Third Millennium Library







VISITORS to modern Cairo see very little of Saladin’s capital. Besides the three ancient gates, three ruined mosques, and part of the old walls, nothing remains of the city he traversed when he first rode out from the Fatimid palace at the head of his guard. The most conspicuous feature of the present Cairo, the Citadel, with its slender Turkish minarets and commanding battlements, did not exist: only a rounded spur of Mount Mukattam suggested the place where a fortress should be built. Most of the wide expanse, now covered by the European houses of the Ismailiya quarter, between the Ezbektya and the river, was under water; for in Saladin’s day the Nile ran much further east and almost washed the city wall at the part where the river-suburb of al-Maks then stood, Bulak and its island were not as yet risen above the surface of the water, and there was no Abbasiya suburb on the north. Houses and streets indeed stretched then, as now, beyond the old Zuweyla Gate, towards the south, as far as the chapel of “our lady Nefisah”, and there were many buildings or ruins of former habitations beyond this, where we now see only hill after hill of rubbish-heaps smothered in sand — the melancholy memorials of what was once the stately city, bowered in gardens, of old Fustat, and still older Babylon.

These suburbs and ruins were not then part of Cairo. The real Cairo, the city of the Fatimid Caliphs, was never more than an immense royal castle, called “The Victorious”, al-Kahira, the Cahere of William of Tyre, which Italians corrupted into our modern Cairo. It was also known as “the city”  al-Medina, and it was founded, in 969, expressly for the residence of the Caliph and his vast harem and slave-household, with quarters round his palace for the separate brigades of his army, the vizier and officers of state, and the departments of government. The spacious enclosure of the castle, guarded by massive walls and imposing Norman-like gates, was forbidden ground to all but high functionaries of state. Even ambassadors of foreign powers were required to dismount outside, and were led to the Caliph's presence by both their hands in the manner of the old Byzantine and the medieval Ottoman courts.

The chief buildings were the “Great East Palace”, the Caliph's personal residence, where he kept his women, children, slaves, eunuchs and servants, estimated at from eighteen to thirty thousand in number, and the “Lesser West Palace”, or pleasure-house, which opened on the spacious garden of Kafur, where a meydan or hippodrome provided exercise for the court. The two were separated by the square called “Betwixt the Palaces” where as many as ten thousand troops could parade; the name is still preserved in part of the Suk-en-Nah-hasin or Coppersmiths’Market. An underground passage connected the two palaces, by which the Caliph could pass without violating that mysterious seclusion which was part of his sacred character.

Hard by were the mausoleum where lay the bones of his Fatimid ancestors, brought from far Kayrawan; and the mosque (el-Azhar) where the Caliph was wont to lead the Friday prayers as Prince and Preceptor of the Faithful; and near this, the Arab historian remarks, as if it were a common architectural feature, was “the well into which the Caliph used to throw the slain”. The people believed that something more valuable than corpses of murdered caliphs, slaves, or disgraced favorites, was hidden in its gloomy depths; but when they searched for gold and precious stones, they were supernaturally repelled; and since no man can safely contend with “the Jinn”, the well was filled up, lest worse should happen.

Of the size and splendor of the Great Palace the Arabic historians speak with bated breath. We read of four thousand chambers;—of the Golden Gate which opened to the Golden Hall, a gorgeous pavilion where the Caliph, seated on his golden throne, surrounded by his chamberlains and gentlemen in waiting (generally Greeks or Sudanis), surveyed from behind a screen of golden filigree the festivals of Islam;—of the Emerald Hall with its beautiful pillars of marble;—the Great Divan, where he sat in state on Mondays and Thursdays, at a window beneath a cupola,—the same window, perhaps, under which Dirgham stood suppliant in his downfall;—and the sakifa or Porch, where the Caliph listened every evening, while the oppressed and wronged came below and cried aloud the credo of the Shiites, till he heard their griefs and gave orders for their redress. The historians say little of the splendor within the palace, but some idea may be formed of its treasures by the marvels observed by Hugh of Caesarea, and from the statement that among the amazing wealth of jewels and precious stones which Saladin discovered on the death of el-Adid were an emerald four fingers long, and a ruby known as “the Mountain”, the weight of which, in our terms, was over 2400 carats (“I have seen and weighed it myself”, says Ibn-al-Athir). The wealth of the Fatimids in jewels and works of the goldsmith’s art had long been proverbial. In the inventory of the treasures of one of these Caliphs we read of quantities of emeralds and pearls, cut crystal vases, chased and enameled gold plate; coffers inlaid with designs in gold; furniture and ornaments of sandalwood, ebony, and ivory, adorned with precious stones; cups and pitchers of fine porcelain filled with camphor and musk; metal mirrors framed in silver and gold with borders of emeralds and carnelian; tables of sardonyx; countless vessels of bronze inlaid with silver and gold; tapestry, silk, and brocade, heavy with gold embroidery, and adorned with the portraits of kings.

