Cairo Citadel in Cairo, Egypt

Cairo Citadel

Updated On: November 07, 2023 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

Cairo is the city where you can behold numerous signs of beauty and arts. In fact, Egypt is full of interesting places to visit. This makes it one of the top destinations to head to in order to learn about history and culture. Citadels and museums are all around Cairo City. One of the most significant fortifications is Cairo Citadel. In reality, you may find the locals refer to it as Salah El-Din Citadel instead. This name refers to the builder who dates back to the Ayyubid reign as well as the Crusaders’ defeater.


Qala’at Salah El-Din is the Arabic name of Cairo Citadel. The fortification is a simple Islamic structure that sits on the Mokattam Hill. It is considered to be close to the center of the city. Its main objective has always been to provide its visitors with splendid views of the city. Besides, it remains one of the pristine historic locations in Cairo City. Above and beyond, it embraces more than a few mosques and museums with history and many tales to unfold.

The castle sits on a level considered higher than the rest of the residences that surround. Thus, it offers different views of Cairo and they are all equally superb. As part of the new Islamic world, it is now deemed to be one of the top tourist destinations. It is always claimed as part of the World Heritage Site Historic Cairo by UNESCO.


The main purpose of building Cairo Citadel was to avert the Crusaders’ attempts to invade the city. Thus, Salah El Din built this fortification back in 1176 CE, intermingling the two cities of Fustat and Cairo. Fustat used to be an independent city that surrounded the castle. However, upon constructing the fortification, the two cities became one whole city. Afterward, an army was set, aiming to fight enemies for the sake of protecting the cities.

Salah El Din took the initiative of building the citadel right after he defeated the Fatimid Caliphate. He also chose a strategic location to erect the structure. Not only is it close to the city center, but it also made the attacking attempts even harder. Through many years, Cairo Citadel was the heart of the Egyptian government. It was only until the 19th century that it ceased being so after the arrival of Khedive Ismail. As the new ruler of Egypt at that time, he moved the government seat to Abdin Palace.


As one of the strongest rulers of all times, Salah El Din was popular among the European nations as well. He has always been known as Saladin. The powerful leader was born in Iraq with the name Youssef, or Joseph. However, he was commonly known as Salah EL Din instead. Despite being born in Iraq, he spent his childhood in Damascus, Syria. He also died and was buried there.

Syria was popular for having numerous fortifications. Their main purpose was to defend the country from the enemies’ attacks. Accordingly, Salah El Din carried that defensive custom to the lands of Egypt and built Cairo Citadel.

The Construction of Cairo Citadel

What we see today is not the original form of the castle. When Salah El Din built it, the structure had rounded towers. Those towers were enormous just as the walls the surrounded the citadel. The height of those walls made it hard for the attackers to get in. It was also impossible for them to climb up or penetrate through its thickness. This had proven back then that the techniques Salah El Din used were definitely fruitful. However, the castle had undergone several renovations by the following rulers of Egypt.

Looking for the Perfect Site

According to sources in history, Salah El Din took some time to find the perfect location to build the castle. It was said that he roamed the city, searching for a site with fresh air and that seemed quite healthy. His attempts to figure this out included hanging pieces of fresh meat to check the freshness of the breeze. After having the meats spoiled in several areas, the area where Cairo Citadel is today was perfect. It was the only place where the meat stayed fresh for several days in a row.

The Well of the Spiral

Salah El Din cared for supplying his people with their essential needs within Cairo Citadel. Accordingly, he built a well that was as deep as 280 feet to provide water. The well was known as the Well of the Spiral. That name came from the fact that it was made of around 300 stairs. They all went in a spiral down the inside of the well. Thanks to it, water was finally flowing within Cairo Citadel. These waters were raised up to the surface and went through pipes around the area.

The Well of Joseph was another name that the well was popular for. According to some claims, Salah El Din’s real name was Youssef, the Arabic equivalent of Joseph. He was given that name at birth, thus, the well significantly received that naming. In fact, the well remains until this day as one of the significant landmarks of the citadel.

