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From Slaves to Sultans: Shagarat ad-Durr and the Mamluks
November 20, 1999

Mamluks Regions
They were orphans, or the children of concubines. Some were sold by their parents because they owed money. Others were kidnapped by slave traders. They were brought to Egypt from Central Asia and later from the Near East and the Balkans. After a brief training in Islam, they were raised in barracks and taught the art of war. Highly prized white slaves, they were bought and sold for their looks, their health, their skill at killing. They became a new race of mercenaries who were created by the short-lived Ayyubid dynasty, and who later brought it to its end.

They were called the Mamluks, which means "property" in Arabic. But in 1249 AD, the slaves became the masters! Remember Jasmine's dispatch about Islamic Cairo? For almost 300 years, these ruthless warrior-slaves ruled a prosperous country, while battling among their strongest officers for power. All over Cairo they built great mosques which survive to this day, monuments to this incredible yet ruthless race of people. Their dynasty is full of assassinations and coup d'etats. Yet the most extraordinary story of all, is the story of Shagarat ad-Durr. Shagarat ad-Durr was the Mamluk woman who brought her people to power. This is her amazing tale.

The life of a Mamluk warrior:

If you were unfortunate enough to be captured by slave traders, or sold by your desperately poor parents, or born to a concubine in the Near East or Central Asia in the 13th century, and you were healthy and young (below the age of 10), you would be carried off to Egypt. There, you'd be forced to convert to Islam, and then you'd be made into a lean, mean, fighting machine, and forced to commit acts no self-respecting Muslim would ever dream of doing!

If you were of Tartar origin (i.e. from Mongolia or eastern Turkey), you might fetch the price of 130-140 ducats in the slave market. A Circassian was worth around 110-120 ducats. Slavs and Albanians weren't so well known for their fighting prowess, it seems, as they would only draw 60-80 ducats a person! If you were sufficiently ruthless, you could aspire to become a Sultan, as other Mamluks before you. If an amir took to liking you, and if (a big IF) you were willing to prostitute yourself, you would get lavish gifts and move quickly through the ranks. Once at the top of the heap, it was all a matter of who to bribe, who to affiliate with, and who to assassinate at the right time to advance your power. Until, of course, you became the sultan, "the power." After that, you would just hang on as long as you could, until someone finally assassinated you! But it was fun while it lasted, wasn't it?

The story starts before Shagarat ad-Durr was even born. The year was 1171 AD, and the Ayyubid dynasty gained control of Egypt from the Fatimids. Nearby in the Holy Lands of the Levant -- what we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine -- the Christian Crusaders had gained control in the name of their One God. Salah al-Din (known to many today as Saladin) was the first Ayyubid sultan, and he spent his reign fighting to regain Muslim control of the Holy Land. Ironically, his jihad, or holy war, was fought in the name of the same "One God," only under the influence of another prophet. But that's a different story!

This is how the Mamluks, as a separate tribe of warriors, began. The Mamluks were brought to Egypt, but most spoke Turkish and very little Arabic. They were fierce warriors, and their armies were essential to repelling the Crusaders and winning back the Holy Land. The great Citadel was built, and several Mamluk garrisons were built around it for protection and training.

The final king of the dynasty, Ayyub, came to power in 1240. He created his own army of Mamluks from the Black Sea region, and he even married one of his Mamluk slaves. Her name was Shagarat ad-Durr, or Tree of Pearls. When Ayyub died in 1249, Shagarat ad-Durr hid his body and pretended he was ruling through her.

Vocabulary Box:

concubine - a woman who is a man's second (or third or more) wife, usually of lower status than the first wife
coup d'etat - (pronounced "coo day tot") a sudden move to take over a government
garrison- a military fort or post
jihad- a war or mission considered holy by Muslims
mashrabiya - the projecting balcony and lattice window which enabled women to watch streetlife without being observed.
mercenary- a professional soldier
amir- a Muslim prince


After several months, the truth came out (perhaps by smell?). Shagarat ad-Durr then named herself sultana, "the power", and ruled openly. She was the first and only woman to rule a Muslim country until Queen Victoria of England ruled Egypt and other parts of the Middle East as colonies.

Her free reign only lasted 80 days, though. The prophet Mohammed was quoted as saying "Woe to the nations ruled by women." So the powerful religious leaders insisted that she take a husband, and rule through him, "from behind the mashrabiya." She did as she was commanded in order to save her power, and married Aybak, a Mamluk warrior.

These slaves-to-sultans ruled together for seven years, until 1257, when Aybak decided he could use another wife. Although it was perfectly acceptable in Islam for him to have more than one wife, it was NOT perfectly acceptable to Shagarat ad-Durr. She had his second wife thrown into prison, and hired assassins to kill Aybak. Talk about a woman who doesn't deal well with rejection!

These names are hard to keep straight! Here's some help:

Aybak- the Mamluk warrier who became Shagarat ad-Durr's second husband and sultan
Ayyub - the last Ayyubid king; Shagarat ad-Durr's first husband
Ayyubid- the dynasty that enslaved the Mamluks as children
Mamluks- the people who were brought to Egypt as child slaves
Qutuz - - the second Mamluk sultan, after Aybak
Salah al-Din - the first Ayyubid sultan who fought off the European crusaders
Shagarat ad-Durr- the woman who brought the Mamluk people to power

The story tells us that as the assassins were about to kill Aybak, she changed her mind. When she begged of them to stop, they replied, "If we stop halfway through, he will kill both you and us!" ...Which, I think, was a very valid point. Still, his death didn't keep her alive too much longer.

The Mamluk military chose the mighty Qutuz as their new Sultan. When Shagarat ad-Durr refused to marry him (still broken-hearted, sweetie?), they put an end to her as well. She was handed over to Aybak's second wife, whose servants beat her to death with clogs and threw her to the jackals! Not a pretty way to go.

Her tomb lies, crumbling and long-ago robbed, in the City of the Dead here in Cairo. Although you cannot read it now, I am told her gravestone used to say, "Oh you who stand beside my grave, show no surprise at my condition. Yesterday I was as you, tomorrow you will be like me."


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Jasmine - Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee
Kavitha - Big, Black Cloud over Cairo

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