An Ultimate Guide to the Cairo Citadel (By A Local!)
The Cairo Citadel boasts Egypt’s most iconic mosque and a medieval fortress built by Saladin perched on a hilltop overlooking the old city.
The citadel is an absolute must-see on your Cairo itinerary for its impressive mosque and medieval stone fortress with its gateways, towers and museums.
Perched in the Muqattam Hills, the citadel has brilliant views over historic Cairo and its minarets. You can even spot the pyramids on a clear day.
But set aside a few hours for your visit because the citadel is a vast complex that takes awhile to access and walk through.
As an expat living for years in Cairo, I visit the citadel numerous times – and I always discover something new.
This is my ultimate local’s guide to the Cairo Citadel – and all my insider tips to navigate the complex with ease.
Main attractions you shouldn’t miss:
The Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque
the views at the terrace
the citadel fortress
Use this handy map for your visit – or print it out and take it with you:
And you’re ready to start!
The Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Start at the beautiful Ottoman-style Mosque of Muhammad Ali – it’s the iconic centerpiece of the citadel. Known as the Alabaster Mosque, the mosque has walls coated with alabaster and a gleaming white courtyard that gives the impression of immense space.
The mosque towers over the complex and its silhouette is one of the symbols of Cairo. It dominates the city’s eastern skyline – and it’s beautifully illuminated at night.
Mohammad Ali Pasha built this mosque from 1830 to 1848 as a declaration to his Ottoman overlords of Egypt’s newfound independence. Built in the Turkish imperial style with two soaring 82-metre minarets, the impressive structure was meant to symbolize sovereignty.
Known as the “father of modern Egypt,” Mohammad Ali was a reformer who wanted to distance himself from the influence of six centuries of Mamluk rule. Various Mamluk palaces and buildings were demolished to make way for Mohammad Ali’s new mosque.
The mosque courtyard
Enter through the large, open-air courtyard that’s lined with 46 beautiful windows – some with great views of the city.
The courtyard has an octagonal Turkish baroque ablution fountain covered by a leaded domed canopy. This fountain was created for washing before prayers. And it contains some painted landscape scenes inside the domed roof.
And don’t miss the elaborate French clock above. It was gifted to Mohammad Ali in 1845 by French King Luis Philip in exchange for the obelisk that now stands at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
Though it wasn’t a very good trade. The French clock has never really worked properly.
The interior of the mosque is lavish with intricate alabaster walls, low-hanging lanterns, red carpets – and plenty of gold. It can hold up to 6,500 people.
It has a high, ornate domed ceiling with a central dome surrounded by four small semicircular domes.
There are 6 medallions around the dome that include the names of God, the Prophet Mohamed and the four caliphs, or the “rightly guided” rulers who reigned right after Mohamed (Abou Bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali).
An ornate wooden minbar is decorated with gilded ornaments. This is the pulpit from which the imam preaches Friday sermons. The second smaller marble minbar was a gift to the mosque in 1939 from King Farouk.
There’s also a white marble tomb of Mohammad Ali adorned with floral motifs and gilded inscriptions.
Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque
Across the street from the courtyard – and dating some 200 years before Ottoman rule – stands the mosque of Mamluk Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad.
The mosque’s outer walls look plain. Unlike many mosques in Cairo, they’re not very richly decorated. But inside, this 14th-century mosque is packed with history.
It was once the city’s royal mosque and choice spot for the sultans’ Friday prayers, build partly with limestone pillaged from the pyramids. Today it’s the only remaining trace of Mamluk rule at the citadel that wasn’t wiped out by Muhammad Ali.
Al-Nasir Muhammad built this splendid mosque in 1318 during the longest of his three reigns. He was a prolific builder responsible for many public works – and one of Egypt’s greatest sultans who saw his country grow as a political power.
Though he didn’t exactly look like a sultan. He was described as short, with a lame foot and cataract eyes. Yet he was loved by his people.
The mosque was regarded as one of Cairo’s most splendid mosques up until the 16th century. But then the dome over the prayer niche collapsed. And then Ottoman conqueror Sultan Selim I carried off the marble panels to Constantinople.
The dome is supported by granite columns taken from ancient Egyptian temples. You can spot a few Ancient Egyptian and Roman features.
There’s also some influence from the Mongols of Persia in the green mosaics and the garlic-shaped dome that tops one of the minarets.
For the voracious sightseer, the less-visited Sulayman Pasha Mosque is also worth a quick look.
It’s the first Ottoman-style mosque built in Egypt. Established in 1528 by Sulayman Pasha, a Hungarian eunoch, it was made for the jannisaries stationed at the citadel.
The views at the terrace
There are some great views of Cairo from the Citadel’s terrace.
You can even spot the pyramids on a clear day.
