The Female Sultan

People who are the "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 was a woman who (amongst other things) took upon herself the title of Sultan, and regrouped the Egyptian army to take Damietta back from the Frankish (Christian) Crusaders.

Shagrat is remembered for good reasons. She lived during a period of great change when the victories of  the Crusaders had ended and the Moslems were regaining power and lost lands. A new period began with the beginnings of the dynasty of the Mamluks

The Mamluks were a powerful army made up of Turkish slaves who eventually supplanted their masters!  Want to find out why slaves could become so powerful?  Shagrat became very involved with this clan. The story of Shagrat is one of those rarer stories where a woman became very politically powerfully.

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  • Cairo, in Egypt became a centre of power and the Mamluks who had began to rule were strong. They were not going to be some 'flash-in-the-pan'...they were to keep their power for more than two centuries, both in Egypt and Syria

  • The Egyptian Mamluk army  had a fierce reputation. They were the only group that were able to stop the Mongol  tribes from conquering the  entire Middle East. 

  • Shagrat al-Durr ascended to the throne in Egypt and is one of the very few women in Islamic history to ascend to the throne. Amazingly, Shagrat al-Durr started her contact with royalty as a slave of Turkoman origin. 

  • Eventually Shagrat al-Durr lost her political  power. In medieval Islam a woman had to depend on the 'good will' of men to be able to retain power. You can read her story below. 






Click the Islamic Palace to see a map of Egypt and Syria

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Her Story 

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 defence of the realm.

By 1250 A.D. the ' crusading' armies of France were threatening Egypt and just then the sultan of Egypt, Salih Ayyub ...died. Salih Ayyub's wife was Shagrat al-Durr. 

Shagrat, concealed the fact of his death by saying he was "sick" and making sure that the servant was seen taking food to his tent. She was thus able to continue to lead in his name. Eventually Turan, his son and her stepson appeared, and Shagrat handed the reins of power over to him, finally announcing her husband's death. 

However, Shagrat still retained control, for the leaders of the army didn't respect Turan. They wanted Shagrat because they saw her as a Turk, like themselves... unlike Turan. Shagrat organised a crushing defeat was forced of the Crusaders at Damietta and the leaders of the army plotted against Turan...had him murdered. 

On May 2, 1250, the leaders of the Army put Shagrat al-Durr on the throne. The woman who had been slave was now Sultan. Thus began the Mamluk dynasty. 

As sultan, Shagrat al-Durr had coins struck in her name, and she was mentioned in weekly prayers in mosques. These two acts only can be done for the person who carries the title of sultan.

Eventually a complete peace settlement was made with the Frankish Crusaders. Louis IX was ransomed and allowed to return home.

Egypt at this time was under the authority of the Caliphate at Baghdad and the politicians of Baghdad did not approve of Shagrat. She was a woman, and in their eyes women must not hold the title of ruler. The Caliph of Baghdad sent a message to the Egyptian amirs: 'Since no man among you is worthy of being Sultan, I will bring you one.' Shagrat was deeply humiliated and she stepped down after being Egypt's sultan for only two months.

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 as 'one', and that such a position cannot properly belong to a woman.

A militarily successful Mamluk soldier, Aibak, was appointed in her place. Shagrat al-Durr's moment of power, however, was not over. Shagrat al-Durr married Aibak. 

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 continued to sign the sultan's decrees, had coins struck in both their names, and dared to be addressed as Sultana.

Shagrat al-Durr was a jealous woman, and did not want to share power. When she married Aibak, she had him divorce his other wife, with whom he had a son. In 1257, Aibak proposed 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 tried to conceal the crime, but her past deeds came back to haunt her in the person of Aibak's former wife and his son, who now sought revenge. The army divided between those continuing to support Shagrat and those opposing her. Rioting broke out, and Shagrat was cornered. Spurred on by Aibak's former wife, Shagrat was beaten to death by the slaves of the harem with their wooden clogs. Her body was thrown into the moat of the citadel.

Eventually, Shagrat al-Durr's bones were taken and placed in the mosque known today as the mosque of Shagrat al-Durr.


Coins minted in Shagrat al-Durr's name



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 sacked 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  

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


Louis IX, King of France.

Louis IX (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. 



Moslem equivalent of a Noble 



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. 



Adapted with kind permission from Lynn Reese

Dominion & Domination

Women in World History 

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

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