In 1160, the leadership of Egypt was in shambles. The power of the last Fatimid caliph, Al-Adid, had waned considerably, so much so that his own vizier, Shawar, was able to take de facto control of the government. To make matters worse, the country was under constant threat from the Crusader States to the Northeast, as well as the Zengids from Syria.
Shawar addressed these issues by playing a balancing act between these rival factions. In 1163, he invited a Zengid army to Cairo to support him in a power struggle with another rival. This expeditionary force, headed by Shirkuh, was successful in their mission and restored Shawar to power. However, soon after, Shawar besieged the Zengid army with the help of the Crusaders. The army left Egypt, but would soon return.
In 1167 the army was invited back, this time by the Caliph Al-Adid, to fight against the Crusaders. Shawar changed sides numerous times throughout the campaign, but eventually the Crusaders were repelled and Shirkuh rode into Cairo in 1169, and promptly had the untrustworthy vizier executed. The caliph made him vizier in his place, but Shirkuh died of natural causes just two months later. The position fell to the nephew of Shirkuh, one who had rode with him on both campaigns. At this point, the young Salah al-Din al-Ayyub, was little known, but he would be remembered as one of history’s great leaders, and in Europe he would become known as Saladin.
Salah al-Din was vizier for just two years, before Al-Adid also died of natural causes. In that time, however, he had worked to undermine the Fatimid dynasty, and upon the Caliph’s death he declared the Fatimids finished, and himself the Sultan of Egypt. He aligned the country with the Caliphate in Baghdad, and abandoned Shiism for Sunnism. His reign and that of his predecessors (The Ayyubids) was to last just under a century, but would be remembered as one of the most influential in the history of Cairo.
One of the major projects Salah al-Din embarked on was the construction of a great defensive wall. He said of this project: “With a wall I will make the two cities into a unique whole so that one army may defend them both; and I believe it good to encircle them with a single wall from the bank of the Nile to the bank of the Nile.” This was a mammoth task, a wall equal in width and height to the walls of Al-Qahira, but to stretch a total of 20km. We are told that to build this wall, many pyramids in Giza were deconstructed for building materials. The wall, in fact, took so long to build that neither Salah al-Din nor his son saw its completion, 45 years after the Sultan’s death.
On the Southeaster corner, where the wall from Al Qahira met the wall from Fustat, Salah al-Din began work on the building he would become best remembered by. Legend has it that when Salah al-Din decided to build his citadel, he hung meat up in different places, and found that the meat in the hills of Muqattam stayed fresh the longest. This proving where the air was freshest, so he chose to build his fortress here. However, it is more likely that he chose this site for more practical reasons. Elevated above the entire city, from this spot he could watch over Al-Qahira, and could not be touched with medieval siege weaponry. Again, the Sultan did not live to see his Citadel completed, and never resided there. More to the point, neither the fortress not the walls were ever used to defend the city. By the time the Ottomans invaded in the 16th century, they had fallen into disrepair and were of no use.
The Citadel stands today much as it ever did. Over the generations new towers were built and the walls were strengthened. The original buildings with the fortress have changed over the years, and pride of place is now given the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, built just less than two centuries ago. It is no longer possible to see all of the walls. The lower third is now buried, and a project to recover them has stalled in recent years. But in recent years, a worse fate has befallen the citadels of Syria, on which Salah al-Din’s fortress was modelled.
Unlike most other dynasties in Islamic Egyptian history, the Ayyubids did not build great mosques. They followed the Sunni school of Shafi’i, who declared that each quarter could have but one congregational mosque. For this reason, the Ayyubids are remembered for building tombs, mausoleums, and introducing the madrassa on a large scale to Egypt. In these religious schools, the Shafi’i law of Islam was taught. Only one madrassa survives to this day. The duel minaretted madrassa of Qasaba can be found in Islamic Cairo, close to the covered market of Khan al-Khalili. The 1800-year-old tomb of Imam Al-Shafi’i himself, can also be found, in the City of the Dead, just southwest of the Citadel.
The ruler who marked the end of the Ayyubid dynasty is as fascinating as the first. The Sultan Al-Salih bought the Mamluk slave Shagarat al-Durr for his harem early into his reign. He soon fell in love with her, and freed her from the harem, making her his wife. He began to involve her directly with the running of the country when, in 1249, he fell sick fighting the Crusaders in the northeast. Before he died, he got a message to his wife, asking her to keep order over Egypt until their son, Turan Shah, could return from fighting to take the throne. She was able to keep his death silent, and when his body was returned she kept it secretly in his castle on Rawdah Island for two months. Although a Mamluk herself, she did not trust the slave soldiers in charge of the army.
When her son returned, they were able to bury the father, and crown the new king. However, Turan quickly began to marginalise his mother, and showed little respect for the Mamluk generals. Early into his reign, a group of Mamluks assassinated the new king. With the blessing of the Mamluks, the mother then appointed herself Sultana, the last female ruler in Egyptian history.
The Caliph of Baghdad was less happy about the arrangement than the Mamluks. He declared that a woman could not rule Egypt alone, and Shagar was forced to take a Mamluk husband, with whom she was to share power. Her loyalties never wavered though, and upon becoming Sultana, she soon commissioned a mausoleum for her late husband.
But her reign ended in tragedy. The man, whom she married, began to exclude her from power and ignore their previous power sharing agreement. He made moves to take a new wife, which would have seriously undermined her position. She decided to have him assassinated, which was done successfully. The Mamluk leadership, however, took the side of the late king and had her arrested. She was imprisoned in the residence of the former king, where she was brutally murdered by the women of his harem, beating her to death with wooden slippers. Her body was dropped from the balcony and left half-naked on the floor below for days, before receiving a proper burial.
This was the bitter end of the Ayyub dynasty. The slave soldiers of Egypt had now taken formal control of the country. They left their headquarters in the Nile – or the bahr – and moved into the Citadel. This marked the beginning of a new chapter in Cairo’s history: the rule of the Bahri Mamluks.
Edmund Bower is a freelance journalist and assistant editor of the Maadi Messenger. He can be found at www.edmundsbower.wordpress.com and tweets @edmund_bower
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