Situated on Mokattam Hill near Central Cairo, the historic Saladin Citadel is a medieval Islamic fortification whose site now contains protected mosques and museums, as well as a military garrison (which, indeed, it has always had ever since construction). It gets its name from the Ayyubid ruler Salah ad-Din (‘Saladin’), who fortified it between 1171 and 1193 AD to protect it from attacks by Crusaders. He is said to have stated that “with a wall, I will make the two [cities of Cairo and Fustat] into a unique whole, so that one army may defend them both; and I believe it is good to encircle them with a single wall from the bank of the Nile to the bank of the Nile”. The Citadel became the centrepiece of this wall, and remained the heart of Egyptian government until the 19th Century.
While the Citadel now houses important museums (the al-Gawhara Palace Museum, Carriage Museum, National Military Museum and Police Museum), this photo essay focuses primarily on its imposing and beautiful mosques, especially the Mosque of Muhammad Ali.
All the images below, along with others from the same series, may be purchased as beautiful colour prints, licensed for download or shared via social media platforms. To view them, just click on the ‘Buy | Share’ link at the end of any of the captions, which will take you to the gallery entitled ‘The Saladin Citadel of Cairo’ in my Image Archive.
One of the world’s most significant as well as beautiful monuments to medieval warfare, Cairo’s Citadel is a particularly visible landmark on the city’s eastern skyline. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali is its most striking feature, dominating the Southern Enclosure. It was built between 1828 and 1848 during the Ottoman period in memory of Tusun Pasha, ruler Muhammad Ali’s oldest son, who died in 1816. More than a memorial, however, it also stands as a bold attempt by Muhammad Ali to replace symbols of the Mamluk dynasty that he took over from and assert his importance. Buy | Share
The Mosque of Muhammad Ali replaced the Mosque of al-Nasir, also in the Citadel, as the official state mosque. It stands in place of Mamluk palaces that used to exist inside the Citadel. Taking a distinctly Ottoman style, it imitates the great mosques of Istanbul. However, Muhammad Ali built it in violation of Ottoman law that prohibited anyone but the sultan from erecting a mosque with more than one minaret (his has two). This act stood as one of his first indications to Istanbul that he did not intend to remain submissive to the empire’s capital. Buy | Share
According to popular legend, Salah ad-Din chose this site for its healthy air. He was said to have hung up pieces of meat all over Cairo. While everywhere else the meat went bad within a day, at the Citadel area it remained fresh for several days. Strolling past these archways on the outer walls of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali today, one can certainly enjoy a pleasant breeze. Buy | Share
An Egyptian tourist takes a moment to enjoy the shade of an archway. These days, Cairo’s Citadel is one of the country’s premier tourist attractions, and often proves visitors’ most popular non-pharaonic monument. It it also close to quite a few other impressive Islamic sights, and a pleasant walk away from the bazaar area of Khan el-Khalili. Buy | Share
Built on a spur of limestone that was long ago detached from its parent Mokattam Hills by quarrying, the Citadel awards visitors with commanding views over Cairo. From this position, it’s possible to see the Giza Pyramids (which I featured in this photo essay) clearly on the outskirts of the city. Buy | Share
Left: Two attendants enjoy a chat during a quiet time at the entrance to the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Right: Three generations come to visit. Buy | Share
Though very much tourist attractions, the mosques of the Citadel are still working places of worship. Left: A man finds some peace, alone with his Qu’ran. Right: A religious scholar makes some notes. Buy | Share
Outdoors, the magnificent cupolas (domes) of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali (shown in the first two images at the top) can be seen from many parts of Cairo. Inside, they reveal an altogether different and distinctly fascinating view of ornate decoration. Buy | Share
Left: Columns surrounding the courtyard at the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Right: A student’s books await his return from prayer. Buy | Share
A maintenance worker’s ladder by the mosque’s marble outer walls. Buy | Share
Left: From the Mosque of Muhammad Ali’s courtyard, the visitor can get a clear view over two more magnificent Old Cairo mosques, the Mosque of Sultan Hassan (left) and al-Rifai Mosque (right). Right: The other mosque in the Citadel complex is the Mosque of al-Nasir. As a typical Mamluk work of art, its masonry is beautifully crafted, its minarets are ornate but controlled and overall, the proportions here are elegant. When the Ottomans conquered, they took much of the original interior decoration back to Istanbul. The irony is that the supporting columns that can be seen around the courtyard in the image above were collected from sources that included ancient Egyptian structures. Buy | Share
Enjoying a day out, a family of Egyptian tourists leaves the Mosque of al-Nasir. Buy | Share