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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Shagaret el-Dor:
The Last Queen of Egypt

 

 

By Priscilla Adum

 

 

 

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Introduction

Everyone has heard of Nefertiti, Cleopatra, and Hatshepsut. But very few people have heard of another Egyptian queen named Shagaret El Dor (which means "Tree of Pearls" in Arabic). Sometimes her name is spelled as "Shajar al-Durr". She was the only woman to ever rule Egypt alone during the Islamic period.

It was in fact Shagaret El Dor, not Cleopatra, who was the last woman to ever sit on the throne of Egypt. Though her reign was short, lasting only 80 days, it was fascinating and filled with intrigue, jealousy and murder.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This sketch of Shagaret el Dor was scanned from a 1966 Lebanese book titled Saladin: The Story of the Conflict Between East and West During the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries AD.

Sketch of Shagaret el Dor

 

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Her Early Years

Shagaret El Dor's origin is uncertain. Some say she was Turkish, others say she was Armenian.

Most historians believe that she was the daughter of a Sultan of Tabriz in Persia who, upon learning of the imminent invasion by the Moghuls, fled for his life. When his wife learned of her husband's cowardice, she divorced him, fled with her daughter Shagaret el Dor, and re-married, this time to the Sultan Galal el Din. However, Galal el Din also lost his sultanate to the Moghuls, and he died on an island in the Caspian Sea.

Shagaret el Dor's mother died soon after as well, leaving her daughter to be sold into slavery. She was bought and sold several times as a gariyeh until she came to be owned by an Egyptian prince named El Saleh Negm el Din Ayyub. He had taken up residence in Iraq after having been banished from Egypt. She soon became his favorite. He fell in love with her and married her in 1240.

Saleh Negm el Din Ayyub eventually returned to Egypt, taking Shagaret El Dor with him. In the year 1249, crusaders of the seventh crusade led by France's King Louis IX landed in Egypt and pushed their way to El Mansoura. During this time, Negm el Din fell gravely ill with a fever and eventually died. Shagaret El Dor kept her husband's death a secret and continued to rule Egypt alone, not wanting the army to become demoralized by the news. Under her leadership, the Egyptian army defeated Louis IX and held him prisoner in El Mansoura.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This poster advertises the 1935 film called Shagaret el Dor starring Lebanese actress/director Assia Dagher. This movie was billed as the first historical Egyptian film ever made. The picture shows Assia Dagher and Abdel Rahman Rushdie. Click the above link for the translation of the caption below the photo.

Shagaret el Dor Movie Poster

 

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Turan Shah

Shagaret El Dor sent word to Negm el Din's son and heir, Turan Shah, who was in Iraq and unaware of his father's death. Turan Shah was a slow-witted man with a nervous twitch, and he was prone to odd behavior. His father had never trusted him. He arrived in Egypt after the war had ended and he assumed the throne three months after the death of his father.

But he was not grateful that Shagaret el Dor and the army had been victorious against the invading Christian armies. There were continued conflicts between him and his stepmother, and he was also on bad terms with the army. He demanded to know where all the money was, and Shagaret El Dor told him that it had all been spent on the war. As a result of his increasing hostility she soon fled to Jerusalem, fearing for her life.

Finally, the army decided that enough was enough and they made the decision to have Turan Shah killed. Written accounts of the murder report that it was Fares Eldin Aktay, a hot-headed army commander who did the deed.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This movie poster advertises the 1961 film Wa Islamah (Oh Islam). It was an Egyptian/Italian production featuring Taheya Carioca in the role of Shagaret el Dor. The movie is not exactly historically accurate, but it's quite entertaining to see her in a non-dancing role. The film also starred her ex-husband Rushdie Abaza.

