Cairo Citadel Guide: History, Attractions and How to visit

Cairo Citadel is a must visit historic attraction in Cairo. It was the center of ruling Egypt for more than 700 years. The medieval Islamic Citadel is one of the greatest constructions in the medieval history and the symbol of Cairo. It is also known as Salah Al-Din or Saladin Citadel. As it was built by the orders of Salah Al-Din Al-Ayoubi in 1176. Here’s Cairo Citadel Guide: History, Top Attractions and How to visit the Citadel on your own.

Salah Al-Din Citadel is located on Mokattam Hill, on the highest point in Cairo. Salah Al-Din ordered the construction of the Citadel as a fortification to protect Cairo from Crusaders attacks. He surrounded the Citadel by massive walls and towers.

Cairo Citadel has witnessed a lot of major historical events. Since the 14th century, almost all successive rulers – and even invaders – contributed to the Citadel by expanding it and building iconic palaces and mosques. All Ayyubids, Mamluks, Ottoman rulers and Sultans used Cairo Citadel as their royal home. Even during the British occupation, the British garrison used Cairo Citadel as their station. In 1976, UNESCO proclaimed it a World Heritage site and a part of Historic Cairo. So, The Egyptian army decided to open Cairo Citadel to the public in 1983.

Visiting Cairo Citadel Guide

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How to Visit Cairo Citadel on your own Guide

Cairo Citadel is called “Qalaat Salah Al-Din” in Arabic. It has few historical gates. But the only gate to visit the Citadel is Bab al-Jabal. Bab al-Jabal means the gate to the mountain in Arabic. And it is where tourists are allowed to buy tickets and visit Cairo Citadel. The entrance is located on Salah Salem Highway, which is a primary highway in Cairo. Mohamed Naguib (Downtown Cairo) is the nearest Underground Metro Station. Downtown Cairo is 5.5 KM away from the Citadel. So, the only practical way to visit Cairo Citadel by yourself is to take either a Taxi or an Uber.

Joining an Organized Tour to Visit Cairo Citadel

Cairo Citadel is a very important part of Islamic and Historic Cairo. It also offers a stunning window view to Islamic Cairo from its highest point. That’s why most tour agencies organize day tours to Coptic and Islamic Cairo that includes the Citadel. It is also less than 6 KM away from The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. So, many travelers visit both on the same day. One of the greatest advantages to join an organized tour is to visit Cairo Citadel with a tour guide. There are so many interesting historical stories and facts about Salah Al-Din Citadel.

About Salah Al-Din Al-Ayoubi the founder of Cairo Citadel

Salah Al-Din Al-Ayoubi – or Saladin – is one of the greatest military personnel in the Islamic history. He is also one of the most controversial men in the medieval history. Salah Al-Din was a Kurdish Sunni Muslim appointed by the Fatimids – who were Shia Muslims – to rule Egypt. But when the Fatimids power started to fade, Salah Al-Din overthrew them. Salah Al-Din’s influence and support grew by defeating Crusaders. He established himself as the Sultan of Egypt and later Syria.

Salah Al-Din ruling Egypt was the beginning of the Ayyubid dynasty. And during his era he defeated the Crusaders several times. He was also eager to erase the Fatimids influence by destroying a lot of their palaces and establishments. He turned Al-Azhar University and Mosque – the first university in Egypt and the third in the world – from a Shiite to a Sunni learning center and mosque.

The Initial Construction of Salah Al-Din Citadel

In the Initial construction of Salah Al-Din Citadel, the builders used Limestone from Mokattam Hill and minor Giza Pyramids. Some historians say that Salah Al-Din used some of the prisoners of war from the Crusades to build the Citadel. And to supply the citadel with fresh water, Salah Al Din’s engineers dug an 85 metre deep well and called it Yusuf’s Well. Yusuf’s Well means Joseph’s Well in Arabic, because Salah Al-Din’s original birth name is Yusuf.

Ironically, Salah Al-Din Al-Ayoubi didn’t get to live in his Citadel. Because the construction of the Citadel was completed in 1206. The first Sultan to move to the Citadel and rule from there was Salah Al-Din’s brother and later successor Al Malek El Kamel.

Cairo Citadel during Mamluks’ era

Mamluks were soldiers from Eurasia purchased as slaves when they were young. They seized power after the Ayyubids. They were famous for their bloody and chaotic coups. The Mamluks’ era lasted from the 13th to the 16th century. And they made a lot of major developments to Cairo Citadel.

Al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun is most significant Mamluk Sultan to contribute to the Citadel’s Development. Al Nasser expanded the Citadel and built several palaces and establishments. But the Ottomans demolished most of his palaces and establishments in the 16th century. However, his mosque stands to this very day and is one of the top attractions in Cairo Citadel.

Cairo Citadel during Ottoman empire

The Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517 by the orders of Selim The First. The Ottoman rulers stripped the precious materials, marble panels and decorations from the Mamluk’s buildings, palaces and mosques to ship them to Istanbul. They neglected the Citadel in the first years of their ruling. But eventually they gave attention to the Citadel and made major developments and constructions. Sulayman Pasha Mosque was their first contribution to the Citadel. It is also the first mosque to be built in Ottoman architecture style in Egypt.

Al Gawhara Palace Museum

Photo from Wikimedia by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada

Al Gawhara Palace is another magnificent building built by Muhammad Ali in Cairo Citadel. It was built in 1814, even before The Great Mosque. Muhammad Ali Pasha hired artisans from Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Albania to design and build this stunning Palace. Al Gawhara Palace’s initial purpose was to serve as an audience hall and to receive his guests. The initial Palace contained barracks, schools, an arsenal and a gunpowder factory.

After a fire destroyed the palace in 1822, Muhammad Ali ordered to rebuild and expand Al Gawhara Palace. He ordered the construction of a large marble fountain and columned stone terraces. In 1825, the English traveler Anne Catherine Elwood described the palace’s grand room as a place offering dancing and deep niches for conversation. She also described the side rooms as a place for music, reading, games and refreshment.

The Egyptian Government turned Al Gawhara Palace into a museum. Al Gawhara Palace Museum has a lot of historical artifacts from different Islamic eras. The most famous artifact in the museum is Muhammad Ali Pasha’s throne which was a gift from the King of Italy.

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