Building Water Wheels

In spite of all the efforts of Salah El Din, the Well did not last for as long as it should have. It stopped functioning at some point through the years. The struggle continued until al-Nassir Muhammad pitched in and solved the problem during his reign. He wanted to make sure that those who lived within Cairo Citadel received a sufficient amount of water. Accordingly, he built a good system with several water wheels to swell the volume of the water. The role of the wheels was to carry water from the Nile and all the way up to the walls. Then, it ran through pipes that Salah El Din previously constructed and reached the desired destinations.


As luck would have it, the death of Salah El Din did not put an end to the lives within the citadel. Cairo Citadel was usually taken care of by most of the rulers of Egypt. The most rulers with the ultimate contributions to Cairo Citadel were Al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun and Muhammad Ali Pasha. During their time in the supremacy, they renovated the citadel and perked up life within it significantly.

The Reign of al-Nasir Muhammed Ibn Qalawun

Al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun was deemed to be one of the rulers with significant contributions to Cairo Citadel. One of his noteworthy achievements was providing the castle with sufficient water. On the other hand, he was also responsible for expanding and renovating the citadel. Ibn Qalawun was the one to complete the structure’s southern enclosure. In fact, Salah El Din only managed to finish the northern part before he passed away. Moreover, Ibn Qalawun also constructed a residential area, including spaces for a courtyard and a harem. The latter was a Muslim household used only by females and it existed during the ancient times. In the Arab world, this word is sometimes used as a referral to a cluster of women.

Further contributions of Ibn Qalawun to Cairo Citadel includes building a mosque. It was a memorial of his own where the mosque resonated his name. However, the structure of which the mosque lies has always been around since the Ayyubid. It was built in 1318, but for a different purpose. Since it was not used, Ibn Qalawun made use of it by turning it into the Mosque of Al-Nasir. Within Cairo Citadel, you can also find the House of Gold and the Hall of Justice. While they were not credited to the accomplishments of Ibn Qalawun, they’d been around during his supremacy.

Muhammad Ali Pasha’s Contributions to Cairo Citadel

Muhammad Ali Pasha escorted people to refer to Cairo Citadel by his own name. That was after he built a mosque on the brink on the summit of the castle and gave his name to it. Even in Arabic, people would sometimes refer to Cairo Citadel as Qala’at Muhammad Ali. Moreover, the mosque was built between 1828 and 1848. It was around since some point during Muhammad Ali’s reign, but not a specific year was ever known. This mosque is a pure reflection of the Ottoman Style and culture; it’s apparent in the architecture and the dome. Since it belonged to the Turkish culture, it had specific characterizations, including domes, semi-domes and ceramic tiles on the walls. You would also realize the presence of minarets that have pencil shapes.

Announcing His Supremacy

Muhammad Ali Pasha announced himself as the new ruler after he made several alterations in Cairo Citadel. For example, he shifted the residential area to the northern enclosure instead of the southern. He was making sure that everything was different from how it was during the Mamluk Dynasty. Thus, he started by building structures that reflect the Ottoman culture and style. After erasing everything that ever symbolized the previous dynasty, Cairo Citadel became popular for its Ottoman theme.

During his supremacy, he built two significant mosques. The one that sits on the summit of the castle. And, the other one was in the memory of his own son, Tusun Pasha, who died back in 1816. He built the mosque in the same year in which his second son passed away. That was all after destructing almost every palace and building that belonged to the previous leaders and reigns. He created vast spaces in which he could replace all of them with Ottoman structures. However, the Mosque of Al-Nasir Muhammad remains as it ever was. Muhammad Ali Pasha never took it down; however, he made his own mosque the official state mosque of Cairo Citadel.


Cairo Citadel happens to embrace numerous buildings within its walls. Most of the structures are mosques built throughout different eras. However, not every building is a mosque, a lot of them happen to be museums. These museums include the Egyptian Military Museum, Al Gawhara Palace, and Carriage Museum. Concerning the mosques, we’ve already mentioned the existence of two prominent ones that belonged to Muhammad Ali and Ibn Qalawun. Besides those two mosques lies the very first Ottoman Style mosque, the Mosque of Suleyman Pasha Al Khadim.