Directly in front, you’ll spot the enormous facade of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan and al-Rifai next door. The Mosque of Ibn Tulun is off in the distance, along with Bab Zuwaila, Al Azhar and other landmarks.
The citadel fortress
You’ll likely get the best views of Saladin’s immense medieval fortress – aka the actual citadel – from outside the complex. You’ll spot the walls and some gates on your way to and from the complex.
Many rules through the centuries have expanded and embellished the citadel. But Saladin’s original walls still stand – built partly from stones taken from Giza’s minor pyramids.
The citadel has 4 gates and about 13 towers. When you’re visiting the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, you’ll get some good views of the fortress and the Mohammed Ali Mosque off in the distance. Note the enormous Bab al-Azab gateway (pictured above) as you’re standing in the square in front of the Sultan Hassan Mosque.
It’s there that Muhammad Ali (an Albanian mercenary) invited the remaining Mamluk rulers to a banquet at the Citadel. Then as they were leaving through Bab al-Azab, he had them all shot down.
The event is known as the Massacre at the Citadel – and it’s still surrounded by stories and legends. The nearby Darb al-Ahmar (The Red Road) gets its name from the Mamluk blood that flowed through there and couldn’t be washed away.
On a lighter note: for another spectacular view of the citadel, head to Azhar Park. Have dinner at Studio Misr for some good Egyptian classics with views of the citadel and Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Stay for the evening to see the citadel illuminated over the city.
Built by Saladin in 1176-82 to protect Cairo from the threat of Crusaders, the Citadel housed Egypt’s rulers for 700 years from the 13th to the 19th century.
And it all started with Saladin himself. After helping the Fatimids fight off the Crusaders, Saladin seized control from the Fatimids and claimed Egypt for himself.
Mohammed Ali was actually the last ruler based at the citadel. Before him, the Ayyubids, Mamluks and most Ottomans ruled over Egypt from this hilltop.
But then Khedive Ismail moved his residency to Abdeen Palace in the 1870s in his newly-built (and Paris-inspired) downtown Cairo. The citadel became a military garrison and the British army was barracked there during WWII.
There are a few small, dusty museums that are worth a look if you’re a history buff – and if they’re open.
The Royal Vehicle Museum holds different vehicles used by Mohammed Ali’s family during official events, including one from the opening of the Suez Canal.
TheMilitary Museum that chronicles Egypt’s military history from Ancient Egypt to modern times. It includes an outdoor area with a collection of old cannons, artillery guns and tanks. The building was once the Harim Palace, Muhammad Ali’s luxurious private residence. You can still see the elaborate ceilings and frescoes in many of the rooms.
The Police Museum is housed in the Citadel’s former prison and has exhibits about famous political assassinations.
The Archaeological Garden Museum is a 9,000-metre collection of columns, crowns and decorations from the medieval and Ottoman eras.
The Gawhara Palace, used as a personal residence by Muhammad Ali, includes gold inscriptions and Ottoman-style majesty mixed with Turkish and European baroque. It houses Muhammad Ali’s gilded wood throne, and a 1,000-kilogram chandelier. It’s also the site where Muhammad Ali waited as the Mamluks were being massacred below.
Before your visit:
Keep in mind the Cairo Citadel is a sprawling tourist destination. It’s not a working mosque where you’ll see much daily city life. Be prepared for school children on field trips asking to take a photo with you. For some reason this often happens at the Citadel.
Set aside a few hours for your visit.And hire a tour guide if you want to get all the detailed history – or take this map if you want to tackle it alone.
Do you need a tour guide? If you read up on the citadel before your visit – and if you enjoy exploring on your own (like I do) – then the citadel is perfectly doable without a guide. If you do hire a tour guide, then book one online. Though you’ll find plenty of “unofficial guides” wandering around the citadel offering their services. They can get persistent, but a firm la shukran (no thank you) usually works.
Head coverings are not necessary at any of the mosques – they’re monuments and don’t function for everyday prayers. Do take your shoes off, however.
Toilets are near the Al-Nasir Mosque. Give the cleaning women a small tip – and bring your own toilet paper if you’re not a bidet user.
Need to know:
Getting there: Take an Uber or a Careem. Avoid the white street taxis especially if you’re a tourist or don’t speak Arabic. Type in Salah Al-Din Al-Ayoubi Castle as your destination – that’s what the citadel is called on Google Maps.
Once you arrive, hike up to the ticket booth. The Citadel is perched on a hill that you’ll have to climb because Ubers will drop you off at street level (on the busy Salah Salem Street) and they can’t enter higher. If you’re visiting in summer then go early to avoid that uphill climb in the heat.
Tickets: 200 EGP per adult, 100 EGP per student with valid ID. Tickets are sold at the entrance and there’s no need to book ahead.