Cairo Sights

The Citadel

  • Al-Qala'a, Shar'a Salih Salem Map It
  • The Citadel
  • Castle/Palace/Chateau
  • Fodor's Choice

Published 01/10/2017

Fodor's Review

Until Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi arrived in Cairo in 1168, local rulers had overlooked the strategic value of the hill above the city. Within a few years he began making plans for the defense of the city, with al-Qala'a (the fortress) the key element. He and his successors built an impenetrable bastion, using the most advanced construction techniques of the age. For the next 700 years, Egypt was ruled from this hill. Nothing remains of the original complex except a part of the walls and Bir Yusuf, the well that supplied the Citadel with water. The Ayyubid walls that circle the northern enclosure are 33 feet tall and 10 feet thick; they and their towers were built with the experience gleaned from the Crusader wars. Bir Yusuf is also an engineering marvel; dug 285 feet straight into solid rock to reach the water table, the well was powered by oxen that would walk in circles all day to draw water up to the level of the Citadel.

During the 1330s al-Nasir Muhammad tore down most

of the Ayyubid buildings to make room for his own needs, which included several palaces and a mosque in addition to barracks for his army. These, too, were not to last, for when Muhammad 'Ali assumed power he had all the Mamluk buildings razed and the complex entirely rebuilt; only the green-domed mosque and a fragment of al-Qasr al-Ablaq (the striped palace) remain. The Citadel's appearance today is really the vision of Muhammad 'Ali, particularly the mosque that bears his name.

The Muhammad 'Ali Mosque is the most noticeable in all of Cairo. For more than 150 years it has dominated the skyline, making it almost the symbol of the city. This is ironic because it is actually an imitation of the graceful Ottoman mosques in Istanbul. Notice the alabaster facing on the outside. The interior reflects a somewhat gaudy attempt to weld Middle Eastern and French rococo and is finished with ornate lines of red, green, and gold. Nevertheless, there are interesting aspects to the place. Ottoman law prohibited anyone but the sultan from building a mosque with more than one minaret, but this mosque has two. Indeed, this was one of Muhammad 'Ali's first indications that he did not intend to remain submissive to Istanbul.

The courtyard within the mosque is spacious and comfortable. It also has a gilded clock tower given to Muhammad 'Ali by King Louis Philippe in exchange for the obelisk that stands in the middle of Paris. It is fair to say that the French got the better end of the bargain: the clock has never worked.

Behind Muhammad 'Ali's gilded beast stands a far more elegant creature, the Mosque of al-Nasir Muhammad. The beautifully crafted masonry, the elegant proportions, the ornate but controlled work on the minarets—all indicate that the building is a Mamluk work of art. The conquering Ottomans carried much of the original interior decoration off to Istanbul, but the space is nevertheless impressive. The supporting columns around the courtyard were collected from various sources and several are pharaonic.

Directly across from the entrance of al-Nasir is the National Police Museum. A prison until 1985, this small structure is hardly worth the five minutes it will take to walk through it. Two things rescue it from complete dismissal: the exhibition on political assassinations in Egypt, and the spectacular view from the courtyard behind it. Directly below is the lower enclosure gated by the Bab al-'Azab, the site where Muhammad 'Ali decisively wrested control from the unruly Mamluk warlords, who, while they had submitted to Ottoman rule for 300 years, had not really accepted it. In his capacity as Ottoman governor, Muhammad 'Ali invited all the powerful Mamluks up to the Citadel where they ate, drank, and were merry. As they were making their way to the gate for their exit, the governor's men ambushed them, eliminating in a single stroke all internal opposition.

To the northwest of al-Nasir's mosque is the Bab al-Qulla, which leads to the Qasr al-Harem (the Harem Palace), now the site of the National Military Museum. The brainchild of King Faruq, the exhibit was intended to chronicle the glories of his family but has been extended by the post-Revolution administrations to include the military glories of presidents Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (Nasser), Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. The display of uniforms and weaponry may be of some interest to historians and military aficionados. For those less taken with martial affairs, the building itself is another example of the eclectic taste appreciated by Muhammad 'Ali and his descendants.

Farther west, the Carriage Museum was the dining hall of the British officers stationed at the Citadel in the early 20th century. It now houses eight carriages used by Egypt's last royal dynasty (1805–1952).

In the northwest part of the Citadel is a rarely visited site, the Mosque of Sulayman Pasha. Built in 1528 by Egypt's Ottoman governor for his crack Janissary troops, this is a small but graceful mosque. While its plan is entirely a product of Istanbul, the sparse stone decoration shows traces of Mamluk influence. The tomb contains the remains of several prominent Janissary officers, as well as a Fatimid saint.

Before leaving the Citadel, pass by the Qasr al-Gawhara (the Jewel Palace), where Muhammad 'Ali received guests. When the khedives moved their residence down to 'Abdin Palace in the city, it was opened to the public, and after the revolution it was turned into a museum displaying the royal family's extravagance. Heavily influenced by the early-19th-century French style, the building is similar in taste to the Harem Palace. The painted murals on the walls and ceiling of the main Meeting Hall are worth the visit, as is the furniture in the model royal bedroom.

There is a small gift shop in the complex that is well stocked with books and CDs. If you stop in, you may want to pick up a copy of The Citadel of Cairo: A History and Guide, by William Lyster, a wonderfully detailed book and great companion for your visit, or a copy of the excellent SPARE (Society for the Preservation of the Architectural Resources of Egypt) Map, which covers the area.

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Sight Information


Al-Qala'a, Shar'a Salih Salem, Cairo, Cairo, Egypt

Map It



Sight Details:

  • £E60

Published 01/10/2017


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