The Citadel sits on part of the Muqattam Hills. Construction began on the Citadel in 1176 by Salah al-Din, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. He came to power in 1169 after the Seljuk overlord of Damascus, Nur al-Din, dispatched Salah al-Din with a military aid mission to assist the Fatimids in Egypt fend off a Crusader attack. Salah al-Din was successful, but unfortunately for the Fatimids, their rescuers stayed and became their controllers. Salah al-Din built the Citadel as the government seat and added city walls to enclose much of the area. He did not live at the Citadel, nor did his successor. But the third ruler and most subsequent rulers did live at the Citadel.
One thing we discovered while visiting the Citadel is that building materials were often pillaged from other structures built by previous rulers. The Citadel was built from limestone from the Muqattam range and from blocks taken from smaller pyramids at Giza. It had two parts–the northern military side and the southern residential side. The military side had a long curtain wall and half-round towers, some of which you can still see. The residential side was built by al-Kamil (Salah al-Din’s nephew) and included a mosque, audience hall, palaces, library and more. The Citadel grounds also include stables, ceremonial grounds, polo fields, a park, and markets. His buildings were torn down by Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad whose buildings were torn down by the Ottomans, French and Muhammad ‘Ali. The Citadel had three periods of building–The Ayyubids in the 12th century, the Mamluks in the 14th century, and then Muhammad ‘Ali in the 19th century.
For quite a while, the Citadel was used actively as a military installation and not particularly open to visitors. But in 1983, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (now called SCA) started restorations and now visitors can visit much of it. There used to be two entrances–the Western and the Eastern. The Western one is closed to the public, but it has an interesting history. Muhammad ‘Ali (then an Albanian mercenary) came to Egypt in 1798 with the Ottoman military forces to help oust French troops. They were successful. Muhammad ‘Ali became Ottoman wali and pasha in 1805 but wanted more. In 1811 he invited the Mamluk ruling class to a celebration at the Citadel. At the end of the night, they had to exit through the narrow path to the gate. While trapped in their, his guards shot down on them and slaughtered everyone. Interestingly, there are two conflicting stories about one of those Mamluk beys. The local tale goes that one man survived the slaughter by leaping over the tall wall on his horse. There is art that shows this story and our guide at the Citadel swears by it. But my history book on the architecture in Cairo says that that man actually skipped the banquet and that is why he stayed alive-he wasn’t even there! Either way, only one Mamluk man from the ruling class lived.
Nowadays, there are only two things open in the Citadel–the Mosque of Muhammad ‘Ali and the Mosque of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad. The museums and other structures are closed with little signs of when (or if) they will reopen. Guide books talked about the Citadel being at least a halfday event, but we were only there about 1.5 hours.
After getting our tickets, we headed up the hill to the Mosque of Muhammad ‘Ali. There are some great views of the mosque on the way up. Don’t worry, it’s not too steep a hill and you have the option of taking a flight of stairs up or taking a longer route along a paved path. One cool thing out guide pointed out was how the older pathways have fossils in them!
The mosque was originally meant to be Mamluk in design, but Pascal Coste, the Frenchman charged with the design left Egypt in 1827 and the plans were abandoned. In 1832 the mosque was restarted, this time with an Ottoman style. It is huge and dominates the skyline. The minarets are 82m tall. The mosque is covered in Egyptian alabaster instead of marble, chosen by Muhammad ‘Ali to help the local economy.
The mosque has a large central dome, four semi-domes on the sides, and four corner domes. It can hold 6,500 people. The mihrab niche is very deep and pushes out the exterior wall. This is a Cairene feature from the Fatimid times. Muhammad ‘Ali is buried in this mosque.
In the courtyard is a Turkish baroque ablution fountain with beautiful paintings inside and lovely designs. There is also a gingerbread clock mounted on one wall-a gift from Louise Philippe in 1846. The Egyptians gave France an obelisk from Luxor in exchange. It stands in Paris.
Inside the mosque was beautiful. The ceiling was gorgeous and I liked the lamps circling the ceiling. Their was some lovely stained glass as well. Pieces of the carpet were taken over the years by major and minor rulers and so none of it is original anymore.
There are some wonderful views of the city from outside the mosque. You can see that there was a far amount of dust and sand down low on the horizon, obscuring our view some. You can’t see it in the picture, but if we really squinted and focused we could just see the Pyramids of Giza and also the Pyramids of Saqqara in the far distance. We also saw many minarets from other mosques.
Down the hill was the next mosque–the Mosque of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad. He ruled in the late 1200s and the early 1300s. It has two minarets-one near the main entrance and one in the northeast corner. That one was for broadcasting the call to prayer towards the northern enclosure where the troops lived. This is a unique style to this mosque that isn’t duplicated elsewhere in Egypt.
Inside the mosque is plain as most of its marble was stolen and taken to Istanbul by an Ottoman sultan. The original dome had green tiles, but fell twice before being replaced by its current concrete dome in 1935. It can hold 5,000 worshippers. The columns were particularly fascinating as they were reused (aka taken) from various sources, including Ptolemaic, Roman Corinthian, Christian, and Pharaonic. As they were different heights, the builders of the mosque had to add bases to them to make them all the same height for their new purpose.
This mosque is all that’s left of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad’s vast building project. Muhammad ‘Ali destroyed everything else when he came to power. This is far turnabout however, as Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad destroyed all of his predecessors’ structures when he ruled.
We really enjoyed the mosques, but were disappointed that so much of the Citadel was closed to visitors.
How to Get There: The Citadel is easy to get to off Salah Salem St and every taxi driver should know where it is. There is a parking lot. It is near Al Azhar Park and would be easy to combine with a visit there, though you’d need to drive between the two.
Hours: At the time of this post, it was open 9 am to 4 pm daily. On Fridays the mosques are closed 11 am to 1 pm for midday prayer, so avoid then.
Tickets: Adults were LE60 each, our kids were free. I think older kids have a discounted charge. No camera fee.
Food and Drink: We were allowed to bring in water and snacks without any problem. There is also a small snack stall right after security and tickets that sold water, drinks and snacks.
Strollers: We brought our lightweight stroller no problem. The restored areas are very smooth paths or roads. The original paths were hard on our stroller as parts are missing making for holes. We were allowed to bring the stroller into the mosques. We also brought our hiking backpack. This allowed my husband to carry our son and I could push our daughter. It’s not a ton of walking, but you do have an initial trek up to the mosques and having a place for kids to rest allowed us to linger longer.
Mosque Info: These were much lower key mosques than others I’ve been to. Women were not required to wear headscarves which really surprised me. I’d bring one anyway just in case. Women should wear short sleeves and pants or a long skirt. Most mosques in Egypt require long sleeves, which I wore, but women were in short sleeves without being told to cover. Women in shorts or sleeveless tops were given gowns to put on top. Men should have knees covered, though again, I saw men in shorts above the knees. Be respectful. Young children are exempt from these rules, but we did dress ours conservatively. These are active mosques used for prayer. They are closed on Fridays from 11-1 to cover the noon prayer time. You need to remove your shoes, though they can provide shoe covers if you prefer to keep them on. At the Muhammad ‘Ali mosque, you’ll bring them with you as you exit at a different side. At the al-Nasir mosque, you can leave them at the entrance. Both mosques have free literature about Islam that you are encouraged to take.
Note: We arranged a car, driver, and guide through SEEgypt. It would be very easy to reach by taxi or self driving and a guide is not absolutely necessary, though nice for noticing all the small things.