Question: Where in the world did Egypt’s rulers (who weren’t Pharaohs) live for almost 700 years?
Answer: The Citadel of Saladin
When you think of Egyptian architecture, the Pyramids of Giza and the varied temples to Egyptian gods are undoubtedly the first things that come to your mind. However, Cairo is also filled with many impressive examples of architecture built long after the days of ancient Egypt. One of the most extraordinary is the Citadel of Saladin, also known as the Cairo Citadel, which is a massive medieval fortification complete with royal living quarters, mosques, gardens, museums, and more.
The first Sultan of Egypt, who was known as Saladin, ordered the citadel to be built upon Mokattam Hill, to protect the city against the invading Christian Crusaders from Europe. Saladin is one of the Islamic world’s most notable figures from the Middle Ages, and he’s known for his rule and warfare against the crusaders. When it was built in 1176, his citadel was the most impressive and ambitious medieval fortification—thanks to its elaborate design, Cairo was never subjected to a siege in its history.
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For nearly 700 years—from the 12th century to the mid-19th century—the Citadel of Saladin served as a military stronghold and royal palace for Egypt’s varied rulers. From the Ayyubid Dynasty to the Ottomans, all of the successive rulers of Egypt called the citadel their home and continued to expand upon it. Opulent harems, mosques, palaces, and terraces with views of Cairo were added throughout time. For example, a fabulous palace known as the Jewel Palace was built on the property by the ruler Mohammed Ali in honor of his last wife. Even during the British occupation, the British garrison used it as their station.
In 1976, the citadel became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of historic Cairo, and in 1983 it was opened to the public. A visit to the citadel is like stepping back in time to the days of Egypt’s great rulers with multiple museums, mosques, and lavish rooms. Plus, it has some of the best views of Cairo, the Pyramids, and the desert beyond.
Other Non-Pharaonic Architecture in Cairo:
- Monastery of Saint Simon: Egypt doesn’t have many large Christian communities, but one of the most populous groups is the garbage-scavenging Zabbaleen people. They’ve established the largest Christian church in the Middle East at the Monastery of Saint Simon. This cave church is at the base of the Mokattam cliffs in Cairo and fits about 2,000 people around a central pulpit.
- The Hanging Church: Contrary to its name, the Hanging Church is not actually hanging from anything. It was built atop the southern gatehouse of the Roman-built Babylon Fortress and gets its name from the fact that its nave is suspended over a passageway. It was built in the 3rd to 4th century and belongs to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
- Al-Andalus Garden: A peaceful oasis in the crowded city of Cairo, this Andalusian-style garden was built in the 1920s. The park features preserved old structures from original Andalusian architecture of Moorish Spain and is surrounded by lush greenery and colorful mosaics. Statues throughout the garden depict Pharaohs and lions, and there are panoramic views of the Nile.
- Cairo Tower: The Cairo Tower is the tallest structure in Egypt and North Africa, and perhaps the most famous landmark in Cairo after the Pyramids. The 613-foot-tall structure offers 360-degree views across the city, including a look at the Pyramids when the weather is good.
- Mosque-Madrassa of al Ghouri: This mosque complex is one of the last built by the Mamuki sultans of the early 15th century. The interior has panels of white and black marble, soaring ceilings, and intricate geometric detailing. Four iwans (vaulted halls) surround a sunken courtyard, and there is a four-story red-checkered minaret.
Marvel at the majesty of the Cairo Citadel during our Ancient Egypt & the Nile River Small Ship Adventure.