Sagar al-Durr

Gold coin of Sagar al-Durr, 1250
British Museum, Coins and Medals, 1849, 1121.294 EO4 (BMC Oriental 4) (136) (469)
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By Louise Gay

Sagar (“Tree of Pearls”, also known as Sharjar, Sharajarat, or Sharjara) al-Durr was an Egyptian sultana of the 13th century. Twice consort, she briefly accessed to rulership in her own name and acted as a link between two eminent late medieval ruling dynasties in the Near East.

Very little is known about Sagar’s youth and early career, except that she appears to be of Turkish or Armenian origin. In 1239, she was purchased as a slave by the future sultan as-Salih Ayyub, then governor of Amid, a northern province of his father’s Ayyubid kingdom.

From this point onward, Sagar steadily gained influence. During the Ayyubid succession wars marking the beginning of as-Salih’s sultanate, she accompanied him during his temporary incarceration in al-Kerak, then was emancipated at the birth of their son Halil.

Despite the early death of their child, Sagar was named favourite wife and given a prominent place on the Egyptian political scene, even assuming a form of regency during the sultan’s military campaigns.

Since Muslim women were theoretically forbidden to hold public authority in their own name, she and as-Salih used a ploy: the sultan would officially delegate his power to their late son Halil, allowing Sagar to act in his behalf.

The Seventh crusade abruptly altered the power dynamics in Egypt, propelling Sagar at their centre. Facing both a foreign invasion and her husband’s death in the fall of 1249, she managed to stabilize the political and military situation until as-Salih’s heir, Turanshah, arrived.

Shortly after the Muslims’ victory against the Franks in the spring of 1250, and the capture of the king Louis IX of France, a coup d’état perpetrated by Mamluks generals resulted in Turanshah’s death, thus precipitating the end of the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt.

Sagar al-Durr then rose to the sultanate in May 1250 under the title of Umm Halil (“Mother of Halil”) with the Mamluks’ support, most probably inspired by her display of political skills during the recent crisis and needing a link between the Ayyubids and their legitimacy.

Sagar became the first female leader in the Islamic world to have coins struck and to have the Khutba –the Friday prayer­­– pronounced in her own name. She pursued the negotiations with the crusaders, making a deal with the queen Marguerite in exchange for her husband’s liberation.

Threatened by the caliph of Bagdad who did not acknowledge her rule because of her gender, Sagar married a Mamluk Amir named Aybak and abdicated in his favour only a few months after her elevation to the throne. Yet, this did not mark the end of her political career.

Because of her second husband’s frequent military absences in Syria, Sagar exercised de facto power until 1257, when the dissensions between the ruling couple eventually led to their brutal deaths.

Recommended Reading

Amalia Levanoni, “Sagar ad-Durr: A Case of Female Sultanate,” in Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk Eras III, eds. U. Vermeulen and J. van Steenbergen, 209-218 (Peeters: Brill, 2001)

D. J. Duncan, “Scholarly Views of Shajarat Al-Durr: A Need for Consensus,” Arab Studies Quarterly 22.1 (2000): 51-69

Fatima Mernissi, Forgotten Queens of Islam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993)

Louise Gay, “Des commandements militaires féminins en guerre sainte: Marguerite de Provence et Sagar al-Durr lors de la septième croisade,” Royal Studies Journal 7.1 (2020): 39-56.

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