The Egyptian Military Museum

Back in 1937, the Egyptian Military Museum was established. The building in which the museum lies formerly served a different purpose. When it was first constructed, it used to be the old building of the Egyptian Ministry of War. However, the original construction took place in Downtown Cairo. Several years later, they decided to move the building to an elite district in Cairo known as Garden City. Despite the numerous relocations, the Ministry of War only settled in the Haram Palace in Cairo Citadel. The building had gone many renovations until it came to be the Egyptian Military Museum at the end.

The Egyptian Military Museum sits at sight level where you can see it from any angle around the place. Once you get through the wall of Cairo Citadel, you can see a signs that direct you into the desired places around the citadel. After getting to the Military Museum, it’s interesting to take the time to roam inside and see what it holds. In fact, the museum embraces numerous major exhibitions that all relate to the history of the Egyptian military. You can also find two caliber guns at both sides of the gate that date back to the time of Muhammad Ali Pasha. Most importantly, there is a sculpture of Salah El Din in the museum. It is deemed to be among the most prominent monuments inside the museum.

Al Gawhara Palace

Known with so many names that include, Qasr Al Gawhara, Bijou Palace, or simply Al Gawhara Palace. It lies near the mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha and was constructed by Muhammad Ali himself in 1814. The word, Al Gawhara, is an Arabic one that means Jewel or a Gem. This palace is among the prominent structures of Cairo Citadel that reveals an Ottoman theme. That was definitely expected since the construction was originally made by Muhammad Ali Pasha. He exerted a great effort in making his culture the most dominant one within the citadel. And, he actually succeeded in doing so.

Workers and artists that worked on constructing Al Gawhara Palace came from different places from all over the world. That included countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Turkey, and others. They all pitched in to create such a masterpiece, using their cultural knowledge and skills. The palace has two different levels and its windows style is more of a Western one rather than Turkish. It also has two sides where each of them served a purpose. One side actually embraced a fairly large courtyard. However, the other side was left for beholding the beautiful scene of the Nile and the Great Pyramids of Giza. Unfortunately, those scenes are no longer seeable, for the tall buildings that now flood the country.

The Internal Design of the Palace

Aside from the outer appearance of the palace, there is an audience hall inside. It was the spot where Muhammad Ali Pasha used to welcome his guests and meet them. This hall also has a heavy chandelier that’s weight reach up to almost a thousand kilograms. Louis-Philippe I of France was the one who had sent it as a gift to Muhammad Ali Pasha. The latter kept the gifts he received almost all tucked into that audience hall. Other gifts included a throne sent by the King of Italy along with other paintings that foreign ambassadors used to send him. Above and beyond, the palace also contains lavish areas, including a fascinatingly luxurious grand room. That room was usually used for entertainment like chatting in a relaxing atmosphere or reading and playing music. There were also dancing activities that took place within that vast room.

Unfortunate Accidents that Took Place

After the construction of the building, the palace sat peacefully within Cairo Citadel for whole eight years. It was only until 1822 that an unfortunate event took place, turning the wooden construction into ashes. A fire broke in and it remained still for long two days, eating whatever it could. Definitely, Muhammad Ali Pasha had to fix the flaws that caught the walls of the palace. Thus, he reconstructed the destroyed areas. Along with his reconstruction process, he complimented the palace by adding plants and floral lives on top of the stone terraces. Above and beyond, he also constructed a large a marble fountain and added a petting zoo. In that zoo, he kept the animals that the British Lord Hastings used to send to him as gifts. Those animals included an elephant, two tigers, and a lion.

The palace contained gunpowder and other elements that were kept there. Two years after the incident, another fire broke in. But, that time, the gunpowder explosions were to blame. The fire caused severe damages to the palace again. Those damages had escorted Muhammad Ali Pasha to import large pieces of marble from Italy. He used that marble piece to reconstruct the staircase, lobby, corridors, and other damaged areas.

Carriage Museum

Another museum to behold within the walls of Cairo Citadel. Carriage Museum can be found at the northeastern part of the citadel. It is commonly known as the Royal Carriages Museum. The museum lies on the ground of the Egyptian Military Museum. In fact, it is even more noticeable since the Military Museum is deemed to be a bit isolated. In front of it is the Mosque of Suleyman Pasha. According to many claims, this building, in particular, is the most visible around those of Cairo Citadel. It’s not that the rest of the buildings are invisible, but the external design of this Museum makes it momentous. This museum has been around since 1983. What we see today is the renovated structure that took place in 2013 and remained so since then.

