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Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt

by Jurji Zaydan

Publication Year: 2012

Shajar al-Durr, known as Tree of Pearls, was one of the most famous Arab queens and the only woman in the medieval Arab world to rule in her own name. Her story is one element of a much larger story of the unsettled political climate of thirteenth century Egypt. In this eponymous novel, Zaydan charts the fall of the Ayyubid Dynasty and the rise of the Mamluke Dynasty through the adventures of Tree of Pearls and Rukn al-Din Baybars, a young Mamluke commander who eventually triumphs as the ruler of Egypt. War, political intrigue, murder, and a female ruler who was born a slave combine to give readers an irresistible story, while Zaydan’s keen observations on royal politics and subverted gender roles offer readers a richly detailed glimpse of the cultural milieu of the time. Tree of Pearls, originally published in 1914, is the last of a famous series of historical novels written by Zaydan, an accomplished histo­rian whose books continue to be read widely in the Arab world today. Samah Selim’s fluid translation brings an English audience to one of the Arab world’s influential writers.

Published by: Syracuse University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

Translator’s Note

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pp. ix-xii

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The Ayyubid Dynasty: A Historical Summary

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pp. 1-2

We have elsewhere recounted the story of Saladin and how Egypt came into his possession. It was Saladin who constructed the Citadel of Cairo, took it as his royal seat, and therein founded his dynasty. His sons and brothers, their children, and their grandchildren shared between them dominion over the lands of Egypt and Syria ...

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The Garden Isle

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pp. 3-9

“You flatter me, Shwaykar, and speak not the truth. Which of us derives the most pleasure from the other’s company? Can it be you, when I have nothing to speak of but the worries and anxieties of politics? Or is it I, God having endowed you with everything a singing-girl requires of beauty, intelligence, richness of voice and graceful conversation? ...

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Rukn al-Din Baybars

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pp. 10-13

The great hall, to whose elegance and ornament the Good King had devoted his greatest energy, was one of the most gorgeous in the palace. It was a vast chamber raised on marble columns, its ceiling decorated with frescos and engravings in the Qurnus style and its walls of colored marble covered in exquisite gold-leaf calligraphy. ...

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An Amorous Interlude

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pp. 14-16

Though tree of pearls remained perfectly still during this account of the death of Giyath al-Din, her eyes betrayed the deepest interest. “Turan Shah is then truly dead!” she whispered when Rukn al-Din had finished speaking. “God have mercy on his soul. He erred in his judgment. ...

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‘Izz al-Din Aybak

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pp. 17-19

After Rukn al-Din’s departure, Tree of Pearls rose and gathered the long train of her robes behind her. Shwaykar rose in turn to await her mistress’s command. Tree of Pearls was not entirely easy in her mind as to whether she had done well by her handmaiden in pledging her to Rukn al-Din....

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Good Tidings

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pp. 20-24

He was not kept waiting for long. The eunuch appeared and announced his mistress, and ‘Izz al-Din rose to greet her. Tree of Pearls now stood before him, and ‘Izz al-Din fell upon her hands as though to kiss them. She started and drew back from him in a graceful gesture of modesty. He motioned to her to take her seat upon the couch and seated himself by her side. ...

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Sallafa and Sahban

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pp. 25-31

By sunrise of the following day, the inhabitants of the Garden Island had all heard the news of Tree of Pearls’s impending coronation as Egypt’s Queen. Many were those who wondered at this news, while her fellow royal concubines received it with no small measure of envy—most particularly a Kurdish concubine by the name of Sallafa, ...

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The Coronation

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pp. 32-36

The next day, Cairo was abuzz with excitement. The townsfolk, mounted and on foot, men and women, crowded round the Citadel, and the Ramliyya square that spread out at its foot bustled with people of all classes. Hawkers selling pastry, fruit, sweets, and all manner of preserved foods and freshly prepared dishes mingled with the crowds, ...

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The Engagement

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pp. 37-45

Once alone in her chambers, Tree of Pearls gave herself up to the ministrations of the slaves and eunuchs who proceeded to carefully remove her heavy ceremonial robes and ornaments and to dress her in more comfortable loose-fitting garments. After they had completed this task she ordered them to leave her, and now quite alone she sank into a deep reverie. ...

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An Important Visitor

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pp. 46-50

After taking his leave of tree of pearls, ‘Izz al-Din returned to his quarters in the Citadel. The chamber he now entered looked out over the grand vista of Cairo. He oft en came here when he had need of solitude in which to think, and he accordingly gave himself up to reflections on the events of the day and his mistress’s strange comportment. ...

