8
Jun

Castle in the Sky: The Citadel of Salah al-Din

   Posted by: Keith Payne   

Categories: Islamic Period, Cairo, Lower Egypt

post tab 0010For seven centuries the Citadel was the seat of Islamic supremacy in Egypt.  Like the pharaohs of old, the sultans built magnificent symbols of power and piety, pushed the boundaries of architecture and engineering, and wrote their history in stone and gold.  If the pyramids are the most obvious symbols of ancient royalty, the Citadel of Salah al-Din is clearly the emblem of the Muslim dynasties.

This article will take you around the Citadel, behind its walls, and into the heart of its most sacred space. 

The Citadel of Salah al-Din is perched on a high cape overlooking Cairo, a summit which was once part of the Muqattam Hills.  The hills are a rich source of limestone, and quarrying during ancient times separated the peak from the rest of the hills as a stand-alone formation.  Taking advantage of the soaring view of the city and the constant steady breeze which blew in from the hills, in AD 810 Governor Hatim Ibn Hartama built a pavilion on the site, aptly named the Dome of the Wind. 

Overlooking Cairo from the Citadel

Overlooking Cairo from the Citadel (Photo by Keith Payne)

The hazy expanse of Cairo from the Citadel

The hazy expanse of Cairo from the Citadel (Photo by Keith Payne)

Saladin the Great (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Saladin the Great (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

For nearly four centuries the location served as little more than a scenic overlook where one could escape the heat of the city.  But on his arrival in 1168, the great military commander Saladin recognized the location’s strategic potential.  Determined to make use of the location both as a command from which to rule the newly-conquered nation, as well as a safe garrison from which to repel invaders, Saladin envisioned a walled fortress that would bottleneck the points of entry into a few easily defended points. 

Saladin also intended to use the Citadel as the basis for uniting the townships of Fustat and Cairo into a single city.  Fustat had been the capital of Egypt for centuries, but the growing city of Cairo had come dwarf Fustat, which by Saladin’s time was little more than a suburb of the larger town.  In the years 1183-84 the original structure of the fort was completed, and although the attempt to combine Fustat and Cairo did not go as well as planned, the Citadel itself would serve as the seat of Egyptian government for 700 years. 

The Western Wall of the Citadel

The Western Wall of the Citadel (Photo by Keith Payne)

Citadel wall with the dome of the Mosque of Muhammad el-Nasir visible

Citadel wall with the dome of the Mosque of Muhammad el-Nasir visible (Photo by Keith Payne)

Amongst the earliest improvements were the towers guarding the entrance to the Northern Enclosure, where the soldiers’ barracks were located.  The towers were also the first line of defense against attackers coming through the pass from the Muqattum Hills.  Called Burg al-Ramla (the Sand Tower) and Burg al-Haddad (the Blacksmith’s Tower), the towers were expanded and fortified by Saladin’s nephew, al-Kamil, who thickened the walls and increased the size of the towers by threefold.  Further changes made to Burg al-Haddad included the addition of saqatat, small balconies with pour-holes in the floors that allowed defenders to dump cauldrons of boiling oil on invaders.  During the French Occupation (1798-1801), the arrow slits were expanded into square holes to accommodate cannons. 

Burg al-Ramla and Burg al-Haddad Towers

Burg al-Ramla and Burg al-Haddad Towers (Photo by Keith Payne)

As you approach the Primary Entrance of the Citadel you are greeted by another later addition, the Lion’s Tower, which is also called the Corner Tower due to its location at the intersection of the north and west walls of the Southern Enclosure.  Built between 1260 and 1277 by the Sultan Baybars, the tower has also been called the Tower of al-Zahir Baybars in his honor.  Of course, it can also be said that it is called the Lion’s Tower in his honor, as the lion was Baybars’ standard.  Although some of the Lion’s Tower’s opening have also been expanded for cannons, some of the original arrow slits remain as well. 

Primary Entrance and the Lion's Tower

Primary Entrance and the Lion's Tower (Photo by Keith Payne)

The Lion of Sultan Baybars at the entrance

The Lion of Sultan Baybars at the entrance (Photo by Keith Payne)

Muhammad Ali Pasha (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Muhammad Ali Pasha (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Many innovations and improvements would be made over the years, particularly during the Mamluk period, when the water system was expanded to accomodate the increasing population within the Citadel walls.  The walls themselves were thickened and reinforced several times, and the spiritual lives of the soldiers were bolstered with the building of the Mosque of Muhammad el-Nasir.  But it was during the Ottoman period that perhaps the most iconic addition was made to the Citadel—the Mosque of Muhammad Ali.

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali was constructed from 1830 to 1842 by Muhammad Ali Pasha, who tore down the older Mamluk constructions located there and built his mosque using much of the leftover materials.  The mosque has also been called the Alabaster Mosque because Muhammad Ali covered the walls and facades with that material, but much of the alabaster was later stripped and used in the construction of the palaces of Abbas I. 

