We walked along the battlements, in the footsteps of bowmen who had once manned these 12th-century walls, passing through towers and vaulted halls. We descended through a maze of stairways leading into a labyrinth of narrow galleries within the walls, past arrow slits a few inches wide, set at precise angles to give defending archers greater protection. As we walked through alternating shafts of shadow and sunlight, the guard repeatedly clapped his hands to frighten away any snakes that might lie in our path.
Suddenly, he motioned us to stop. Three meters (10 feet) ahead, a black glistening form, 60 centimeters (two feet) long, glided over the surface of the wall and disappeared into a crevice in the stone. Nothing could have been more appropriate: Long ago, in the days of the ancient Egyptians, snakes were considered to be symbolic guardian creatures, especially of a fortress.
To Cairenes, this is Qal'at al-Jabal, the Fortress on the Mountain, or just al-Qal'ah, the Fortress. The world knows it as the Citadel. Structurally, little has changed since the days of that hero of medieval legend, Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), who ordered it built. After more than eight centuries of sun, wind and desert storms, the massive towers and walls are as strong as the day they were completed.
From 1183, when the fortress was finished, until just a few years ago, no one was allowed to visit these fortifications without special permission. Now large areas of what was once one of the greatest fortresses of the Middle Ages are open to the public.
What prompted Saladin to build the fortress? The decision was not taken hastily. The Mesopotamian - born commander, vassal of northern Syrian ruler Nur al-Din ibn Zanki, first came to Egypt in 1163. At that time, Egypt's ruling Fatimid dynasty, though immensely rich, was militarily weak (See Ammco World, September-October 1969). Egypt depended on trade between East and West, but all of the Egyptian ports in Palestine and Syria - where most of the camel caravans coming from the Far East and Persia ended - had been lost to the Crusaders. When Amalric I, Latin king of Jerusalem, began attacking Egypt itself, the Fatimid caliph in Cairo, al-'Adid, appealed urgently to Nur al-Din ibn Zanki for help.
In 1163, Nur al-Din sent an army to Egypt under the command of General Asad al-Din Shirkuh, who was accompanied - somewhat reluctantly - by his nephew Saladin. After repelling the Crusaders, they returned home to Syria. Later the Crusaders attacked Alexandria, and Shirkuh and Saladin were called back to deal with them again. In 1168, they returned to Egypt a third time, driving the Crusaders from the outskirts of Cairo and forcing them back to Palestine.
This time Shirkuh and Saladin stayed on in Cairo, and the Fatimid caliph made Shirkuh his vizier. But within two months, the elderly Shirkuh died, and the caliph chose young Saladin to succeed his uncle.
When the caliph himself died in 1171, amid growing political instability throughout Egypt, Saladin seized power from the ailing Fatimids and established his own Ayyubid dynasty. Yet, during his 24-year reign, Saladin spent very little time in Cairo - he was always away, relentlessly campaigning against the Crusaders in Syria and Palestine.
Saladin's priorities were to protect Egypt from further Crusader attacks and to secure his own position in the face of lingering pro-Fatimid resentment of his takeover. Egyptian historian Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi (1364-1442) tells us that, on returning to Cairo in September 1176, Saladin decreed that "a citadel" should be built. He also gave orders "to make a new enclosure" - in effect, to extend the walls of al-Qahirah, the private palace-city of the deposed Fatimids, and include within it the old Umayyad city of al-'Askar and Ibn Tulun's ninth-century town of Qata'i'. In one stroke, Saladin made al-Qahirah - Cairo - a city 10 times its previous size and increased the security of the site where he planned to build his new fortress.
Saladin was born a Kurd and brought up in Damascus. In choosing the Muqattam Hills overlooking Cairo as the site for his Citadel, he was no doubt influenced by his army days in Syria and southern Anatolia, lands dominated by "citadels" or hill-fortresses.
