Sitt al-Mulk (Arabic: ست الملك, lit. 'Lady of the Kingdom'; 970–1023), was a Fatimid princess. After the disappearance of her half-brother, the caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, in 1021, she was instrumental in securing the succession of her nephew Ali az-Zahir, and acted as the de facto ruler of the state until her death on 5 February 1023.
|Regent of the Fatimid Caliphate|
|Predecessor||al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah|
|Died||5 February 1023|
Family and early lifeEdit
She was born in September/October 970 at the palace-city of al-Mansuriya in Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia), to the prince Nizar—the future fifth Fatimid imam–caliph al-Aziz Billah (r. 975–996). Her mother was an unnamed concubine (umm walad), who is most likely to be identified with the al-Sayyida al-Aziziyya ("the Lady of al-Aziz") who is frequently mentioned in the sources. She was a Melkite Christian, most likely of Byzantine Greek origin, possibly of the provincial aristocracy of Sicily who were captured in the wars against the Byzantines there sometime before 965. It is known that al-Sayyida al-Aziziyya refused to convert to Islam. Al-Aziz's love for her was great, but scandalized pious Muslim opinion, especially at a time when al-Aziz was at war with the Byzantines in Syria; and reportedly caused suspicion that she was behind his tolerance towards Christians and Jews, which went as far as the appointment of a Christian, Isa ibn Nasturus, as vizier. In 986, two of her brothers were appointed to high office in the Melkite Church: Orestes became Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Arsenios was made metropolitan bishop of Fustat, and later Patriarch of Alexandria. It is still debated among modern scholars whether al-Sayyida al-Aziziyya was also the mother of Sitt al-Mulk's younger brother, and al-Aziz's heir and successor, al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996–1021), but the evidence appears to be against it.[a] When her mother died in November 995, the historian al-Maqrizi reports, Sitt al-Mulk held vigil at her tomb for one month. From her mother the princess inherited a slave girl, Taqarrub, who became her chief confidante and spy in the palace.
One year before the birth of Sitt al-Mulk, the Fatimid armies had conquered Egypt. A new capital, Cairo, was built there, and in 973, the Fatimid court moved from Ifriqiya to Egypt to take up residence there. Thus Sitt al-Mulk spent her childhood at the palace of Qasr al-Bahr on the shores of the Nile, and later had her own rooms in the Western Palace at Cairo.
Sitt al-Mulk was doted on by her father, and was his favourite daughter. Al-Aziz lavished gifts and wealth on her, and even put a military unit at her disposal. Her wealth allowed her to fund a number of charitable endowments. She was renowned for her beauty, but, following common Fatimid practice, she remained unmarried to avoid dynastic complications. Sitt al-Mulk inherited her father's open-mindedness and tolerance, and, uniquely among Fatimid palace ladies, appears to have been involved in politics. She exercised not a little influence on him during his reign, as seen by the attempt of the Christian vizier Isa ibn Nasturus, when he was dismissed from his post, to regain his post through her intercession (for which he placed 300,000 dinars at her disposal).
Reign of al-HakimEdit
Caliph al-Aziz died suddenly at Bilbays on 13 October 996, while preparing an expedition against the Byzantines. His sudden death opened the issue of succession, as the caliph's only surviving son, al-Mansur, was only eleven years old. His half-sister Sitt al-Mulk supported therefore another candidate, an adult son of the prince Abdallah, who had been the first designated heir to Caliph al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah (r. 953–975) but had died shortly before him, leading to the accession of al-Aziz. According to the Arab chroniclers, she had fallen in love with this otherwise unknown cousin and intended to marry him. The princess reportedly hurried back to Cairo with the senior courtiers and the palace guard to take control of the palace and raise her candidate to the throne, but the eunuch Barjawan, who was al-Mansur's tutor, pre-empted her by putting the crown on the boy's head as soon as news of al-Aziz's death arrived. Al-Mansur thus became caliph with the regnal name of al-Hakim bi Amr Allah, while Sitt al-Mulk was placed under house arrest.
Nevertheless, during the early part of al-Hakim's reign, the relations between Sitt al-Mulk and her brother appear to have been normal and even amicable, although not much information survives: in 997, she made him rich gifts, and soon after Barjawan's murder in 1000, which allowed al-Hakim to take over the reins of government himself, he conferred estates with an annual income of 100,000 gold dinars on her. In 1000, al-Hakim even married one of her slave girls. In at least one instance she also intervened to inform her brother, who was rather ignorant of state affairs, of a conspiracy by two senior officials that led to the execution of the vizier Abu'l-Ala Fahd ibn Ibrahim, followed by the extortion of vast sums from tax officials in Palestine. In 1013, she mediated with her brother for a pardon to the Jarrahid chieftain Hassan ibn Mufarrij, who had previously risen in revolt against Fatimid rule in Palestine along with his father, Mufarrij ibn Daghfal ibn al-Jarrah.
