Known for being home to several mosques and museums in Cairo, the Citadel is a medieval, Islamic fortification strategically built on top of Cairo’s Mokattam Hill in the 12th Century by ruler Salah El Din. The compound was once a mixture of royal and residential buildings and was designed in a manner that allowed a single army to protect the whole area from outside attacks. Since the establishment of the site, it has been added to and modified by several successors.
Today, the Citadel is preserved as a historical site and open to the public. Tickets are 50LE for foreigners, 25LE for foreign students and 5LE for Egyptians. To save visitors from wondering around, sweltering in the heat, a golf buggy can be rented for just 3LE for foreigners and 1LE for Egyptians (plus tip).
Centuries after its initial construction, Mohammed Ali Pasha would take over the compound, establishing a royal dynasty which would reign over Egypt from 1805 until 1952. Mohammed Ali himself was in power from 1805 and, wanting to erase the memory of his predecessors, he knocked down several existing buildings in the Citadel in order to build what would become the largest and most famous mosque there; the Mohammed Ali Pasha mosque. It was constructed in memory of his second son, Tusun Pasha.
Whilst exuding his power over Egypt, he, and his harem of ladies, lived in a magnificent palace until ill-health eventually led to his death in 1849.
During the 1950’s, after the British occupation, the building became home to the Egyptian National Military Museum, displaying some incredible ancient artefacts associated with an ever changing military since Pharaonic times right up until modern day. Most recently, the brilliant estate was modernised and reopened by President Hosni Mubarak in 1993.
On approaching the grand entrance to the museum, vintage aeroplanes, colossal artillery and bulky shining brass cannons are displayed in the well-kept gardens. The building itself is vast, but fairly simple in design, with tall, floor-to-ceiling windows shuttered off from the outside world. The interior, however, is altogether different; the high ceilings adorned with intricate plasterwork, deep red carpets, grand wooden staircases and impressive chandeliers hint at the palace’s luxurious past.
Split into several wings, the museum takes you back in time with portraits and sculptures of past kings, sultans, politicians and army heads, including a life size sculpture of ‘the best soldier in Egypt’, along with copious numbers of archaic medals. There are several authentic antique horse-drawn carriages on show and a few architectural models that show how the Citadel once stood.
In the next wing, the museum hosts an impressive collection of obsolete national flags and army uniforms which have changed significantly through the ages. Fighting memorabilia including deadly, brutal looking swords, jagged knives and lethal bludgeons take up many of the glass showcases, demonstrating the evolution of Egyptian combat.
A large area of the museum is dedicated to documenting the history of the Suez Canal. The battle of Port Said – the city that lies along the North Coast, at the mouth of the Suez Canal – is heavily illustrated in a series of paintings.
Because of its location, importance and heaving business, the canal has been subject to many disputes which are pictorially recognised in the museum. Naturally, most are dedicated to the Suez Conflict of 1956, between Egypt and British, French and Israeli forces, after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. After bloody battles, bombings and years of negotiations, foreign troops were finally deployed from the area and the canal was returned to its rightful owners; resulting in Port Said’s National Day celebrations on the 23rd of December every year.
The canal was also blocked from 1967, due to the Six Day War with Israel, until 1975 under the instruction of President Anwar Sadat. Admired enough to be given his own shrine, a large display is dedicated to his presidential term from 1970 to 1981.
It is said that in 1973, under the direction of Sadat, the troops in the October War launched a surprise attack on Israeli forces, with a view to gaining the upper hand. Though the success of the operation will forever continue to be disputed, Egyptian forces were nevertheless able to recapture land around the Sinai region.
There is a large, colourful painting hung on one of the walls that depicts Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister of the time, Menachem Begin, signing the Camp David Accords – the result of peace negotiations with Israel in 1978 – witnessed by US President Jimmy Carter. Anwar Sadat won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 and was considered somewhat a national hero by some before his assassination in 1975.
The Military Museum
provides an interesting insight into Egypt’s complex military past whilst the décor of the building itself is just as mesmerising as the artefacts held within it. Of course, there are numerous other buildings to visit in the Citadel; for example, the Mohammed Ali Mosque is a sight not to be missed, whilst the slightly more modest and less well-known, Al-Nasir Mohammed Mosque, is just as beautiful and intricately decorated.
There are several souvenir shops and stalls around the Citadel and, fortunately, tourist harassment is kept to a minimum. Interestingly, not much information about the Citadel is available beyond the gates so it’s a good idea to either research the area before you arrive, or take a guide with you.