Fort Qaitbey in Alexandria Egypt
by Seif Kamel and Contributions by Zahraa Adel Awed
Fort Qaitbey is a great tourist site for kids. Kids grow up playing fort, and visiting this destination is really a wonderful experience for the whole family. It is one of the main tourist attractions of Alexandria and really one of the icons of the city. It is a beautiful location, overlooking and with a great view of the Mediterranean Sea and of Alexandria as well. The fortress itself has the look of a storybook castle, where the imagination of particularly the young can spiral into dreams of a more romantic age, of coastal sea battles between French and English ships and even pirates. The entrance fees for the fortress are two pounds LE for Egyptians and twelve LE for foreigners.
Floor Plan of Fort Qaitbey in Alexandria, Egypt
It was a beautiful sunny day to spend in Alexandria, and a perfect day to visit one of the city's major monuments. The day started for me at the Sidi Bishr bus station The station was full of passengers because it was a long weekend in Egypt and people from various cities come to Alexandria in the summer to enjoy the beaches and the nice weather.
When I arrived on the Cornish, the fort looked almost like a toy castle though as I came closer it soon became an imposing building. The fort was built by Qaitbey (Quait-bey), who ruled Egypt between 1468 and 1496. Today, this Mumluk has an interesting reputation among modern Egyptians. Although he was a dictator and he overtaxed the Egyptian people, his reign is considered to be one of the best during the Mamluk Era, even though some say that he rose through the ranks violently, as most Mumluks did, Qaitbey cared about the people of Egypt and he built many institutions such as his mosque and funerary complex in the Mamluk Qarafa of Cairo and his wekala and sabil/kutab in the Azhar area. He also restored many Islamic buildings all around Egypt as well as building roads and bridges. It is said that he had a soft spot in his heart for the common people of Egypt.
Egypt went through a plague at the end of his reign and any people died including his wife and daughter, along with many Mamluk soldiers, which perhaps also caused more than the usual problems among this group of very frequently violent men. To make matters worst, there was also a low Nile flood. At the age of eighty, Qaitbey tired of all the problems and finally handed the kingdom over to his son, Mohamed Ibn Qaitbey.
The main tower itself was built between the years 1477 and 1480, at a cost of 100,000 Dinar, on an old island called Pharos, so named because this was the location of the famous Pharos lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world, before it was toppled by an earthquake into the sea. The outer walls were built by Sultan el Ghouri sometime after he took office as Sultan. It is believed that at least some of the material for the fortress came from that ruined structure, particularly some huge red-granite pillars in the northwest section. At the time, it was built as a defense against the Ottoman empire, with whom the Mamluks had a shaky relationship at the time.
At first, I came to a doorway to the fort that I believed was the main entrance, but that turned out to be the gate to the Navel Museum, which contains a number of interesting displays. Here, one will also find various artifacts connected with Neapolitan's invasion of Egypt and afterwards, that of the English as they drove Neapolitan's forces out of Egypt. There are also displays from earlier Roman sea battles. It is certainly worth at least a short visit along with one's tour of the fortress itself. I took a little time to explore the museum, and then went on to the correct entrance to the fort itself, which was left of the museum doorway.
This entrance to the fort, along with the outer walls, were actually built during the reign of Sultan al Ghoury (1501-1516).. Above the entrance hall there is a sign from that same reign, giving his full name as King Al Ashraf Abu Al Naser Qonsowa El Ghoury, and states that anyone who takes any weapons, equipment or soldiers as slaves from the main tower of the fort will be hanged on the entrance and be damned by God forever. The actual door of the fort was built during the English occupation of Egypt and is made of wood. The archway surrounding it is of granite, as are some other elements within the structure. However, the main building material of the walls is limestone. Above the doorway there is a spillway for hot oil to be poured down upon would be attackers.
The fortress consists of three main parts, the huge walls that surround the entire complex, an inner wall and the main tower which was built actually on the site of the Pharos Light House.
The huge walls of the fortress enclose about two acres of land, surrounding the tower on all four sides. Note that the eastern side of the wall has no protective towers or balconies. The western wing of the wall has three guard towers for archers, as does the southern side. On the southern wall in the middle is a section where a door leads to the main entrance. The north side of the wall is the one facing the sea, and it has square shaped windows that held canons and catapults. Along the top was a balcony for archers.
