Qaitbay Castle... the guardian of Northern Egypt

Qaitbay Castle... the guardian of Northern Egypt

"Who will protect Egypt from the invaders of the North...the Ottomans in the East and the Europeans in the West." These were the words of Sultan Al-Ashraf Abu Al-Nasr Qaitbay, standing on the shores of Alexandria, looking at its ruins after it suffered from a devastating earthquake. He ordered the construction of this fortress to fortify and protect Alexandria from external attacks, specifically from the Ottoman Empire, which had begun to shift its conquests from Europe to the East. The Sultan aimed to fortify Egypt's borders, and after two years of construction in 884 AH/1497 CE, this fortress was completed on an area of approximately 17,555 square meters using solid limestone. The tower was reinforced with some marble columns remaining from the lighthouse. The outer walls, inner walls, and main tower were built on this area to increase the fortress's strength. These walls were built with massive stones. As for the external plan of the fortress, it first includes outer walls that surround the fortress's area on all four sides. The eastern side faces directly onto the sea with a width of about two meters and a height of about eight meters. This wall does not support any towers and most parts have collapsed but have been recently restored. The western side overlooks the old eastern port and includes three prominent semi-circular towers equipped with arrow openings. This side is considered one of the oldest surviving parts of this wall as a whole and contains the main entrance to the fortress at its southwestern end.

As for the northern side, it directly overlooks the sea and consists of two parts. The lower part is a large corridor that extends along the wall from east to west, called the coastal corridors. It was built directly on the natural rock and has square openings, each containing a knotted opening that overlooks the outside and was used as gun ports. There are twenty such openings, and the western end of this side is occupied by the stable for horses. The upper part of this side consists of narrow openings overlooking the sea and used as arrow slits. This side has been recently restored. The southern side is the most important for the external walls because it directly overlooks the eastern harbor and extends in a straight line from the eastern side to the western side, interspersed with three prominent round towers and narrow, knotted openings. The current entrance to the fortress is located in the middle of this side. 

The fortress also contains the octagonal tower, located on the external walls from the northwestern side. Its purpose was for monitoring and reinforcement, and it was the original entrance to the fortress, but it is not currently in use. It is located in the southwestern corner of the external wall and consists of a rectangular opening surrounded by a round tower on both sides that protrudes outward. This entrance leads to a passage or corridor for entering the fortress through a door that leads to the courtyard of the fortress, and other openings lead to the area between the two walls. This entrance is currently used by the Ministry of Scientific Research as a museum for mummies. The current entrance to the fortress is located in the middle of the southern side of the external walls, consisting of an opening topped by a straight lintel made of carved stone, and it is closed by a large wooden door with two leaves. Its interior face is in the form of a large semicircular knot, and it faces an opening that leads to the inner wall of the fortress, knotted with a semicircular knot that leads to a semi-cylindrical basement that is the middle of the row of rooms designated as quarters for soldiers, ending in the courtyard of the fortress. A marble panel with the Sultan's decree, issued by Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri in 907 AH / 1501 CE, warning against taking weapons out of the fortress, is located above this entrance.

The internal layout of the fortress consists of the inner walls, which were built of solid limestone blocks and surround the main tower on all sides except the northern side. These walls serve as a second line of defense to reinforce the main tower and are separated from the outer walls by a distance ranging from five to ten meters in some places. Later, a group of adjacent rectangular rooms was added to these walls, possibly dating back to the time of Muhammad Ali, and there are 36 of these rooms prepared for the residence and accommodation of soldiers. They open directly onto the courtyard of the fortress through doors with rectangular openings occupied by wooden doors on one side, and small openings in the shape of mashrabiya used for ventilation and lighting. Next to this door, there is a rectangular window opening with two wooden shutters that overlook the courtyard of the fortress for ventilation. The rooms are covered with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, and one of these rooms was prepared as a model for selling replicated archaeological models manufactured by the Institute of Archaeological Crafts belonging to the Antiquities Authority.

The main courtyard of the fortress consists of a large square courtyard that surrounds the main tower from the north side. Its eastern end is occupied by a twenty-two-step staircase that leads to the outer walls, while its southwestern end is occupied by a slide that leads to the outer walls as well. In the past, this courtyard was used to train soldiers in the art of combat, and it contained a group of cannons belonging to different eras and styles, such as the Armstrong howitzer. The cistern is one of the main elements included in the fortress and is located on the western side outside the main tower. It was discovered during the restoration work carried out in 1982-1984 and is built of red brick, covered by ten shallow domes supported by columns. Its width reaches approximately 4.5 cm, and its length is approximately 13.10 x 5.5 cm. The red mortar was used from the inside to strengthen its walls and preserve the water for the longest period of purity. The main purpose of this cistern was to store water for the longest period, as there was no permanent water source. It was filled with water carried by camels to the fortress, then emptied into the cistern. Rainwater was also collected through openings that lead to the cistern from the inside. This cistern was cleaned approximately every three months using an external ladder that leads to the cistern, and there is also another ladder inside the tower to facilitate the arrival of water to the tower.