The Muqattam, just outside the walled city of al-Qahirah, was no ordinary hill site. To locals it was al-Jabal, the Mountain - a wild, desolate spur of rock that had long since taken on a certain sanctity in the eyes of men. It was already the site of at least nine prayer sites and funerary chapels. It also possessed a certain earthly appeal, and was well known for its cooling summer breezes. The ninth-century Egyptian ruler Ahmad ibn Tulun built his summer rest house there and called it Qubbat al-Hawa', or Dome of the Winds. Saladin himself, according to al-Maqrizi, once observed "that whereas meat in the city stayed fresh for just a day and a night, a beast hung on the Muqattam stayed fresh for two days and two nights." Esthetic and domestic reasons aside, the ruler of Egypt had a pressing need for a safe residence - there had already been three attempts to reinstate the Fatimid dynasty - and for a secure fortress from which to govern the country.
Work on the Citadel began in 1176, supervised by Saladin's loyal vizier, Baha' al-Din Qaraqush, or "Black Eagle." All but one of the prayer sites were moved elsewhere, as was Ibn Tulun's rest house. Al-Maqrizi tells us that Saladin "employed 50,000 Crusader prisoners-of-war" to build the Citadel, and that "three small pyramids at Giza, a short distance away, were dismantled and mined for a supply of ready-cut stone blocks." Stone for the encircling walls and 11 great towers came from an ancient quarry in the Muqattam itself - used thousands of years earlier by the pyramid builders.
Writing in 1182, the Valencian traveler Ibn Jubayr, who visited Cairo, described the work in progress:
"We looked upon the building of the Citadel, an impregnable fortress adjoining Cairo, which the sultan thinks to take as his residence.... The forced laborers on this construction and those executing all the skilled services and vast preparations - such as sizing the marble, cutting the huge stones and digging the moat that girdles the walls, hollowed out with pick-axes from the rock - are all foreign Christian prisoners whose numbers are beyond computation."
In those days, Middle Eastern military architecture was much the same as European. The Crusader prisoners employed by Saladin were probably no newcomers to the work, and may well have helped to build Crusader castles of their own in Syria and Palestine. Whether in the East or West, a citadel was meant to be a self-contained fortress, capable of withstanding a long siege by attacking armies equipped with slings and catapults, scaling ladders and ramming devices. In return, the attack-i-rs could expect to face the defenders' plunging fire arrows, boiling pitch and firebrands.
When completed eight centuries ago, the Citadel must have presented a formidable sight. The eastern wall rose sheer out of a rocky gorge, deepened to make it more inaccessible. The northern, southern and western walls - equally massive - looked out across open desert to the two nearby cities of al-Fustat and Cairo.
The new fortress had few entrances. Visitors coming on foot had to climb a steep, winding flight of steps cut out of the rock, up to Bab al-Mudarraj, the Gate of Steps. On entering, they could see the Citadel's founding inscription carved on the archway above them, which reads in part:
"Our master, al-Malik al-Nasir Salah al-Dunya wa al-Din Abu al-Muzaffar Yusuf ibn Ayyub, restorer of the empire of the caliph, has ordered the construction of this magnificent citadel close to the God-protected city of al-Qahirah, on the strong hill of al-Armah, which combines utility and beauty and gives sanctuary to whoever seeks shelter in the shadow of his kingdom."
Inside, the new Citadel was divided into two parts: the Northern Enclosure, consisting of barracks and administrative quarters, and the Southern Enclosure, separated from the northern half by a curtain-wall and towers and gradually developed into a heavily protected royal residence.
As it turned out, Saladin never lived in his Citadel; it was not completed until shortly after his death. Despite his fame, he was at heart a humble, religious man, and whenever he was in Cairo he preferred to stay at a modest house down in the city, rather than in one of the Fatimid palaces. When he died in 1193, the empire he created extended from Cairo to Aleppo in northern Syria, to the borders of Mesopotamia, and southward along the Nile into Nubia, and included Yemen and parts of western Arabia.
Saladin was succeeded by his brother, al-Malik al-'Adil (1193-1218), who strengthened the two great Citadel towers of Burj al-Ramlah and Burj al-Haddad. Al-'Adil's successor, his son al-Malik al-Kamil (1218-1238), was the first sultan actually to live in the new fortress. He launched a major construction program in the Southern Enclosure, building a mosque, private residential palaces, a library, a palace for his vizier and quarters for his royal guard.
