The Qaitbay Citadel In Alexandria
The Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria is considered one of the most important defensive strongholds in Egypt and along the Mediterranean coast. In the 15th century A.D., it was essential to Alexandria's fortifications.
The Citadel resides at the entrance of the eastern harbor on the east point of Pharos Island. It was erected on the site of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The lighthouse continued to function until the time of the Arab conquest. Several disasters occurred, and the shape of the lighthouse was changed to some extent, but it continued to work. Restoration began during Ahmed Ibn Tulun (about 880 A.D). During the 11th century, an earthquake damaged the octagonal part. The bottom survived but could only serve as a watchtower, so a small Mosque was built on the top. In the 14th century, a destructive earthquake destroyed the building.
In about 1480 A.D., the Mameluke Sultan Al-Ashraf Qaitbay fortified this place as part of his coastal defensive edifices against the Turks, who were threatening Egypt then. He built the castle and placed a Mosque inside it. The Citadel continued to function during most of the Mameluke, Ottoman, and Modern periods. However, it was kept out of the spotlight after the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1883. It was neglected until the 20th century when the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities restored it several times.
The founder of the Citadel of Qaitbay is Sultan Al-Ashraf Abou Ansar Saif El-Din Qaitbay El-Jerkasy Al-Zahiry (1468-1496 A.D) who was born about 1423 A.D (826 H). He was a Mamluke who had come to Egypt as a young man, less than 20. Bought by Al-Ashraf Bersbay, he remained among his attendants until Al-Ashraf Bersbay died. Then Sultan Djaqmaq bought Qaitbay and later gave him his freedom. Qaitbay went on to occupy various posts. He became the Chief of the Army (Arabic Al-Askar) during the rule of Sultan Tamar Bugha. When the Sultan was dethroned, Qaitbay was appointed as a Sultan and given the title Almalek Al-Ashraf on Monday 26th Ragab, 872 H. (1468 A.D). He was one of the most essential and prominent Mameluke Sultans, ruling for about 29 years. He was a brave king who tried to initiate a new era with the Ottomans by exchanging embassies and gifts. He was fond of travel and made many prominent journeys.
Qaitbay was so fond of art and architecture that he created a vital post in the state's administrative system: the Edifices Mason (Shady Al-Ama'er). He built many beneficial constructions in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. In Egypt, there are about 70 renovated edifices attributed to him; among them are Mosques, Madrasas, Agencies, Fountain houses (Sabils), Kuttabs, houses, and military buildings like the Citadels in Alexandria and Rosetta(now known as Rashid). These Citadels were built to protect the north of Egypt, mainly against the Ottomans, whose power was increasing in the Mediterranean.
Qagmas Al-Eshaqy, The Edifices Mason, was the architect of the Citadel. Before he arrived in Egypt, he was a Mameluke of Djakmaq in Syria. During the rule of Qaitbay, he became the edifices mason and then the Viceroy of Alexandria. He was appointed governor of Syria (Damascus) and built a Mosque outside the gate of Rashid (Bab Rashid), as well as a Cenotaph and a Khan. He also renovated the Mosque of El-Sawary outside the gate of Sadrah (Bab Sadrah).
Qagmas was intelligent, modest, and the overseer of many constructions during the time of Qaitbay. In 882 H. (1477 A.D), Sultan Qaitbay visited the old lighthouse site in Alexandria and ordered a fortress to be built on its foundations. The construction lasted about two years, and it is said that Qaitbay spent more than a hundred thousand Dinars on the work on the Citadel.
Ibn Ayas mentioned that the construction of this fort started in Rabi Alawal in 882 H. He said that Sultan Qaitbay traveled to Alexandria, accompanied by some other Mameluke princes, to visit the old lighthouse site. During this visit, he ordered the building of the Citadel.
In the month of Shaban 884 H, Sultan Qaitbay traveled again to Alexandria when the construction was finished. He provided the fort with a brave legion of soldiers and various weapons. As Ibn Ayas mentioned, he also dedicated several waqfs, from which he financed the construction works and the soldiers' salaries.
Due to its strategic location, the Citadel was well maintained throughout the Mameluke period by all the rulers who came after Qaitbay.
Sultan Qansoh El-Ghoury gave the Citadel special attention. He visited it several times and increased the garrison's strength, providing various weapons and equipment. It included a large prison made for the princes and the politicians whom the Sultan removed from his favor for some reason. In the episodes of the year 920 H, Sultan El-Ghoury traveled to Alexandria with other princes. They went to the Citadel of Qaitbay, where he watched some maneuvers and military training on the defensive weapons of the Citadel of that era. When he felt the approach of the Ottoman threat, he issued an army decree to forbid weapons to be taken out of the Citadel. He even announced that the death penalty would be the punishment for those who try to steal anything from the Citadel, and he ordered the inscription of this decree on a marble slate fixed to the door leading the court. It says: "Bism Ellah El-Rahman El-Rahim," a mandate by the order of our master, the noble rank, King Al-Ashraf Abou El-Naser Qansoh El-Ghoury. This translates to "May God eternalize his reign that nobody should take Makahel weapon, gunpowder, tools, or any other thing from the noble tower in Alexandria: and any one of the tower party, whether Mameluke, Slaves or Zarad Kashia, who breaks this (decree) and leaves the tower with something will be hanged at the gate of the tower, deserving the curse of God."
Dated Rabei Alawal 907 H.
After the Ottoman Turks conquered Egypt, they even cared for this unique Citadel. They used it for shelter, as they had done with the Citadel of Saladin in Cairo and the citadels of Damietta, Rosetta, Al Borollos, and El-Arish. They kept it in good condition and stationed it with infantry, artillery, a company of drummers and trumpeters, masons, and carpenters.
As the Ottoman military weakened, the Citadel began to lose its importance. In 1798 A.D., during the French expedition of Egypt, it fell into French hands, mainly because of the weakness of the Citadel garrison and the power of the French modern weapons at that time. Inside, the French found some crusader weapons, which dated back to the campaign of Louis IX. It could be a spoil after the battle and capture of El-Mansoura!
When Mohammed Ali became the ruler of Egypt in 1805, he renovated the old Citadel, restoring and repairing its outer ramparts, and he provided the stronghold with the most modern weapons of the period, particularly the coastal cannons. We can consider Mohamed Ali's reign as another golden era for the Citadel.
The Citadel retained the interest of Mohammed Ali's successors until 1882 when the Orabi revolution took place. The British fleet bombarded Alexandria violently on 11 July 1882 and damaged a large part of the city, especially in the area of the Citadel. This attack cracked the fortress, causing significant damage. The north and west facades were severely damaged due to cannon explosions aimed directly at the structure. The western facade was destroyed, leaving substantial gaps in it.
Unfortunately, the Citadel remained neglected after this attack until 1904, when the Ministry of Defence restored the upper floors. King Farouk wanted to turn the Citadel into a royal rest house, so he ordered a rapid renovation. After the revolution of 1952, the Egyptian Naval troops turned the building into a Maritime Museum. The most extensive restoration work dates back to 1984 when the Egyptian Antiquities Organization planned to restore the fort.