Entrance to The Citadel with the Mosque of Muhammad Ali

Entrance to The Citadel with the Mosque of Muhammad Ali (Photo by Keith Payne)

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali (Photo by Keith Payne)

Although a popular symbol of Islamic culture in Cairo, stylistically the Mosque of Muhammad Ali is unlike any other structure in the city.  His design departed from the Mamluk style of architecture, which was still in vogue in Egypt at that time, favoring instead the tastes of the Ottomans.  However, his mosque also reflects the Istanbul style of architecture, particularly the Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmad, and differs enough from the Ottomans to suggest some independence.  For instance, Ottoman law prohibited a mosque to have more than one minaret—Muhammad Ali’s has two. 

Mosque of Muhammad Ali Spires and Domes

Mosque of Muhammad Ali Spires and Domes (Photo by Keith Payne)

The mosque’s dominant feature is a large central dome which is nearly seventy feet in diameter and more than 170 feet high.  The central dome is surrounded by four smaller half-domes, with an additional smaller dome over each of the four corners.  A final half-dome covers the mihrab, which is a niche in the Qibla Wall—the wall which faces Mecca.  In addition to lesser corner spires, two slender minarets soar 264 feet above the floor of the mosque, casting its trademark silhouette. 

One of the Twin Minarets of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali

One of the Twin Minarets of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali (Photo by Keith Payne)

Being inside the Mosque of Muhammad Ali is like being under the shell of a gemmed egg that is perched atop a genie’s jewelry box.  The floors are covered by lavish red rugs, the alabaster and marble fixtures are gilded with gold and accented with ebony, and every color of the spectrum reflects and radiates from the domed ceiling.  Great celestial sweeps of hanging globe lanterns and high panels of stained glass illuminate every square inch of the interior.  Looking upward inspires a slight sensation of vertigo. 

Prayer Room inside the Mosque of Muhammad Ali

Prayer Room inside the Mosque of Muhammad Ali (Photo by Keith Payne)

Under the Central Dome of the Prayer Room

Under the Central Dome of the Prayer Room (Photo by Keith Payne)

The central and half-domes were rebuilt for structural reasons during the years 1931 to 1939, but their original style and appearance were meticulously recreated.  The six “medallions” which adorn the dome and half domes contain the names of Allah, Muhammad, and the names Abu-Bakr, Umer, Ali, and Usman—the first four Khalifas of Islam. 

One of the Half-Domes

One of the Half-Domes (Photo by Keith Payne)

Another of the Half-Domes

Another of the Half-Domes (Photo by Keith Payne)

The prayer hall is about 441 square feet, and the walls are faced in alabaster to a height of about 26 feet.  There are three entrances, one in the north, east, and west walls.  The door in the west wall opens into the sahn, or courtyard. 

Western Door to the sahn

Western Door to the sahn (Photo by Keith Payne)

The view through the western door is dominated by the ablution fountain, where the faithful wash themselves before entering the mosque to worship.  The marble ablution fountain at the Mosque of Muhammad Ali is considered to be the most ornate in the world. 

View of the ablution fountain through the western door

View of the ablution fountain through the western door (Photo by Keith Payne)

The sahn is bounded by an arcade with lead-covered domes atop each vault.  The supporting columns are of marble.  These covered arcaded halls are called riwaqs.  The courtyard measures about 174 feet by 177 feet and is floored with marble. 

The sahn with the ablution fountain and riwaq in background

The sahn with the ablution fountain and riwaq in background (Photo by Keith Payne)

Southeast corner of the riwaq

Southeast corner of the riwaq (Photo by Keith Payne)

At the center of the western façade stands the clock tower.  Made of iron and copper, the clock tower was a gift to Muhammad Ali Pasha from King Louis Philippe of France in 1845 in exchange for one of the two obelisks which stood at the entrance of the Temple of Luxor.  The clock has never worked. 

The Clock Tower -- 100% accurate twice per day

The Clock Tower -- 100% accurate twice per day (Photo by Keith Payne)

The Citadel ceased to be the capitol in 1874, when Khedive Ismail moved the seat of government to the Abdeen Palace.  Points of interest within the Citadel which were not covered in this article include the Al-Gahara Palace, the National Military Museum, and the Police Museum. 

 

Further Reading

  

Tour Egypt:

The Citadel in Cairo

Saladin and His Cairo

The Mosque of al-Nasir Muhammad at the Citadel

Muhammad Ali Pasha

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali at the Citadel

 

ArchNet Digital Library:

Cairo Citadel

Muhammad Ali Mosque at the Citadel

 

Egyptian Monuments

The Citadel

 

shemsutag                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009, all rights reserved.

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This entry was posted on Monday, June 8th, 2009 at 3:48 pm and is filed under Islamic Period, Cairo, Lower Egypt. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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