In the mid-13th century, the only woman ever to rule from the Citadel - Shajarat al-Durr, or "Tree of Pearls" - reigned as sultana for just 80 days before abdicating in favor of her husband, who was a Mamluk, a member of the "slave" military corps that had been the backbone of both the Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties. By 1260, with the rise to power of Sultan al-Zahir Baybars I, a new, powerful Mamluk dynasty had emerged - one that was to rule from the Citadel for almost three centuries.
Like his predecessors, Baybars built more palaces and reception halls within the fortress. His personal symbol was the lion, and around the top of a new Citadel tower he ordered the carving of a delightful procession of lions, which can be seen to this day.
After the Mongols brought an end to Abbasid rule in Baghdad, Baybars invited the defeated Abbasid caliph to come live in one of the Citadel's towers - fulfilling the promise of the fortress's founding inscription: "to give sanctuary to whoever seeks shelter in the shadow of the kingdom."
Following Baybars I, Sultan Mansur Sayf al-Din Qala'un ruled from the Citadel for 11 years. After repelling both Crusader and Mongol attacks, Qala'un strengthened the Citadel's defenses against another perceived threat: the Ottoman Turks. He did not hesitate to destroy his predecessors' buildings; his own, in turn, suffered the same fate.
Qala'un's youngest son, al-Nasir Muhammad (1293-1341), carried out the biggest and most prolonged Citadel construction program. When he took the throne, the Crusader and Mongol wars were almost over and relative peace had come to Egypt. Nevertheless, during a reign of nearly half a century, al-Nasir Muhammad transformed the Citadel into a highly organized military center.
Under his protecting armies, Egypt's trade with East and West greatly expanded and Cairo became one of the largest and most prosperous cities on earth.
For his new palace, al-Nasir Muhammad borrowed the design of the famous Qasr al-Ablaq, the so-called Striped Palace, in Damascus. Like most Citadel buildings, it was eventually destroyed to make way for yet another palace, but today you can still see a small section of its black-and-yellow striping set into one of the walls.
The Citadel's palaces were quite unlike our conception of palaces today: Most were detached pavilions, usually of enormous proportions, linked by covered passageways. In al-Nasir Muhammad's Striped Palace, for instance, there were three enormous qa'at or Mamluk reception halls: a vaulted hall at ground level supporting two lofty halls, three stories high, above.
To grace the main iwan, or audience hall, al-Nasir had 32 colossal columns of Aswan red granite removed from some forgotten pharaonic temple and hauled up to the Citadel. Five centuries later, drawings by Napoleon's savants would capture this magnificent chamber, known as the Hall of Columns, in all its decaying glory.
A few years ago, one of the buried halls of the Striped Palace was partially excavated and four rose-red Aswan columns were hauled back up to the surface. Other columns and other halls doubtless lie buried elsewhere in the fortress, as yet undiscovered, biding their time.
Today, the only structure left intact from al-Nasir Muhammad's building program is his enormous congregational mosque, designed to hold 5000 worshippers, and completed in 1335. Like the pillars that once graced the Hall of Columns, massive pharaonic columns support the highest arches of the mosque, while a forest of Roman and Byzantine marble pillars supports a series of smaller arches.
The mosque's twin minarets, capped with green, turquoise and white tiles, recall Isfahan and Central Asia, and were probably decorated by craftsmen brought specially from Tabriz in Persia. One minaret was positioned to allow the daily call to prayer to reach the barracks area of the Northern Enclosure, and the other was directed at the Southern Enclosure and beyond to the city below.
Today, during the holy month of Ramadan, a cannon is fired at sunset from the heights of the Citadel to signal to the waiting city the end of each day's fasting. In al-Nasir Muhammad's time and for centuries afterward, mosques in the city took their cue from muezzins calling from within the Citadel. Because of the distances involved this was no easy task; to ensure the call reached all the faithful, a chorus of muezzins, operating in shifts, chanted together at the five daily prayer times.
