The Babylon Fortress is arguably the greatest surviving fortress of the Roman era. Unlike the Castel Sant’Angelo, which was originally built as a mausoleum, and Hadrian’s Wall, which while impressive was largely a long wall, the Babylon Fortress was actually one of the greatest citadels ever built by the empire. Located in sight of the Pyramids of Giza, it was the core around which the city of Fustat, and later Cairo, grew. It was also one of the most important centers of Coptic Christianity in pre-Islamic times. Although only a portion of the Babylon Fortress still survives, that portion is impressively large and consists, with some renovations, of much of the original 2nd century Roman construction. The Babylon Fortress is part of the Historic Cairo UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Located at the head of the Nile River Delta, the strategic importance of the place where the Babylon Fortress now stands has been recognized since ancient times. It is believed that a fortress has stood on the spot since at least the 6th century BC, when the Babylonian Empire ruled over most of the Middle East. When Egypt was conquered by the Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus Caesar in the 1st century BC, Babylon and its fortress was annexed to guard the southern approaches to the Nile River Delta and the great port city of Alexandria. Over the next century or so, Babylon became an important base from which the Roman Empire spread its influence down the Nile River.
In the early 2nd century AD, the Emperor Trajan decided to build a new, larger and more up-to-date fortress in Babylon. This new fortress was massive, and at its height encompassed perhaps as much as sixty acres, making it easily Egypt’s second most important city after Alexandria. For the next five hundred years, the Babylon Fortress would be one of the Eastern Empire’s most important and strategic military possessions, and it remained in Roman and Byzantine hands from the time of its construction until the Sassanid conquest of Egypt in the 620s.
The Sassanid occupation lasted barely a decade, and by 629 AD Egypt was effectively back in the possession of the Byzantines. However, their repossession in turn lasted only a few years. In 640 AD forces of the Islamic Caliphate swept out of the Middle East and took Egypt by storm. Arab armies attacked the fortress, conquering it in 641 after a seven month siege. It was then used as a base from which the Caliphate completed the conquest of Alexandria half a year later. Interestingly, after the Muslim annexation of Egypt was complete, it was not the mighty city of Alexandria that was made the regional capital, but the much smaller city of Babylon.
In 641 AD, the Arab general Amr ibn Al-As founded the city of Fustat in the shadow of the Babylon Fortress. The fortress itself was used both to defend the new capital city as well as serve as the new province’s chief administrative center. It remained the military and governmental heart of the city for a further five centuries. During this period the city expanded substantially to the north, and the Babylon Fortress became increasingly further away from the center as well as increasingly obsolete. Towards the end of the 12th century, the Muslim ruler Saladin built a new fortress, the Cairo Citadel, putting an end to the glory days of Egypt’s most famous Roman site. Although pillaged for stone and building materials for nearly a millennium, enough of the ancient fortress still remains to impress the hordes of tourists who visit it annually.
While only a fraction of the once mighty Babylon Fortress is still intact, that fraction is quite impressive. One of the most important surviving sections is a stretch of the outer wall which once stood near the main gate. Several of the towers are intact, including portions of the two main gates. Possibly the most artistically interesting feature of the fortress is the red- and white-striped brickwork which was once a hallmark of Roman construction and which there are now few other surviving examples anywhere in the world.
During the Christian period, the fortress became something of a pilgrimage destination, as numerous churches and even a convent were incorporated into the existing architecture. These churches are currently in various states of repair, the most intact of which is the Church of St. George which is located by the north gate. The most famous church is the Hanging Church, built partially suspended over the fortress’ southern gate. Tha Babylon Fortress is also home to the Coptic Museum, located near the west gate.
Once the focal point of the Cairo area, the Babylon Fortress is located at the southern end of the city, almost two and a half miles away from what is now considered to be downtown. Hours for visiting the fortress and its church vary. Th Coptic Museum is open daily from 9:00am-5:00pm. Admission is Le16.00. Web: http://en.egypt.travel (official tourism website of Egypt)
Although there are few other ancient fortresses in Egypt to speak of, the greatest medieval castle in Egypt, if not the entire middle east, is located just a few miles away close to downtown Cairo: the Citadel of Cairo, founded by Saladin, which is also home to some of the city’s most impressive palaces and mosques.