Cairo's Ancient Northern Walls
by Seif Kamel
The feeling I had towards Mui'z Street in Fatimid Cairo was the same feeling I had towards the Citadel. I believe the heart gets attached to certain places. Sometimes this happens for certain tangible reasons and sometimes it happens for reasons that are not understandable. I have visited the Citadel more than three times in less than a week. I wanted to explore every museum there, every piece of art, and every moment of history that took place there. The same thing happened to me in Mui'z Street where many Fatimid Islamic monuments may be found. This time I wanted to explore the northern walls of Cairo, or the remains of them, to be more precise. These walls and their gates once protected the city of Cairo and many important events of Egyptian history took place near them.
When the Fatimids conquered Egypt and settled here in 969 under the leadership of El Mui'z Li-Dinellah, the city was called "Cairo of El Mui'z" because they decorated its four suburbs with luxurious buildings and delightful gardens. It was a settlement of rulers and princes.
Gawhar El Sakaly, the major leader of the army during the reign of Al Mui'z, established four walls around the city in brick. He also built a huge wall around the palace of Al Mui'z, but this wall is no longer preserved.
The original plans for Qahira (Cairo) were very simple. The city measured twelve hundred yards by sixteen hundred fifty yards with a wall surrounding it that was wide enough for two horsemen to ride side by side on top of the wall. The whole west side ran along the old Red Sea canal, which was filled in 1899 and had tramlines placed over it. There were two main gates in the wall, consisting of Bab Zuweila on the south side, through which Mui'z entered the city, and Bab el Futuh (the Gate of Succor) on the north. On the east side of the city was the Mukattam Hills. Inside the city walls, each group of the population had their own quarters. The army quarters were known as Harat al Askar and the Greek quarters were called Harat al Rum.
Cairo, at one point, had as many as 25 gates. These gates were built by different people and in different periods. Bab Khan El Khalili, for example, was built by Seif El Din Jerkes El Khalili during the reign of Al Naser Barquq. Bab El Qantara is another example. It was built by Salah El Din El Ayoubi in 1173 on the eastern edge of El Khalij. Salah El Din was actually responsible for many gates.
The city had mostly outgrown its old walls when the Fatimids came to Egypt, so they built a new wall and removed all the old gates. The old brick gates were replaced with stone gates, three of which remain today; consisting of Bab al-Nasr (the Gate of Victory), Bab el Futuh (Gate of Succor) and Bab Zuweila (Gate of the Zuweila tribe).
Protecting the city was not the only reason for building these walls and gates. They were built also for management and administrative purposes. No one was allowed to enter Cairo or stay there except for its residents, or those who were allowed in for certain reasons, such as work, during the daytime hours.
As I walked through the Bab el Futuh, one of the gates that once protected Cairo during the Fatimid Period, I was overtaken by their monumental size. Bab al-Nasr, or the Victory Gate, is located near the Khan al-Khalili market and to the east of Bab el Futuh, connected with it via either an interior route throughout the Fatimid wall, or atop the wall. Other than its square towers, which were built at the same time as those of Bab el Futuh, the gate itself is very similar to its eastern counterpart. There is a short inscription on the gate made by Napoleon's army during their occupation.
These gates were originally built of brick by Gawhar El Sakaly, but they were rebuilt by Badr El Gamali of stone in 1085. Along with the others, Bab al-Nasr is considered one of the remaining Islamic monuments. Its front consists of two squares towers with sculptures of swords and shields prominent among the decorations. In the middle of a very huge door there is the name of the builder and and the date of its construction above. The stairs reach to the highest door, a building of stone with knots which is considered the first of its kind in Islamic architecture.
This gate is as huge as the others but I personally thought it was more beautiful than the others. I continued walking to the east viewing the walls after Bab al-Nasr. The walls run for about 500 meters with a tower every now and then. Some of these towers look like Bab el-Aazb, built in the Citadel. The last defensive tower looked very much the same.
These walls are more than six meters long and very thick. No wonder they were able to survive through time. Though not much is left of the southern walls, substantial portions of the northern ones remain.
Many pharaonic temples were destroyed to construct these walls and gates. One can still see large blocks of stone bearing pharaonic inscriptions and motifs. Marble, cut stone and wood were always expensive materials in Egypt, and quarrying old monuments for building materials is as old as the Old Kingdom, and still goes on today.
The northern walls are built on three levels. The street level, including the vestibules or entrances halls of the gates, were originally higher than the street, and the gates were reached by ramps. Between the stone blocks, horizontally set columns were used to consolidate the masonry in the lower part of the walls. Steps in the gate towers lead into a corridor through which mounted guards could ride. This second level consisted of galleries connected with vaulted rooms and halls with arrow slits on the outside and larger openings on the city side. These run along the entire length of the walls, except at the junctures of the gates. In 1789, these corridors were widened to accommodate cannons in order to stop Napoleon from invading Cairo. After he did anyway, Napoleon garrisoned troops within the walls. The evidence of their stay appears in the French names given to the towers. All of the gates are solid two-thirds of the way up, and therefore block the passage from one section to the next, for the sake of better defense.
Towers are interspersed along the walls with halls and rooms. They protrude, with slits on three sides to allow the guards a full view of the exterior. The third level forms a terrace, protected by the upper part of the walls and their round topped rectangular crenellations.
Today, there are stairs so visitors can walk near the walls and view them. It is possible to explore the interior of the gates and walls along the top of by climbing the stairs just inside the neighboring Mosque of Al Hakim, which was made a part of these fortifications, and crossing the roof.
These gates and the intervening stretch of wall between them are one of the most monumental ensembles in Cairo. They are great masterpieces of Islamic military architecture. The outstanding features of the fortification are the quality of the stone treatment, unparalleled in Cairo, and the variety of vaults used in the walls and gates, including shallow domes, barrel vaults, cross vaults and also a spiral vault in a staircase at Bab al-Nasr. Only round arches are used in the architecture of the whole wall complex.