on March 3, 2008
The Citadel really is the crown of Old Cairo. Fortified in the twelfth-century by Salah al-Din (known in the west as Saladin, of Crusades fame), the walled compound perches atop a rocky outcrop just off the western edge of the arid Muqqatam Hills that have long provided a natural eastern limit to Cairo's expansion (and which now bristle with military equipment). A visit treats you to an awesome view over the dun huddle of Islamic Cairo, minarets piercing the smog. It also holds two mosques of particular interest - the ostentatious Mosque of Mohammed Ali that towers over the city, and the smaller and prettier Mosque of Sultan al-Nasir.The close-packed eastern section of Cairo is devoid of Metro lines, so the easiest way to reach the Citadel is to take a taxi and ask for 'al-Qalaa'. Even if you are over on the west bank of the Nile, do not agree to pay any more than LE10. This will have you deposited by the main entrance on Sharia Salah Salem. Of course, I was walking, so from Ibn Tulun and the Gayer-Anderson Museum I headed east along Sharia Ibn Tulun. This disgorges you at Midan Salah al-Din, one of Cairo's major intersections, where taxis and trucks whizz past. Three mosques punctuate the Midan - the large Rifai and Sultan Hassan to the west, and the smaller Mahmudiyya to the north. To the east rises the bulk of the Citadel. There is no public entrance here now, but you can see the exterior of the Bab al-Azab. It was here that Mohammed Ali ruthlessly consolidated his grab for power in 1811. Having invited the ruling Mamlukes to dinner at the Citadel, Ali saw them off, only to trap them in the narrow confines of the gate and slaughter them as they left. Now all that you can access are some low crumbling bastions, ripe with the smell of urine and faeces (watch out for needles underfoot).On foot you must trudge around the southern edge of the Citadel down Salah al-Din and Salah Salem. You cannot miss the sloping road leading up to the gatehouse. Entrance is LE40, though there are often queues as you pass through the checkpoints. Inside the way leads left past souvenir stands to the al-Gawhera Palace, then right down a long straight enclosed road to the Mosque of Sultan al-Nasir. The Mosque of Sultan al-Nasir is a pretty little thing, blessedly plain compared to the grandiose Mohammed Ali. After removing my shoes, a guide came up to show me items of interest. He explained that when this mosque was built in the 14th-century it was modelled on that of Cordoba in Spain. He pointed out that the columns that surrounded the courtyard were reused from older structures as you could see from the different capitols - pharoanic, Greek, Coptic Christian. Here was stone from Aswan, here was Italian Carrera marble (indeed the mosque may once have approached the same level of gaudiness as that of Mohammed Ali; once it was panelled with marble, but that panelling was stripped and hoiked off to Turkey by the evocatively named 'Selim the Grim'). Instead my guide showed me the wooden minbar (pulpit). This was constructed of a series of carefully tesellated pieces, each intricately carved in Islamic designs. Above the banded stonework the dome gleamed like jade. The man was so informative, and so clearly proud of the mosque, that I happily handed over a tip without being prompted. Of all the mosques I visited in Cairo, I think this one, with its intimate proportions, was my favourite.Turning right out of the mosque you see the bombastic entance way to the Military Museum, its approach lined with tanks. I did not enter here, but if you pass through the arch there is a passage to your right that allows to go further into the quieter and less visited Northern Enclosure of the Citadel.If you turn left instead you can climb up to the highest point, crowned by the Mosque of Sultan Ali. This Mosque can be seen from any minaret in the old town, its huge dome shining in the sunlight and its two pencil-thin minarets standing in stark contrast. On closer inspection I have to admit I found it gaudy and ostentatious. The intricacy and craftsmanship exhibited in the al-Nasir is not present in this 19th-century offering. Instead Ali went for scale. Inside tour parties slump across the ill-matched carpets below overly grandiose chandeliers. Behind a grill to one side lies the white marble tomb of the Sultan. The whole thing seemed more reminiscent of a theatre lobby than a place of worship.To be fair, I did like its courtyard (accessed through the mosque), even if it was slightly chintzy. A narrow clasically-inspired colonnade rings the marble space. A shaded ablutions fountain stands in the middle. There is also an ornate clock-tower, a gift from Louis Philippe of France. The clock was a swap for the obelisk which now stands in Paris' Place de la Concorde, and has apparently never worked, a fitting tribute for Mohammed Ali, a man who managed to mix instinctive barbarism (as seen in his slaughter of the Mamlukes) with a desire to ape the west, and never really succeeded in getting the best out of either tradition.One final sight in the Citadel comes if you follow the signs to the Police Museum. This leads on to a terrace with wondeful views north-west over the old city, ranging from the distinctive square outline of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun , over the cluster of mosques at Midan Salah al-Din, and then north where the close-packed streets and tenements of the khaki-coloured Islamic Cairo huddle, pierced by minarets too numerous to count. It was north that I would be pressing on for the next step in my walking tour.
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