The Citadel of Salah ad-Din is sometimes known as the Citadel of Muhammad Ali; this is a common mistake. Because of this mistake, many believed that the fortress was built by Muhammad Ali Pasha, who ruled Egypt during much of the first half of the 18th century. Others think it was named after him because he was the last to live in it.
In fact, neither explanation is true. The citadel was built by the order of the first sultan of Egypt and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, Salah ad-Din (also known as Saladin), in 1176, and was completed in 1183. It took seven years to build under the leadership of three governors, Salah ad-Din, his brother, who also became sultan, Al-Adil I, and Salah ad-Din’s son, the fourth Ayyubid sultan, Al-Kamil. Sultan Al-Kamil was the first person to live in the citadel as its construction was completed during his reign.
The citadel includes, within its walls, several palaces, mosques, a prison, and a military fortress.
The citadel was used for about 677 years as the residence of all the rulers of Egypt, from the era of the Ayyubids to the era of Muhammad Ali Pasha and his dynasty until the era of Khedive Ismail. Thus, the khedive is said to be the last ruler to live in the citadel, not Muhammad Ali.
The Mosque of Muhammad Ali is the reason why people get confused and call the citadel after Muhammad Ali; it is one of the largest mosques in Egypt and also the only building that people can see from outside the walls of the citadel.
The Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali Pasha wanted to combine between the Mamluk and Ottoman styles in the construction of the mosque. So, the mosque consists of the main central mosque and four porticos, which represents the Mamluk style, though the fourth portico was made into a closed mosque, which is an element of the Ottoman style.
The mosque was dedicated exclusively for the royal family. The second floor was reserved for the citadel’s women, including its princesses.
Al-Gawhara Palace is the largest one within the compound’s walls. It was the royal residence, with a throne room, reception, and decrees room. This palace is where Muhammad Ali seized power. Forces loyal to him surrounded the Mamluks and fired at them as they approached, resulting in a massacre which cemented Muhammad Ali’s eminence in Egypt, with possibly only one man escaping unscathed.
This man was Murad Bey, who was lucky enough to arrive late to the party. So, when the shooting started, he took a horse and jumped over the citadel’s wall. The jump was very high, and the horse’s leg was broken, but Murad Bey managed to escape from death twice; once from the shooting, and the second from the high jump.
Because of the massacre, the closest street to the citadel was covered in blood, so it was called Al-Darb Al-Ahmar (The Red Path).
Next came Muhammad ibn Qalawun Mosque
An-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun is a ruler who reigned over Egypt three times; he was well-known as a just king, so when he was deposed, the people once again brought him back to power. Then came his son, Sultan Hassan, who was also known for his justice, hence the Egyptians came up with the idiom “whoever has a child won’t die”.
Muhammad ibn Qalawun built a mosque and named it after himself in the citadel. The mosque was built twice; he did not like the first one and ordered it rebuilt. In that era, the artists were not allowed to sculpt.
Therefore, the pillars of the mosque were not made, but they were purchased from markets. So, the pillars in the mosque are not symmetrical. Some of them were taken from temples or destroyed churches, so people can see a crucifix on one of the pillars and there are others similar to the pillars of Roman and Greek temples.
“Iftar cannon”, also known as Hajja Fatimah cannon
In the minds of Muslims in Egypt, the sound of a cannon is associated with the time of breaking their fast (iftar in Arabic) during the holy month of Ramadan.
The reason is, in the era of Muhammad Ali, they bought a new cannon and wanted to test it and it so happened that they did so at the time of the sunset prayer when people were breaking their fast, so people thought it was a new tradition for Muhammad Ali to announce the time of breaking the fast and they love it. When Muhammad Ali learned that people loved it, he continued with the practice that would become tradition. It has since become a yearly occurrence each Ramadan.
This cannon is also known as Hajja Fatimah cannon, because the guard who is responsible for the cannon has a wife whose name is Fatimah. She used to bring the food to him at iftar time. Because he loved her so much, he named the cannon after her, and when she died, he used to say that the cannon is the only thing he has left as a memory of her.
In the citadel, people can also see the prison where former president Anwar Al-Sadat was confined.
Finally, the harem palace became the headquarters of the British military ruler under the British occupation of Egypt and it has since been turned into the National Police Museum.
In this museum, people can see the uniforms of police officers from the era of the pharaohs to the modern era. There are also photos of the most famous criminals, such as Raya and Sakina, and the story of their lives and how they were caught. In addition, there are also displayed weapons that were used in political assassinations, including ones used in an attempt on former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s life and the assassinations of Ahmed Pasha Maher and Elnokrashy Pasha.