The Citadel of Salah El Din in Cairo

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The Citadel of the Mountain (Qal’ah al-Gabal or al-Burg) commands the cities of Cairo and Fustat from the only piece of high ground between the River Nile and the Muqattam Hills, but its obvious significance as a defensive position was not realized until Salah al-Din included it in his grand design for the fortification of the city.

The hill, composed of early Tertiary limestone, is a wedge-shaped spur of the Muqattam Hills which rises to the E to a height of 200m, while the maximum height of the hill is 75m. The E face has been quarried, leaving the hill isolated from the main rock mass, but a portion of the S area has been built up artificially. It stands 1.5km SE of the southernmost point of the enclosure of al—Qahirah and 2.5km NE of Fustat. Once the walls were completed the only route past the city was the pass between the Citadel and the Muqattam Hills.

The Citadel of the Mountain

History. There may have been a Roman garrison sited on the hill, but apart from this, the area remained uninhabited until after the Arab conquest. In 810 Hatim, an Abbasid governor, built a pavilion, the Qubbat al-Hawa (Dome of the Winds) there. This was popular with all the rulers until the deposition of the Tulunids when it was destroyed, Gradually the area was incorporated in the great cemetery surrounding the city and several mosques were built on the heights, remaining thus until the rise of Salah al-Din in the 12C. lt is known that he contemplated the fortification of the city while still an amir of Shirkuh and started to rebuild some of the N walls as early as 1167. But it was not until he gained supreme control of Egypt as sultan in 1171 that he could put his ideas into practice. The plan involved nothing less than the complete enclosure of al-Qahirah and Fustat within one wall commanded by the Citadel. His assistants in this project were his beloved brother al-Adil and his atabak the amir Qarakush—conjunction of three brilliant minds with the workforce of an almost unlimited number of captured Crusader soldiers.

The Citadel of Salah El Din Plan

Salah al-Din Yusuf, born in Takrit on the Tigris c 1137, was of Hadhbani Kurdish descent. His father Ayyub and uncle Shirkuh were amirs of the Zangid rulers of Syria Ayyub became governor of Ba’albak and Shirkuh an army commander. Little is known of Salah al-Din’s early life except that his main pursuits were theological study and sport. The parlous state of Egypt in the mid-12C was aggravated by the conflict of the two wazirs of Khalif al-‘Adid, Shawar and Dirgham. In 1 163 they allied themselves to the Zangid ruler Nur al-Din and King Amalric of Jerusalem respectively. Nur al-Din sent an expedition under Shirkuh, accompanied by a reluctant Salah al-Din, to Egypt to forestall a Crusader invasion. The outcome was indecisive and during the next five years, there were several more confrontations on Egyptian soil. During the final battle, from which Shirkuh emerged victorious, Shawar set fire to Fustat. Dirgham was assassinated, and so the protagonists were Shirkuh and Shawar. Shawar attempted to have Shirkuh poisoned, but the plot was discovered by Salah al-Din and he was executed on the orders of Khalil al ‘Adid, Shirkûh was made wazir, but when he died two months later at a banquet the wazirate was bestowed upon Salah al-Din, Within months he was in complete control of the country, the young Fatimid Khalif retaining only nominal authority. In 1171 al ‘Adid fell gravely ill and on’10 September Salah al-Din ordered that the khutbah at the Friday prayer should include the name of the Sunni ‘Abbéisid khalif al-Mustadi of Baghdad. Al ‘Adid died two days later unaware of this momentous act that extinguished the Shi’i Fatimid khalifate, again at the express wish of Salah al-Din who wished him to die undisturbed.

Salah al-Din was now master of Egypt, though he still deferred to Nur al-Din. He dispossessed the Fatimids from their palaces in the enclosure of al-Qahirah and distributed their vast treasure between Nur al-Din and his own amirs and officials. He brought his father, brothers, and other relatives from Syria to form the basis of his administration. Although there were several minor revolts by the followers of the Fatimids, they found no popular support as the majority of the population had remained Sunni. To promote the Sunni canon Salah al-Din encouraged the establishment of madrasahs and khangahs throughout Egypt. Nur al-Din died in 1174 leaving his empire to his son Isma’il, an 11-year-old boy. To prevent the Crusader states appropriating the territory Salah al-Din deposed the Child. During the next two years, supported by his brothers al ‘Adil and Turanshah. he had many military victories in Syria and Arabia culminating in the brilliant victory of the Horns of Harmah against the Zangids, his former masters. Thus when he returned to Egypt he controlled the whole of Syria and Arabia. He stayed in Egypt reorganizing the administration and supervising the military constructions and, although the Citadel was complete, he still dwelt in the Dãr al Qubbab in al Qahirah.