Within the main wall of the fortress is a lower, secondary wall and between them is a nice garden area with considerably greenery and even palm trees. The inner walls contain 34 rooms for garrisoning soldiers. Within that secondary wall is the actual grounds of the fortress. There is also a large garden in front of the main central tower. Today, there is also a stage set up by the Egyptian Opera for night time performances. I walked about the courtyard for a short time, exploring the grounds, and then decided to investigate what is known as the coastal passages prior to entering the central tower. The coastal passage is a series of tunnels beneath the grounds of the fortress that lead to various sections of the complex.
The costal passages can be reached using narrow lanes that slop down from the interior walls around the garden. There are three doors that lead to the coastal passages. Those to the right and left of the garden in front of the main tower lead beneath the main tower and then directly to the eastern harbor and the cannons, including some Armstrong cannons dating to the time of Khedive Ismail. They were used for moving cannons, horses and men about the fortress. The part below the main tower included cisterns, as well as the fortress prison. The third doorway leads to the stables found in the western section of the fortress between the inner and outer walls. I entered through the right door and found myself in a lane that looks more like the entrance of a cave. The ceilings of these lanes are colorfully decorated, and there are many small rooms that branch off of the corridors. Each room has a small window that overlooks the sea. The costal passages were used to place cannons in position, and here are also many very narrow windows made for archers.
It took some time to explore the coastal passages, and then I moved on to the main tower. This is a square shaped structure that is located in the north eastern part of the fortress grounds. It has four tube-like towers, one located at each corner. It stands seventeen meters high and forms a square with each side measuring thirty meters.
The building stands upon thirteen stone bases. At the top of this building there are many small windows for archers to protect the fort, but there are many other openings, some of which were used for archers, but also for lighting and circulation. Here also there are openings to pour burning oil down upon attackers. Many of the ceilings within it are made of mudbrick, and it is said that palm wood was also employed, perhaps as an early form of earthquake preventive architecture. Upon entering the ground floor of the central tower, the first element one encounters is the mosque, which is actually considered the oldest mosque in Alexandria.
It consists of a large central square courtyard, or sahn, that is surrounded by four small iwans. The iwans are decorated with colorful geometrical designs and plant motifs. The qibla iwan, that facing Mecca, is slightly higher than the grounds of the sahn and is larger than the other three iwans. There are two alabaster columns that flank the mihrab located in the qibla wall. Next to the Mihrab are two, simple but pleasant mashrabeya screened windows. Generally, a sahn is an open courtyard, but in this case there is a dome some seventeen meters above, rising to the very top of the main tower, made of red and white stone. Elsewhere on the ground floor, the ceilings, with cross domes to help support the upper floors, stands 7.5 meters high.
To the left of the mosque is a large opening in the floor that leads to the coastal passage where the cistern is located. It is covered by a large wooden plate. There is also a hole in the ceiling so that soldiers could exchange food and water between floors, but in the event of a successful raid on the fortress, soldiers could also fire arrows from above onto their attackers entering the ground floor. For this reason, the ground floor was also designed to allow in less light, so that upon entering it, attackers would not be able to see very well. There are also other such openings elsewhere in the compound. To the left and nearby this opening, however, is also a shaft containing granite blocks where one can see the layers of stone used in the construction of the fortress.
A large set of stairs, with high steps to tire out any would-be attackers, leads to the second floor of the tower. After climbing them, I found myself in a wide corridor that has numerous stone rooms that face the exterior of the tower. Each one has a window covered by a mashrabeya screen. Other rooms face the interior of the main tower, and therefore overlook the sahn of the mosque.
On this floor there is also a small, well made model of the fortress that reveals how the fortress once looked, prior to modern alterations. Notably missing today is the old minaret of the mosque, which was built in the Mamluk style with three levels. The first was square, with a balcony at the top, the second had eight sides and the third was a circular shape with a small dome at the top. Here, also in the second story floor, is another hole that was used to exchange water and food.
On the third floor of the tower is the Sultan's throne, and a very large balcony where the Sultan would stand in full military regalia and observe his soldiers. The balcony is rectangular, measuring four meters in length and five meters wide. The floor is made of white and black marble. The ceiling of this room is well preserved and rich with red and white decorations. Around the third floor are located a number of small rooms, but these were used by the private guards of the Sultan.
On top of this floor, soldiers were also positioned as lookouts, and from here they could spot invaders an entire day's journey out to see. This fort was badly ruined twice. The first time was when during French conquer Egypt and Napoleon and his soldiers used canons to attack the fort. The second time was when the English invaded Egypt. It has been restored three times. The first time was during the 1940s when King Farouq restored most of the fortress. It was again renovated in 1982, and once again in 2000.