would put Rasputin to shame. First, he was stabbed, so he fled into a nearby tower. Then the tower was set on fire, so he jumped out of it and ran for the river. Then he got a spear in the gut, but made it into the river anyway. Then he got shot at with a barrage of arrows from shore, but somehow survived. Finally, one of the military commanders just waded out into the water and hacked him to death.
Afterwards, Shajar was officially instated as Sultan. This was not a “I’m ruling in someone else’s stead” sort of thing. She was full-on Sultan, with the support of the military. She printed her own coins and led her own prayers – both of which were big deals to solidify her legitimacy. She was the real deal.
She was full-on Sultan, with the support of the military, her own coins, leading her own prayers. She was the real deal.
Unfortunately, as you might imagine, other factions in Egypt were not cool with a lady on the throne, and things began to unravel. To pacify her enemies, she married her husband’s old taste-tester/accountant, Aybek, and, officially at least, Aybek became Sultan. In reality, due to Aybek needing to be away dealing with agitators, Shajar likely handled most affairs of state – although this is debated. In any event, most historians agree that Aybek was unpopular, and likely chosen because multiple parties thought him easy to manipulate.
After a couple years, Aybek decided to take another wife (his third) to help solidify his power. The details of everyone’s motivations in what followed change from account to account, but basically: Shajar was not cool with Aybek’s triple-marrying and had servants strangle him in the bath. In one telling, she was there too, beating him and rubbing soap in his eyes.
Shortly thereafter, Shajar met her end. According to legend, she was caught in the act of killing Aybek, imprisoned, and then executed by Aybek’s first wife. The story goes that Shajar was beaten to death by servants with wooden clogs, and her naked corpse was dumped over the wall of the city. This contrasts with the contemporary street-level account of what happened, where she slipped and fell while attempting to kill Aybek’s son. In that version (which is likely inaccurate, but what was being said in the streets), she was held up as a patriot for her country against the unloved Aybek.
The dynasty that Shajar started with her ascension – one where the Mamluk servant class became the rulers of Egypt – went on to last for over 300 years and repelled Mongol and Crusader invasions until the rise of the Ottomans. The defeat of the Seventh Crusade dealt such a severe blow to the Crusades that after two more poorly-supported attempts (both failures), the institution died out for good.
Shajar’s actual amount of influence over the events of her day is a hotly-debated topic among historians. Some, such as the ones embedded with the Crusader forces, barely took notice of her. The Arabic scholars of the time are more evenly split as to whether she really was running things or whether her influence is overstated. It is difficult to determine some of what actually happened, and what is actually legend, but almost all accounts agree, she was a heck of a woman.
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- Since Shajar al-Durr means “string of pearls”, she is wearing one around her neck. She also has pearls on her rings.
- Her kicked-up wooden shoe is a reference to the method of her grisly demise.
- She’s holding a coin, both a reference to her having her own coins and the ransom she got for Louis IX.
- The servant in the background is using a silk scarf to strangle Aybek in the Turkish way, as a callback to Shajar’s Turkish ethnicity. (see, I told you I would find a way to work that phrase into my daily speech)
- I couldn’t find a good reference for what Shajar looked like, but that is a pretty accurate depiction of Louis IX.
- The setting is based off an artist’s rendition of an Ottoman-era Turkish harem. It’s not period accurate, but it is in keeping with Shajar’s roots. I couldn’t find much reference for the architecture of the time.
- The domes in the background are modeled off of Muslim mosques.
Enjoy the art?
Next Time on Rejected Princesses
Get thee to a nunnery – and burn it down.