Many city tours will include the Citadel on their itinerary as one of the main points of interest in Cairo. It is built on the edge of the Moqqatam hills and has a wonderful view over the city to the south and as far as the Pyramids to the west on a rare clear day.
The Citadel is a medieval fortress which was begun by Salah ed-Din, the last of the Fatimid caliphs in 1176, with the intention of enclosing and fortifying the city against the crusaders. The remaining walls of the original fortress are best seen from Salah Salem Avenue on the eastern side of the fort. On the western side the oldest remains are at the western gate (Bab el-Azab), which dates back to 1754. Salah ed-Din and his successors used the southern half of the fort as a royal residence, while the northern half was a military garrison.
The Citadel was home to most of the rulers of Egypt for around seven centuries, each one building mosques and palaces within the walls. One of its last rulers was Mohammed Ali, who gained power by massacring 470 leading Mamluke citizens. In March 1811, most of the important people of the Citadel were invited to a day of feasting by Mohammed Ali, who then proceeded to trap them in the narrow rock-cut passage of the Bab el-Azab on their way to the banquet, and had them slaughtered – so the story goes. This was the end of Egypt’s Mamaluke rule.
Mohammed Ali then proceeded to level most of the Mamaluke buildings and replaced them with his own. His most famous structure is the Mohammed Ali Mosque in the southern enclosure. There are also two other mosques in the Citadel today – the mosque of Ahmed Katkhuda near the Bab el-Azab and the mosque of Sultan el-Nasir Mohammed (14th century) on the east side of the southern enclosure. The mosque of Mohammed Ali, by far the most impressive, is also known as the Alabaster Mosque and was built between 1824 and 1857. His marble tomb is on the right of the entrance and the whole vast space is dominated by the massive central dome, 52m high, in the roof. This and four smaller domes at the corners are lit by circular crystal chandeliers containing dozens of lamps. The sanctuary on the eastern side has a huge pulpit for Koran readings. As in all Islamic mosques, shoes must be left at the doorway.
The courtyard also has arches, domes, and a fountain pavilion for ablutions and at quiet times can be a very peaceful place. In the western arcade there is an ornate ‘gingerbread’ clock, presented to Mohammed Ali by King Louis-Philippe of France in 1845, in exchange for the obelisk from Luxor Temple (now in the Place de la Concorde). It would seem that France got the better part of the deal because the clock has never worked! The mosque is perhaps better viewed from outside, where you can see the huge domes and graceful minarets which have become one of Cairo’s emblems.
To the south of Mohammed Ali’s Mosque is his ‘Jewel Palace’, the Qasr el-Gawhara, which was used as a museum for the jewels of the Khedives after the 1952 revolution. Although gutted by fire in 1972 when thieves attempted to steal the jewels, it is still a museum today and contains many items of royal furniture and portraits.
Just to the south of el-Nasir’s Mosque is a tall tower which covers ‘Joseph’s Well’ (Bir Yusuf), built by Salah ed-Din. The well-shaft is 10m wide and 87m deep and was built by crusader prisoners of war. The well is also known as the ‘Well of the Snail’ for its spiral staircase which runs down the shaft to the level of the Nile.
The northern enclosure of the Citadel has always been the military part of the fortress and has always been used as a prison. Today the area contains three museums. The Archaeological Garden Museum, neither a garden nor a museum, contains some interesting bits and pieces of statues and monument fragments among the seating areas. The War Museum contains exhibits of military paraphernalia from pharaonic times, through Egypt’s history to the present. Outside there are tanks, cannons and other artillery while inside one of the more interesting exhibits is a chariot from Tutankhamun’s tomb, displayed in the entrance. The Carriage Museum contains a small collection of horse-drawn carriages and painted wooden horses from the 19th century.
The Citadel is on the eastern side of Cairo and can be reached by bus from various parts of the city or by taxi. There are two ways of approaching it. From the Bab el-Azab you can walk along the outer wall to Mohammed Ali’s ‘New Gate’ and climb up the steep track on the northern side. Alternately, there is a car park on the eastern side with a gentler path to the upper levels. Tickets into the Citadel cost EGP 50.
Not a monument – but a great way to spend an enjoyable evening browsing or buying from the hundreds of shops and stalls which sell everything imaginable. The original building of this famous bazaar was constructed in 1382 by Amir Garkas el-Khalili and later became a caravanserai (hostelry) in downtown Cairo’s area of affluence and commerce, for travelling merchants from all over the world. Today the Khan el-Khalili is a labyrinth of narrow streets and passageways, sometimes covered over, where many craftsmen work in gold, silver, brass, leather, glassware and stones. There are shops which will make a shirt or galabeya while you wait, shops selling perfume and incense and many many coffee shops where you can watch the world go by. If you are looking for souvenirs there is plenty of variety and the fierce competition makes it worth practising your bargaining skills. Khan el-Khalili is said to be one of the biggest bazaars in the world.
The Khan el-Khalili is situated a little north of the Citadel and seems to be open from early morning until the last tourist goes home at night. Some shops however, may be closed on Friday or Sunday for religious purposes.