D. Fairchild RugglesJan 5, 2022
Tree of Pearls
The Extraordinary Architectural Patronage of the 13th-Century Egyptian Slave-Queen Shajar Al-Durr
Oxford University Press 2020
Shajar al-Durr--known as "Tree of Pearls"--began her remarkable career as a child slave, given as property to Sultan Salih of Egypt. She became his concubine, was manumitted, became his wife, served as governing regent, and ultimately rose to become the legitimately appointed sultan of Egypt in 1250 after her husband's death. Shajar al-Durr used her wealth and power to add a tomb to his urban madrasa; with this innovation, madrasas and many other charitably endowed architectural complexes became commemorative monuments, a practice that remains widespread today. A highly unusual case of a Muslim woman authorized to rule in her own name, her reign ended after only three months when she was forced to share her governance with an army general and for political expediency to marry him.
Despite the fact that Shajar al-Durr's story ends tragically with her assassination and hasty burial, her deeds in her lifetime offer a stark alternative to the continued belief that women in the medieval period were unseen, anonymous, and inconsequential in a world that belonged to men. D. Fairchild Ruggles' Tree of Pearls: The Extraordinary Architectural Patronage of the 13th-Century Egyptian Slave-Queen Shajar Al-Durr (Oxford UP, 2020)--the first ever in English--places the rise and fall of the sultan-queen in the wider context of the cultural and architectural development of Cairo, the city that still holds one of the largest and most important collections of Islamic monuments in the world.
Tanja Tolar is a Senior Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.