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Jasmine Dispatch

Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee


Of all of the historical sites to visit, the Citadel in Islamic Cairo, is by far the most awesome landmark I have seen. During a period of about 700 years, from the 12th to 19th century, this medieval fortress stood high above Medan Salah ad-Din, the central square in Islamic Cairo, with full command of power throughout Egypt. Today, the Citadel is a monument to those fearless (and often reckless) rulers of the past. But to thousands of people who live in Islamic Cairo today, it is their heritage, the story of their roots

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The Citadel stands as a powerful landmark of Egypt's past

As I walked down the streets of Islamic Cairo, I suddenly found myself transported several centuries back to a Cairo that time seemed to have forgotten about. Against a back drop of shambled shacks, donkeys hauled carts of goods down heavily crowded streets smelling of spices sold by street merchants. The cobblestone streets that paved my way through were out of a Cinderella Fairytale. The labyrinth of back alleyways and small passageways was more than enough to get me lost on more than one occasion. Eventually, I began to follow the crowd. It was Friday, the Holy Day, and the muezzin singing on the loud speakers throughout the city meant it was time for prayer. Men were pouring out of shops and apartment buildings, all headed in the same direction, so I followed them.

Lucky guess! They led me straight to the Citadel. The sky was lined with beautiful minarets, including two of the tallest in all of Cairo, and splendid mosques loomed high above us all. The exotic smells from the streets below became lost in the overpowering stench of car exhaust, as I headed up the hill toward the massive fortress. If it were not for the pollution, one might be mistaken for the Cairo of Salah al-Din or Shagarat ad-Durr. To offset the surrounding architectural grandeur even further was the city's rampant poverty. In the shadows of these magnificent, old buildings, one found a surplus of suffering poor.

Did I just hear someone ask, "So who were Salah al-Din and Shagarat ad-Durr anyway?" Yes, I suppose I did. Now that's a great question with some very interesting answers. Remember I mentioned that rulers often times were reckless, power hungry, and brutal? Well, Salah al-Din and Shagarat ad-Durr were two of the pioneers of this tradition.

It began sometime around 1099, when the Fatimids were the rulers of Egypt and most of the surrounding territories. It was under this powerful dynasty that a Greek architect named Gawar spent four years designing the new city of Al-Qahira, or Cairo, for his sultan. While Cairo prospered, other territories belonging to Egypt's ruling Fatimid caliphs were snatched from them, little by little, over the next 150 years.

In this state of ruling vulnerability, Christian Crusaders from Western Europe charged in to claim the Holy City of Jerusalem from the Fatimids in 1099. Shortly thereafter, in 1109, the Lebanese City of Tripoli was plucked away from the already badly scavenged Fatimid empire. The Christians cleaned up in 1153, taking all of Palestine into their possession. Instead of resisting the Christians any further, the Fatimids decided to cooperate with them.

Catching wind of this decision, the neighboring Muslims of Syria became disgruntled and sent in Salah al-Din to crush Christian rule and restore Muslim control. Successful in scaring off the Christians, Salah al-Din took up residence in a palace contained within the formidable walls of the Citadel, an enormous fortress he had built to protect Cairo from its Christian invaders. Salah al-Din's takeover brought about the end of Egypt's Fatimid Dynasty and the beginning of the Ayubidds, one which ruled Egypt from 1169 to 1252, a time in which Salah al-Din was able to drive the Christians out of Jerusalem.

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Jasmine perched on the Citadel wall in front of a spectacular view of Islamic Cairo.

I stood in the place where Salah al-Dins rode in his chariot. All around me were gardens and beautifully crafted Mosques exquisitely decorated with high arching hallways and intricately carved ceilings. Unlike most museums or landmarks, the Citadel is still used by the locals much like it was probably used hundreds of years ago. Families sat together with friends for afternoon picnics on the grass. Men and boys were engrossed in the competition of numerous soccer games going on all over the grounds, couples sat at the lookout points talking and laughing, and older people slowly made their way in and out of the mosques for prayer. I imagined a striking contrast, between now and then, was the air of safety and tranquillity that I could only guess wasn't there before; especially not after the Mamluks came into power.

A product of Salah al-Din's rule was the Mamluk, a hired mercenary. Sold as boys by their families, Mamluks were trained to fight and defend the ruling Sultan. When a Mamluk served for a certain number of years he was then rewarded with his freedom and a patch of land. Many Mamluks, having been raised and trained to fight, were dissatisfied with this retirement package, and went off to assert themselves into positions of power and influence within the state.

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larger view
High ceilings and hallways of the Citadel were beautifully designed.

Still it wasn't until Shagarat ad-Durr that the Mamluks were able to succeed the throne. Shagarat ad-Durr, the first and only female Muslim ruler in history, was married to the last Ayyubid caliph, successor to Salah al-Din, Sultan Salih Ayyub. During this transition of power, the Nile Delta fell to the Christian Crusaders who were then preparing an ever more ambitious attack on Cairo, knowing that its ruler, Ayub, was seriously ill and about to die. The cunning Shagarat ad-Durr, however, was able to keep Ayub's death a secret, and thereby postpone the impending Christian invasion. In the mean time, Shagarat ad-Durr waited for her son to arrive and take over the rule before Ayub's death could become news. And when her son finally did arrive, she had him killed, finding him to be a hopeless ruler.

With her son out of the way, Shagarat ad-Dur decided to take over the rule, declaring herself the Sultana of Egypt. She ruled for 80 days before she was told that her power was unrecognizable because she was a woman. In response, she married a Mamluk, and was able to rule along side of him. Later, she secretly had him assassinated for being unfaithful, a secret that shortly became public and led to her gruesome death: the town's women beat Shagarat ad-Dur to death with wooden clogs. Some of her bodily remains can be found in her Mausoleum just down the hill from the Citadel.

Over the next seven hundred years, numerous sultans came to rule through the Citadel. Each one built a Mosque, a Madrassa (Theological school), or a Palace in his namesake. The most famous of these is the Alabaster Mosque, constructed during the time of Mohammed Ali, the Citadel's last residing ruler. Like a magnet I was drawn to this beautiful creation. The most spectacular features of this mosque are its huge dome and half-dome ceilings and its tall, slim minarets. Inside the mosque, my enchantment departed, expecting the grand artistry of the mosque's exterior to follow through to its interior. But, instead I found barren walls. It turns out that the inside is meant to be stark and barren, so as not to distract its worshippers' concentration in prayer. Interestingly, this mosque now stands exactly where the Mamluk monuments of Sallah al-Din and Shagarat ad-Dur once did. The scope of Mohamed Ali's destruction of Mamluk influence throughout Egypt, as far as history can tell, only just began in the grounds of the Citadel.
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Ancient rulers weren't as friendly as these Egyptian guys that I met at the Citadel!

Though "Float like a butterfly sting like a bee," is a quote from the present day boxer Mohammed Ali, and not the Sultan of old, it equally applies to them both. The two have a great deal in common. They are both fierce conquerors, trail blazers, charismatic leaders, and legends in their own time. While I didn't meet any Mohammed Alis during my trip through Islamic Cairo, I was invited to a picnic or two; unfortunately I so graciously declined, you never know! No, I'm kidding, I had a great time, I met beautiful people and wished only that ancient times could have been just as peaceful.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - From Slaves to Sultans: Shagarat ad-Durr and the Mamluks
Kavitha - Big, Black Cloud over Cairo

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