Of all the treasures that he found, Saladin kept nothing for himself. Some he distributed among his followers, or presented to Nur-al-Din; the glorious library of 120,000 manuscript volumes he gave to his learned chancellor the Qady al-Fadil; the rest of the treasure was sold for the public purse. Nor did it suit his simple and austere mode of life to take up his residence in the stately palace of the late Caliph. Silkeji divans and “Pavilions of Pearls” were nothing to him. He remained in the “House of the Vizier”, and gave up the Great Palace to the captains of his army, allotting the western pleasure-house to his brother al-Adil. No longer a royal residence, the beautiful mansions of the Fatimids gradually fell into decay. “O censurer of my love for the sons of Fatima”, cried Omara the poet of the Yemen, “join in my tears over the desolate halls of the twin Palaces!” One of the doorkeepers remarked that he had seen no wood brought in, and no rubbish thrown out, for a long time; and when the woodwork is used for fuel and the refuse is left to accumulate, the end of a building is not far off.

So it happens that not a vestige remains of these once splendid palaces, which were the wonder and envy of princes.

Outside the  city  or castle of Cairo there was a large population to the south-west, and when Saladin rode forth to visit the holy tomb of the Imam al-Shafi in the desert, he passed by the sites of three earlier capitals. Going out of the Zuweyla gate, he would first traverse the comparatively recent quarters which had sprung up since the building of the royal and official city; he would pass by the ruins of the Mansuriya, out of which he had smoked the rebel Blacks like a nest of hornets. Further on, the “Lake of the Elephant”, long since dried up, would be on his right, whilst on the left the craggy spurs of the Mukattam range prompted the building of the citadel which he afterwards began. All the way his road lay through the crowded suburbs of the populace, whose houses covered the site where once had stood the famous city of “the Wards” (al-Katai), where Ibn-Tulun three centuries before had kept his kingly state.

Al-Katai was, like the city of Cairo, essentially an official capital, and was inhabited chiefly by the king and his court, his soldiers, and his purveyors, each class in a separate ward. It was the third capital built since the Arabs conquered Egypt, and of all its magnificence nothing remains but the ruined mosque of Ibn-Tulun, of which the grandeur and admirable designs reveal something of what has been lost. Beyond, still to the south-west, once stood al-Askar, the Camp, another official centre, where the governors dwelt who were sent from Baghdad to rule Egypt in the days when the Abbasid Caliph held undivided sway from the borders of India to the Atlantic Ocean. Furthest south of all, between the Abyssinians’ Lake and the Nile, lay what remained of the oldest capital of Mohammedan Egypt, at once the official centre and the metropolis of commerce, called al-Fustat, “the Tent”, in memory of the pavilion of the Arab conqueror. In spite of the devastations of the great fire of 1168, the inhabitants had begun to return to their ruined homes and were trying to re-people the desolate streets. But Fustat never recovered its lost prosperity, when its bazaars were renowned for wealth and commerce, and its houses reared their six stories aloft, and gardens of fruit and flowers stretched all around. Now nothing remains but the old Mosque of Amr, so often repaired and altered that its founder would not know it, and the Roman fortress of Babylon, the “Castle of the Beacon” of the Arabs, now a hive of Coptic churches served by Coptic drones, but once the guardian of a busy Christian city, the ancient and populous “Babylon of Egypt”.  The scanty suburb of Old Cairo, or Masr-al-Atika, is not a relic of Fustat, for it stands on ground which was covered by the Nile in the days when Fustat was a city.

