Sailing ships cutting through the waters of the Mediterranean Sea mourned the destruction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. A series of events caused serious damage to the Lighthouse and eventually, a powerful earthquake in the 14th century led to its complete destruction.
Sailors longed for guidance afterwards, and the famous Qaitbay Fortress did not disappoint. The Qaitbay Fortress or Citadel as you may call it, is located at the entrance of the Eastern harbor on the Eastern part of the Pharos Island in the Governorate of Alexandria, Egypt.
So, how can you get to Qaitbay Fort?
1. In Alexandria for the day:
If you’ve come to Alexandria for the day and arrived there using the train. Then you might like to get a taxi that will take you all the way from the Railway Station at Kom Ad Dakah Gharb, through Al-Attarin, cruising through 26th July/ El-Gaish Road.
The road which parallels the Alexandrian Corniche gives you a view of the sea all along the way until you reach Qaitbay Square, all in just 16 minutes. From there you can take the remainder of the road on foot, casually swinging by Ice Cream Azza, which is only like the best ice cream you’ll ever taste.
2. Staying in Alexandria for some time:
If you’re in the city for some time and are located in Sidi Gaber, the information desk at your hotel of choice would recommend the most suitable means of transportation to match your requirements. They might offer private transportation from the hotel that will take you all the way to the entrance of the Qaitbay Citadel.
If you’d like to live the experience like Alexandrians do, the hotel might suggest you easily catch the bus at the Sidi Gaber Bus Station. The trip only lasts 26 minutes, also using the main El-Gaish Road.
Qaitbay Fort – History Snippet
Taking off from whichever means of transportation you used, you will start to get this mighty feeling as you inch closer to the huge fortress. The seemingly small building from afar, enormous up close was established by Sultan Qaitbay in 88 AH/ 1477 AD. An inscription on the huge metal plate greeting you at the main gate of the fort entrance states its building and it only took two years to finish.
Sultan Qaitbay’s order to build this beautiful fortress proved how he could foresee the future. The fortress served to protect the shores of Alexandria against attacks by the Turks who posed the strongest threat to the Egyptian borders during the Mameluke period.
Sultan Qaitbay – Founder of the Fortress
Sultan Abu Al-Nasr Sayf ad-Din Al-Ashraf Qaitbay is shortly known throughout history as Sultan Qaitbay. He was the Burji Mamluke Sultan of Egypt from 872 to 901 on the Hijri Calendar (1468 to 1496 C.E).
Born in Great Circassia of the Caucasus between 1416 and 1418, his unrivaled archery skills caught the eye of a slave merchant, who later sold him to Sultan Barsbay. Qaitbay served as a member of the palace guard and was later freed by Sultan Jaqmaq, after learning Qaitbay was a descendant of the Ayyubid Sultan Al-Ashraf.
Qaitbay ascended quickly through the military ranks, until he was appointed atabak, or field marshal of the entire Mamluke army. During all that time, he accumulated enough personal wealth that enabled him to establish many projects when he became sultan, without draining the sultanate’s treasury.
The ascension of Qaitbay to the throne came after a coup that overthrew his predecessor Timuburgha. The various court factions later agreed on Qaitbay as a compromise candidate accepted by all factions. Securing a dignified dethroning of Timuburgha, exiling the leaders of the coup, Qaitbay began his rule by appointing rivals in opposite positions to prevent any of them from accumulating power.
The reign of Qaitbay is generally characterized by stability, politically and economically. Despite the military campaigns he engaged in, Qaitbay is most remembered for his architectural projects. Buildings that stood in the face of time bear his name, in Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Damascus and Aleppo, not just in Egypt’s Cairo and Alexandria.
Qaitbay’s architectural patronage is perhaps only comparable and second to that of Al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun. He built a spectacular mausoleum, where he was buried, as part of a funeral complex in Cairo’s northern cemetery. In additional to buildings bearing his signature in Rosetta and Alexandria, he sponsored the building of Fountain of Qaitbay in Jerusalem’s Haram esh-Sharif.
Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghuri was Qaitbay’s successor after his death and after 5 years of political instability. The new Sultan visited the citadel several times, ordered the strengthening of its garrison and even issued a military decree forbidding taking weapons out of the citadel. Alas, the city of Alexandria fell into the hands of the very threat Mamluke Sultans feared the most and worked hard to fend off; the Ottomans.
Qaitbay Fort – From the Ottoman Rule to the British Bombardment
The Turks took care of the Citadel when they invaded Egypt and used it for shelter, along with the citadel of Saladin in Cairo and those of Damietta, Rosetta, Al-Borollos and El-Arish. They enhanced its military power with infantry, artillery, a selection of trumpeters and drummers, masons and carpenters.
