The Citadel of Saladin in Cairo
Built by Saladin El Ayouby, the famous king and army leader and the founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty, during the end of the 12th century, the Citadel has witnessed many important events in the Egyptian history.
The citadel was used as the seat of the king and his government in Egypt for many centuries and many dynasties including the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, and even some Ottomans ruled over Egypt from the Citadel.
The citadel had always played a significant role in the political life of Egypt in different stages of history to the extent that in some occasions a king used to rule over Cairo while another Sultan or ruler had control of the citadel. Moreover, the Citadel has defended Egypt against many attacks in different periods of time.
Many important monuments were built in the Citadel of Saladin throughout its long history. This includes the marvelous Mosque of Mohamed Ali which is the best example of the Ottoman architecture in Egypt, the Mamluk Mosque of El Nasser Mohamed, and the small charming Mosque of Suleiman Pasha El Khadim.
Today, the Citadel of Saladin is considered to be among the most popular historical sites of Cairo as it is included in almost all the tours designed for visiting the capital of Egypt.
Other than the mosques, the citadel hosts another four interesting museums; the Military Museum, the Police Museum, the Royal Carriages Museum, and the Qaser El Gawhara Museum.
Located at the top of a high cliff, the citadel is also featured with its special location that offers the tourists with magnificent views over different sections around Cairo.
The Reasons behind the Construction of the Citadel and its Location
When Saladin took control of Egypt, with no resistance to be mentioned from the Fatimids who ruled Egypt from the 8th till the 12th century, he decided that Cairo should have a fortified citadel to protect the city against any foreign attacks especially the threat of the crusaders that were carrying military campaigns towards the Middle East at this period of time.
Saladin was influenced with the forts and citadels he viewed in Syria and Lebanon and how fortified and protective they were. Recognizing the importance of having such a citadel to protect Cairo, he guided all the resources he had to construct such an important military structure.
After checking out many different locations in and around Cairo, Saladin decided to construct his citadel over the Mokatam Hill to overlook the whole city of Cairo and to be located at a high position that is hard to be reached or attacked.
History of its Construction
The construction work of the citadel of Saladin in Cairo has started in 1176 during the reign of Saladin. However, it was completed in 1182 during the ruling period of Al Malek El Kamel, who governed Egypt after Saladin and was the first king to live in the citadel.
Saladin insisted to build a strong fortified citadel to protect the city of Cairo against all sorts of threats. Maybe this was why it was said that he destructed some small pyramids in Giza and used their stones to build his citadel and its walls.
Many of the soldiers of the army of Saladin together with some crusaders that were captured by Saladin have worked together in the building of the citadel that was viewed as a wonderful piece of military architecture when it was completed.
Saladin has also dig a water well inside the citadel to be used by the soldiers if the citadel goes under siege and this well is considered to be one of the most difficult constructions achieved at this period in the 12th century as it was 90 meters deep and it was dig inside the hardest rocks of the Mokatam Mountain.
Regarded as one of the most elegant fortresses to be constructed in the middle ages, the Citadel of Saladin in Cairo is featured with its strategic location overlooking the two neighboring cities that were alive at the time; Fustat and Cairo.
Moreover, being situated between the two cities, the Citadel of Saladin provided good connections between different sections of town and it functioned as a place to resort to and to be protected in case of any sudden attack on Cairo.
Historical Events the Citadel Witnessed
The Citadel of Saladin in Cairo has witnessed several important events throughout the history of Egypt during the Ayyubid and Mamluks period. Even during the French invasion of Egypt, under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, the citadel had an important role to play in defending the city until the French soldiers took control of it.
Mohamed Ali, who was sent by the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul to rule Egypt under his leadership and who was able to make Egypt an independent state away from the Ottoman power in the 19th century, ruled Egypt from the citadel.
Furthermore, it was in the Qaser El Gawhara or the Palace of the Jewel, which is located inside the Citadel of Saladin and was transformed into a museum today, where Mohamed Ali invited the Mamluks leaders and murdered them in the famous political event that was named afterwards as the "Massacre of the Citadel"
The Gates of the Citadel of Saladin
El Mokatam Gate
This gate was named El Mokatam Gate because it was created near the Mokatam monitoring tower of the citadel. Constructed during the Ottoman period, this gate is now called the Salah Salem Gate, referring to the street where it is located today.
The Gate of Mokatam was created inside a thick wall made out of hard rocks to the South of the Tower of Mokatam. In 1785, a wall with several balconies was added to the gate during the reign of Mohamed Yakan Pasha who constructed himself a palace near his gate. Unfortunately the palace was damaged afterwards in different historical events.
When Mohamed Ali came to rule over Egypt he made many restoration and renovations to the Citadel of Saladin as he paved a way between Bab El Mokatam in the citadel and the road located below it, which was 650 meters long.
The Gate of El Mokatam was damaged with time passing by and a large portion of the walls surrounding it was lost as well when the Egyptian government constructed the Salah Salem Road in 1955 and a new door was established where guests enter the citadel through today.
Bab El Hadeed or the Iron Gate
Mohamed Ali has started constructing the Iron Gate in 1822 to be the main gate of the Citadel of Saladin as it allowed larger cannons and equipments to enter the citadel. Mohamed Ali has also paved a road connecting this gate to the rest of Cairo and it is today known as the Street of Bab El Hadeed.
The Iron Gate has two main facades; the Northern façade that overlooks the Bab El Hadeed Street near Dar El Mahfozat, or the Old Building of Archives that was connected to the Citadel and this northern façade is now about 15 meters long and from 16 to 20 meters high.
The Northern façade of the Iron Gate of the Citadel of Saladin has some marvelous architectural elements like the memorial plate that contains some facts about the construction of the gate.
The Middle Gate
Historians have long argued about the origin of the name of this gate. Some of them claim that it was named the Middle Gate because it was located in the middle between the two administration buildings of the two Sultans; Sultan El Ghoury and Sultan Qalauan afterwards.
Other theories noted that it was called the Middle Gate because it was located between the two other main gates of the citadel; the Iron Gate and El Mokatam Gate.
In 1826, Mohamed Ali restored this gate, which exact construction date is still unknown, and the walls that were surrounding it, as part of his large restoration and renovation works that were carried out in the Citadel of Saladin.
Under Mohamed Ali, there were other monuments added to the Citadel, among them the great alabaster Mosque of Mohamed Ali.
The Citadel of Saladin will always remain one of the most important highlights of Cairo. Visiting the Mosque of Mohamed Ali, the Military Museum, viewing the marvelous architecture of the citadel, and watching Cairo from above are among the most interesting activities to be done in the citadel while a traveler is touring the Egyptian capital.