The history of the capital of Egypt under its Mohammedan rulers had thus been a series of transplantings from the south to the north-east. First al-Fustaty “the Tent”, was founded by Amr the conqueror in 641; then al-Askar “the Camp”, was built, as a government centre, on the site of the camp of the Abbasid general in 750; thirdly, al-Qatai “the Wards”, was laid out, still further to the north-east, in 869, by Ahmad ibn Tulun, as the capital of his dynasty; and lastly, in 969, Johar, the general of the Fatimid Caliph of Kayrawan, after annexing Egypt, founded al-Kahira “the Victorious”, as a fortified residence for his master.

Saladin carried on the tradition of building, in which every great eastern ruler took pride; but, instead of pushing the capital still further to the north-east, he sought to unite the sites of all the four capitals, and to build a Citadel—the famous “Castle of the Mountain” — on the westernmost spur of Mount Mukattam, to be the centre of government and to form a military stronghold capable of overawing the whole city and resisting assaults from outside. His plan was to connect this fortress by a bastioned wall with the old fortifications of the Fatimid “city”, and to extend it so as to enclose the site of Fustat and Katai, and thus to sweep round to the river; but the plan was not completed, and even the Citadel was not finished till long after his death. Saladin’s enlargement of the area of the city was accompanied by the demolition of whole suburbs between the old city  and the shrine of Nefisah. These were replaced by pleasure gardens, and it is recorded that the tall Zuweyla gate could be seen from the door of Ibn-Tulun’s mosque. Jehan Thenaud, who accompanied an embassy from Louis XII to Cairo at a later period, found these gardens still a striking feature of the city:

"moult somptueulx et grans jardins plains de tous fruictiers: comme cytrons, lymons, citrulles, oranges, aubercotz, cassiers et pommes de musez ou d'Adam pour ce que Ton diet estre le fruict duquel Adam oul trepassa ie commandement de Dieu. Lesquelz jardins tous les soirs et matins sont arrousez de Teau du Nil que tirent beufz et chevaulx."

Traces of some of these pleasure grounds may even now be seen from the battlements of the Citadel.

It has been supposed that Saladin designed the Citadel of Cairo to protect himself against a possible insurrection of the partisans of the late dynasty. A sufficient explanation, however, is found in his early associations: every Syrian city had its citadel or fortress, and experience had shown many a time that the town might be taken whilst the citadel remained impregnable, a refuge for the people and a means of recuperation. Therefore Cairo must have a citadel too. It might soon be needed as a tower of defense against his liege-lord Nur-al-Din himself. Saladin had propitiated the King of Syria with presents from the treasures of the Fatimid palace; prayers were offered for him as sovereign lord every Friday in the mosques, above all in the great mosque of el-Hakim, which now supplanted the Azhar as the chief mosque of the city; and his name appeared on the coins struck by Saladin at Cairo. But in spite of this nominal subjection and the absence of all symbols of personal sovereignty, Saladin was virtually his own master; and supported as he was by a strong army commanded by his brothers and nephews, he was in fact King of Egypt.

Nur-al-Din was well aware of this, but his difficulties with the Franks, with the Seljuk Sultan of Rum, and with various contentious rulers in Mesopotamia, left him no leisure to clip the wings of his vassal in Egypt. He could not even count upon Saladin's cooperation in the Holy War; for, whether rightly or wrongly it is difficult to decide, Saladin was convinced that if once his suzerain had the chance of seizing his person, there would be an end of his power; and nothing could induce him to venture within Nur-al-Din’s reach. Not only this, but he seems to have carried this dread so far that he preferred to have the Franks on his borders as an obstacle to Nur-al-Din’s advance.

