The Sultan of Lovers

Ibn al-Farid’s tomb and Jamila’s dome (right)

In the late 19th century, Jamila Hanem, daughter of Ismail Pasha, the Ottoman “Khedive” [Viceroy] in Egypt, built herself a grand mausoleum in Cairo. But she was never buried in it. Now, it stands empty at the foot of the Muqattam hills in Cairo beside the grave of her favourite Sufi saint and poet, Omar ibn al-Farid, “the Sultan of Lovers” (Sultan al-Ashiqin). Jamila had always been drawn to his life and work; now she planned to spend eternity beside him.

In the Middle Ages, Ibn al-Farid had been a controversial figure. After his death in 1235, admirers, who revered both literary quality of his passionate devotional poetry and his pious, ascetic lifestyle, started to consider him a saint, one of God’s elect.  But in more conservative quarters, he caused an equal measure of consternation. Many scholars were suspicious of Sufi mystics and of the close communion with God that they claimed. Some accused Ibn al-Farid of blasphemy; the historian Ibn Khaldoun called for his writings to be destroyed. Some of this criticism came out of self-interest. The religious establishment was hardly going to welcome the Sufi belief that God was manifest in all creation, and that neither scholar nor exegete was needed as intermediary.

By the time Jamila (or Cemile, as Turkish orthography has it) was born, in the mid-19th century, the controversies about his legacy had died down. His tomb had fallen into disrepair, and few attended his once popular moulid (birthday festival). But she, who had found an early passion in Sufi poetry and used to entertain her sisters with stories of the great mystics, was drawn to the Sultan of Lovers. She wrote poems, in Turkish, Persian, and Arabic, inspired by Ibn al-Farid, including one praise poem specifically for him. In 1889, she paid to have his crumbling tomb repaired and built herself a domed mausoleum beside his, in which she could be laid to rest.

What was it that drew the Khedive’s young daughter to this poet, more than 600 years dead? Jamila did not much trouble the historians’ pens. According to one of the few descriptions of her to survive – in the book Three Centuries by Emine Foat Tugay – she is a flamboyant and uninhibited eccentric. It tells how she used to drive herself in “a small, gilded carriage shaped like a shell” around the spa of Helwan outside Cairo. Much to the annoyance of her father, “on these outings she wore a military costume of the Mohammed Ali period, a close-fitting crimson dolman, frogged with gold, baggy white shalwars, fastened below the knee and gold-embroidered gaiters. Her hair was hidden under a broad low fez, with a long blue tassel of the same period.”

But hidden away in archives and in obscure memoirs are details of her life which just might explain her fascination with ibn al-Farid. More than one account of her tells us that her greatest eccentricity came in her elaborate romantic life, with a string of other women.

One of these affairs is attested in the files of the Khedive Abbas Hilmi II’s secret police. His spies, in their reports about the Khedivial family, announced that Jamila was busy conducting an affair with a Turkish woman by the name of Aisha. Another similar story appears in the memoirs of a British official called Harry Boyle, penned by his devoted wife. Boyle had, in his early career in Egypt, been brought in to smooth over a marital row between her and her husband Muharram Pasha Shahin, resulting from her barely concealed trysts. Boyle claimed to have seen a steamy correspondence between Jamila and an Armenian woman, steamy enough to have made him a wealthy man had he only been unscrupulous enough to sell them to the press.

Cairo in the 19th century was not an easy place to be a lesbian. The British elite who were part of the occupying administration, had a typically moralistic Victorian view of homosexuality. Boyle, at this point a minor functionary in the Egyptian service, was appalled by her lifestyle and he was scathing in his appraisals of the young princess: she was, he told his wife Clara, “disgusting” and an “outrageous Sapphist”. He even added, rather cruelly, that she looked like an “unsightly monkey”.

Jamila’s family’s reaction was hardly more sympathetic. Their solution was to marry her off to a suitable man as soon as possible, or at least to try. The led her through a succession of husbands, none of whom lasted long nor brought her much happiness. She was first married her cousin Prince Ahmed Kamal Pasha, a minor member of the Khedivial family now mostly remembered for his horse breeding. That lasted only three years. Tugay, perhaps euphemistically, explained that, “she, romantic and poetic, was unable to appreciate his sound common sense and more earthy temperament”.

Then followed a shorter marriage to Muharram Pasha Shahin, the son of a successful general in the Egyptian army. It was this marriage that Harry Boyle was called in, unsuccessfully, to save. Her last marriage took her away from Cairo, the city of her birth, to Istanbul. There, she married a functionary in the Sultan’s administration, called Yakub Pasha Hassan. Over the course of these three marriages gave birth to one son, Ibrahim, but he died in infancy. He was buried not far from Ibn al-Farid’s tomb. Otherwise, she had not children. She was buried, in the end, far from Ibn al-Farid and her infant son, in the cemetery of Sultan Eyup, overlooking the Bosphorus.

In scholarly work on Ibn al-Farid, Jamila is little more than a footnote. None of her poems have been published – it is possible that none survive. The one tangible mark she has left in the saint’s afterlife – the restoration of his tomb – is only usually mentioned only briefly and even then, not fondly. The most prominent anglophone writer on Ibn al-Farid Th. Emil Homerin lamented that Jamila’s building work destroyed many of the tomb’s original architectural features. He also noted wryly that the dome of her crypt is so big it towers above that of the saint she so admired, dwarfing his own legacy.

But asking why she was so fascinated by his poetry, reveals a different angle to Ibn al-Farid’s work. For one, questions of gender run through the poet’s work. Would it have meant something for this 19th century princess to read a poet who unabashedly feminized the relationship between man and God and even talked about God in the feminine?

Would she have also found something that spoke to her about her own sexuality and the disapproval that accompanied it? There are intriguing and perhaps uneasy parallels to Jamila’s situation in Ibn al-Farid’s description of his excessive love for God, embodied in couplets like this from Nizam al-Suluk:

Stripping off my restraint

Is my duty to you

And depravity is my custom

Though my folk despise to come near me.

(trans. Homerin)

Now, we can only really speculate about her reactions to the poems of Ibn al-Farid. But, without any surviving poetry by Jamila herself, this is the closest thing we have to a window on her heart. The longing felt by this “romantic and poetic” woman, set against the disapproval of others are all there in the pages of ibn al-Farid’s work. In verses like these we can imagine her speak and, if her bones are ever transferred to the mausoleum beside the Sufi poet-saint she so admired, they would make an apt epitaph:

What should be said of me save:

“this person died of love!”

Who will grant me this,

My earnest wish?

“Yes, I will be satisfied with my death,

Its end in deep affection

Though short of union,

If my right to loving you is true”

(Nazm al-Suluk 105ff. trans Homerin, slightly edited)


Boyle, Clara, Boyle of Cairo (Kendal: T. Wilson, 1965).

Homerin, Th. Emil, From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001).

——, ʿUmar ibn al-Fāriḍ: Sufi Verse, Saintly Life (New York: Paulist Press, 2000)

——, “The Domed Shrine of ibn al-Farid”, Annales Islamologiques, 25-26 (1989-90).

Tugay, Emine Foat, Three Centuries: Family Chronicles of Turkey and Egypt (London: Oxford Univesity Press, 1963).

Durham University Library, Abbas Hilmi II Papers, 15/73.

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