The Cairo Citadel or Citadel of Saladin is an iconic monument in Islamic Cairo. Originally called Qalaʿat Salāḥ ad-Dīn in Arabic, the Citadel is a peak in history. The fort perches upon a deep slope; therefore, it offers the most magnificent view of Old Cairo. El-Nasir Salah El-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub built this Citadel in Egypt.
The sultan intended the fort to protect Cairo from potential crusader attacks. Moreover, in 1976 UNESCO declared this monument as a part of the World Heritage Site. This magnificent structure has witnessed numerous historical events throughout history.
Location of Cairo Citadel
The Citadel’s location on Mokattam hills commands a strategic position over the city. Located in the centre of Cairo, this area is the highest point in Cairo. You can find the Citadel 15 to 25 minutes from Downtown Cairo.
Who was Saladin?
Saladin happens to be the first sultan of Egypt and Syria. He led the Muslim military campaign against the crusader states. Eventually, he won Jerusalem, making it an Islamic state. History describes him as a charitable and religious leader.
The Reason behind the Construction of Cairo Citadel
The fort was the most impressive and ambitious military fortification of its time. The sultan started construction on a mass of land beneath the Muqattam Hills. Therefore, this setting made the Citadel a hard place to attack. The Citadel of Cairo remained the heart of the Egyptian government until the 19th century.
Kurdish Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din (Saladin) started the project between 1176 and 1183 CE. Saladin set out to build a wall that would surround Cairo and Fustat.
Saladin took control of Egypt and decided that Cairo should have a better fortification. He felt that a fortified citadel would protect the city against future attacks. Moreover, at that time, the risk of crusader attacks was at a peak.
The sultan found inspiration in the Syrian and Lebanese citadels. Furthermore, he recognised the importance of a massive fort in protecting Cairo.
History of construction
Construction of the fort began in 1176. However, it did not get completed until 1182. The construction finished in the reign of Al Malek El Kamel. Thus, Al Malek became the first ruler to reside in the Citadel.
Saladin charged his close confidant Baha al-Din Qaraqush with overseeing the construction. Most of the structure comprises limestone quarried from surrounding hills.
Ancient stories say that Saladin took stones from some pyramids of Giza. Subsequently, these became a part of the fort. Perhaps the soldiers of the army, along with crusader prisoners, worked on the construction.
In case the crusaders laid a siege on the fort, the soldiers would have a water supply. They dug a deep well inside the Citadel. During the 12th century, the construction of this well was nothing less than a marvel. Moreover, it was 90 metres deep and dug inside the hardest rocks.
The Citadel of Cairo is one of the most elegant fortresses of the middle ages. Moreover, its strategic location offered a birds-eye view of Old Cairo. If enemies ever took Cairo, then the Citadel would be an excellent place to retreat. Hence, it was the true definition of a fortress.
Initial Layout of the Fort
The initial fortress consisted essentially of today’s Northern closure and Southern closure. The original southwestern section of the fort has disappeared today. Most probably, it extended around the current site of al-Nasir Muhammad’s Mosque. The southern part served as a residence to the king. In contrast, the northern part acted as a military fort.
Saladin surrounded the Citadel with several walls, towers and gates. He built a tower building every 100 metres. The current gate, called Mokattam Gate, got constructed during the Ottoman Dynasty. Later, Muhammad Ali made a new gate in 1827.
El Mokatam Gate
Mokattam gate got constructed south of the tower of Mokattam. The construction of the gate took place in the Ottoman period. Currently, it’s called the Salah Salem gate, referring to its current location.
The gate suffered damages over time and was mainly lost when the Egyptian government made changes. The building of the Salah Salem door took place in 1955. Here the construction of a new door took place. Therefore, making it the gate from where guests enter the Citadel today.
Bab EL Hadid or the Iron Gate
Mohammed Ali constructed the iron gate in 1822. Also, he paved a road that connected this gate to the rest of Cairo. Today, it is known as the Street of Bab Al Hadeed.
Further construction inside the Citadel of Cairo
The Mamluks overthrew the Saladin’s Ayyubid dynasty. Then later, they enlarged the complex. Magnificent palaces and harems became a part of the structure. The buildings constructed under the Mamluks dominated the city’s skyline. Al-Nasir Muhammad did significant works in the Citadel. However, most of them fell during the Ottoman period. The sultan also renovated the Nile aqueduct.
The major construction that remains from the sultan’s reign is the Mosque of al-Nasir. Built-in 1318 AC and renovated again in 1335, the Mosque is still well preserved. However, the Ottoman sultan stripped away most of its rich marble panelling to Istanbul later.
The most notable construction from the Ottoman period is the Mosque of Sulayman Pasha. No wonder it remained as one of the few mosques in Cairo that represents the classical Ottoman architectural style.
- Pasha Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali established himself as an independent ruler of Egypt. He invited the remaining Mamluk leaders into the Citadel. Later, his army opened fire on them. Hence, one of the most critical moments of the coup took place within the Citadel.
One of the most famous mosques in the world is the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. This Ottoman-style masterpiece memorialised and honoured Muhammad Ali’s second son – Tusun Pasha. It is noteworthy that the Egyptian call it “the Alabaster Mosque” for the amount of marble used for the building.
Muhammad Ali found his last resting spot inside this prayer house. The sultan demolished many old structures to make way for his new Mosque. Eventually, this Mosque became the Citadel’s dominating Mosque. Undoubtedly, this beautiful structure serves as a treat for visitors presently.
In 1983, the Egyptian government opened a big part of the Citadel to the public. Moreover, they started repair work to convert old buildings into museums. Today, the site contains many Ottoman period mosques and museums. Visitors can also see amazing views of Cairo and the desert beyond. So, the Citadel of Cairo is a desirable tourist attraction for Egyptians and tourists alike.
The Citadel of Saladin will remain one of the essential structures of Egypt. The marvellous architecture of the Citadel continues to awe people. At a particular time, the walls of this fort witnessed some of the most historic events. Visiting the Citadel allows visitors to take a peek into the history.