Citadel

sights / Military

Lonely Planet review

Sprawling over a limestone spur on the eastern edge of the city, the Citadel was home to Egypt’s rulers for 700 years. Their legacy is a collection of three very different mosques, several palaces (housing some underwhelming museums; admission fee included) and a couple of terraces with views over the city. This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Cairo, though the slight hassle of getting here detracts a bit from its appeal.

Saladin began building the Citadel in 1176 to fortify the city against the Crusaders, who were then rampaging through Palestine. Following their overthrow of Saladin’s Ayyubid dynasty, the Mamluks enlarged the complex, adding sumptuous palaces and harems. Under the Ottomans (1517–1798) the fortress expanded westwards and a new main gate, the Bab al-Azab, was added, while the Mamluk palaces deteriorated. Even so, when Napoleon’s French expedition took control in 1798, the emperor’s savants regarded these buildings as some of the finest Islamic monuments in Cairo.

This didn’t stop Mohammed Ali – who rose to power after the French – from drastically remodelling, and crowning the complex with the Turkish-style mosque that dominates Cairo’s eastern skyline. After Mohammed Ali’s grandson Ismail moved his residence to the Abdeen Palace, the Citadel became a military garrison. The British army was barracked here during WWII, and Egyptian soldiers still have a small foothold, although most of the Citadel has been given over to tourists.

Mosque of Mohammed Ali

Modelled on classic Turkish lines, with domes upon domes upon domes, the mosque took 18 years to build (1830-48) and its interior is all twinkling chandeliers and luridly striped stone, the main dome a rich emerald green. Perhaps the most evocative description of it is in Olivia Manning’s The Levant Trilogy: ‘Above them Mohammed Ali’s alabaster mosque, uniquely white in this sand-coloured city, sat with minarets pricked, like a fat, white, watchful cat’. Other writers, however, have called it unimaginative and graceless and compared it to a toad. Beyond criticism, the mosque’s patron lies in the marble tomb on the right as you enter. Note the glitzy clock in the central courtyard, a gift from King Louis-Philippe of France in thanks for the Pharaonic obelisk that adorns the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It was damaged on delivery and was never repaired.

Mosque of An-Nasir Mohammed

Dwarfed by Mohammed Ali’s mosque, this 1318 constructure is the only Mamluk work that Mohammed Ali didn’t demolish – instead, he used it as a stable. Before that, Ottoman sultan Selim I stripped its interior of its marble, but the old wood ceiling and muqarnas show up nicely, and the twisted finials of the minarets are interesting for their covering of glazed tiles, something rarely seen in Egypt.

Police Museum Terrace

Facing the entrance of the mosque, a mock-Gothic gateway leads to a grand terrace, with superb views all the way to the Pyramids at Giza. Immediately below, in the Citadel’s Lower Enclosure (closed to the public), the steep-sided roadway leading to Bab al-Azab was the site of the infamous massacre of the Mamluks. The flyblown Police Museum , located at the northern end of the terrace, includes displays on famous political assassinations, complete in some cases with the murder weapon.

Gawhara Terrace

South of Mohammed Ali’s mosque is another terrace with good views. Beyond, the dull Gawhara Palace & Museum is a lame attempt to evoke 19th-century court life, and it’s often closed anyway.

Northern Enclosure

Entrance to the Northern Enclosure is via the 16th-century Bab al-Qulla. Past an overpriced cafe lies Mohammed Ali’s one-time Harem Palace, now the lavish National Military Museum and perhaps the best-tended exhibition in the country. Endless plush-carpeted halls are lined with dioramas depicting great moments in warfare, from Pharaonic times to the 20th-century conflicts with Israel – kitschy fun to start, then eventually a bit depressing.

East of the cafe, a narrow road leads to an area with a few smaller museums, along the humble lines of the dull Carriage Museum , which displays various royal carriages. Devotees of Islamic architecture might appreciate the 1528 Mosque of Suleiman Pasha , a far more tasteful example of the Ottoman-style domed mosque.