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The Caliph’s Messenger

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pp. 51-53

One fine morning not long thereafter, the people of Cairo woke to whispered news of the arrival of a messenger from the Caliph in Baghdad. It was said that this messenger had caused his magnificent pavilions to be raised on the outskirts of the city, and the entire population now eagerly engaged in diverse attempts to divine the contents of the letter ...

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The Caliph’s Decree

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pp. 54-58

Towards midday, the courtyard of the Citadel overflowed with people and news of the messenger’s arrival spread like wildfire. The Chamberlain had solemnly come forth to conduct him into the Great Hall where the princes waited, ranged in twin rows that led all the way up to the raised dais on which sat Tree of Pearls and Shwaykar behind their screen. ...

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An Unexpected Demand

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pp. 59-63

As we have seen in the course of this narration, by nightfall of that momentous day Tree of Pearls had been precipitously toppled from the throne of Egypt, Musa Bin Salah al-Din invested in her place with the title of Al-Ashraf, the Most Honorable King, and ‘Izz al-Din Aybak installed as his Regent. ‘ ...

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Rukn al-Din and Tree of Pearls

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pp. 64-69

‘Izz al-Din was justified in taking this precaution, for Tree of Pearls had determined to encourage Shwaykar to fly and to aid her in the undertaking. Quickly realizing that all avenues of escape had been barred, however, she waxed furious at ‘Izz al-Din’s foresight. She now resigned herself to the inevitable and set about doing her best to comfort the wretched girl. ...

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A Secret Conversation

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pp. 70-75

Rukn al-Din returned immediately to his quarters in the Citadel. He informed no one of his arrival and he postponed his meeting with ‘Izz al-Din to the morrow. He dismissed the servants and shut the door to his bedchamber fast behind him; then he undressed while mulling over all the extraordinary things he had heard that day. ...

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pp. 76-79

The days and weeks passed and Rukn al-Din was greatly occupied by the duties of his office, for ‘Izz al-Din had kept him in the post of Dawadar to the new King. He was haunted by thoughts of Shwaykar, however, and he pined for news of her in Baghdad. He could not make up his mind whether to follow her there or to wait until he had received some proof ...

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pp. 80-84

Rukn al-Din stood nailed to the spot, lost in thought. Then he became once again conscious of Tree of Pearls, who had finished reading the letter, her face flushed with mounting fury. She met his look fiercely. “Such are the actions of caliphs who disdain to place a woman on the throne! Here is your Musta‘sim, Commander of the Faithful. ...

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Another Messenger

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pp. 85-86

Rukn al-Din sorely wished to gain the peace and solitude of his rooms in order to ponder his remarkable conference with Tree of Pearls. He pressed on but could barely make out his way in the dark, so disturbed was he by the evening’s events. He was not to have his wish, however, for the sentry hurried towards him as he reached the door to his quarters. ...

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Rukn al-Din and Sallafa

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pp. 87-91

She extended her hand in greeting, and Rukn al-Din took it in his. Her fingers, which were cold as ice to his touch, made him shiver slightly. She led him by the hand to a seat in the very center of the candlelit room and gracefully arranged herself on a pile of cushions by his side. Once thus installed, she gazed at him in silence. ...

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The Departure

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pp. 92-93

Rukn al-Din breathed a sigh of relief as he hurried to quit the oppressive mansion. On the way back to the Citadel, he reviewed all that had passed between him and Sallafa on this inauspicious evening. Now that he had met her in person, he well understood her legendary reputation at court, and he was forced to admit that he was not a little in awe of her. ...

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pp. 94-95

Baghdad had reached the zenith of its architectural glory in the days of Al-Ma’mun. Its numerous buildings and gardens extended over a vast area the size of which was estimated to be 53,750 juribs; 26,750 to the east and 27,000 to the west (a jurib being the equivalent of 3,600 square cubits, and its proportional relation to the feddan, about 100 to 333). ...

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The Palaces of Baghdad

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pp. 96-98

The mighty Tigris was traversed by two bridges that connected the eastern and western parts of the city and served a busy traffic of people and goods. These bridges were built of wooden planks fixed to round floats. The more important of the two lay between the quarter called ‘Isa’s Palace and al-Rusafa. ...

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Mu’ayyid al-Din Ibn al-Alqami

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pp. 99-104

The day finally came when Mu’ayyid al-Din had had enough of this state of affairs. Of what use were all his efforts when in the end they served neither himself nor the Empire? On this day he decided to remain at home and while away the morning on the terrace that gave out onto the Tigris and the wide panorama of al-Rusafa and Karkh. ...

