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Biography of Medieval Egyptian Queen shows her influence on Cairo’s architecture

By Jodi Heckel

A woman born into slavery in 13th-century Egypt broke the glass ceiling of the time to become a sultan and changed the look of Cairo with her innovative architectural projects.

The first historical look at Shajar al-Durr written in English examines her life as well as the cultural and architectural development of Cairo and the influence of women at a time when they were largely invisible.

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Tree of Pearls: The Extraordinary Architectural Patronage of the 13th-Century Egyptian Slave-Queen Shajar al-Durr was written by D. Fairchild Ruggles, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Ruggles studies landscapes of the Islamic world and their connections to society and social values. The book recently won the Nancy Lapp Book Award from the American Schools of Oriental Research.

Cairo has one of the largest and most important collections of Islamic monuments in the world, and Shajar al-Durr’s architectural patronage “changed the face of Cairo and had a lasting impact in Islamic architecture,” Ruggles wrote. “She was an unusual personage who did not conform to ordinary standards, and her architecture was similarly extraordinary.”

The tomb that Shajar al-Durr built for herself in Cairo. This tomb and the one she built for her first husband, Sultan Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub, were both in disrepair when Ruggles visited them while researching her book. Conservation work since then has improved the condition of both tombs. Photo by D. Fairchild Ruggles

It was extremely rare for a woman to be made a sultan, and especially so for someone not born into royalty. Shajar al-Durr, who was known as “Tree of Pearls,” was given to Sultan Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub as a concubine, eventually married him and became his regent, ruling in his place when he was away at war. When he died suddenly, Shajar al-Durr was appointed as sultan, Ruggles said.

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She held that position for only a few months before being replaced by a military leader whom she then married. But during her brief rule, Shajar al-Durr negotiated an end to attacks on the region by Crusaders. Even after she was replaced, she remained a powerful figure politically, serving as an adviser to her second husband, Ruggles said.

One of Shajar al-Durr’s first acts as sultan was to build a tomb for her first husband. In her book, Ruggles refers to it as a “political tomb.” Its purpose was to commemorate her husband, but it also served as Shajar al-Durr’s credentials, proving that she had a right to rule, Ruggles said.

The location of the tomb is significant. Most people were buried in large cemeteries on the outskirts of Cairo, not in the center of the city – which was the seat of power, surrounded by walls and filled with palaces and mosques. Salih’s tomb was attached to his madrasa, a college he established in the center of Cairo. By building the tomb inside the city and attached to the madrasa, Shajar al-Durr ensured that his identity as a ruler was not forgotten, with all the scholars at the school studying in his shadow, Ruggles said.

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“It’s like putting a statue of someone in the center of campus, reminding us that it’s his generosity that allows us to study and be there, so the whole college is turned into a commemorative monument,” she said.

Landscape architecture professor D. Fairchild Ruggles. Photo by Isabel Vazquez

The tomb is topped with a dome, which was common for the tombs in the cemeteries, but the only other domes in the city center were mosques. Because domes marked places for prayer, putting a dome over Salih’s tomb in the city associated him with saints, Ruggles said.

“You’ve got this big dome visible as you walk by on the street and from very far away in the city. Everywhere you are in Cairo, you see the dome and say, ‘That’s the sultan,’” she said. “Cairo today is full of domes like that. But in 1250, there were not that many domes, and they were meaningful. It had a lot of impact.”

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Shajar al-Durr’s innovation became widespread, with many madrasas and other architectural complexes becoming commemorative monuments.

Shajar al-Durr also built a tomb for herself, outside the city in the cemetery zone, with its own innovative features. She reintroduced the use of mosaics, which had been used earlier in Egypt and then forgotten. Shajar al-Durr had a mosaic placed in the mihrab, or prayer niche, in her tomb.

It was inventive in both form and subject matter. In Islamic art, placing images of people in religious places is forbidden, Ruggles said. But Shajar al-Durr was able to put a depiction of herself in the most sacred of places, the mihrab, by including a mosaic image of a tree with pearls.

“It’s so sneaky,” Ruggles said. “When people prayed, they were looking at her.”

Shajar al-Durr reintroduced the use of mosaics by using them in her tomb, including this mosaic in the mihrab, or prayer niche. By using an image of a tree with pearls, representing her name, she circumvented the prohibition on the use of images of people in religious places. Photo by D. Fairchild Ruggles

The book uses Shajar al-Durr’s story to tell the cultural history of the time. While her architectural patronage was innovative and helped change the look of Cairo, many Islamic women were important patrons for buildings that served the common good, such as schools and mosques, Ruggles said. They were able to serve that role because, even in medieval times, Islamic culture allowed women to be the legal custodians of their own money, she said.

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“We need stories about the reality of the Islamic world. There is so much misperception, in the West and in the Islamic world, about what people could and could not do and how they lived their lives,” Ruggles said. “I think it’s really important to counter that with real stories about real people.”

Our thanks to Jodi Heckel of the University of Illinois for this article. 

Top Image: The interior of the mausoleum of Sultan Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub. His widow and successor, Shajar al-Durr, built the tomb in the city center of Cairo, a location that at the time was filled with palaces and mosques but not tombs. Photo by Jorge Lascar / Wikimedia Commons

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