Shajarat a-Durr was believed by many to be the reason why the Mamluks took control of the Middle East. She had an intriguing life, ending with her being beaten to death with wooden shoes. She was a leader, a Sultana, and always controversial. She was the final Ayyubid leader and the first Mamluk. She was a Christian concubine brought into Islam. She was married to Salih Ayyub and her elevation to the position of wife gave her many privileges.
While the Sultan's away the wifey will play...
Louis IX of France decided to spearhead a crusade against primarily Islamic Egypt. Damietta, Egypt is located in the mouth of the Nile delta and made a prime target for an attack. Sultan Ayyub was away and Shajarat declared herself regent and organized a defense. The Sultan returned and shortly died (under circumstances that remain suspect to this day). Shajarat hid his death and tells the people that he is only sick. She even had servants bring him food to make it seem as though he was O.K. She continued to be regent while he was "sick".
She had a step-son named Turan who showed up one day at the palace. She told him what happened to his father and he took control of the Sultanate. She still managed to boss him around. She lead an assault and beat the French Crusaders and held the King of France hostage. Turan tried to take credit but people chose to have her in power instead. One of the reasons for this is that she had the ability to assert Turkish/circassian hegemony in the area. The population of circassian (Caucasians) and Turkish people felt underrepresented in the area, some historians say.
She supposedly plotted the murder of Turan and he was killed soon thereafter. The people put her on the throne when the Mamluks took over. The first thing she did was have coins struck in her name (to spread her name and ideas of her wealth throughout the area). Another way that historians have assessed her power was that there are copies of sermons that were given in Egypt, Jerusalem, Syria, and Palestine that mention her.
..And they beat her to death with their own shoes... Really, who throws a shoe!
People started to have a problem with having a woman (and a dubious one, at that) in power, so the leaders in Iraq sent a message saying that since they have no man fit to be Sultan, they'll send her one. She resigned her position in 1250 after only 2 months of being Sultana. Aibak took control after her. She seduced him and married him. There is proof of literature that was contracted to be written about how great their romance was. She manipulated him and essentially ruled for another seven years. A contemporary historian of the time said "She dominates him and he has nothing to say". There is proof that she signed his decrees, and had coins minted with both of their names. She still called herself Sultana.
After seven years, she didn't want to share power any more. She had talked Aibak into divorcing all of his other wives (even the one he had a son with). He wanted to marry again, so she plotted to have him killed. After Aibak got back from a polo match, her eunuchs killed him while he was in a bath. She tried to cover it up but she had an enemy who wanted revenge. Aibak's ex-wife instigated riots in Cairo in protest.
In a no doubt bloody scene, Shajarat was beaten to death with wooden shoes. She was thrown into the street and torn apart by jackals and dogs. Her cleaned bones were then collected and she was buried at a mosque in Cairo. Her inscription reads "Those of you who stand beside by grave, don't be surprised by my condition. Yesterday I was as you, and tomorrow you will be as me." There is no indication of who is buried there on the inscription.
There is a historical theory that the military planned all of her plots and that she wasn't to blame, but that theory is also seen as historians trying to assert patriarchal power. Everyone agrees on the absolute facts that are given, but there are questions as to how they happened. She was in control and working with the military. The argument is how she could have made it as far as she did as a woman. Also, some of the killings are questionable. She is portrayed in European literature as a witch, and Islamic texts say that she is a "wizardess in the art of the flesh".
Notes from a lecture by Dr. Nancy Stockdale in the class “Islam and Empires”