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Visible and Invisible Bodies: The Architectural Patronage of Shajar Al-Durr

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Whereas reliance on official texts such as chronicles often leads modern historians to overlook women, the built works of female patrons can provide a valuable historical source because they stand publicly for female patrons who were themselves unseen. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Damascus and Cairo without the visually prominent tombs and pious foundations of the otherwise invisible Fatimid and Ayyubid women. Among the latter was Shajar al-Durr, a Turkic concubine who rose from slavery to become the legitimate sultan of Egypt in 1250. Her short reign and subsequent marriage ended violently with her death in 1257, but in that space of time she made architectural innovations that ultimately inspired lasting changes in Cairo’s urban fabric. Shajar al-Durr’s impact as architectural patron was as pivotal as her political role: the tomb that she added to her husband’s madrasa led to his permanent and highly visible presence in central Cairo, an innovation that was followed in the endowed complexes of the Mamluks. In her own more modest tomb, she chose not monumentality but iconography, representing herself pictorially in dazzling mosaic, a daring gesture in a world where female propriety meant invisibility.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


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