Qantara Qantara

The Cairo citadel

  • Name : The Cairo citadel
  • Place : Cairo, Egypt
  • Construction date/period : 1183, extended during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with later additions
  • Construction materials : stone, bricks, reused elements
  • Architectural pattern : sculpted stone decoration
  • Dimensions : north enclosure: [surface] 2,000 m2; south enclosure: 510 x 270 m
  • Inscriptions :

    Above the main entrance, a marble slab engraved with nine lines of Ayyubid naskhi script.

In 1171, Salah al-Din, a hero of the crusades who had become sultan of Syria and Egypt, had the Fatimid enclosure and its doors restored. He decided to unify into one enclosure the economic centre, Fustat, and the political centre, Al-Qahira. This was achieved by building a citadel on an artificial outcrop of one of the foothills of the Muqattam rocky plateau. The citadel was built to house garrisons and their leaders.

Salah al-Din put one of his lieutenants, Bahaa al-Din Qaraqush, in charge of the construction. It was only completed in 1207, during the reign of Al-Kamil. The first residential structures are also attributed to him and he was the first to occupy it as a royal residence. The building then became the seat of government until the end of the Ottoman era, when it was transferred to the Abdīn Palace. Several additions were made to the structure during the Ayyubid era.

The citadel comprises two parts encircled by walls, one on the north side and one on the south side. The first and oldest is in the shape of an irregular polygon. Its design is harmonious and its walls are sturdy. It comprises several towers built in various shapes and materials (circular towers made of ashlar or rectangular towers whose outside walls were clad in rusticated stone). Like the walls built by the Armenian Badr al-Jamali, the walls and towers feature a three-level façade. The north part was originally accessed through two main entrances, the Al-Jabal gate and the Al-Mudarraj gate (the later has been incorporated into the Muhammad Ali walls and gates) which is topped by a foundation inscription. The entrance hall features the oldest painted coat of arms still in existence. It was added by the sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad, the most prolific builder in the history of Cairo. He built a mosque and a royal palace, which were still visible in the early nineteenth century, and featured huge columns dating to the pharaohs’ reign brought back especially from Upper Egypt.

The towers present defensive structures such as machicolations, entrances situated at an angle, glacis and floor openings, all innovations born of long military campaigns against the Crusaders. These are all Islamic elements which feature in Crusader military architecture and might have been imported to Europe via the Franks. However, elements of Islamic architecture such as dungeons or fortified residential keeps also testify to European influence. The Cairo citadel is very similar to Syrian military constructions such as the citadel of Aleppo. During this period of strife, Muslims and Christians learned from each other’s skills[1].

The north enclosure and the south enclosure are linked by the Al-Qulla gate built by Baybars[2]. The south enclosure, smaller and built in an irregular shape, was significantly supplemented by the Mamluks. It had the appearance of a royal city, complete with palaces and mosques.

The citadel was a city in its own right, with about ten thousand inhabitants. Streets divided it into districts where several mosques and madrasahs could be found. It also included a large library (gutted by fire in 1296), a mint, bath houses, an arsenal and even – up to 1321 – a church in the Tatar district. Various sultans also took part in the development of the site, which also housed the less well-off and soldiers in their barracks. Although it is not the most outstanding building of the site, the large, Ottoman-style mosque built by Muhammad Ali during the second half of the nineteenth century is for many tourists the iconic monument of the citadel and of Cairo itself.

Water came to the citadel via canals linked to a viaduct built during the era of Salah al-Din and was stored in a large number of cisterns.


[1] The castle of Shayzar, on the Orontes River is a good example of the use of western elements by Muslims.

[2] On one of the towers there still remains a relief freeze of panthers going to the left, emblems of the sultan, similar to those adorning the Abu al Munajja bridge (1266).


أبو شامة ( شهاب الدين عبد الرحمن بن إسماعيل المقدسى ) كتاب الروضتين فى أخبار الدولتين النورية والصلاحية تحقيق الدكتور محمد على أحمد ومراجعة الدكتور محمد مصطفى زيادة , القاهرة 1962

العرينى( الدكتور السيد الباز) مصر فى عصر الايوبيين القاهرة 1960

Behrens-Abouseif, D., Islamic Architecture in Cairo an Introduction, Leyde, 1989, E. J. Brill, p. 78-95.

Combe, É., Sauvaget, J., Wiet, G., Répertoire chronologique d’épigraphie arabe, IX, Le Caire, 1938, Imprimerie de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, p. 123-124, année 579, n° 3387.

Creswell, K. A. C., The Muslim Architecture of Egypt, vol. II, New York, 1978, Hacker Art Books, p. 1-40.

Saladin, H., Manuel d’art Musulman, l’Architecture, Paris, 1907.


Sauvaget, J., Les Monuments Ayyoubides de Damas, Paris, 1938.

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