Name of Monument:
Citadel of Qaytbay
Also known as:
Fortress of Qaytbay
The citadel is located on the spot where the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria once stood, which dated back to the year 279 BC. It is situated on the eastern edge of Pharos Island, which occupies an important site at the entrance to Alexandria’s Eastern Harbour. The ancient lighthouse of Alexandria was destroyed in an earthquake in AH 702 / AD 1303 and was restored by order of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun, who ruled three times (AH 693–4 / AD 1294–5; AH 698–708 / AD 1299–1309; AH 709–41 / AD 1309–40). The lighthouse was demolished entirely in AH 777 / AD 1375, Alexandria, Egypt
Date of Monument:
Hegira 884 / AD 1479
Period / Dynasty:
Sultan al-Ashraf Abu al-Nasr Qaytbay (r. AH 872–901 / AD 1468–96).
The Citadel of Qaytbay is considered to be one of the most important defensive fortifications on the Mediterranean coast. When Qaytbay visited the city of Alexandria in AH 882 / AD 1477 to survey its walls, towers and fortifications, he ordered the construction of a citadel to protect the most important ports on the coast of northern Egypt. He was compelled to do this in view of his realisation of growing Ottoman maritime domination, which posed a threat to many neighbouring states for fear that they might fall under Ottoman influence.
The citadel is surrounded by two walls: the outer wall and inner wall, which are made of large stones, conforming to the martial role of the citadel. The outer walls surround the citadel on four sides and reach a width of 2 m and a height of 8 m. The northern outer wall overlooks the sea and its lower reaches are characterised by a large roofed passageway which is divided into a number of square chambers intended for the storage and deployment of canon. The chambers were made in subsequent periods and each has an arched opening. The upper reaches of the northern wall are also characterised by a passageway, which has been largely destroyed. The inner walls surround the courtyard of the citadel on three sides and are separated from the outer walls by a distance that ranges from 5 m to 10 m. A number of small chambers are situated within these walls, which were used as soldiers' barracks, weapon arsenals and provisions' storerooms.
The principle tower (burg) of the citadel is located in the northeastern section of the courtyard. It is an imposing square building, the length of its sides measuring 30 m, and its height 17 m. In its four corners are circular towers. In addition, the walls of this principle tower contain a group of projecting balconies, each of which has a slit in the middle of the wall for shooting arrows. This architectural component resembles that of Burg al-Haddad, the tower which punctuates the walls of the Citadel of Salahal-Din al-Ayyubi in Cairo (built in AH 579 / AD 1184). The walls of the tower are crowned on the top by arched battlements. The main entrance of the tower is located in the centre of the southern side and is characterised by an arched opening, decorated with the blazon of Sultan Qaytbay. The tower consists of three stories. The citadel's mosque occupies more than half the area of the ground level. The second storey consists of small chambers connected by passages which might have been used to store weapons and provisions, while the third storey is characterised by the great hall (seat) that was designated for Sultan Qaytbay, who would sit and observe from it the movement of ships in the harbour.
Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri (r. AH 906–22 / AD 1501–16) undertook the restoration and repair of the citadel in the year AH 907 (AD 1501), a date confirmed by the marble plaque on the inner walls of the citadel. When the Ottoman Turks occupied Egypt in AH 922 / AD 1517, they used the citadel for their protection – as they did the Citadel of Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi in Cairo. They were interested in preserving it and placed troops of foot-soldiers, horsemen and artillery in it. The citadel continued to be preserved in its original architectural form until the French occupied Alexandria in AH 1213 / AD 1798, and the fortress fell into French hands. It was later revived by the interest of Muhammad Ali Pasha (r. AH 1220–64 / AD 1805–48), who renovated the buildings, restored the outer walls and supplied modern weaponry, especially coastal cannons.
The citadel continued to be an important strategic location of Muhammad Ali's successors until AH 1299 / AD 1882, when the Orabi Revolt took place in Egypt and the British navy bombarded the city of Alexandria, destroying its forts, damaging its defences and causing extensive damage and destruction to the citadel itself. The citadel was restored in 1982, and the High Council for Antiquities undertook the complete restoration of it in 2005.
View Short Description
It was built on the spot where the lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, once stood. Stones from the lighthouse lying in the area were used in building the citadel. It stands at one end of the Eastern Harbour. The main burg (tower) lies on the northeastern side of the courtyard.
How Monument was dated:
The building was dated based on historical sources (see bibliography below) that refer to two plaques fixed to the entrance of the main tower and that are inscribed with the names of the sponsors and the date of construction. The entrance still contains this specific inscription with the blazon of the builder.
Ibn Ayas, Abu al-Barakat Muhammad ibn Ahmad (d. 930 / 1524), Bada'i al-Zuhur fi waqa'i al-Duhur [The Wonders of Flowers Through the Events of Time], Cairo, 1894.
Mubarak, A., Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiya al-Jadida li Masr al-Qahira wa Mudunuha wa Biladiha al-Qadima [New Adaptive Plans for Egypt, its Cities and its Ancient Towns], Cairo, 1888.
Pasha, H., Madkhal ila al-Athar al-Islamiya [An Introduction to Islamic Monuments], Cairo, 1979.
Roberts, D., Egypt Nubia, London, 1896.
Taghri, Bardi, Jamal al-Din Abi al-Mahasin (d. 874 / 1469), Al-Nujum al-Zahira fi Muluk Misr wa al-Qahira [The Shining Stars in the Rulers of Egypt and Cairo], Cairo, 1942.
Citation of this web page:
Tarek Torky "Citadel of Qaytbay" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2021. 2021. https://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;eg;Mon01;10;en
Prepared by: Tarek Torky
Copyedited by: Majd Musa
Translation by: Amal Sachedina (from the Arabic).
Translation copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: ET 10