In 1182 with the fortifications virtually complete he left Egypt, never to return. This was the period of his great victories. Jerusalem fell to him in 1187 and by 1189 the only major cities retained by the Crusaders were Antioch, Tyre, and Tripoli. Europe, alarmed by the fall of Jerusalem, launched the Third Crusade. Salah al Din’s relationship with King Richard of England is well documented, though the two never met. ‘Akka (Acre) was regained by the Crusaders but Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands. Salah al-Din died in February 1193 in Damascus, his only personal wealth 47 copper dirhams and one gold piece. The empire was divided into principalities and distributed among his relatives; his second son al ‘Aziz and then his grandson al-Mansfir succeeded to the throne of Egypt, but both were incompetent, and in 1200 al ‘Adil seized control. He continued work in the Citadel, modifying some of the original plan. He also lived in al Qähirah and installed his son al Kamil as Na’ib (Viceroy) in the Citadel. When al-Kamil became sultan in 1218 he stayed in the Citadel and built his palace there. From this time it became the official residence of the rulers, all of whom dwelt there except for Sultan Ayyub who built his own Citadel on Rawdah Island.

The Citadel as constructed by Salah al-Din consisted of two great enclosures, to the NE the military area, and to the SW the residential area, conjoined along their shortest walls. The walls, built of limestone quarried from the outcrop, had an internal gallery and were beset every 100m or so by half-round towers and pierced by several gates. Along the summit of the walls are large round-headed crenellations. In addition, there was a lower enclosure containing a park, gardens, and animal stalls. Many of the later sultans modified the interior of the Citadel the SW enclosure was greatly expanded, but the NE has retained much of its original wall.

Although the Citadel was never put to the test by enemies from outside, it came under attack from rival factions among the mamluks many times. It could not be reached by fire from the Muqattam Hills, but after the construction of the Mosque of Sultan al Hasan, the roof of this mosque made an ideal surface from which to bombard the Citadel, a fact that various Mamlûk commanders and Bonaparte were quick to grasp.

On the W side of the Maydan Muhammad Ali, the Bab al-‘Azab, the entrance flanked by two massive half-round fronted towers, is all that remains of Radwàn Katkhuda al-Galfi’s rebuilding of the walls of the Southern Enclosure in 1754. The model was obviously the Bab al Futuh in the N walls (Rte 4). The great wooden brass-bound – and rivetted doors are contemporary with the building.

The gate leads into the S enclosure and the road leading down to it between high buildings was the site of Muh. Ali’s bloody triumph over the Bays. By 1811, although acknowledged Pasha of Egypt by the Ottoman sultan, Muh. Ali was not without rivals. The powerful Bays still held him in scant regard and had the support of large sections of the populace. On the eve of his son, Tusun’s military expedition against the Wahhabis in Arabia Muhammad Ali held a great banquet. The most prominent Bays were invited and after feasting magnificently left on horseback to reenter the city. As they descended they passed between these buildings from which Muh. Ali’s guards shot them down. The gates being closed, there was no escape. All were killed except, according to tradition, Hasan Bay who galloped back up the ramp and leaped with his horse off the ramparts, surviving to escape to Nubia. Thus Muh. Ali crushed much resistance.

Just inside the entrance opposite the gate is the Mosque of Ahmad Katkhuda al Azab , the mosque for the Azaban corps, just as that of Sulayman Pasha in the N Enclosure was for the Mustahfizan. Built-in 1697, it is a typical early Ottoman mosque with a cylindrical minaret. It probably occupies the site of the Masjid al Istabl (the Stable Mosque) which stood just outside the walls of the stables of the original Citadel.

Ahmad Bay was a man of great influence Under the patronage of the Bay Isma’il Iwadh he rose to be premier Udah Bâshà, Katkhuda of the Azabs, and finally Admiral (Amir al Bahrayn: Lord of the Two Seas i. e. Mediterranean and the Red Sea). This aroused much resentment among the older officers of the corps. After Isma’il died he gained the enmity of Ibrahim Katkhuda and was exiled to Abù Qir. Ibrahim was assassinated in 1724 and Ahmad was called out of retirement by Sultan Ahmad III to organize an expedition against Shah Tahmasp of Persia. His expedition left, but he died in Istanbul in 1727 before they returned. The interior contains the remains of a small zâwiyah built by Sultan Mu’ayyad Shaykh in 14205. Although little is left of it, there are obvious decorative features in common with his other works (Rtes 6. 9). From this point, it is possible to proceed directly into the Citadel (see below) or traverse outside the walls.

To the S across a piece of open ground lies the Bir Yusuf (Joseph’s Well) also called the Bir al-Halazun (Spiral Well). The Yusuf referred to is Salah al-Din and not the Prophet Joseph. It was excavated by the amir Qaraqush during the original construction of the Citadel in 1170, his workforce prisoners of war taken during the campaigns against the Crusaders in Syria. The Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubayr states that he saw an incalculable number of them engaged in the work. The entrance is covered by a tower and leads down to the shaft itself. It is an awesome piece of work, the shaft (10m sq.) being cut 87m perpendicularly through the limestone down to the water table where the water seeps into the base through natural channels. Another shaft is cut at an angle and spirals around the central well, with shallow rough-cut steps intended to take the traffic to the water level. At each turn in the steps two windows are cut through into the central shaft. Originally there were two wooden platforms, one at the bottom and one halfway up for the oxen-operated machines that raised water into the Citadel. The steps were covered with earth (many still are) and are of such a pitch that oxen or donkeys could walk down to the cistern. When the Khedival family moved out of the Citadel in 19C into palaces scattered around Cairo, their water was supplied daily from this well.

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