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Saladin Citadel in Cairo

Citadel of Saladin: Discovering History

Who is Salah El-Din Al Ayoubi? Saladin was born in 1138 in Mesopotamia, on the banks of the Tigris River, in a village of the Kurds. In the history of Islam, he was an influential leader and Sultan of Syria and Egypt at the end of the 12th century. In 1187, he conquered Jerusalem, becoming a natural enemy of the Crusader soldiers during the wars in the Holy Land. He Built the Saladin Citadel in Cairo.

Building the Citadel of Saladin

Saladin built Cairo Citadel shortly after the extinction of the Fatimid dynasty to fortify a specific area, which included the old city of Cairo and its center. In this way, also thanks to its elevated position, the army could defend the city in the best way possible and was located on the Mokattam Peninsula in a fortified position. Completed between 1183 and 1184, it was the seat of the Egyptian government until the end of the nineteenth century.

Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi did not see the end of its construction. In the following years, this canal was also improved by the successive sultans, allowing for a better water supply to the Citadel, also thanks to the raising of the waters of the Nile.

The expansion of the buildings inside the castle and the external fortification continued, as is the case with the southern walls, the Al-Nasir Mosque, and the living quarters. This area is often incorrectly referred to as the Citadel of Muhammad Ali because of the Ottoman-style mosque that dominated the Citadel built after 1816.

Salah El Din Al Ayouby Citadel Facts

  • Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi built it.
  • The first part of the Cairo Citadel was built in 1176.
  • Since 1976, it has been safe because it is part of the Historic Cairo UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • It contains three mosques: Al-Marmar Mosque, Al-Nasser Muhammad Mosque, and Suleiman Pasha Mosque.

The History of Cairo Citadel (Saladin Citadel)

Saladin Citadel in Cairo

Cairo Citadel is one of the best medieval sites in the world, and it is home to the famous Khedive Muhammad Ali mosque and several museums and historical sites. The National Police Museum and the Royal Carriage Museum are two of these.

The Citadel was built on an outcropping of the Mokattam hills. During the time of Muhammad Ali in the 1800s, it was the center of power in Cairo for later caliphs, sultans, ministers, and Pasha.

There are three main parts to the citaCitadeln 1176, the great Saladin El-Ayyoubi built the eastern walls and the central fortress.

The southern enclosure has walls from the 19th century, and the lower section runs along the western edge of the hill. The main entrance to the lower area is in front of the Sultan Hassan mosque.

The Citadel has three main areas:

  • The central fortress and the eastern walls, which the great Saladin El-Ayyoubi built in 1176.
  • The southern enclosure with 19th-century walls and the lower enclosure extend along the western border of the hill, with its main gate in front of the Sultan Hassan mosque.

The area was protected not only by the walls and towers but also by three gates:

  • El Mokatam Gate or Salah Salem Gate
  • Bab El Hadeed Gate or Iron Gate
  • Middle Gate

The Citadel of Saladin became the center of this impressive fortification work, protecting the city from the heights above it. When it was finished in 1183 AD, the Citadel of Saladin became the seat of government in Egypt.

It stayed there for 700 years until the khedive Ismail moved it to the Abdin Palace in the 1870s.

The Citadel differs significantly from the original fortress built to protect the Crusader armies. Over time, foreign governments added to and changed the Citadel. Sultan Al Nasir Muhammed built a mosque that still bears his name and an enclosure to the south of the fort, next to Saladin’s original walls.

The most significant changes happened when Muhammed Ali took over in the 10th century. He wanted to eliminate the Mamluks, who had ruled the country for 600 years, so he destroyed the palaces inside the fortress.

He also had the Alabaster Mosque, one of the most famous buildings, built in honor of his late son. It is the most important building in the whole complex, and its shape is one thing that makes the city as a real unique.

What to see inside the Saladin Citadel?

Saladin Citadel in Cairo

Saladin was always concerned about the safety and well-being of his soldiers. To help his country’s economy grow, he dug a well 90 meters deep from the ground level of the fortress so that soldiers could drink from it in case of a siege. This is not an easy thing to do.

Saladin built a large walled fortress in Cairo that kept the city safe for hundreds of years. There are mosques, palaces, museums, and other old public buildings, and the old mosque of Al-Nasir Muhammad is a beautiful example of Arab architecture.

It shares the holy space with the 19th-century Great Mosque of Mohammed Ali, the main attraction inside the Citadel.

1- Mohammed Ali Mosque at Saladin Citadel

The Muhammad Ali mosque, designed by an Ottoman Turkish architect, architecturally perfectly represents this style, deviating from the Islamic and Egyptian ones. Muhammad Ali, who commissioned the mosque in 1839, remained in power for over 40 years, and the construction was completed in 1857.

It is also called Alabaster Mosque due to the covering in this precious material. Moreover, its structure is inspired by the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul.

Furthermore, the minarets of this mosque represent one of its main characteristics. Over 82 meters tall and slender, the floor is covered with excellent hand-embroidered carpets, the chandelier that reigns on the ceiling, and the number of lights, without forgetting the courtyard, with the fountain and the Ottoman-style dome over 50 meters high.

The official name of the building is the Mohammed Ali Mosque. It was built in the first half of the 19th century on a hill above the city of Cairo, which gave it a great view.

It gets its name from the alabaster coating, a polished, crystalline plaster. Above all, the 52-meter-high dome stands out. On either side of it, two 85-meter-tall minarets stand out.

