The Women Rulers Whose Reigns Reshaped the Medieval Middle East

A new book details the lives of Melisende of Jerusalem, Zumurrud of Damascus and their powerful peers

Illustration of the coronation of Melisende and Fulk against a stained glass background
Melisende of Jerusalem (pictured at her coronation) and Zumurrud of Damascus represent two of the most powerful, best-documented ruling women of the medieval Middle East.  Photo illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Getty Images, Bibliothèque nationale de France

In 1152, a curious scene unfolded outside the Tower of David in Jerusalem, beside the Jaffa Gate.

The city’s king, a young man in his 20s, had assembled a regiment of siege engines that he used to hurl burning wood and slabs of stone at the citadel of his own capital.

His onslaught was relentless. As contemporary chronicler William of Tyre wrote, “so incessant were the attacks that the besieged were denied any chance to rest.”

The king was Baldwin III, and his target—cowering but defiant, barricaded in the historic tower—was Jerusalem’s queen, a woman in her 50s with a will of iron: Melisende, Baldwin’s own mother.

When her son lined up his siege engines to attack her, Melisende was fighting to keep the throne she had held for over 20 years. Curious as the scene may have been—a Christian mother and son at open war over Jerusalem—the real wonder was how this conflict had not come sooner. Baldwin had been of ruling age for seven years but had so far failed to seize the throne from his mother, who had been ruling Jerusalem singlehandedly since the death of his father, King Fulk, nine years prior. Even before her husband’s death in 1143, Melisende had ruled as queen regnant of Jerusalem. Fulk never made a decision without her consent (at least, not after the early days of their joint rule).

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The eldest daughter of Baldwin II, a Frankish king of Jerusalem, Melisende was an ambitious and able woman with a fiery temperament, tenacious to the end. Nowhere was this more evident than in her struggle to claim her inheritance, which pushed her into open conflict with her husband, and, later, her fierce battle to hold onto power in Jerusalem against the son who sought to supplant her. Melisende was determined to rule, and she saw the throne as her birthright. In her struggle to defend it, she demonstrated much about not only her own character but also what was possible for women rulers who dared to press their advantage.

Around the same time as Melisende’s rule, Zumurrud, a Muslim noblewoman, rose to prominence in the nearby city of Damascus. Together, their well-documented exploits represent two of the most powerful, best-documented ruling women of the medieval Middle East. But while we may have greater records of their deeds, the implication is that women across the region were quietly exerting influence in many spheres during this period. As modern research reveals, women like Melisende and Zumurrud were less of a minority than one might think.

In the mid-12th century, the Kingdom of Jerusalem encompassed much more than the Holy City, with territory stretching from Gaza in the south to Beirut in the north. This was the land conquered by Melisende’s father and his Christian comrades during the First Crusade in the late 1090s, when they rode triumphant from Europe to the Holy Land and divided the area into the four states of Outremer (French for the land beyond the sea). The armed pilgrimage was a brutal affair, culminating in the slaughter of Jerusalem’s residents and displacing thousands of refugees along the way.

Melisende—Jerusalem’s first queen regnant—is a shadowy figure in medieval chronicles, appearing fleetingly in the pages of histories written by men and about men. To understand her deeds and accomplishments, one must tilt the chronicles, read between the lines and search for scattered clues.

Map showing the Crusader States in 1135
Map showing the Crusader States in 1135 Amitchell125 via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The 12th-century scholar William of Tyre was effusive in his descriptions of men. Thanks to him, we know exactly what the kings of Jerusalem looked like, right down to King Amalric’s saggy chest, Baldwin II’s callused knees, Raymond of Tripoli’s piercing eyes and Bohemond of Antioch’s golden curls. But the chroniclers tell us nothing of Melisende. The only hints we can find of her appearance are inadvertently given in a description of her son.

According to William, Baldwin’s “features were comely and refined, his complexion florid, a proof of innate strength. In this respect he resembled his mother.” He goes on to write that Baldwin’s build was on the heavier side, “not spare, like his mother.”

From this, we can discern that Melisende was a thin woman with attractive features who emanated strength of character. She had a pink-tinted skin tone, suggesting that she took after her Frankish father in coloring rather than her Armenian mother. Both of her sons were fair-haired with lively eyes, perhaps indicating that the same was true of Melisende.

Melisende’s ascent to power was a rocky one. Against expectations and the customs of the day, her father failed to leave the throne to her husband, instead creating a triumvirate of power. Upon his death in 1131, he left royal authority in equal measure to Melisende, Fulk and their baby son.

Coronation of Baldwin III of Jerusalem by his mother, Melisende
Coronation of Baldwin III of Jerusalem by his mother, Melisende Bibliothèque nationale de France

Baldwin II had not acted rashly in deciding to leave power to his daughter. She was a fitting choice to rule the multicultural kingdom of Jerusalem, which presented an insatiable draw to people of different cultures from as far afield as Iceland and India. In the Middle Ages, the cities of the Holy Land served as unique ethnic and cultural hubs where people of all faiths were thrown together during periods of intense warfare and uneasy, negotiated peace. Christian rulers commanded the four Crusader States, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the County of Edessa, while Muslim leaders retained control of surrounding territories like Damascus and Fatimid Egypt.

