This is the story of Umm Ali.
We all know of the Queen of the Nile and her affairs with Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius and of the boy king whose otherwise unremarkable life left behind a remarkable glimpse into the Egyptian afterlife. But do you know who the name of the last woman to rule Egypt? Cleopatra is not a bad guess, but it’s not correct. Her name was Shajar al-Dur (sometimes inaccurately called Shajarat al-Durr). She ascended the throne in 1250 and ruled for a total of 80 days. Although Shajar al-Dur is a well-known figure of Egyptian history and folklore, she is not very well-known outside of the Arabic-speaking world. I first discovered her name in a footnote in a reading I had for a class in college. I then spent the following couple of months learning everything I could about her. I’ve read and been told so many versions of her life, I’m not sure what’s fiction or folklore. When I visited Shajar al-Durr’s mausoleum during my last visit to Cairo in 2008, I was heartbroken to find it neglected and covered in garbage.
Shajar al-Durr was originally slave girl of Turkic or Armenian origin. She was purchased by al-Salih Ayyub, who would later become the Sultan of Egypt. In 1250 CE, al-Salih Ayyub died suddenly of a fever at a turbulent time in Egypt’s history. It was the Seventh Crusade and Egypt under attack by King Louis IX’s army. Shajar concealed the fact that al-Salih Ayyub had died by telling people he was merely ill, making sure to have servants deliver food to his room so no one would suspect anything. She was then able to rule as the Sultana of Egypt. Friday prayers were read in her name and she even had coins minted with her name on them. During her short reign, King Louis IX was released from captivity after paying an enormous ransom and peace was temporarily made with the Franks as they recovered from their agonizing defeat.
After 80 days of rule, she announced her husband’s death and relinquished power over to Turanshah, al-Salih Ayyub’s son from another wife. The army, however, trusted Shajar and had Turanshah killed. Despite her support from the army, the Caliph in Baghdad (who, by the way, was murdered two years later by the grandson of Genghis Khan when the Mongols sacked Baghdad) refused to recognize a woman on the throne. So he sent a trusted army commander to Egypt, to marry Shajar and rule as Sultan. Defeated and humiliated, Shajar surrendered the throne over to her new husband, Aybak.
It is said Aybak and Shajar shared a great affection for each other, but she was clearly the one who dominated the relationship. Shajar was the jealous type. Before they married she had Aybak divorce his current wife Umm Ali, with whom he had a son. Shajar still continued to sign the Sultan’s decrees and made sure to have coins minted in both of their names. After seven years of marriage, Aybak wanted to take on another wife, the daughter of the amir of Mosul. Shajar felt betrayed and refused to share Aybak with anyone else, so… off with his head! She had Aybak murdered by servants while he was taking a bath. Now she could have Egypt for herself, or so she thought.
In vain, Shajar hastily told people that Aybak died in his sleep. Aybak’s men were suspicious of Shajar, and her servants eventually confessed to the murder after being tortured. Shajar and the servants were arrested. The servants were eventually executed and Shajar was beaten to death with wooden clogs by slavegirls – and Aybak’s former wife, Umm Ali and their son al-Mansur Ali (who became Sultan after Aybak’s death). Her half-naked body was dragged around the city and thrown into a moat. After wild animals feasted on her body for three days, her remains were gathered in a basket and she was eventually laid to rest in a mausoleum she had built for herself.
Umm Ali rejoiced at Shajar’s death and putting her son the throne and created this dessert to celebrate.
Or so the story goes.
A cab driver (yes, there was a time where I talked about Shajar al-Durr with just about anyone) once told me Umm Ali made rice pudding and not bread pudding to celebrate Shajar’s death. There are so many versions on how the dessert originated I prefer to pick and choose as I like. A popular theory is that an English nurse living in Egypt named O’Malley created the dessert. Hmph! Where’s the intrigue and scandal in that? Make this dessert and tell the story of Shajar al-Durr.
When it comes to desserts, I gravitate toward the homely and easy to make. Give me rice pudding or bread pudding and I’m over the moon. Since there are so many different versions of how and where Umm Ali originated, I figured there’s no harm in deviating from the usual recipe. I strayed from the norm by using puff pastry (it puffs! It’s magical!) instead of filo dough, decreased the amount of milk and cream, and added more nuts. I found that with less milk and cream, the texture held up quite well for leftovers for several days. Umm Ali is a rich and heavenly dessert that would taste even better with a scoop of ice cream, if you’re feeling decadent.
(adapted from Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food)
1 17-oz package of puff pastry, thawed
6 tablespoons better, melted
2 cups heavy cream
3 cups milk (I used whole)
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups chopped nuts (pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts)
1/2 cup shredded coconut, unsweetened
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon, for dusting
Let the puff pastry thaw for at least a half hour. Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out the puff pastry, brush with the melted butter and transfer the puff pastry to the oven. Bake the puff pastry for 15 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Remove from the oven and set aside.
In a medium-sized saucepan, heat milk, cream, and sugar together just until the sugar dissolves – do not boil. When the puff pastry is cool enough to handle, break it into bite-sized pieces and transfer to a large baking dish (I used an 8″ x 8″ baking dish, I’d recommend something a little larger). Toss in the nuts, raisins, and shredded coconut, making sure that everything is mixed evenly.
Pour the milk/cream mixture into the baking dish. Sprinkle with cinnamon and bake for 20-30 minutes, or until slightly golden.
Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving. Serve hot.
Originally posted in February 2011