Friday, 2 August 2013

Preview: Cairo Citadel

Egypt does strange things to your perception of age. It makes everything else seem young. After looking round or just reading about a temple that's 3 or 4000 years old, a Roman temple of just 2000 years seems less of a big deal. A 500-year-old mosque seems like a spritely young pup. And so right in the middle of Cairo are a series of constructions originating way back to the early 13th Century - older than Ayutthaya, Machu Picchu, or St Paul's Cathedral. Constantly changing over the centuries, these fortifications have been a hugely significant part in the development of the Egypt we see today, the critical core of Egypt's political, religious, and military history. Together, these walls, buildings, palaces, and mosques make up Cairo Citadel. And while it may not exactly be the pyramids, it arguably has had a lot more to do with the city we see today than a massive pile of stones on the outskirts of town.

Actually, as the quirk of history would have it, Cairo Citadel is the pyramids, at least a little. Apart from being the world's biggest buildings for thousands of years, the pyramids were also the world's readiest large-scale supply of building materials. According to the 15th Century Egyptian historian, Al-Maqrizi, "three small pyramids at Giza, a short distance away, were dismantled and mined for a supply of ready-cut stone blocks". Al-Maqrizi wasn't always noted for being the most accurate with his descriptions - he also makes the exaggerated claim that 50,000 Crusader prisoners-of-war were used to build the Citadel - but in this case, his claim seems credible. Cairo Citadel is only about 10 miles from the pyramids of Giza, and it's known that other ancient Egyptian temples were dismantled and used for their stone throughout the Citadel's history. Egyptian and Roman columns can still be seen in one of the mosques today. Al-Maqrizi might be making history's greatest understatement in his "three small pyramids" description, but possibly he's referring to smaller satellite pyramids that were plundered wholesale; at any rate it would seem like there's a little bit of pyramid in the Citadel.

Like most other fortified complexes, such as Agra Fort or Edinburgh Castle, Cairo Citadel has a long and varied history of building and rebuilding, with plenty of change and lots of history tacked onto it. For almost 700 years, it was the seat of government for various different regimes. A full description seems to pretty much involve the history of Egypt from medieval times onwards, so instead I'll keep things simple and focus on what we've got now, and how we got there. And to do that, we need to know about two people - Mohammed Ali and Saladin.

Let's start with Mohammed Ali, the de facto ruler of Egypt from 1805 to 1848, and the man responsible for the majority of the citadel we see today. Albanian born, he was an officer in the Ottoman Empire and effectively took charge of Egypt in 1811 after a lot of convoluted politics, violence, and empires. The French, the British, the Ottomans, and the Mamluks, though oddly nobody actually representing Egypt itself, were all involved  for a while. His decisive moment came in 1811 when he invited a whole bunch of Mamluk princes (475 of them!) to the citadel for a hearty feast. It all went well, but as the princes were leaving, no doubt rubbing their bellies, they found themselves trapped between gates. The sound of gunfire filled Cairo as they were massacred. With the main threat to power gone, Mohammed Ali was now in charge of Egypt.

Considering he only learned to read at age 40, and obviously wasn't averse to the occcasional mass-killing, Mohammed Ali was surprisingly progressive in his ideas. For the rest of his life and 37-year rule he embarked on a thorough programme of modernisation for Egypt. Part of this involved the citadel. Decaying after centuries of neglect, he more or less tore the whole thing down, removing almost all trace of hundreds of years of Mamluk rule. In its place he built palaces, barracks, weapons factories, and numerous administrative buildings, and reorganised the citadel into two roughly evenly-sized enclosures, the north being military and the south being administrative. These days, the whole complex takes up about 65 acres, with about a 2 mile circumference.

Most significantly, and the undoubted focal point of Cairo Citadel, so much so that it is often mistaken for the citadel itself, he built the gigantic Mosque of Mohammed Ali. With a 52-metre-high central dome, which is supported by four semi-domes, and flanked by two 82-metre-high minarets, it is visible from almost everywhere in Cairo. It gets a mixed reception from critics, being regarded as an unimaginative copy of the great mosques of Istanbul, but without their grace or style. It's not even built particularly well - within decades of being built it was showing signs of structural weakness, and by 1931 the domes were cracking. At one point, it was ordered to be demolished, but instead it was rebuilt, in 1939. But it is big, and it makes a definite impression upon the city, which I suspect was Mohammed Ali's main objective.

Probably therefore, we can call Cairo Citadel a 19th Century structure. But the age of a complex is never as clear cut as the age of a single building, so it's also fair to describe it as 13th Century. That was when construction of the Citadel's first incarnation was completed, and some of the walls and towers remain today, 800 years later. Even more remains underground, layers and layers of medieval ruins tucked beneath the subsequent rebuilding over the centuries.

Although he didn't see it finished, the citadel was conceived and begun by one of the titans of the Middle Eastern Middle Ages - Saladin. A major force against the Crusaders and the founder of a new dynasty  - the Ayyubid dynasty - he intended Cairo to be the his seat of power and in 1176 got things up and running. He needed a residence worthy of his status and somewhere defensively secure; curiously, it also had to be a refuge from the general population of Cairo. Saladin was not Egyptian and his safety in Cairo could not be assured - the Citadel had to be a city within a city. A hill overlooking the area was the perfect spot.

Saladin had better things to do than hang around a sprawling building site though, and spent most of his life on campaigns against the Crusaders. He died in 1193, but his nephew finished the first version of the citadel, and the court was transferred there in 1206. From then right up until Ottoman rule centuries later, it was constantly expanded, rebuilt, rearranged, and refurbished, but despite that - and despite Mohammed Ali's extensive 19th Century overhaul - quite a bit remains from Saladin's time (or his immediate successors'). The northern enclosure is still surrounded by the original Ayyubid dynasty walls, and numerous towers are original also. The largest of these are almost the size of the central keep of the Tower of London.

Cairo Citadel was never put to the military test, but remained under military control right up until the 1980s, when President Mubarak began its conversion into a historic site and a museum. That's how we see it today, a sprawling series of buildings surrounded by walls, dominated by one of Cairo's defining features, the Mosque of Mohammed Ali.

Let's be honest, unless there are some surprises in store for me, I don't think Cairo Citadel is going to be scoring too highly and I don't think it will stand out from all the other medieval walled compounds in the world. Even its defining feature, the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, is a poor cousin of Istanbul's classic Ottoman mosques. But yet - it has a certain presence. I've been to Cairo twice but never visited the Citadel; nonetheless, I've certainly noticed it. That's why I added it onto this list. The huge mosque sits up on the hill and is very high profile - instantly, it identifies the city. Sure, it will forever be overshadowed by the pyramids, but Cairo Citadel reminds you that Egypt isn't just about what happened thousands of years ago. It's a country with a more recent and relevant history than the pharaohs, and Cairo Citadel is the visible representation of that.

I'll be visiting Cairo Citadel in around December of this year or January of next, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.

"The Citadel of Cairo, 1176-1341: Reconstructing Architecture from Texts" - Nasser Rabbat
"The Citadel of Cairo" Aga Khan Award for Architecture 1989, Nasser Rabat
"The Mosque of Muhammed Ali in Cairo" Muqarnas Volume IX: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture 1992, Mohammed Al-Asad

"Fortress on the Mountain" Saudi Aramco World March/April 1993, John Feeney
"Muhammad Ali Pasha and His Sabil" Agnieszka Dobrowolska, Khaled Fahmy
"The Citadel of Cairo" William Lyster

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