Soon, however, al-Hakim's reign began to degenerate into terror and arbitrary rule. The state suffered from an increasingly erratic governance, as the Caliph introduced doctrinal innovations, issued a bewildering array of prohibitions ranging from food and singing in public to dogs and baths, launched a persecution of Christians and Jews (culminating in the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009), purged the old guard of officials he had inherited from his father, and even seemed to accept the divine status accorded to him by some of the Isma'ili faithful, who would later found the Druze sect.
As a result, the two siblings drifted apart. The princess opposed to al-Hakim's intolerant politics, and he was jealous of her, suspecting her of having lovers, including among his generals. The event that most contributed to the rift between the two was connected to the succession: in 1013, al-Hakim chose a cousin, Abd al-Rahman ibn Ilyas, as the designated heir apparent (walī ʿahd al-muslimīn), violating the line of succession and overturning a century of precedent of excluding the males of the wider dynasty from all affairs of state. Sitt al-Mulk, wealthy and influential, remained committed to the succession of al-Hakim's surviving son Ali, and took him and his mother, the umm walad Ruqayya, into her palace to shield them from the Caliph. The downfall of al-Hakim's erstwhile favourite Malik ibn Sa'id al-Fariqi in 1014/5 is apparently related to this: Malik, who had been raised to head both the judiciary as chief qāḍī and of the Isma'ili daʿwa as chief dāʿī, was accused of being close to her (apparently siding with her over the choice of heir), and was executed.
On the night of 13 February 1021, her brother the Caliph disappeared during one of his nightly walks in the city, and after a couple of days of search, evidence of his murder was found, and he was declared dead. Of the three contemporary historians to write about these events (and who in turn provided the material for many later historians), the account of Baghdadi chronicler Hilal al-Sabi directly implicates the princess, writing that after Sitt al-Mulk quarreled with her brother over the direction of the state and the future of the dynasty, she began to fear that he would have her killed. She thus approached the Kutama general Ibn Dawwas, whom the Caliph suspected of being one of her lovers, and conspired with him to have al-Hakim killed, which was done by Ibn Dawwas' slaves. Given the fervently anti-Fatimid bias of Hilal, this account is suspect, but the later historians Sibt ibn al-Jawzi and Ibn Taghribirdi, apparently relying on the second contemporary account, that of the Egyptian Shafi'i qāḍī al-Quda'i, report that she ordered the execution of all those who participated in the conspiracy, thus revealing her own likely involvement in it. On the other hand, Yahya of Antioch, a Christian who had fled al-Hakim's persecution, mentions nothing of Sitt al-Mulk's involvement in al-Hakim's death. Modern scholars are likely divided, with some, such as Yaacov Lev and Fatema Mernissi, considering her participation as probable, and others, such as Heinz Halm, considering it dubious, since there were many other members of the Fatimid establishment, including Ibn Dawwas, who had am interest in removing the erratic caliph. Even Halm admits, however, that the rumours were persistent, and that, as the affair around Malik al-Fariqi shows, al-Hakim did not trust his sister.
Following the disappearance of al-Hakim, and before he was declared dead, Sitt al-Mulk moved to establish her own position, distributing money to the court dignitaries and military commanders (according to Hilal, with the aid of Ibn Dawwas). Hilal reports that al-Hakim's son Ali was raised to the throne, with the regnal name al-Zahir, only seven days after al-Hakim's disappearance, but all other sources mention that he was crowned on 27 March, with Sitt al-Mulk as the de facto ruler of the state in the meantime. All sources agree that she quickly had Ibn Dawwas executed as the one responsible for al-Hakim's death (and perhaps to cover up her own traces). This was followed soon after by al-Hakim's designated heir, Abd al-Rahman ibn Ilyas, who was then serving as governor of Damascus: he was lured back to Egypt, imprisoned, and killed.
The young caliph had long been under her tutelage during al-Hakim's reign, and remained so for some time after his coronation, which led to tensions with al-Zahir's mother, Ruqayya. During this early period of al-Zahir's reign, Sitt al-Mulk was the effective governor of the state, known in contemporary sources as "the Princess-Aunt" (al-Sayyida al-ʿamma) or "the Princess Aziz" (al-Sayyida al-ʿazīza). In this capacity, she began to reverse al-Hakim's decisions, and restore orderly government, by among others cancelling estate grants and salaries that al-Hakim had conferred on his favourites, and restoring the customs duties that he had abolished as un-Islamic. She also reversed her brother's manifold prohibitions, allowing women to leave their homes, and permitting again the listening to music and the drinking of wine. The non-Muslims (dhimmīs) who had been forced to convert to Islam under al-Hakim were allowed to return to their old faith, and those who had fled the country were allowed to return.