Before she became queen, Melisende already had the sympathy of the native Christians who made up a significant portion of the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s population, outnumbering the Frankish, or western European Christians, who’d migrated to the region during the Crusades. Melisende’s father may have been a Crusader from Europe, but her mother was an Armenian princess, and she herself had been born and raised in the frontier state of Edessa in southern Turkey. Her ethnic heritage was mixed, and she was a local princess born and bred, thus wielding influence over both the native and invader populations.

Beyond this, her father had educated Melisende well; she had been attending meetings of the High Council since her teenage years. She was shrewd by nature and accrued loyalty from different groups throughout her reign, including—most importantly—the loyalty of the patriarch, or head bishop, of Jerusalem, who would prove to be her staunchest advocate when she eventually found herself at war with her son. The fact that Melisende was able to subdue Baldwin’s attempts to take power for so long stands as testament to her popularity and wisdom in government.

Miniature illustration of Baldwin III lecturing his mother, Melisende
Baldwin III (second from left) lectures his mother, Melisende of Jerusalem (seated), in this medieval manuscript illustration Bibliothèque nationale de France

In the early years of their rule, Fulk endeavored to stifle his wife’s influence. It was only in 1134, after a scandal of epic proportions involving Melisende’s alleged affair with a nobleman, a trial by combat and an outright rebellion by the queen’s supporters, that Melisende was able to wield power in Jerusalem. Fulk overplayed his hand in the conflict and was so soundly beaten by his wife that he fled from court, afraid for his life. Though he eventually returned, he never again tried to circumvent Melisende’s authority.

The same year that this scandal broke in Jerusalem, another was brewing at the neighboring court of Damascus. (Jerusalem and Damascus were thorns in each other’s sides, constantly at war throughout the medieval era.) The Christian Crusader states weren’t the only arenas in which women were beginning to wield more power: Zumurrud, mother of the city’s ruler Isma’il, emerged as a central figure in the Muslim territory’s politics just as Melisende was rising to power further south. 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.

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, or Turkic governor, Zengi. Approached by mutinous courtiers who begged her to act decisively against her son, Zumurrud took matters into her own hands. She commanded his slaves to assassinate him while he bathed and had his body dragged to a public space so that all could see his reign of terror was at an end. She had for some time already been seen as the power behind the throne, and following the killing, became known as a kingmaker in Damascus. She installed another son as ruler, then married their rival Zengi herself.

The wedding of Melisende's granddaughter Sibylla (in green) and her second husband, Guy of Lusignan
The wedding of Melisende's granddaughter Sibylla (in green) and her second husband, Guy of Lusignan Bibliothèque nationale de France

While Zumurrud was never formally recognized as a legitimate ruler, the fact that despairing politicians came to her to intervene with Isma’il demonstrates the respect and power she commanded in Damascus. Both Melisende and Zumurrud were tireless patrons of the arts and the church: The former undertook a great expansion of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, while the latter built the Madrasa Khatuniyya, an impressive domed structure that stands in Damascus to this day.

Zumurrud was not alone in playing a vital political role in the Islamic courts of Syria during the Crusader period. Her legacy is prolific first as a kingmaker and later as the wife of Zengi. His son and successor married an educated woman known by the honorific Ismat ad-Din Khatun. Little information about her survives—not even her given name—but the fragments that filter down to us testify to a powerful woman with an exceptional career. Sources say she commanded at the siege of Banyas, immediately after the death of her first husband. She would go on to marry the greatest Islamic hero of the age—the sultan Saladin—and was such an important person in his life that he exchanged letters with her daily. When she died while he was on campaign in 1186, his advisors concealed her death from him out of concern that it would make him too distraught to command. In another example of Islamic women rulers’ reach, a century after Zumurrud, Shajar al-Durr ruled independently as the sultana of Egypt, albeit for only three months.

A 19th-century drawing of the tomb of Shajar al-Durr, who ruled independently as the sultana of Egypt for three months
A 19th-century drawing of the tomb of Shajar al-Durr, who ruled independently as the sultana of Egypt for three months in 1250 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We also know that women commanded sieges in both Christian and Islamic cultures. In fact, defending the possessions of an absent or incapacitated husband or son was one of the most widely accepted ways for women to wield power and command military operations. The most famous example of this is perhaps Melisende’s granddaughter Sibylla, who commanded the defense of Jerusalem against Saladin while her husband was his prisoner. Similarly, Melisende ruled as regent for her son, and Zumurrud, while never formally invested with power in the way of the Christian queens, clearly wielded as much influence as any of them—arguably more: Melisende never killed a king.

The unique instability and near constant state of crisis in Outremer created a political environment in which noblewomen could be propelled to prominence and wield real power. Life expectancy was short for a fighting man at the time. If he wasn’t slaughtered on the battlefield or in an unexpected raid, he could be struck down by disease or mishap. Women began to outlive the male relatives who normally would have controlled them and become lynchpins of power and political loyalty in their own right. This forced society in Outremer to adapt to the concept of queenship and swallow the bitter pill of female rule.

The women who took charge revealed themselves to be more than equal to the challenge. When Melisende died in 1161, the court historian declared, “Queen Melisend[e], a woman of unusual wisdom … had governed the kingdoms with strength surpassing that of most women. Her rule had been wise and judicious.”

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