Succession to the Mamluk sultanate was not hereditary; the new sultan was chosen by 24 Mamluk "great amirs," or princes. When Sultan Hasan, youngest of al-Nasir Muhammad's eight sons, was picked to succeed his father, it had become the fashion to build splendid palaces and mosques, public drinking fountains and palace-tombs (See Aramco World, May-June 1987). This fabulous architectural spree reached a climax with Sultan Hasan's own enormous mosque-madrasah - a house of worship and religious school combined - built in 1356, opposite the main entrance to the Citadel.
By Sultan Hasan's time, however, the life of a ruling Mamluk sultan had become a tenuous, even perilous, affair. Some sultans of the period lasted only a year or two before facing violent deaths at the hands of rival claimants. Even a citadel could not offer total protection; the ruler's personal safety depended largely on the courage and loyalty of his royal bodyguard.
To ensure maximum safety while he slept, Sultan Hasan arranged his bedroom within a high wooden tower constructed inside one of the palace halls. Once inside, the sultan would lock himself in for the night, and climb the steps to his bedroom. While he slept, his bodyguards below remained awake; to ensure that they stayed alert - and quiet - Sultan Hasan provided them with chess sets with which to play through the night.
As seat of government and ruler's residence, the Fortress on the Mountain had proved a success. Living in luxury behind impregnable walls, successive rulers discharged their powers - receiving supplicants, examining criminals, rewarding, punishing, dispensing justice and, at times, injustice - and generally attending to the day-to-day running of Egypt. From here, orders were decreed for digging new canals, building forts and defenses; from here armies were organized, fleets commissioned and military campaigns planned. And from here, through the gates of their Citadel, the Ayyubid and Mamluk rulers of Egypt set forth on the Hajj - the pilgrimage to Makkah - and on journeys to far-away battles.
By tradition, returning sultans always entered Cairo through the famous 11th-century Bab al-Nasr, or Gate of Victory, and after traversing the length of the old medieval city they emerged on the other side, through Bab Zuwaylah, to pass along the short road that led back up to their Fortress on the Mountain.
To this day, when Cairenes invite close friends to visit, they often say "Afresh al-ard harir" - "I'll spread the ground with silk" - a saying from Mamluk times, when each great amir was responsible for laying a section of the sultan's four-kilometer (two-and-a-half-mile) processional route with pure silk. After the sultan and his retinue had passed by, it was every man for himself: The miles of silk went to whoever could first get his hands on it.
Day-to-day life in the Citadel was governed by rigid court etiquette and exacting protocol. There were spectacular, solemn processions to be witnessed and dignified prayers to attend. Generally, life.for some 20,000 souls living within the confines of the fortress was a highly organized affair. The Citadel was by this time a self-contained royal city - complete with workshops, market, royal mint, a farmyard for 2000 head of cattle and stables for about 10,000 horses, while the all-important Southern Enclosure was full of opulent mosques, bath-houses and palace pavilions.
A visit to the Citadel in the mid-15th century, at the height of its Mamluk splendor, was an occasion not to be missed. Ordinary visitors, approaching on foot, had to make the steep climb up to Bab al-Mudarraj. Mounted visitors - arrival on horseback denoted importance - entered by another gate and traveled along the Road of the Sultan. Both classes passed through a succession of great iron-studded gates, just as today's visitors do, before reaching al-Nasir Muhammad's Hall of Columns, where all the high splendor of the sultan's court burst upon them. As one visitor said:
"We came to a high dais, covered by fine carpets and shaded by a tent of rare and costly materials. Here, cross-legged, sat the sultan, an unusually tall old man of seventy three,... his profile of distinguished delicacy, surrounded by dignified officials...." A group of envoys from France approached the audience chamber through two courtyards: "In the first, 500 Mamluks were drawn up in rank, in long white robes and turbans of green and black. In the second stood 1000 more of higher degree and richer garb...." Before they reached the presence of the sultan, the envoys halted before seven successive curtains. As each of these was drawn aside, visitors were to bow and kiss the ground - though in the envoys' case, simply touching the ground was considered sufficient - until at last they came face to face with the sultan. Following established custom, the ambassadors knelt to kiss his hand, "but the potentate quickly withdrew his hand" into his sleeve.
