Classical Numismatic Group, LLC
Islamic Auction 5  18-19 Apr 2024
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Lot 151

Estimate: 100 000 USD
Price realized: 95 000 USD
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Bahri Mamluks. Shajar al-Durr. AH 648 / AD 1250. AV Dinar (22.1mm, 4.23 g, 3h). Al-Qahira mint. Dated AH 648 (AD 1250). Obverse field: al-Imam / al-Musta'sim / billah Abu Ahmad 'Abd / Allah amir al-mu'minin / Reverse field: al-mu'minin / al-Musta'simiyya al-Salihiya / Malika al-muslimin wa'l-Dahat / al-Malik al-Mansur Khalil / Amir. Balog, Mamluk 1; BMC III, 469 (same dies); cf. Stacks Bowers & Ponterio (13 January 2023) lot 23325; Album 868. Minor edge marks. Near EF. Of the highest rarity, a famous and historically important coin.

Celebrated by contemporary writers for her intelligence, piety and love of the arts as well as her beauty, Shajar al-Durr, was purchased as a slave by the Ayyubid ruler al-Salih b. Ayyub (AH 636-647 / AD 1238-1249). She is thought to have been of Turkic or Armenian heritage, and her given name is not known (the epithet Shajar al-Durr, by which she is known today means 'Tree of Pearls' in Arabic). After al-Salih b. Ayyub became the Ayyubid Sultan, she bore him a son, Khalil, after which al-Salih married her.

In AH 647, Egypt was faced with the prospect of invasion by the Seventh Crusade, led by King Louis IX of France. Al-Salih b. Ayyub, who was already terminally ill, went from Syria to the mouth of the Nile in order to meet the Crusader threat, but his declining health forced him to retreat to the safety of the fortified town of al-Mansura. Louis's army was thus able to land at Damietta largely unopposed, capturing the bridge which connected the city with the west bank of the Nile. The inhabitants fled, and the Crusaders occupied the deserted city. Louis soon began preparations for an advance on Cairo.

With al-Salih b. Ayyub on his deathbed and the Crusaders threatening to attack the Ayyubid capital, the fate of Egypt hung in the balance. But Louis' need to wait for reinforcements, plus a combination of the summer heat, the seasonal Nile floods and persistent harassment of the Crusader army by Muslim guerillas, meant that he was slow to move south from Damietta. Aware that the death of al-Salih b. Ayyub might throw Egypt into turmoil, Shajar al-Durr thus had time to plan accordingly. She arranged with the commander of the army and the chief palace eunuch that al-Salih's death should be concealed, and the deceased Sultan's body was secretly taken by boat to a castle on an island in the Nile. As it appears that al-Salih himself had left no instructions regarding his choice of successor, Shajar al-Durr arranged for al-Mu'azzam Turanshah, one of al-Salih's sons, to be summoned from Hisn Kayfa to succeed his father as Ayyubid Sultan. Meanwhile, Shajar al-Durr continued to have food prepared and brought to her deceased husband's tent, supporting the fiction that he was still alive. Thus when al-Salih's soldiers and ministers were ordered to give their allegiance to Turanshah, they believed they were acting in accordance with the dying al-Salih's wishes. Once Turanshah had arrived in Egypt and been formally enthroned as Sultan, Shajar al-Durr allowed al-Salih's death to become public knowledge.

When this news reached the Crusaders, Louis ordered a southward advance on Cairo, surprising and defeating an Ayyubid force encamped about two miles north of the palace of al-Mansura. With Turanshah himself yet to reach the city, the decision to mount a defence of al-Mansura fell to Shajar al-Durr and her commanders, who included the future Mamluk rulers Aybak, Baybars and Qala'un. It was Baybars who devised the plan of opening the gates of al-Mansura to let the Crusaders within the city walls. Believing the city to be deserted, the Crusaders poured into al-Mansura only to be attacked from all sides by the Ayyubid army with support from the townspeople. The result was a massacre, and of the contingent of Knights Templar who accompanied the Crusaders into the city it is recorded that only five men escaped alive. Two months later, Turanshah himself led the army which annihilated the Seventh Crusade at the battle of Fariskur. Louis IX was captured, and eventually ransomed for the sum of 400,000 dinars. The Crusaders never again made a serious attempt to invade Egypt.

But while the Crusaders had been crushed, matters were anything but harmonious between the victors. Turanshah, clearly feeling threatened by the power of Shajar al-Durr and her mamluks, immediately began to replace serving officials with his own loyal supporters, and also wrote to Shajar al-Durr to demand that she hand over al-Salih's treasury to him. If Turanshah expected Shajar al-Durr to be intimidated into subservience, however, he was fatally mistaken. Barely a month after the victory at Fariskur, Turanshah was assassinated by a group of Mamluks under the leadership of Baybars, bringing Ayyubid rule in Egypt to an abrupt end. Remarkably, the Mamluks took the decision to install Shajar al-Durr herself as the new ruler, with Aybak appointed as her commander-in-chief. Thus for the first time since Cleopatra, a woman ruled over Egypt.

Unfortunately for Shajar al-Durr, however, other powers in the region proved hostile to her rule. The various Ayyubid rulers in Syria refused to accept her as their overlord, so that Damascus chose to acknowledge the Ayyubid Amir of Halab instead. While the Mamluks could respond to this by taking measures against pro-Ayyubid governors and officials in Egypt, they could do nothing in the face of the refusal by the 'Abbasid caliph, al-Musta'sim, to confirm Shajar al-Durr as ruler in Egypt. Without the legitimacy conferred by formal recognition from the caliph, Shajar al-Durr's position was unsustainable, and the Mamluks knew it. Their solution was to arrange for her to marry Aybak and to abdicate in his favour, leaving him to rule as Sultan. Duly mollified, the caliph gave the new ruler his approval. The Ayyubids remained hostile, but al-Musta'sim intervened, conscious that with Mongol raiding parties not far from Baghdad he would need support from both sides. The resulting agreement saw the formal recognition of the Mamluk state, which would be a dominant force in the region for centuries to come.

While Shajar al-Durr's reign only lasted some eighty days, she remained a formidable political force in the region after her abdication. From Aybak's perspective, this proved something of a mixed blessing: he gained legitimacy through being married to a former Sultana who had herself previously been al-Salih b. Ayyub's wife, but her continuing involvement in politics made it harder for him to establish himself as a strong and independent ruler in his own right. A powerful group of Mamluks including Baybars and Qala'un remained loyal to Shajar al-Durr rather than to Aybak, and eventually Aybak felt sufficiently threatened to move against them, executing their leader Altay. Relations between Aybak and Shajar al-Durr continued to deteriorate, with Shajar al-Durr both attempting to take personal control of state affairs while also demanding a divorce. Eventually, seeking a political ally who could support him against Shajar al-Durr and her faction, Aybak married the daughter of the ruler of Mawsil, Badr al-Din Lu'lu'. Betrayed both personally and politically by the husband whom she had made Sultan, Shajar al-Durr's response was to arrange for Aybak to be murdered in his bath early in AH 655. But the servants who killed Aybak confessed their crime under torture, and only a few days later Shajar al-Durr herself was beaten to death by slave-women belonging to Aybak's first wife, who was also the mother of his successor, al-Mansur 'Ali. Her magnificent tomb, near the Mosque of Tulun in Cairo, survives today.
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