1171. Siege of Mont Real

An instance occurred immediately after the death of the Egyptian Caliph. Amalric was absent at Constantinople, concerting further measures against the Saracens with his wife’s uncle, the Emperor Manuel Comnenus; and Saladin, probably acting on orders from Damascus, seized the opportunity for an attack upon Mont Real (al-Shaubak), an irritating little fortress built by Baldwin I in 1115. Its glittering white battlements crowned a hill clothed with olives, and its gardens of apricots below formed a delicious oasis in the desert south of the Dead Sea. But it stood like a sentinel on the frontier between Syria and Egypt, and commanded the caravan road between the two countries to the perpetual annoyance of their commerce. To hold it or destroy it was for many years an object dear to Saladin, but it constantly eluded his grasp. On this first attempt he set out on the 21st of September, 1171, and established his leaguer round the white walls with little opposition. Indeed after a brief defense the garrison asked for an armistice of ten days, to arrange terms of capitulation, or more probably to gain time for rescue. During this interval Nur-ed-din himself left Damascus to join his Egyptian viceroy; whereupon Saladin broke up his camp and retreated to Cairo.

Writing to his liege-lord he pleaded a convenient rumor of a conspiracy in favor of the late dynasty as an excuse for his sudden retreat. It was true, but insufficient; his brothers were fully competent to deal with the rising of the Blacks in Upper Egypt.

Nur-al-Din was not deceived, and resolved to invade Egypt and make an end of such contumacy.

Rumors of the coming attack soon reached Cairo, and an anxious council was held by the family of Ayyub and the leading captains of the army, to whom Saladin communicated the news. There was a dead silence. Then a fiery young nephew, Taki-al-Din Omar, spoke up: “If Nur-al-Din comes”, said he, “we will fight him and drive him out of the land”. But Ayyub, prudent and sagacious as ever, sternly rebuked the hot-headed youngster, and turning to Saladin said:

“I am thy father, and here is Shihab-al-Din thy mother’s brother: bethink thee, is there one in this assembly who loves thee and desires thy welfare as we do?”

“No, by Allah !” exclaimed Saladin.

“Know then”, said Ayyub, “that if I and thine uncle were to meet Nur-al-Din, nothing could stop our dismounting and kissing the ground at his feet. Even should he bid us cut off thy head with the sword, we should do it. From this, judge what others would do. All whom thou seest here, and all the troops, must needs do homage to Nur-al-Din, should he come. This land is his, and if he would depose thee, we must instantly obey. This therefore is my counsel: write to him, and say: News has reached me that you intend to lead an expedition to this country; but what need is there for this? Let my lord but send hither a courier on a dromedary, to lead me to you by a turban about my neck; no one here will offer to resist”. Then he dismissed the meeting: “Retire and leave us. We are Nur-al-Din’s mamelukes and slaves, and he may do with us as he chooses”. All this was said for effect, for Ayyub knew that some of the jealous emirs would be sure to write and report the whole proceedings to Damascus. When he was alone with his son, he took him to task for letting the officers see his secret ambition, and reiterated his conviction that not a man of the army would dare to take up arms against the King of Syria, and that the only prudent course was conciliation. He repeated the message he proposed before, and then added: “When he reads this he will give up his project. Meanwhile time is on our side, and every moment God is doing something”. Then the old warrior broke out: “By Allah! if Nur-al-Din attempted to take but a sugar-cane of ours, myself should fight him to the death!”

 Saladin followed his father's counsel, and, as Ayyub had foreseen, the King thought it wise to accept the message of submission, — without risking the experiment of the dromedary.

1173] Siege of Karak.

The reality of Saladin’s obedience was soon put to the test. In May or June, 1173, he set out, by Nur-ed-din’s instructions, to lay siege to Karak.

This celebrated fortress, north of Mont Real, and close to the southern extremity of the Dead Sea, was also on the caravan route, the very key of Syria, and a perpetual thorn in the side of the Saracens. It stood, and still stands, on the site of Kir Moab, which, in the days of Mesha, repelled the attack of Jehoshaphat, King of Judah; and it nobly sustained its tradition. “The Crow’s Castle”, as the Arabs called it, was rebuilt on Roman foundations by Payen, King Fulk’s cupbearer, on a lofty hill of the range of Mount Seir, nearly three thousand feet above the sea, and overlooking a fertile valley, warmed by hot springs, where fruits grew in abundance. The position and the strength of the fortifications, the towers of which, carved with lions, may still be seen, made the fortress almost unassailable: a deep moat divided it from the town below, which was also fortified, and whence access was obtained to the castle only by two steep and narrow tunnels cut in the living rock. A sheer precipice defended the east side. In its general construction it was a typical Crusading fortress; and, well supplied with water and provisions, it resisted siege after siege.