Historian Yaacov Lev points out that she was able to do so as the result of several factors. On the one hand, while women of the Fatimid dynasty were not usually involved in politics, they were "not secluded from social and economic life", which not only allowed them contact with the world outside the palace, but also necessitated the supervision of a administrative and financial agents, giving them some experience in such matters. Finally, particularly after the chaos and terror of al-Hakim's last years, the ruling elite was quite prepared to accept direction from her, for they had little left to lose. As Lev writes, in this atmosphere, "machinations and the readiness to shed blood had become accepted ways of conducting political life, and by these standards, Sitt al-Mulk was a ruler worthy of the name, for she inspired [hayba] [i.e., awe]". However, while she was widely praised by medieval chroniclers for both her personal qualities as well as for her sound policies, her position was anomalous, and dependent on the entirely exceptional circumstances. She may have de facto exercised the functions of a caliph, but it was unthinkable for her to hold power in her own name and claim sovereignty, for example by having her name included in the khuṭba. It is unclear how long her regency lasted; the contemporary official and historian al-Musabbihi indicates that power soon passed to a new circle of officials, and that she lost her influence and died in obscurity, while al-Maqrizi indicates that she maintained her control over state affairs until her death.
She also severely persecuted the Druze religion, which believed in Al-Hakim's divinity, eliminating it entirely from Egypt, and restricting it to the mountains of Lebanon. She worked to reduce tensions with the Byzantine Empire over the possession of Aleppo, but before negotiations could be completed, she died on 5 February 1023 at the age of fifty-two.
- This has led to considerable confusion in modern sources regarding the identity and wider family of al-Aziz's consorts. The connection with al-Sayyida has led to speculation that al-Hakim' mother was also a Christian. The sources are contradictory on the matter, but among modern historians Heinz Halm considers al-Hakim's mother a "Greek Christian" (although a distinct person from al-Sayyida al-Aziziyya), and Orestes and Arsenios the maternal uncles of al-Hakim, as does Michael Brett. On the other hand, the medieval historian Yahya of Antioch reports that after al-Hakim's death, Sitt al-Mulk donated vestments, books, and silver liturgical objects that she had inherited from Arsenios.
- Brett 2017, p. 147.
- Halm 1997, p. 685.
- Lev 1987, p. 320.
- Halm 2015, p. 100.
- Cortese & Calderini 2006, p. 52.
- Walker 2011, pp. 30–32.
- Mernissi 1993, pp. 160–161.
- Walker 2011, pp. 31–32.
- Cortese & Calderini 2006, pp. 52–53.
- Halm 2003, p. 219.
- Brett 2017, p. 138.
- Walker 2011, p. 33.
- Brett 2017, pp. 77–80.
- Mernissi 1993, p. 160.
- Brett 2017, p. 110.
- Mernissi 1993, pp. 159, 160.
- Mernissi 1993, p. 159.
- Halm 2015, pp. 95–96.
- Mernissi 1993, p. 161.
- Lev 1987, pp. 320–321.
- Mernissi 1993, p. 162.
- Brett 2017, pp. 122–124.
- Halm 2003, p. 168.
- Brett 2017, p. 125.
- Lev 1987, pp. 321–322.
- Lev 1987, p. 322.
- Halm 2003, p. 235.
- Lev 1987, pp. 322–323.
- Brett 2017, pp. 133–153.
- Mernissi 1993, pp. 163, 168–175.
- Mernissi 1993, pp. 162–163.
- Lev 1987, p. 323.
- Brett 2017, p. 146.
- Brett 2017, pp. 146–147.
- Lev 1987, pp. 323, 325.
- Mernissi 1993, pp. 163, 165–168.
- Lev 1987, pp. 323–326.
- Halm 2003, pp. 297–301.
- Mernissi 1993, pp. 175–176.
- Lev 1987, p. 326.
- Halm 1997, pp. 685–686.
- Halm 2003, pp. 301–302.
- Lev 1987, p. 325.
- Lev 1987, pp. 325–326.
- Lev 1987, pp. 326–327.
- Halm 1997, p. 686.
- Lev 1987, p. 327.
- Lev 1987, p. 328.
- Mernissi 1993, pp. 158, 176.
- Lev 1987, pp. 327–328.
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