It was built by Saladin in 571 AH/1183 AD under the supervision of his own vizier Baha‘ al-Din Qaraqush. Saladin whose real name was Salah aI-Din Yusuf was a Kurdish officer and a great Muslim leader. He was born into a prominent Kurdish family. Saladin spent his youth in Damascus; where his main interest was the study of religion rather than military training. Once Saladin reached working age, he accompanied his uncle Asad al-Din Shirkuh, who went to Egypt as a vizier of the last Fatimid Caliph al-‘Adid. After the death of Shirku, his nephew Saladin replaced him. Soon he worked to expand his power in Egypt.
When Saladin ascended the throne, he fortified Cairo against the internal danger of the Shi’aa and the external danger of the Cursaders by fortifying the country. He built the citadel on Muqattam hills m be the main seat of governmem. He surrounded the four Islamic capitals of Egypt with huge walls and gates under the supervision of his vizier Baha’ al-Din Qaraqush, most of them vanished now.
There were many Opinions concerning the reasons of building the citadel:
1. He didn’t want to live in one of the Fatimid palaces.
2. To fortify Cairo against the Cursaders.
3. To fortify Cairo against the Shi’aa.
4. Using the Citadel as the seat of government and administration.
5. To be a center of the troops and a military store house for the arsenals which is the main reason for building fortresses in general.
6. Saladin was raised up in Syria at which hill fortifications were traditional due to the nature of the Syrian lands. In addition, the Mokattam hill was Cairo‘s only natural Site for this kind of fortifications.
The citadel was built out of stone cut from Mukattam hill and ready cut stones from the pyramids of Giza.
Saladin dug a water well inside the citadel to be used by the soldiers if the citadel ever came under siege. This well is considered to be one of the most difficult constructions ever achieved during the 12th century.
The citadel is composed of 2 main sections:
A. Northern one (military section)
B. Southern one (dwelling section)
The Citadel of Saladin in Cairo has witnessed several important events throughout the history of Egypt during the Ayyubid and Mamluks period. Even during the French invasion of Egypt, under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, the citadel had an important role to play in defending the city.
Mohamed Ali, who was sent by the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul to rule Egypt under his leadership. He had been lording over Egypt from the citadel.
In fact, it was in the Qaser El Gawhara or the Palace of the Jewel, which is located inside the Citadel of Saladin (transformed into a museum today), where Mohamed Ali invited the Mamluks leaders and brutally murdered them in the famous political event that was forever known afterward as the “Massacre of the Citadel”
The Gates of the Citadel of Saladin
El Mokatam Gate:
This gate was named El Mokatam Gate because it was created near the Mokatam monitoring tower of the citadel. Constructed during the Ottoman period, this gate is now called the Salah Salem Gate, referring to the street where it is located today.
Bab El Hadded or the Iron Gate:
Mohamed Ali started constructing the Iron Gate in 1822. It was to be the main gate of the Citadel of Saladin since it allowed larger cannons and equipment to enter the citadel.
The Middle Gate
Historians have long argued about the origin of the name of this gate. Some of them claim that it was named the Middle Gate because it was located in the middle of the two administration buildings, belonging to two Sultans; Sultan El Ghoury and Sultan Qalauan afterward.
Other theories supposed that it was called the Middle Gate simply because it was located between the two other main gates of the citadel; the Iron Gate and El Mokatam Gate.
There are other monuments added to the citadel during the reign of Muhammad Ali such as:
– Al-Gawhara Palace Museum
– Carriage Museum
– Egyptian Military Museum
– Muhammad Ali Mosque
– Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque