Before Saladin came along, the local rulers of Cairo had overlooked the strategic value of the hill above the city. But within a few years of his arrival in Cairo in 1168, Saladin began making plans for the defense of the city with al-Qala'a - the Citadel - as the key element.
History of Citadel
In the 12th century, Saladin and his successors built an impenetrable bastion in the Citadel, using the most advanced construction techniques of the age. For the next 700 years, Egypt was ruled from this hill.
During the 1330s al-Nasir Muhammad, who ruled on three different occasions for a total of 42 years (AD 1293-1340) and was considered the greatest Mamluk sultan, 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 the Ottoman Muhammad 'Aliassumed power in the 1800s 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 the vision of Muhammad 'Ali, particularly the mosque that bears his name.
What to See at Citadel
Nothing remains of the original fortress 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 ft tall and 10 ft thick; they and their towers were built with the experience gleaned from the Crusader wars.
The Muhammad 'Ali Mosque is the most noticeable in all of Cairo; for more than 150 years it has dominated the skyline. Ottoman law prohibited anyone but the sultan from building a mosque with more than one minaret, but this mosque has two. This was one of Muhammad 'Ali's first indications that he did not intend to remain submissive to Istanbul.
Behind Muhammad 'Ali's gilded mosque stands a far more elegant one, 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 including ancient Egyptian structures.
Quick Facts on Citadel
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|30.029950° N, 31.259440° E
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- Fodor's Exploring Egypt
- Cairo Citadel – ArchNet Digital Library
- Muhammad 'Ali Mosque at the Citadel – ArchNet Digital Library
- Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qala'un Mosque – ArchNet Digital Library
- The Citadel of Cairo – Tour Egypt
- Islamic Cairo – UNESCO World Heritage
- Photos of Citadel - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Citadel, Cairo
Below is a location map and aerial view of Citadel. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.