Few were fortunate enough to gain entrance to the sultan's heavily guarded private palace. One who did was the Venetian Trevisano, who came to Cairo in 1512. He had first to pass through a succession of "marble-tiled courtyards and gardens of pomegranate and orange trees, with pools of cool water and splashing fountains ... through a series of palace apartments - windows shaded by carved mashrabiyah screens, ceilings inlaid with gold and azure," and patterns of colored glass shining like precious stones set high in vaulted walls. Costly rugs were spread upon mosaic-patterned floors, "while between every column hung a cage containing a singing bird...."
The more spectacular aspects of the Citadel were well calculated outward manifestations of a ruling sultan's power. Behind the scenes, too, everything was highly organized. Fast communication links were maintained with the farthest outposts of empire by means of the sultan's personal courier pigeon service. Al-Malik al-Kamil, Saladin's nephew, is said to have started the service and Baybars I expanded it, establishing new pigeon lofts in the Citadel's Burj al-Matar, or Flight Tower.
Nearly 2000 trained birds carried dispatches between cities and towns throughout Egypt, and to destinations as far away as Damascus and the Euphrates. The courier pigeon service was the personal prerogative of the sultan; it is said he never set out on a journey, a campaign or even a day's picnic at the Pyramids, without a few of his pigeons traveling with him. Security was paramount, and only the sultan, personally, was allowed to remove an incoming message from a pigeon.
Indeed, there was much to keep secret: From the mid-15th century, growing Ottoman power cast a shadow across the Middle East, and succeeding Mamluk sultans kept strengthening their fortifications throughout Egypt and Syria. Cairo continued to control the lucrative East-West spice trade. But eventually, as a result of miscalculations, a disastrous famine and the plague, Mamluk power began to decline. By 1516, the Ottoman Turks had arrived at the gates of the Citadel.
Almost overnight, the conquering Ottomans stripped the Citadel's mosques and palaces and shipped the treasures to Istanbul. For a time, the fortress complex was all but deserted. Then the Ottomans, too, began to build, marking the start of a 300-year occupation of the Citadel. Sulayman Pasha, the first Ottoman wali , or governor, of Egypt (1524-1534), built Cairo's first Ottoman mosque within the fortress's security. Constructed in the style of the celebrated Ottoman architect Sinan, Sulayman Pasha's mosque today remains in remarkably good condition. However, in contrast to the domes and minarets of its Ottoman exterior, the interior of the mosque is clearly the work of Cairene craftsmen and exhibits long-cherished local techniques of marble inlay work.
In 1805, after the departure of Napoleon, Muhammad 'Ali Pasha became the Ottoman sultan's viceroy in Egypt. In 1838, he issued a declaration of independence, ending three centuries of Ottoman rule in Egypt. Like his predecessors, Muhammad 'Ali launched a major construction project on the Muqattam, almost completely rebuilding the 26-hectare (65-acre) fortress complex into the Citadel we know today. The age of bows and arrows had long since gone, and Muhammad 'Ali set about strengthening the fortress's defenses. Inside, he built an arsenal for manufacturing cannon, and the original slits in the walls, designed for Saladin's archers, were superseded by wider openings for cannon atop Saladin's original walls.
The ruins of al-Nasir Muhammad's palace were demolished to make way for Muhammad 'Ali's new Qasr al-Jawharah, or Bijou Palace. Like al-Nasir Muhammad, he built another gigantic mosque, this time in the Turkish tradition, with enormous domes, cupolas and soaring, pencil-thin minarets -the most impressive structure in today's Citadel. The Bijou Palace, in the old Southern Enclosure, was used by Muhammad 'Ali for day-to-day administrative functions and official receptions. In the Northern Enclosure, for centuries used exclusively as a barracks, he built three interconnected private palaces, combining the splendors of the East with the luxuries of Europe: "painted frescoed ceilings and marbles from Italy, chandeliers from England, mirrors from France and windows triply glazed to keep out the desert dust."
Today, sections of these three enormous palaces have been melded into a military museum. Though most of the original furnishings are gone, the magnificent Turkish-baroque ceilings remain. Three of the most private areas of Muhammad 'Ali's palaces remain closed to the daily wear-and-tear of public visits: the two hammams, or bath-houses, and Muhammad 'Ali's Fountain Pavilion.
