Dhayfa Khatun: Queen of Aleppo and Founder of Two Great Institutions
The Spotlight

Dhayfa Khatun: Queen of Aleppo and Founder of Two Great Institutions

She removed injustices and unfair taxes throughout Aleppo. She favoured the poor and scientists and founded many charities to support them. Dhayfa Khatun was a prominent architectural patron who established large endowments for the maintenance and operation of her charitable foundations.

When reading about great empires and dynasties, we often come across stories of mighty conquests, powerful rulers and lasting legacies. But how many of these stories are centred around the women who contributed greatly to the constructions of these empires? How many Muslim women ruled cities and empires with grace, wisdom and diplomacy, yet had their stories almost completely obliterated without a second thought? Perhaps, we would like to discover the tale of an 11th-century Queen, whose reign was short-lived, yet timeless; a queen whose legacies live on till this present day; a woman no other than Dhayfa Khatun.

Dhayfa Khatun was of Kurdish descent and royal blood. Born in 1186 to King Al-Adel, the fourth Sultan of Egypt and Syria and brother to Salah al-din Al-Ayyubi, who founded the Sultanate of Egypt and the Ayyubi dynasty, Dhayfa married her cousin, Az-Zahir Ghazi, the son of her uncle, Salah al-din who saw the marriage as a means of ending the rift between his father and Dhayfa’s father. This marriage brought stability and unity to the Ayyubi empire. Dhayfa’s brothers, Al-Kamel and Al-Ashraf became the sultans of Egypt and Syria respectively after the death of their father.

Upon her marriage to Az-Zahir Ghazi, Dhayfa moved to Aleppo where she was greeted with pomp and pageantry and was personally received by Az-Zahir Ghazi, his emirs and notable locals. Their marriage was blessed with a son, Al-Aziz Muhammad who became the heir to the throne of Aleppo. Not much is recorded about Dhayfa Khatun’s life during the reign of her husband. However, when he died in 1216, her son, Al-Aziz Muhammad became the sultan.

Dhayfa’s son ruled Aleppo for twenty years and died in 1236, when his son, An-Nasir Yusuf was just seven years old. Due to his infancy and inability to assume leadership as Sultan of Aleppo, Dhayfa became the Queen of Aleppo and constituted a council of regency which consisted of Shams ad-Din Lu’lu’ al-Amini, Izz ad-Din Umar al-Majali, the vizier Jamal ad-Din al-Qifti and her own slave Jamal ad-Dawla Iqbal az-Zahiri. The latter was her secretary and the deputy to the regency council. The council was like the legislative arm of her government. All decisions made by the council had to be approved by Dhayfa, with her signature affixed to all official documents.

During her reign, Aleppo faced threats from Mongols, Seljuks, Crusaders and Khwarezmians. However, these threats were no match for Dhayfa’s diplomatic skills which kept the empire free from conflict. A serious rift broke out between her brothers Al-Kamel in Egypt and Al-Ashraf in Damascus. Less than a year after Dhayfa became the queen of Aleppo, in 1237, Al-Ashraf tried to convince most of the Ayyubid rulers in Syria to form a coalition against Al-Kamel, in order to confine him to Egypt and ensure the continued autonomy of their Emirates. Unfortunately, however, Al-Ashraf died mysteriously that very year. And although Dhayfa Khatun was quick to install their youngest brother As-Salih Ismail as Sultan of Syria, the coalition formed by Al-Ashraf had already weakened when some of the Ayyubid rulers defected to Al-Kamel in Egypt. Al-Kamel thereafter sent an army to Syria and seized Damascus. He intended to conquer other emirates in Syria, including Aleppo which was ruled by his sister, Dhayfa. The plan, however, failed when he died in 1238.

Following these events, Dhayfa Khatun became very careful, keeping Aleppo out of the fratricidal wars which were fast becoming the norm amongst the Ayyubids. She turned down proposals for alliance from al-Jawad Yunus, the new ruler of Damascus, who wanted to revive the Anti-Egyptian coalition, and later from As-Salih Ismail, who succeeded him. Eventually, In the year 1240, Dhayfa’s neutrality in these conflicts helped her to broker a formal declaration from the Sultan as-Salih Ayyub in Egypt, which declared Aleppo’s independence.

Despite the declaration of Aleppo’s independence, another threat emerged later In 1240 when the Khwarezmians who had allied themselves with Sultan as-Salih Ayyub, for unknown reasons, sent an army of around 12,000 men to cross the Euphrates and take over Aleppo. This army took down the small Aleppan force of 1,500 cavalries led by Al-Muazzam Turanshah in November 1240 and thereby laying the city exposed. Because Queen Dhayfa Khatun had strong ties with Homs, a city in western Syria, a large force came up from Homs and drove the Khwarezmians out of Aleppo across the Euphrates. In early 1241 the Khwarezmians attacked again, but the army of al-Mansur Ibrahim of Homs once defeated them decisively, and thereafter the forces of Homs and Aleppo took control of all of as-Salih Ayyub’s territories in the Jazira with the exception of Hasankeyf. Too preoccupied with affairs in Egypt, As-Salih Ayyub was unable to respond.

The Madrasa al-Firdaws in Aleppo, general view from courtyard. Image: MIT Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture

According to historian Stephen Humphreys, Aleppo’s diplomatic position was never as strong as it was under the rule of Queen Dhayfa Khatun. Besides her diplomatic strength, however, Dhayfa took a special interest in architecture and sponsored learning in Aleppo where she founded two schools; the Al-Firdaous School which specialized in Islamic studies and Islamic law, especially the Shafi’i doctrine and the Khankah School, which specialized in both Sharia and other scientific fields, located in Mahalat al-Frafera. Al-Firdaous School was located close to Bab al-Makam in Aleppo and had a teacher, an Imam and twenty scholars, according to the structure of the educational system at that time. Its campus consisted of several buildings, including the school, a residential hall for students and a mosque.

Dhayfa also removed injustices and unfair taxes throughout Aleppo. She favoured the poor and scientists and founded many charities to support them. She died in 1242 at the age of 59 and was buried in the Aleppo citadel.


  1. Dhayfa Khatun – Muslim HeritageMuslim Heritage
  2. Stephen Humphreys, Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age, University of California Press, 1999
  3. Dayfa Khatun – Wikipedia


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