Mohammed Ali, the founder of rest, is buried inside the building in a beautiful white marble tomb. Finally, to enjoy a unique view of the city and a perfect panorama, go to the terrace at the back of the Alabaster Mosque.

2- The National Military Museum in Egypt

This is the first museum to show how the Egyptian army has changed over time. In 1937, the museum was established for the first time in the Ministry of Defense in Astronomical.

In 1938 he moved to another building in the Garden City neighborhood, and in 1949 he moved to the Pyramid Palace in Cairo Citadel. In the 19th century, this palace was built by Muhammad Ali Pasha, and in 1993, it was restored and reopened.

The museum shows how weapons, military gear, and costumes have changed over time by displaying artifacts, replicas, scale models, and dioramas, among other things.

It also talks about Egypt’s most important battles and military leaders. Also, the museum’s outdoor area contains many real tanks and planes from the October 1973 war.

3- Corner tower

Also known as the Tower of Tarfa, the Zawiya Tower was built in 1207 by a member of the Kurdish family founded by Salah al-Din al-Mulk. This tower is the only one of the three inside the Cairo Citadel that can still be visited today.

4- Gawhara Palace

The Gawhara Palace, also called the Bijou Palace, was built for Mohammed Ali to live. It is also excellent. At the moment, it is one of the best examples of Ottoman architecture in Cairo. It is called Gawhara Hanem, after the wife of the governor.

5- Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque

We find the Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque among the few Mamluk buildings inside the Cairo Citadel that are still well preserved today. It was built between 1318 and 1335 and is close to the Muhammad Ali Mosque.

The attraction has two entrances: one used by the soldiers and the other used exclusively by the Sultan.

6- Dervish Theater

The 19th-century theater has been restored and has a patio, garden, and a beautiful facade. The stage is a circular waxed wood effect, perfect for Sufi dancing.

The dervishes are Sufis who follow a spiritual branch of Islam and believe their swirling dance leads them to unity with Allah.

7- Sulayman Pasha Mosque

Built by Governor Sulayman Pasha in 1528, this was the first mosque of Ottoman origin to have a dome in all of Egypt. During the visit, it is possible to observe a garden and a courtyard bordered by the wall outside, where some minor domes cover even the arches. On the other hand, the room used for prayer is surmounted by a crown in the center, accompanied by three further semi-domes.

Furthermore, the whole has rich geometric and floral decorations. The dome that marks the mecca, also called a mihrab, is covered with worked marble, a typical inspiration of Mamluk art, which mainly influenced this construction. Also known as the mosque of Sariyat El-Gabal, a saint of Pharimid origin, due to his burial located east of its enclosure.

The tomb has various rooms, each with domes with decorations that recall Islamic art dating back to the 19th century.

8- Ancient Military Prison

Near the Police Museum, observing some of the cells that make up part of the military prison is possible. The prison was built during British rule in the 19th century, which presided over Egypt until the 1940s.

Some of the small cells were even used until 1983. This ancient prison is also located near the al-Nasir Muhammad mosque, and on the north side, it is possible to observe a large portal, which leads to a vast green area.

9- Police Museum

Among the museums not to be missed inside the Citadel in Cairo, a visit to the Police Museum is a must. This one is next to the Old Military Prison, in front of the al-Nasir Muhammad mosque, and on the Lions Tower.

Inside the square that houses it, there is a portal built in the Gothic style, which leads to a terrace and the museum. Inside, you can discover the military and police development in Egypt, from the pharaohs to today. But beyond the collections hosted, the structure itself deserves a visit, like the imposing staircase and the friezes of the lions carved on it.

10- Palace of Jewels

Also known as the Bijou Palace or the Muhammad Ali Museum, the Gawhara Palace is located near the Gawhara mosque. Built in 1814, it was initially a government building used as a reception and for residential purposes; in fact, it housed the government headquarters.

Muhammad’s last wife inspired its name, and unlike what one might think from the title, it does not contain many jewelry collections. The ruler used it for this purpose only after the revolution that broke out in 1952 and, after the fire of 1972, some thefts were inside.

A visit to the Citadel of Saladin, a visit to this structure cannot be missed, especially to admire its Ottoman decorations, which blend perfectly with the style of European royal palaces. Furthermore, it is possible to admire portraits of the royal family, unique furniture and period clothes, and some jewels.

The garden inside, however, leads to a mosque and the clock hall. Furthermore, the palace is enriched by angelic statues on the walls, enormous mirrors, and thrones of precious materials, such as the one in ebony and gold, a gift from the King of Italy.

11- The ramparts, the wall, and the gates

While visiting the Saladin Citadel, a view of the panorama that can be observed from the observation decks on the city walls will allow you to admire Cairo uniquely.

Its walls were initially built in 969 but were later reinforced in 1183 by Saladin and later by his nephew. Inside them, the Crusaders were held to add cannons to stop Napoleon’s advance in 1798. Of the ten original portals, only three remain today, one in the south and two in the north.

The Citadel today

Today, Saladin’s Citadel is considered a valid city within a city. Although small, the fortification in the past could accommodate over 10,000 people and is divided into actual quarters. You can visit many mosques of incredible historical and architectural significance, palaces, and museums.

Furthermore, considering its elevated position, it is possible to enjoy a unique view that extends over a large part of the city of Cairo, even observing the profile of the majestic Pyramids of Giza.

About the author

Egypt Planners Team is a highly experienced travel agency specializing in memorable trips to Egypt. The team comprises expert travel planners and tour guides with a deep knowledge of Egypt's history, culture, and top tourist destinations.