The Citadel of Cairo is the great palace/fortress from which numerous Islamic dynasties ruled over Egypt and periodically other African and Middle Eastern territories. Constructed by Saladin in the 11th century, it is one of the greatest fortress-palaces built in the Middle East during the Abbasid and Mamluk periods. Its beauty and political importance were unsurpassed until the construction of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul nearly four centuries later. Towering over the city skyline, this mosque-like structure is also the location of the Tomb of Mohammed Ali, the first of Egypt’s modern monarchs. Because of this it is also something of a pilgrimage destination in addition to being one of Egypt’s greatest post-Roman period attractions
Egypt has been one of the Muslim world’s strategic lynchpins since its conquest in the 7th century. After it was converted to Islam, the Ummayads founded the City of Cairo which they then used to expand their empire westwards. It was subsequently used as a regional capital for the Abbasids and a Caliphate seat for the Fatimids. During the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks under Saladin seized Cairo as a base from which to battle the Christian Crusaders in the Holy Land. After his conquest of Jerusalem, Saladin established for himself a substantial empire that sprawled over Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia and the Holy Cities of Arabia, making his capital at Cairo.
Saladin, the great hero of Islam in the Middle Ages, founded the Ayyubid Dynasty and used a portion of the vast riches gained from his conquests to build for himself a magnificent palace in Cairo. At the time of its construction, it was the grandest royal palace in the western world after the Alhambra. Because of the constant threat of wars with the crusaders, it was also strongly fortified and could house a substantial garrison it was thus also one of the Middle East’s strongest citadels, perhaps second only to the Krak Des Chevaliers.
The Seljuk armies in Egypt were partially composed of Mamluk slave-soldiers, which grew in number each generation until by the 13th century they constituted the bulk of Ayyubid forces in Egypt. When Egypt was threatened by a French Crusader army in 1249, the Mamluks seized power and established their own kingdom, which they ruled from the Citadel of Cairo until the 16th century. A few years after seizing power, the Mamluks were instrumental in defeating the Mongols, preventing them from entering Africa and ultimately driving them out of Syria.
In 1517, Egypt was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, who proceeded to rule Egypt as a province from the Citadel. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the Ottomans and Seljuks fought for control of Egypt through a series of revolts and civil wars. Ultimately the Mamluks were defeated, but the Ottoman Governor Mohammed Ali seized power for himself, and Egypt became a quasi-independent state. The Citadel remained the official governing residence until a new palace was constructed by Khedive Ismail in the mid-19th century.
The Citadel of Cairo was innovative at the time of its construction. Borrowing architectural techniques from across the Muslim world as well as engineering techniques from the crusaders, the result is a towering structure that looks like a cross between a medieval castle, the Palace of the Doge in Venice and a multi-domed mosque. The outer structure consists of several concentric rings of walls built over many centuries and protected by some of the largest round towers in the world. The walls enclose a labyrinth of tightly packed buildings that rival North Africa’s great medinas. The centerpiece of the complex is the main palace. Built on a hill, the towering palace offered its inhabitants a wide view of the city and the lands beyond. The structure is crowned by two impossibly slender minarets that nearly double the palace’s height.
The citadel is also home to numerous smaller palaces, mosques and other assorted odd buildings, some of which now house museums. The chief of these sites is undoubtedly the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, where Egypt’s first modern-day potentate was buried in the 19th century. As the tastes of Mohammed Ali were heavily influenced and encouraged by his friendship with King Louis Phillipe of France, the place is adorned with a smattering of French-style artwork and architecture. The major museum of the citadel is the National Military Museum, which features an extensive collection of weaponry as well as an exhibit on the history of the palace.
The Citadel of Cairo is located east of dowtown and along the rim of the district known as Islamic Cairo. It is open daily from 8:00am-5:00pm (shorter hours on Fridays and during Ramadan). Admission is EL20.00 (discounts for students). Web: www.touregypt.net/citadel (official website).
After 800 years residing in one location, the monarchs of Egypt decided to play catch-up with the great capitals of Europe, and set about the establishment of several new royal residences. In 1874, the royal family moved out of the Citadel of Cairo and into the state-of-the-art Abdeen Palace, which became their official home until the downfall of the monarchy. It is now used both as offices for Egypt’s executive branch as well as a museum. Shortly afterwards they built the Montaza Palace in Alexandria as a weekend getaway.
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