The Jewel Palace (Qaser Al Gawhara) in the Citadel
by Seif Kamel
I have lived in Cairo all of my life. That's 27 years, but perhaps surprisingly, I had in all that time never visited the Citadel, though of course it is a very famous monument that of which I was aware. I am sure there were some trips organized by my school, but somehow I missed going. The Citadel is considered a museum for Islamic architecture and was the home of various Egyptian rulers for more than 700 years.
It was founded in the year 1176 by the famous Muslim Commander Salah al-Din Yusuf Ibn Syyub (Saladin). The Citadel is one of the main tourist attractions in Cairo these days and the southern part of it, where the Mohamed Ali Mosque is located, is the place most visited by tourists.
There are actually a number of museums located on the grounds of the Citadel. There is the Military Museum, built by Mohamed Ali in 1827. It was the residence for the Egyptian ruler's family until 1874 when Khedive Ismail moved to the newly built Abdeen Palace. The display of the museum consists mainly of uniforms and weapons.
The Police Museum is also found in the Citadel and this small museum illustrates the history of the Egyptian police, which is more than a little interesting. The display consists of weapons, uniforms, and pictures of famous historical Egyptian criminals like Rayya and Sekina, Egypt's version of Jack the Ripper. The two sisters murdered more than 15 women in Alexandria at the beginning of the 20th century.
I took in these museums, but they were not the main reason for my visit I had come to see Qaser Al Gawhara. This was where Mohamed Ali massacred the Mamluks leaders, thus forever ending their long influence on Egypt, and in fact, making Egypt capable leaving behind its feudal past so that it could enter the modern world.
I went to the Citadel at 2:00 pm and was lucky to find a place to park my car as it was really crowded. There were many buses full of students from different schools and colleges coming to visit the Citadel. I had to walk for about 10 minutes going up the hill, but it was a nice day and the short walk was well worth the effort.
I arrived at Bab Al Azab, the gate built by the Ottomans in 1754. I headed towards the Gawhara Palace but I had to stop for a few minutes and admire the Mohamed Ali Mosque. Somehow it seems so different than other mosques in Cairo. I have seen so many mosques in Cairo and all regions of Egypt but the Mohamed Ali Mosque is of the Turkish style and was built to mimic one of the main mosques in Turkey, the center of the Ottoman empire. The Mosque was built between 1830 and 1848 under the rule of Mohamed Ali, who is considered the founder of modern Egypt. His tomb is located to the right of the vast prayer hall area inside the Mosque.
Now I had to move on to the Gawhara Palace (Qasr al-Jawhara, also known as the Bijou Palace, but popularly referred to as The Jewel Palace), which is located near the front of the main door of the Mosque. Qasr Al Gawhara was built by Mohamed Ali in 1814 to house his administration and to receive guests, and as a personal residence. It was basically the government house at that time.
It was named for Gawhara Hanem, the last of Mohamed Ali's wives. The popular name, the Jewel Palace, is a bit misleading. There are few jewels on display here. The name actually derives from the fact that it was used as a museum for the jewels of the Khedives after the 1952 revolution. However, it was gutted by fire in 1972 when thieves attempted to steal the jewels.
Today, it is one of the best 19th century Ottoman constructs in Egypt with Ottoman decoration. However, the palace actually combines elements of Ottoman and European palace plans, dividing the private quarters of the family from the reception areas. The ornamental program borrows heavily from European models. However, it should also be noted that parts of the Jewel Palace are being restored in an overall plan to restore the whole.
Its collections include 19th century royal portraits, costumes and furnishings, along with some truly amazing treasures. It also includes a small garden leading to a mosque with one of the more interesting eccentricities being the Watch Hall, where the shape of a watch has been used to decorated the walls.
Upon entering the palace, the first thing one sees is a huge mirror in a gold plated frame and pedestal. This was put there so the guests could examine themselves when entering the Palace and fix their appearance, such as making any adjustments to their clothing, hat or hair. Then, one would have to take the stairs to the second floor where another huge mirror can be found. Here, there are portraits of the rulers of Egypt from the time of Mohammad Ali and later, along with depictions of life in Egypt during the Ottoman Period. But what perhaps caught my eye the most were the gleaming white statues of angels attached to the walls, which make them appear to be flying about.
The third floor is the main guests' hall. It contains the golden throne of Mohammed Ali in the throne room, which is elevated above the remainder of the floor. The throne itself is made of ebony and covered by gold. It was a present to the King from Italy, and remains one of the finest thrones in the world. Some say that its only rival is the peacock throne that belonged to the Shah of Iran.
To the right and the left of the hall, there are many chairs where court officials and guests would once have been seated in the presence of the king. This is truly what one would expect of such a place, with wonderful red carpets on the floor and huge lamps hanging form the ceiling. At the end of the hall, there is an Arabian style sofa in the shape of a rectangle where guests would sit while awaiting an audience with the king. It has a huge golden fountain in the middle and a big portrait on the wall. There is also an open air hall in the middle of the palace that was used in celebrating different events during the Ottomans period. It is decorated in the Islamic style with big, heavy doors all around.
Another part of the palace is known as the Kusha hall. The Kusha is supported by four gilded columns, linked from above by a gilded network. The thrones of the bride and bridegroom are placed under the columns. Among the items on display in the hall are a wedding photo, crystals and watches dating back to the 18th century, and a French styled salon.
During his first years ruling Egypt, Mohamed Ali had to fight the Mamluks in order to have full authority over Egypt. So it was to this palace that he invited the Mamluks leaders to a feast celebrate his son, Tusun Pasha, appointment to lead an army being sent against the Wahhabi rebellion in Arabia. Mohammad Ali let the Mamluks have their feast, but on the way out, Mohamed Ali and his soldiers trapped them in a section of the palace and assassinated just about every one of the leaders in one of the most famous incidents in modern Egyptian history.
Just in front of the Gawhara Palace and the Mohamed Ali Mosque is a vast open area that some people refer to as the Cairo View. As the name implies, it offers a grand view of Cairo, but particularly the Islamic monuments. Today, kids were running all about this open area, which seems to be a fine playground while the adults look out to try to spot their homes, hotels or other landmarks. A huge fountain stands in the middle of this open area, where water once gushed from the mouths of lions. This is indeed a nice place to take in Cairo after a stroll through the Gawhara Palace.
A view of Cairo from the Citadel