The Ayyubid City Fortification (of Cairo)
by Lara Iskander
The Fatimid dynasty in Egypt met its end in 1169 at the hands of a commander, named Nur al-Din. In 1171 AD, Salah al-Din, or, Saladin, the Kurdish nephew of Nur al-Din's best general, Shirkuh, became Sultan and founded the Ayyubid Dynasty.
Cairo contains numerous ancient religious and governmental structures; however, the elaborate architecture of the Citadel, in eastern Cairo, is one that still enhances till this day the city's skyline. The Citadel is one of the many popular tourist attractions in Cairo; it was begun by Saladin in 1176 and modified and expanded later on by consecutive sultans. The Citadel is famous for its mosques, museums and forts and most of all because it contains the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, which was built almost 7 centuries later.
Several other structures associated with Saladin survived within modern cities. Among the forts he built was the Citadel in Syria and Qalaat Al-Gindi, a mountain-top fortress and caravanserai in Sinai. On the other hand, one of the important military fortifications that have survived is the Ayyubid City Wall or also called the Citadel fortifications.
The Ayyubid city walls were built by Saladin between 1176 and 1183 AD with a vision of containing the former Fatimid city and its suburbs, the old city of Al-Fustat and to reinforce and existing fortifications, hence forming one single solid city wall protecting the whole metropolis from Crusaders. The main point of protection for its view over the city was to be the Citadel, located in a strategic point on the site of the Mukattam Hills.
The initial city walls and boundaries were constructed during the Fatimid period in the 970s; the walls were built of brick with two gates on each side, such as the case of the main northern gate, Bab al-Futuh and the southern gate, Bab Zuweila. Later on Bab al-Nasr and numerous other gates were constructed. After the rule of Saladin, a further extensive fortification scheme was developed given that the Ayyubid dynasty was one that relied heavily on military skills and powers.
Unlike the first Fatimid wall, the Ayyubid fortifications were more sophisticated and were built entirely of stone. Saladin imported new defensive devices from Syria were used and introduced the concept of cities centered on a defensible citadel. Features such as bent gate entrances and arrow slits reaching the floor were used in his fortifications.
Repairs and consolidations were undertaken on the pre-existing Fatimid parts of the walls and round-fronted towers were added in attempt to unify the visual aspect of the city walls.
Above; state of the Ayyubid wall before conservation interventions.
When Salah al-Din died in 1193, the Ayyubid Empire was on the verge of fragmentation, only to be reunited again during the rule of Al- Adil in 1199. Historic evidence show that the city walls were unfinished at the time of Saladins death and that the completion of the fortification extended well into the 1200s.
The walls and gates were the urban limits and security boundaries of the city. Nevertheless, in the following centuries, Cairos urban population and growth expanded well beyond those walls. Urban sprawl stretched way beyond the western and northern parts of the wall.
The eastern part of the wall seems to have remained important for around two centuries after its construction and then met a slow decline during the Mamluk era and the threat of crusader armies and other invaders. From then on, the area beyond the walls became a marginal dumping ground for the citys rubbish.
The Ayyubid wall was first studied and recorded in greater detail in 1798 during the Napoleonic expedition in Egypt. However, at that time, two of the walls towers had already disappeared and most of the eastern portion of the wall was buried under mountains of debris and rubbish. Those mountains were then viewed as a strategic location and the location was used as a base for Napoleons army.
The first attempts at conserving and reconstructing the city walls took place in 1950s under the supervision of the Comite de Conservation des Monuments de lArt Arabe, a government body establishes in 1882 in order to preserve Egypts Islamic and Christian architectural heritage.
For almost fifty years afterwards, no further work was carried out on the wall but on the contrary, the eastern boundary of the heavily urbanised Darb al-Ahmar quarter continued to be used as the quarters rubbish dump.
This eastern part of the wall was revealed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) during the implementation of Al-Azhar Park Project in 1996. During the clearance process of the historic rubble hill, the buried eastern section of the Ayyubid city wall was re-discovered and excavated to a depth of 15 meters along the western edge of the historic city.
The eastern fortification is one of the longest stretches remaining from Saladins construction. Its length is approximately of 1.5 kilometres, extending south from Bab al-Wazir, next to the Citadel walls till the northeast part of the city at al-Azhar Street.
Bab al-Wazir is also one of the historic city gates, however remains in a poor state today. The gate is located just off Bab al-Wazir Street and used today as a road linking Saleh Salem Highway and al-Darb al-Ahmar district.
Walls on the hills
A part of the walls
Today, the remains of the eastern Ayyubid wall is bordered on the east by Al-Azhar Park, previously, the 500-year-old rubbish dump of Al-Darassa Hills while the southern section of the wall borders Bab al-Wazir cemeteries; a site which includes tombs and mosques dating as far back as the 14th Century. To the west of the wall is the heavily dense quarter of historic Cairo, Darb al-Ahmar.
Over the years, the AKTC projects scope was expanded later to include the urban rehabilitation of the adjacent quarter and the restoration of a number of monuments and significant mosques in the area.
The archaeological discovery of the Ayyubid wall was one the most important of the past decades relating to the Islamic period in Egypt. The discovered stretch of the wall includes two of the eastern wall's most interesting and significant architectural features: a three-storey defensive tower, Burg al-Mahruq, destined to become an important visitor attraction and museum under the AKTC scope of rehabilitation, and Bab al-Barqiyya, also an ancient Ayyubid city gateway which is intended to be used as an entrance to the Park from within Darb al-Ahmar district.
The southern segment of the Ayyubid east wall is composed of two primary architectural elements: eleven round-fronted towers and curtain walls. The solid curtain wall have galleries or short passageways leading to small vaulted chambers, some of which have the traditional arrow slits, and others to staircases that ascend to the ramparts.
Each of the towers are of an average diameter of 13.5 meters, located approximately 70 to 110 meter intervals along the curtain wall.
The huge archaeological conservation task of the Ayyubid wall was initiated in 1999 targeting the restoration of the 1.5 kilometer of the revealed fortification. Today, several sections of the wall, towers and passageways are now open to visitors and are easily accessed from Al-Azhar Park or through Darb al-Ahmar quarter.
Source of Ayyubid wall illustrations: Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Egypt