It was during the 13th century, in a world of men, that one woman would distinguish herself.
Shajar al-Durr, once a Turkish slave, was the wife of the Sultan of Egypt, Al Salih Ayyub. Shajar possessed a tremendous character and refused to be locked in the harem, so she followed husband, even to war. Before long, she found herself in Damietta, where the crusaders of Saint Louis had just disembarked. The danger for Egypt was existential. At all costs, it would be necessary to push the invaders back to the sea.
When the Sultan abruptly died of an illness, it seemed like all would be lost. This was not, however, the opinion of Shajar al-Durr, who calmly took matters into her own hands. Revealing the death of her husband would give a great advantage to the crusaders, and create a vacuum of power that would open the door to the ambitious and enterprising, so she kept his death a secret.
From the tent of the Sultan, whom everyone believed was still alive, Shajar gave orders in his name. Thanks to these orders, the Egyptian army won victory after victory and ultimately imprisoned Saint Louis. The crusaders were thrown back to the sea, vanquished by a former slave, vanquished by a woman.
Following this victory, Shajar was not prepared to relinquish her power. However, it was her son, the successor to her husband, who now ruled. “No problem,” thought Shajar al-Durr, and had him massacred by his own soldiers right in front of the horrified French prisoners. These soldiers, enthused by the determination and energy of this woman, placed her on the throne. But from Baghdad, the Caliph protested. One doesn’t give power to a woman. “No problem,” thought Shajar al-Durr. She married one of the Turkish officers, Aybak, who then became the nominal sovereign. Over the years Aybak would protest. Wasn’t he, after all, the true ruler? The situation was unacceptable. So, in 1257, Shajar had him assassinated and quickly installed a new marionette on the throne, Ali, a son from Aybak’s first marriage. And so Shajar continued to govern through her position as his parent.
All would have been well, had Om Ali, the wife of Ali, not found her mother-in-law to be such an obstacle. Om Ali wanted power for herself, an impracticable desire given such a mother-in-law. The solution was simple; she must get rid of Shajar. So Om Ali carefully conspired to have her killed. Determined, she pledged to feed all the poor in Cairo once she succeeded. So Om Ali bribed the slaves, who beat Shajar to death with their plowshares in her hammam. Om Ali, overjoyed, had cakes baked and distributed throughout the city. These sweets are still prepared by the bakers of Cairo, and carry the name of Om Ali.
I had seen the modest tomb of Shajar al-Durr in the City of the Dead quarter of Cairo. Her daughter-in-law was not concerned with building her a sumptuous monument. Later, on yet another visit, I discovered her palace, intact, and not far from the al-Hakim mosque. From the street I could see the mashrabiya of the great room. I wanted to go inside, but a formidable yet friendly woman informed me that it would be impossible, as the palace was now the harem of a rich merchant.