Wa Islamah

 

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Sultana of Egypt

After Turan Shah's death, Shagaret el Dor was declared Sultana of Egypt. This decision, however, did not sit well with many of the men, and she faced opposition from all directions:

  • There was the general population of Egypt, who refused to be governed by a woman.
  • There were the religious leaders who said that Islam didn't allow for a woman to rule.
  • There was pressure from the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. The Caliph himself sent a scornful message to Egypt saying, "We've heard that you're governed by a woman now. If you've run out of men in Egypt let us know so that we can send you a man to rule over you."
  • There was the Ayyubid family in Syria who were infuriated by the murder of Sultan Turan Shah in Egypt.

Consequently, the army urged Shagaret El Dor to marry and to allow her husband to assume the position of Sultan. However, to Shagaret el Dor it was of utmost importance to choose a husband who would not clash with her strong personality. She wanted someone who would be willing to accept her as co-regent and not demand she be an obedient and docile wife. 

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This drawing depicts the real-life woman, Shagaret el Dor.

She was to choose between two of her army leaders, Ezzeldin Aybak and Fares Eldin Aktay. She decided to choose Ezzeldin Aybak because of his calm nature, which she thought would make it easier for her to control him and thus control Egypt. She married him after having governed Egypt alone for 80 days.

From the start, Shagaret el Dor forbade her husband from seeing his first wife Oum Ali or his son Ali. She began to view the volatile and hot-tempered Fares Eldin Aktay as her rival in controlling the army and she soon convinced her husband to have him killed, alleging that Fares Eldin Aktay was a powerful leader who could turn against them and become their enemy at any moment. 

It didn't take long for Ezzeldin Aybak to begin to feel overly confident in his role as Sultan. Only a few years later, his attitude towards Shagaret el Dor began to change. He became increasingly aggressive towards her, and he resented the fact that she was as powerful as he. He now insisted that she stay at home and assume the role of a quiet and obedient wife.

Shagaret el Dor

In just a short time, she had lost everything. She realized that she had lost the throne, she lost control of the government and she had lost any importance in the eyes of her husband, as he was now preparing to marry another wife. Shagaret el Dor was infuriated by this turn of events. And so she hatched a murderous plan. She sent word to her husband telling him that she was ready to obey him and that she would submit to his will. However, she secretly planned to kill him.

After receiving her encouraging words Ezzeldin Aybak decided to go to see her, but he was promptly murdered by her servants as he bathed in a pool. The following morning, Shagaret el Dor claimed that she didn't know a thing and that she had found him dead. Nobody believed her. 

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows Badia Masabni in the role of Shagara el Dor in a play called Famous Women. Probably from 1935. Click here for the translation of the caption, elsewhere on this web site.

Badia Masabni as Shagaret el Dor

 

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The End of Her Story

Ezzeldin Aybak's first wife Oum Ali wanted revenge for the death of her husband, and she was able to bribe the palace guards as well as the slaves of Shagaret el Dor, and she paid them to kill her. They accomplished this by beating her to death with wooden clogs. Shagaret el Dor was then thrown out over the citadel's walls and left hanging for three days after which, much like the biblical Jezebel, her body was devoured by dogs. Her remains were eventually gathered up and she was buried in a mausoleum that she had built for herself. It still stands today in Cairo on Al Khalifa Street and attracts many tourists.

Legend has it that the Egyptian sweet called Oum Ali was named after the woman who killed her. It is said that Oum Ali was so happy to have killed the woman who murdered her husband that she decided to celebrate and she ordered the palace cooks to make huge amounts of sweets which she then distributed among the poor.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Shagaret el Dor's remains were interred in this mausoleum on El Khalifa Street. She had built it for herself while she was alive.

Mausoleum

 

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Related Articles

 

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About the Translator

Priscilla is a dancer of Lebanese heritage who enjoys researching the Golden Era of Egyptian dance. She owns a collection of more than one hundred classic black and white Egyptian films which is continually expanding.

Priscilla has also gathered a large library of dance related articles and clippings from Middle Eastern magazines and newspapers, many of which she has translated from the original Arabic to both English and Spanish.

Priscilla currently resides in Central America where she is a dance instructor. 

Priscilla

 

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