The Citadel began to lose its military importance afterwards. The weakening state of the Ottoman Empire led to the fall of the Citadel into the hands of the French troops, who were said to have found some crusader weapons inside the Citadel dating back to the campaign of Louis IX.
This mighty Citadel lived its prime years during the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt and his successors. As a result of the Orabi Revolution in 1882, battles broke on the streets of Alexandria. The ignoring of the ultimatum given by the British fleet resulted in the bombing of the city.
The British bombardment of the city of Alexandria caused massive damage to the Citadel and its surrounding area. Cannons were aimed directly at the structure of the citadel. The Citadel remained neglected after the bombardment, with its damaged north façade and an entirely destroyed western one.
Qaitbay Fort – Restoration Efforts
The state of the Citadel fluctuated as King Farouk intended to turn it into a royal residence. This resulted in a huge renovation process, except that these efforts came to a halt when the 1952 Revolution took place. The Egyptian Naval troops turned the Citadel into a Maritime Museum before The Egyptian Antiquities Organization started restoring the Citadel in 1984, making it the biggest restoration plan of the Citadel to date.
Structure of the Qaitbay Fort
Stepping through the outside walls of the Citadel you are greeted by six canons, three on each side of you. At the end of the road ahead, you can see the designated entrance to the three story square tower with four semi-circle defense towers at each angle of the main tower. The towers contain openings that allowed archers to target the approaching enemies.
Another two plates, yet made of marble, greet you at the entrance of the main tower. The first plate gives a brief description of the building; “Square building located in the North-East of the Citadel, 17meters height, 30 meters width, of three levels.
In the first, the Citadel Mosque. In the second, galleries and chambers for military residence. In the third, stores for weapons and the commander cabinet.”
The second marble plate states the date of reopening the Citadel as a Maritime Museum in 1966. The Maritime Museum was inaugurated during the presidency of the revolutionary President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The inauguration was part of the celebrations of the anniversary of the 1952 Revolution.
Interior of the Qaitbay Fort
Upon entering the main tower of the Citadel you are greeted by wafts of history oozing from the various sides of the building. A maquette of the original design of the Citadel as it was first built dominates the room you walk into.
The recent building bears little resemblance to the original one, most notably the complete destruction of the mosque’s minaret which was blasted off by the British forces. As you wander through the various pathways, both wide and narrow you will find several identification plates.
There’s “The Oil Fallout: which serves as a means of connecting the first and second floors, and was also used to pour hot oil on enemies.”
Taking up more than half of the space of the first floor is The Mosque, which is the second oldest mosque in Alexandria. It was designed according to the Mamluke style; an open square called sahn surrounded by four small Iwans representing the four schools of Islamic religion.
You could imagine the soldiers taking turns in patrols as you run your fingers across the narrow outside windows overlooking both the Citadel courtyard and the Mediterranean Sea on the other side. The cold nights in these stone-built secluded watch-rooms.
The Sultan would share the watch-out with his soldiers through his own chambers. Known as the Sultan Iwan, it was a wide room with two windows. One overlooking the Citadel courtyard which was used by the Garrison commander to follow military training. The other window enclosed in the north Sultan Iwan was used by the Sultan to watch ships that were a day away from the shore.
A dark Game of Thrones vibe will run down your spine as you find yourself in a long corridor lined with dark rooms that once served as prisons for any of the unfortunate who thought of taking any sort of military supplies away from the Citadel when the Ottoman invasion loomed in the air.
This vibe is quickly dispersed when you find yourself in a round room; The Room of The Mill. As the name suggests, was a room used for the grinding of seeds and making bread and food for the soldiers.
Before heading out to the north façade, you will pass by a reservoir which is now surrounded by metal rods to prevent anyone falling inside as they looked through the pout. Out through, the majestic scene of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will greet you as you head to the outside of the north wall. The Bibliotheca is another Alexandrian monument that you must never miss out on.
You can stand still for a moment taking in the atmosphere of the entire Citadel as you close your eyes, sit between the openings of the north wall and breathe in the salty sea air; a favorite sitting spot.
The angry sea waves hitting the seemingly random rocks beneath you, somehow manage to pull all the negative thinking from your mind, drowning the depressing ideas that filled your head and in exchange replacing them with fresh breaths and calmer attitude.
You can get lost with the sea waves giving your back to the Citadel courtyard or you could even stand in front of that historic scene and take the best photographs you can think of.
Whether it’s to learn about the significance of such a solemn structure and its historical importance, living a fictional adventure through the rooms of the main tower or simply surrendering your thoughts to the sea, the Qaitbay Fort has something to offer you. It welcomes you every day from 8 am to 5 pm.
Have you ever been to Qaitbay Fort before? Let me leave you with some artistic shots I took during my visit there!