The main tower of the fortress is located in the northeastern part inside the inner walls of the castle. It was built on the ruins of the Pharos of Alexandria and is a square-shaped building consisting of three floors with a length of 30 meters and a height of 17 meters. Its sides are oriented towards the original four directions, and each corner of the tower is occupied by a cylindrical tower that rises above the surface of the tower and is supported by twelve stone pillars. The diameter of each tower is approximately six meters, and each has three windows distributed around its outer perimeter at the same level as the windows of the main tower. The tower was reinforced with some of the remaining columns of the Pharos to support its walls. The current entrance to the tower is located in the south-facing facade, and it is a three-meter-wide entrance with a tapered arch covered with white marble decorated with geometric motifs. It is surrounded by stone corbels that rise to form two wall niches on each side, and a large rectangular stone door occupies the center of the entrance with a single lintel and a carved pediment above it. Two stone benches are located on either side of the door, each rising 80 centimeters above the level of the entrance floor. The north and east facades of the tower from the outside have a similar architectural layout to the main facade, and they are built of stone with constitutional replicas crowned with stone cornices and oval-shaped stone balconies.

The internal layout of the main tower consists of three floors with different plans and heights. The lowest floor has a height of 7.20 meters and consists of several important elements. The Darakah, which is the part that follows the entrance, is covered with white marble decorated with geometric motifs and is bordered by stone corbels that rise to form two wall niches on each side. The most important feature of this floor is the mosque for performing religious rituals for the soldiers stationed in the fortress. The mosque is designed in the form of a courtyard surrounded by iwans, and its courtyard floor is decorated with a beautiful star-shaped marble mosaic. The qibla iwan contains a mihrab surrounded by two marble columns. The northwest iwan opens onto a rectangular room that was used for storing mosque supplies such as mats and oil, while the northeast iwan opens onto a room used for the mosque's imam. This floor also contains a hallway that runs parallel to the north and west walls, and the western corridor contains a cylindrical well frame made of marble that leads to the reservoir outside the tower to facilitate the process of bringing water into the tower. The mill room is located in the southern corner of the western corridor, and it is a square-shaped room that was used for grinding the grains needed for the soldiers' food. The eastern corridor on the right side of the main entrance to the tower contains three small rectangular rooms. This floor also includes a stone staircase that leads to the second floor.

The three floors of the main tower in the Citadel are characterized by their effective military and defensive design, containing elements such as arrow slits, oil drops, observation rooms, and weapon storage. They also feature beautiful artistic design that reflects the culture and civilization of Islam at that time, such as the carved decorations on the walls, the geometrically patterned columns, and the cast glass windows. The Citadel as a whole, and the main tower in particular, are among the most important historical and tourist landmarks in the city of Alexandria, reflecting the city's history and culture and attracting visitors from all over the world.

The second floor is accessed through a high stone staircase and includes side corridors along the four sides, as well as sub-corridors connecting them to the corner towers. Arrow slits open in the walls of this floor, which were used to shoot arrows at the enemy. Small rooms surround a central axis that includes the central well, which rises above the mosque hall on the first floor. The south side of this floor includes the oil drop, which is a narrow rectangular opening above the main entrance of the tower, used as a defense mechanism by throwing boiling oil and flammable materials on the enemy in case of an attack. The "Shakshikha" (air vent) is also located in the middle of the southern side and was used as a means of communication between the first and second floors, as well as a means of defense if necessary.

The third floor is accessed through a high stone staircase and consists of a series of corridors surrounded by a group of square rooms, some of which overlook the outside through small rectangular openings (arrow slits), used as observation rooms, while others overlook the mosque courtyard through rectangular openings covered by wooden lattice. These rooms were used as barracks for soldiers and weapon storage. This floor also includes the main hall, which is located in the center of the southern facade and is called the "Sultan's Seat". This large hall is a rectangular room about five meters long and four meters wide, with a vaulted ceiling made of brick, supported by four attached arches. Two large rectangular windows are opened in the southern wall of this hall, each with a small stone frame, protruding about half a meter from the wall surface and supported by four stone brackets. Ibn Iyas describes this seat as "a seat overlooking the sea, from which one can see the procession of the Franks' ships entering the water." The minaret, which topped the main tower, also included the mosque and remained until the French campaign, but it disappeared due to the bombardment of the coasts of Alexandria during the British occupation of Egypt. This minaret consisted of three floors, which we know from drawings and pictures from the 18th and 19th centuries. The first floor was square in shape, with the first muezzin's balcony facing it. The second floor, which is smaller in size than the first, had the second muezzin's balcony facing it, while the third floor was cylindrical in shape, topped with a small ribbed dome.