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pp. 105-109

Mu’ayyid al-Din on the other hand, was a fastidious and farsighted man who carefully considered all obstacles and patiently set out to overcome them. If not for this, he would never have risen to the post of First Minister in a government whose religious doctrine was different from his own, and especially amongst a clan that hated and persecuted the Shi‘a. ...

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pp. 110-115

Mu’ayyid al-Din donned his cap and black cape and mounted his mule. Just as Sahban had guessed, he meant to see the Caliph to protest the unacceptable behavior of the imperial troops. He passed first the Mustansiriyya School, then the Husayni Palace before finally arriving at the Palace of the Crown. ...

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Ahmad, Son of Al-Musta‘sim

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pp. 116-118

Abu Bakr, barely past his twentieth year, moved with the preening self-importance of vacuous youth. With every step his arrogant bearing declared his self-proclaimed perfection. At this age, young men sincerely believe their surpassing beauty and virility to be a magnet for all eyes and if they but speak, they expect their words to fall as revelation upon the ears of those around them. ...

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pp. 119-124

As he approached his palace, he noticed two mules tethered to the post outside the gates. One of these he immediately recognized as belonging to Sahban. At his knock the gates were thrown open, and he entered the spacious courtyard. The page who rushed forward to help him dismount led the mule away to the stables. ...

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The Dervish

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pp. 125-130

As soon as Mu’ayyid al-Din found himself alone again, he mounted to the terrace and stretched out on a couch. He thirsted for the quiet solitude in which to ponder his great dilemma. The sun was about to set and the Tigris glittered gold in the sun’s mellow rays. Hearing the sunset call to prayer, he rose and set off on foot for a nearby mosque, ...

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A New Guest

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pp. 131-134

While he was thus engaged, Mu’ayyid al-Din suddenly heard a violent knock at the outer door. The Chamberlain arrived to inform him that Sahban and a companion wished to pay him a visit. Mu’ayyid al-Din breathed a sigh of relief. At last, Sahban! He wondered who his companion might be this time. ...

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The Message

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pp. 135-137

Mu’ayyid al-din accompanied his guests to the outer door. Upon returning to his rooms he immediately resumed the search for Hulagu’s missing letter. He finally gave up, exhausted, and cold dread crept through his veins, for he knew full well that he was surrounded by enemies who awaited the slightest excuse to denounce him. ...

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pp. 138-140

Days went by and Mu’ayyid al-Din almost forgot Hulagu and the missing letter; nor did any inauspicious news of Abu Bakr reach his ears. From this he inferred that all was well. He hoped that the young Prince had repented of his ways, having finally understood the fratricidal dangers that beset the Empire. ...

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The Accusation

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pp. 141-146

This innuendo shook Mu’ayyid al-Din profoundly, and the missing letter once again came to his mind. He studiously ignored the youth’s impudent remark, however, and turned once more to the Caliph. “Sire, I am still convinced of the wisdom of my earlier opinion. The money we have conserved will suffice to satisfy Hulagu and avert war. ...

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A Father’s Love

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pp. 147-152

Having finally ascertained the truth, the Caliph clapped for a page and ordered him to take Shwaykar to the Custodian of the Imperial Harem, and he charged the page to make sure that she be honored and given every possible comfort. He then turned to the Dawadar. “You have just heard that Ahmad was aided in this criminal exploit by men from amongst our own troops. ...

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Shwaykar in the Women’s Quarters

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pp. 153-159

Shwaykar reluctantly accompanied the Caliph’s page to the Imperial Harem. As she silently followed him from hall to hall, she struggled to summon forth her gratitude for this sudden change of residence, for Prince Abu Bakr had clearly signaled his intention of using her for a purpose other than singing. ...

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The Subterfuge

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pp. 160-163

Sallafa paced the room, frowning deeply as though pondering a momentous problem. “Listen closely,” she suddenly said. “If you insist on returning to Egypt, then we must not waste a single moment. Once the Commander of the Faithful has heard you sing it will be exceedingly difficult to remove you from Baghdad.” ...

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A Newcomer

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pp. 164-169

Meanwhile, mu’ayyid al-din, having sent his unwitting messenger to Hulagu, was once more plunged into mental turmoil. Remorse and relief competed for dominion over him, though relief was foremost. He remained cloistered at home all that day, and for many days aft er, as well, for the staggering nature of the deed he had committed ...

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The Tatars

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pp. 170-173

Baghdad was much changed since Rukn al-Din had last seen it in the days of his youth. The neighborhood of Qadhimiyya lay on the other side of the Tigris from the Minister’s palace. With Sahban as his guide he crossed the bridge to the western portion of Baghdad, where the city that Al-Mansur had built five and a half centuries earlier had lain. ...