The museum has only one level and the windows are all rectangular in shape. Over each window, there is a small horse monument. Those elements contributed to making the museum noteworthy despite its isolation. Before becoming the Royal Carriage Museum, the building served as a place in which the British Officers stayed. However, that was way back during the colonial period.

Possessions of the Carriage Museum

Through many historical spans, a wide array of collection of distinctive Royal carriages came into being. Interestingly, many of them can be found within the Royal Carriage Museum. In fact, it seems that the horses that sit above the windows are symbols of the carriages. Most of the materials that the museum holds belong to the reigns of Khedive Ismail and all the way to King Farouk. History gurus know how long this span was and that would definitely pique their interest to learn even more.

The walls of the museum hold an incomparable collection of antiques. Most of them have some relations with the carriages that the museum presents. According to some sources, the antiques originally resided in the other Carriage Museum that lies in Bulaq in Cairo.

Collections Found Inside

While the collections of the museums are not that big, they are all of a great significance to history. Those collections are all eight in total. All of the carriages are highly maintained and are still found in their original colors and paint. Four out of the eight carriages had known tales behind them. Starting from the golden state carriage, it belonged to the era of Khedive Ismail. In fact, most of them did belong to the era of Khedive Ismail. However, this golden one, in particular, was a gift that Khedive Ismail received from Napoleon III.

Another significant carriage was a huge black one that you get to see as soon as you set foot into the museum. Despite its dark color, it has red highlights and it served in welcoming the kings and queens that came visiting. One of the remaining two is quite huge while the other happens to be moderate in size. The moderately sized one belonged to Ahmed Fouad Pasha. He actually used that carriage as a mean for his personal traveling. On the other hand, the huge carriage was used during the opening of the Suez Canal. It served the foreign royalty and welcomed them upon their arrival in Egypt for celebrating the canal opening.

The Mosque of Suleyman Pasha al-Khadim

Here we go back again to the presence of mosque within Cairo Citadel rather than museums. This one is particularly beautiful. It sits in the northern part of the citadel and has been around since the Fatimid dynasty. In fact, it is also one of the first Ottoman mosques in Egypt. The Governor of Alexandria was the one who built the mosque. He was Abu Mansour Qastah Ghulam al-Muzaffar ibn Amir al-Juyush.

The façade on the southwestern part contains a minaret as well as a square base with diagonal corners. However, like most of the other buildings of Cairo Citadel, the mosque had gone through several makeovers. Soleyman Pasha revamped the old mosque as soon as it appeared wane and cracked. In fact, he was inspired by the mosques of Istanbul, thus, he used the Ottoman style while revamping the mosque. This makes it one of the oldest mosques in Egypt that reflects the Ottoman style.


There are more surprises to Cairo Citadel than you can imagine. The area is actually big enough to be able to hold mosques, museums, and other monuments as well. You’ll find a wide array of monuments that range from weapons of an old era to statues of known figures. In those empty paths between the buildings lie monuments that have stories to tell. You will enjoy learning about them as much as you’ll enjoy exploring the surrounding buildings.

The Egyptian Soldier Photo

The grounds of the Egyptian Military was once within the huge walls of Cairo Citadel. Thus, you can expect to find a story or two about soldiers. In this case, it is a photo of an Egyptian soldier found on the walls of the Egyptian Military Museum. The photo displays a soldier that holds a child and an attached phrase at the bottom. That phrase is in Arabic and it reads “The army and the people are united.” There are no further descriptions around the photo, but this phrase is still used by Egyptians to express unity.

Muhammad Ali Pasha’s Weapons and More

As we previously mentioned, Cairo Citadel holds more than a few weapons and gunpowder elements. In fact, that was once the reason some buildings were set on fire. You can see weapons in display between the hallways. Many of the weapons that Cairo Citadel houses belonged to Muhammad Ali Pasha or, at least, dated to his reign. In the open courtyard inside one of the museums, there are numerous canons in exhibitions. On the other hand, one of the canons that date back to the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha stands on its own. Among the belongings of Muhammad Ali Pasha, there are two amphibious transporters and a mortar. The former were proved to be useful during the war of 1973. They moved the soldiers from one place to another, providing them with the needed defense.

