The Qait Bay Citadel is one of the last and greatest pre-Colonial fortresses to be built on the African continent. It is also one of the finest examples standing of Middle Eastern military architecture. Built on the foundations of the Lighthouse of Pharos, one of the ancient wonders of the world, the fortress was designed to protect the nominally independent Sultanate of Egypt from the the encroachment of the Ottoman Turks and other foreign powers. Unfortunately, the citadel became a prized possession by a string of conqueror’s who passed through the area. Because most of Alexandria’s other great monuments have been lost by attrition throughout history, the Qait Bay Citadel is now the city’s most popular site. It is now home to Egypt’s Maritime Museum.
The location upon which the Qait Bay Citadel was constructed was once home to the magnificent Lighthouse of Pharos. Built around 280 BC, it stood as one of the tallest buildings in the world for the better part of sixteen centuries. Throughout the Middle Ages, the lighthouse was damaged by a series of earthquakes, until the structure was largely destroyed in the 1300s.
Throughout the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire slowly spread southwards along the Mediterranean coast. Their expansion threatened Egypt, one of the last surviving territories of the once mighty Mamluke Empire. To counter this threat, Sultan Al-Ashraf Qaitbay ordered the construction of new fortifications along Egypt’s coast. The site of the old lighthouse in Alexandria offered an excellent position overlooking the sea, ready-built foundations designed to hold up an enormous structure, and all the building materials that were required. The site was selected for the largest fortress in Egypt.
The citadel was erected in just a few years. Unfortunately, it did not avail the Mamlukes for long. By the early 16th century, the Ottomans had defeated the Mamlukes and absorbed Egypt into their expanding empire. The Ottomans took Alexandria and the Qait Bay Citadel and used it as their local seat of power for nearly the next three hundred years. It was briefly seized by French forces during the Napoleanic era, then squabbled over by several factions after the Europeans were driven out.
The European invasion and subsequent civil strife weakened the Ottomans in Egypt, and in 1805 Egypt became nominally independent once more. Muhammad Ali, the new ruler, restored and modernized the citadel, equipping it with the most advanced weapons of the colonial era. It remained an important part of Egypt’s defenses and a symbol of the country’s independence until being badly damaged by a British naval attack in 1882. During the 20th century, the militarily outdated fortress was converted for use, first as a royal residence and later as a Maritime Museum, for which it is currently being used.
The Qait Bay Citadel is massive, and it looms even larger thanks to its isolated position overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Architecturally it is something of a hybrid of European and Middle Eastern styles of the late Middle Ages. However, its long, high outer walls which feature gun openings but lack battlements seems to anticipate the type of colonial architecture that would later be found throughout the European territories. The entire site of the citadel encompasses the former footprint of the lighthouse, and most of the fortress’ stonework formerly belonged to that ancient wonder.
The central fortress itself stands on the place where the lighthouse once stood. Large and beautifully detailed but not particularly complex, the hulking structure consists of a single square keep with round towers at the four corners. Windows, balconies and apertures are few and very high off the ground. There is a grand balcony several stories directly over the main gate which overlooks a large plaza. Several batteries of cannon are on display throughout the complex. Interestingly, the entire citadel is aligned towards Mecca due to the presence of a small mosque inside.
The Qait Bay Citadel stands on a small peninsula which juts out between the harbor and the sea, a little more than one mile north of the Old City. It is open daily from 9:00am-4:00pm. Admission is EL6.00. Web: www.touregypt.net/alqaitbe (official website).
The area around Alexandria has boasted castles and fortifications since ancient times. While many are long gone, there are a few survivors worth noting. These include the Agami Fort and the Rosetta Fort. The latter is the site where the world-famous Rosetta Stone was discovered in the 18th century.