expectancy was short for kings and princes in this region. If a man were not killed in battle he could be struck down by disease or mishap. Women began to outlive the male relatives who normally would have controlled them, and to become lynchpins of power and political loyalty in their own right. Melisende’s sister, Alice of Antioch, led rebellions against the kings of Jerusalem and her other sister, Countess Hodierna, ruled Tripoli after her husband’s assassination. Melisende’s granddaughter Sibylla would play a leading role in the defence of Jerusalem against Saladin.
The Christian Crusader states were not the only arenas in which women were beginning to wield more power. Zumurrud of Damascus, mother of the city’s ruler Isma’il, emerged as a central figure in the politics of Damascus just as Melisende was rising to power in Jerusalem. As the widow of one ruler and the mother of another, Zumurrud was not invested with legal authority in the way that Melisende was, but nevertheless she proved herself to be a woman of considerable influence in the city.
Zumurrud’s son Isma’il had seized power in 1133 following his father’s assassination. He was a volatile character who swiftly developed a reputation for greed and cruelty. Before too long he had completely alienated the court of Damascus. The final straw came when he threatened to surrender the city to another warlord, the Atabeg Zengi, and Zumurrud took matters into her own hands. She was approached by mutinous members of the court, and was begged to act decisively against her son. This she did, commanding his slaves to assassinate him while he bathed, before dragging his body to a public space so all could see his reign of terror was ended. It is clear she had for some time been seen as the power behind the throne, and following this event became kingmaker in Damascus. She installed another son as lord and then she married their rival Zengi. While Zumurrud was never formally recognised as a legitimate ruler, the fact that despairing politicians came to her to intervene with the king demonstrates the respect and power she commanded in Damascus. Both Melisende and
Zumurrud were tireless patrons of the arts, architecture and the church, with Melisende undertaking the great expansion of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Zumurrud building the Madrasa Khatuniyya in Damascus, an impressive domed building standing to this day. This was the last major female contribution to the religious topography of Damascus until the time of supremacy of Saladin. Moreover, Zumurrud does not stand alone as a powerful woman in the medieval Islamic world: the unnamed wife of both Nur ad-Din and Saladin commanded the defence at the siege of Banyas and carried out negotiations with the king of Jerusalem. A century after Zumurrud, Shajar al-Durr ruled independently as the Sultana of Egypt, albeit for only three months.
Aristocratic women represented
The Raising of Lazarus, an illumination from The Melisende Psalter. Areas, especially around the hands and feet of Christ, have been worn away, perhaps by Melisende’s kisses. British Library. Photo: Alamy.
a major force in the politics of the medieval Middle East, in both Christian and Islamic spheres. The unsung role played by these women represents a rich field of study, worthy of further attention. A unique group of women rulers, they were unafraid to challenge the patriarchal structures of the day, and take risks to make their voices heard. They were strong individuals with political agency, ambition and the gumption to capitalise on any opportunity that came their way.
Queens of Jerusalem: The Women Who Dared to Rule by Katherine Pangonis is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
British Museum Magazine Winter 2021