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pp. 174-176

Finally, they arrived at sahban’s house. Sahban welcomed his guest and bade him be seated in the reception room while he went to inquire after ‘Abid. A few moments later, he reappeared with the gentle eunuch. As soon as he saw Rukn al-Din, tears sprang to his eyes and he grasped the Prince’s hand to kiss it. ...

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Rukn al-Din and Sahban

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pp. 177-179

Now finding himself alone, Rukn al-Din was plunged into gloomy reflections on Baghdad’s imminent fate. He was inclined to believe that the Tatars would be victorious in the coming battle. If they did indeed manage to take the city, would they overthrow the government and bring down the Caliphate? ...

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An Important Message

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pp. 180-181

The boy entered and bowed deeply. “A note from my Lady to your Lordship,” he said, and placed a slender scroll in Rukn al-Din’s hand. From Sallafa to Prince Rukn al-Din, it began. It has come to my knowledge that you are presently in Baghdad, as am I. There is a matter of great importance that I wish to discuss with you. Pray come to my palace at the Kalwadhi Gate ...

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The Meeting

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pp. 182-185

A page emerged from the palace and beckoned to him to follow. There, at the doors of the sumptuous edifice, stood Sallafa, arrayed in her most magnificent robes and jewels and armed with her most effective arts of seduction. Rukn al-Din marshaled his prudence and his abiding love for Shwaykar. ...

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At the Palace of the Crown

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pp. 186-190

A servant entered to announce the Caliph’s Majordomo, and Sallafa rose to meet him at the door. She welcomed him effusively and escorted him into the hall. Pointing to Rukn al-Din, she said, “This is the Prince Rukn al-Din al- Bunduqari, who vanquished the Franks and repelled them from Egypt. ...

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The Truth

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pp. 191-196

Rukn al-Din was escorted into Mu’ayyid al-Din’s private chambers and found the Minister, who had arrived, himself, but a few moments earlier, restlessly pacing the room with furrowed brow and an expression of the greatest distress on his face. Sahban sat silently by, waiting for the Minister to acknowledge his presence with a word. ...

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Tree of Pearls and ‘Izz al-Din

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pp. 197-200

The words “Egypt’s throne” set his heart pounding anew and cooled his wrath. He wished her with all his soul to prove the truth of her words. He therefore remained silent as she gazed curiously at him and finally, taking his hand, she led him to a small terrace overlooking the Tigris. She nodded for him to be seated and seated herself beside him. ...

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The Imam Ahmad’s Palace

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pp. 201-208

'Abid hurriedly met him at the gates with their saddled mounts. “May your right hand ever be firm!” he exclaimed. “You have avenged my Lady! Mount, my Lord, and let us leave this place.” Rukn al-Din instantly did as he was bidden, and they made haste to quit the empty palace gardens. ...

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pp. 209-211

They sat down to take their supper, and Prince Ahmad showed his guest the utmost consideration and hospitality, all the while warmly endeavoring to express his gratitude at having been saved from certain death. “Thank me not, your Excellency,” Rukn al-Din said to him. “It is surely only God’s reward for one of your own many acts of goodness.” ...

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pp. 212-216

As they were thus engaged, they heard a great uproar in the palace gardens. The Imam Ahmad was greatly alarmed by the sudden din, but Rukn al-Din had been expecting it and was only surprised that it had taken this long to transpire. He signaled to the Imam to remain calm, and swiftly made his way to the palace doors like a lion bracing for an enemy attack. ...

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pp. 217-232

The happy couple were married as soon as they reached Cairo. Nur al-Din, son of ‘Izz al-Din, was now Sultan of Egypt, just as Sallafa had claimed. Rukn al-Din easily incited the princes against the boy-sultan and they invested Sayf al-Din Qutuz, a noble scion of the Kings of Khurasan, in his stead in 1259. ...

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Tree of Pearls: An Afterword

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pp. 218-224

What’s in a name? My own acquaintance with the woman known as “Tree of Pearls”—Shagret ad-Durr, to cite the Egyptian pronunciation of her name—goes all the way back to my graduate student days in Cairo in 1966. At that time I was Director of Music at the city’s Anglican Cathedral and had diplomats as members of the choir, ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780815651932
E-ISBN-10: 0815651937
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815609995
Print-ISBN-10: 081560999X

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Shajarat al-Durr, Sultana of Egypt, d. 1257 -- Fiction.
  • Zaydān, Jirjī, 1861-1914 -- Translations into English.
  • Historical fiction. -- gsafd.
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