Other Weapons

Other than the weapons that belong to the supremacy of Muhammad Ali Pasha, there are others that don’t. Not all of them are specified to certain dates; however, some of them actually are. Among those other weapons, there is a British Armstrong Gun. It dates back to as old as 1846 and was used for defending the coasts of the country.

That gun is in display inside Cairo Citadel along with two other coastal defense guns. Those other two are in the background of the Mosque of Al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun. There is also one more gun that belongs to Russian origins. It was another one used for defending the coast, which seemingly needed constant protection. The gun was also used in the war that took place back in 1967. Interestingly, you can also see the weapons that soldiers used during World War I. It’s a collection of German Pipe Gun and British Naval Gun. There is also a Kerop Field Gun that is actually of German origins.

Tanks and Aircrafts

Aside from the apparent weapons that Cairo Citadel showcases, there are also aircraft jets and military tanks. The Citadel actually houses all things related to the military and the elements used in actual wars. That makes it one of the interesting destinations in Cairo to observe things that once played a role in history. There are actually several missiles and fighter jets on display. They were all manufactured by Russians. Concerning the tanks, there are numerous ones that all belonged to the Egyptian military. However, only one of those tanks happens to be Russian. The Egyptian military received that Russian tank back in 1955.

Statues of Prominent Figures

You definitely expected to find statues among that vastness of Cairo Citadel, right? In fact, there are numerous spaces and hallways between the buildings. Thus, they were perfect spots for placing weapons as well as statuses of prominent figures. Cairo citadel houses over a dozen statuses of historic characters. Each of them had a story and a significant role in Egyptian history. So, let’s learn about the statues that you can expect to see there.

Salah El Din Ibn Ayyub

Needless to say, the one who built this whole fortress had to be honored and forever remembered. Cairo citadel houses a statue that portrays Salah El Din, the Crusaders’ defeater. Displayed in an obvious spot, he’s described as one of the most powerful rulers in history. He ruled Egypt for around two decades.

Muhammad Ali Pasha

Here’s one more whose statue should be around, Muhammad Ali Pasha. Since his ultimate contributions to Cairo citadel, it was important to have a statue. Muhammad Ali Pasha was the one behind the magnificent Ottoman style buildings that we see in Egypt. He also ruled Egypt for over four decades, shaping a great deal of its history. Moreover, there is one more statue of his within the walls of the fortress. That one is in full portrayal, displaying him holding a sword while standing tall and strong. Near his statue lies a small cafeteria that serves people with delicious snacks.

Ibrahim Pasha

Ibrahim Pasha Statue lies within the fortress. Apparently, he comes from the same family of Muhammed Ali’s. He was his eldest of all of his sons. The Statue stands in a place that provides a captivating scenery. It overlooks the brilliant silver dome of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha. You can also see the green dome of the Mosque of Al-Nasir Muhammad from where the statue stands.

Baibars the Mamluk Sultan

Baibars was one of those who ruled Egypt for long years. His reign lasted for almost seventeen years, starting from 1260 and all the way to 1277. There is a statue of that powerful leader in Cairo Citadel. On a side note, his real name was actually Rukn El Din Baibars. However, he was popular for his last name as it was more commonly used.

Statues of the Egyptian Pharaohs

Seemingly, Cairo Citadel has been around since the supremacy of Salah El Din Ibn Ayyub. In fact, it happens to house buildings from that era as well. However, some of the weapons and aircraft missiles go back to some older times. Above and beyond, the statues it holds all belonged to people since the era of Salah El Din and the following eras. The only older thing it houses is a collection of statues that belong to people from ancient Egypt. Most of those figures were from the era of the Pharaohs. They played almost the ultimate role in shaping the Egyptian history and building its civilization.

Those statues include one for Ramses II; one of the greatest leaders in the Ancient Egyptian history. He ruled Egypt for many years. Another statue displays the Pharaoh King who unified Egypt during the Ancient times. He was popular as Narmer although his real name was Menes. There are also two more statues of Egyptian Pharaohs. One of them belongs to Tuthmosis III who ruled Egypt between 1479 and 1425 BC. The other one belongs to King Ahmos who was in power from 1539 BC until 1514 BC.

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