The Citadel presents the most dramatic feature of Cairo’s skyline: a centuries-old bastion crowned by the needle-like minarets of the great Mosque of Mohammed Ali. The complex was begun by Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, the Crusaders’ chivalrous foe. Saladin’s reign (1171–93) saw much fortification of the city, though it was his nephew, Al-Kamil (ruled 1218–38), who developed the Citadel as a royal residence.
The main features of the Citadel as it is today, however, are associated with Mohammed Ali, a worthy successor to the Mamlukes and Turks. In 1811 he feasted with 470 leading Mamlukes in the Citadel palace, bade them farewell with honours, then had them ambushed in the sloping lane behind the Bab al-Azab, the locked gate (now closed to the public) opposite the Akhur Mosque. An oil painting in the Manial Palace on Roda Island depicts the apocryphal tale of a Mamluke who escaped by leaping the walls on his horse; in reality he survived by not attending the feast.
The Citadel remained the residence of Egypt’s rulers for nearly seven hundred years. Mohammed Ali prophesied that his descendants would rule supreme as long as they resided here, and his grandson Ismail’s move to the Abdin Palace did indeed foreshadow an inexorable decline in their power.
On entering the Citadel, keep the wall to your right and follow it round into the southern courtyard of the southern enclosure, whose buildings include the former Mint (currently closed). A passage from the courtyard’s north side leads through to the central courtyard; to the left of this passage, stairs lead up to the back of the Citadel’s most dominant structure, the Mohammed Ali Mosque.
Mohammed Ali Mosque
The Turkish-style Mohammed Ali Mosque, which so ennobles Cairo’s skyline, disappoints at close quarters: its domes are sheathed in tin, its alabaster surfaces grubby. Nonetheless, it exudes folie de grandeur, starting with the ornate clock given by the French king Louis Philippe (in exchange for the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, Paris), which has never worked; and the Turkish Baroque ablutions fountain, resembling a giant Easter egg. Inside the mosque, whose lofty dome and semi-domes are decorated like a Fabergé egg, the use of space is classically Ottoman, reminiscent of the great mosques of Istanbul. A constellation of chandeliers and globe lamps illuminates Thuluth inscriptions, a gold-scalloped mihrab and two minbars, one faced in alabaster, the other strangely Art Nouveau. Mohammed Ali is buried beneath a white marble cenotaph, behind a bronze grille on the right of the entrance. The mosque itself was erected between 1824 and 1848, but the domes had to be demolished and rebuilt in the 1930s.