In Muhammad 'Ali's personal hammam, slender marble columns support a canopied ceiling with magical patterns of colored glass. The sunlight sends shafts of multicolored light streaming down and splashing across the walls and white marble floors of the hammam. In another wing of the palace, a no less luxurious hammam for the women of the household is similarly favored with scintillating glass-patterned ceilings. After bathing in the hammam, the sultan could retire to the nearby "summer fountain" room. At one end of this pavilion, under a painted canopy, stands a salsabil , or wall fountain, embellished with sculptured flowers and fruits. Water would pour out of the mouths of two winged horses - or dragons -placed high up beneath the painted ceiling, cascade down the wall in and out of a series of marble basins and flow the length of the pavilion along a white marble channel into a deep pool, where a second fountain played. Here, Muhammad 'Ali and his friends would sit, enjoying the cooling water spectacle.
All these splendors, from the relatively recent era of Muhammad 'Ali, give some idea of the grandeur of the earlier Mamluk period. The structures that survive today are but the final layer of seven centuries of construction. Deep down beneath the domes and minarets of Muhammad 'Ali's mosque are the ruins of older palaces and vaulted medieval spaces - vast underground areas shrouded in darkness, never visited by the public, slowly filling with sand and dust blown in by centuries of desert winds, inhabited by thousands of screeching bats and the ghostly echoes of ages past.
Indeed, Cairo's Citadel abounds with ghostly echoes - of offending amirs and political prisoners consigned to the stagnant darkness of its infamous dungeon. One notable ghost is the unhappy Sha-jarat al-Durr, who eventually had her husband the sultan murdered in his hammam, and then paid the ultimate price herself in the women's hammam, where she was beaten to death with bath-clogs by women slaves of her late husband's first wife.
Closer to our own time, the entire corps of Mamluk princes, suspected of plotting to overthrow Muhammad 'Ali, was massacred within the Citadel in a single afternoon. On March 1, 1811, the viceroy invited the entire Mamluk corps to a special levee. The 475 princes entered the Citadel on horseback, in their customary splendor. Muhammad 'Ali conversed calmly with thftn and then took his leave. As the princes began to depart, two inner gates of the Citadel were sealed and soldiers above opened fire on the trapped Mamluks. Muhammad 'Ali, listening to the shots ring out, is said to have asked for "a glass of water."
Over the course of eight centuries, Saladin's Citadel was never put to the military test. No great wars were ever fought around its walls, no hail of arrows was ever fired in self-defense. Yet over the centuries the fortress undoubtedly proved its strategic worth. The battles it was designed to withstand were always fought far from its walls. Saladin himself drove the Crusader armies out of Syria and recaptured Jerusalem. Later, the Crusaders were repelled at Damietta, at the mouth of the Nile, long before the attackers could reach Cairo. Succeeding Mamluk sultans not only prevented Crusader armies from reaching Cairo, but also rebuffed the Mongols in 1260 - sparing Cairo the fate of Baghdad, Damascus and other cities of the region.
Late in the 19th century, the last of the Citadel's rulers, the khedive Isma'il I, Muhammad 'Ali's grandson, left the fortress and went down to live in the city, in his new 'Abdin Palace.
Today Cairo, with its 14 million souls, presses hard against the walls of the Citadel. No longer does a steep flight of rock-cut steps lead up to the main entrance. Instead, visitors sweep up in their cars and buses along a massive curving ramp built by Muhammad 'Ali. During daylight hours, tourists come by the thousands. But at dusk, it is the Cairenes who come to Saladin's hill site, to "sniff the breeze," like countless generations before them - like Ibn Tulun, at ease in his Dome of the Winds.
From here, looking westward, one's eye takes in a span of over 4000 years of architectural wonders, from the impressive mosque-madrasah of Sultan Hasan, just below, to the ancient Pyramids of Giza across the Nile. Through such structures, the awesome sweep of history takes on a vivid reality. It is a view that must have given even the sultans pause.
John Feeney, filmmaker, photographer and writer, is a long-time Cairo resident and frequent contributor to Aramco World. He acknowledges with gratitude the contribution to this article of Laila Ibrahim, renowned historian on Mamluk Cairo.