Saladin was not destined to take it yet. Scarcely had he begun to skirmish with the enemy’s outposts, when the news came that Nur-al-Din, as arranged beforehand, was approaching with his Syrian army. Up to this, Saladin had seemingly braced himself up to meet his suzerain, but at the last moment his heart failed him. He feared a snare, and hastily beat a retreat to Egypt. His excuse was valid enough — the illness of his father, whom he had left in command at Cairo, and whose death might entail a revolution. Nur-al-Din took the desertion in good part, saying, “The holding of Egypt is our paramount object”. As it was, Saladin returned too late to see his father alive. Ayyub had been thrown from his horse outside the Gate of Victory, whilst taking his daily ride to exercise his troops, and died on the 9th of August, before his son’s arrival. The loss of his politic sagacity could not easily be replaced.

1172-3] Conquest of Tripoli and the Sudan

Saladin was well aware that, in spite of smooth words, Nur-al-Din still cherished feelings the reverse of friendly towards him, and he cast about for a safe refuge in the event of the threatened invasion. He continued to strengthen the fortifications of Cairo, to increase his army, and to accumulate stores and arms; but he was far from confident in his ability to resist an attack from Syria, and he turned his mind to preparing a place of retreat in case he were forced to abandon Egypt. He had already conquered the provinces on the African coast, Barka and Tripoli, as far as Kabis (Gabes), in an expedition commanded by a second Karakush (not the builder of the citadel of Cairo) in 1172-3; but this strip of territory was too open to invasion by sea and land to offer a secure asylum, and the expedition was undertaken chiefly in order to keep his numerous troops occupied, and to supply them with fresh booty and prize-money.

The same objects, and the removal of intriguing officers to a safer distance, as well as the castigation of the still rebellious Blacks, no doubt prompted in some measure the expedition which he sent into the Sudan about the beginning of 1173; but in this he had a deeper design. If Egypt proved untenable, then the Sudan, or perhaps southern Arabia, might serve as a place of retreat, whither Nur-al-Din would not be likely to follow. The Sudan, however, proved anything but a desirable sanctuary. Saladin’s elder brother, Turan Shah, a brave and dashing soldier, but rash, and unstable as water, successfully accomplished his immediate object, reduced the Blacks to submission, and occupied Ibrim, as has been related.

But to live permanently in a country which produced nothing but maize, and where the only occupation was fighting and enslaving an irreconcilable population under a blazing sun, was not at all to his mind, so he returned to Cairo with a caravan of slaves, and reported that the Sudan would not answer Saladin’s purpose.

There remained the resource of Arabia. Omara, a poet and historian of the Yemen, then living at Cairo, exhausted the refinements of language in extolling the beauty and fertility of his native land, renowned in antiquity as Arabia Felix. It was afterwards believed that his enthusiasm was partly dictated by a wish to remove so fierce and warlike a leader as Turan Shah to a distance before a conspiracy that was hatching came to the birth. The poet’s representations, however, which were true enough, were taken in good faith, and Turan Shah organized a well-found expedition, which left Egypt on the 5th of February, 1 174, for Mecca, on its march to the Yemen. There he was joined by a powerful Arab chief, and the two made short work of the resistance of the Yemenites. Zebid, Jened, Aden, Sana, and the other strongholds fell one after the other, in May to August, and Turan Shah established his seat of government at Taizz and ruled Arabia Felix until his return to his brother early in 1176.

The province remained under the authority of the Ayyubid dynasty for fifty-five years, but was never put to its intended use as a refuge from the vengeance of Nur-al-Din.

Meanwhile insurrection and intrigue had troubled the serenity of Egypt. The plot was ripening of which Omara was believed to be the instigator. A number of Egyptians and Sudanis, and even some of the Turkman officers and troops, joined in the conspiracy; the Kings of Sicily and Jerusalem were engaged to assist by promises of gold and territory; and preparations were a-foot for a combined attack by sea and land, in which Saladin was to be enmeshed.

Fortunately the whole plan was betrayed to the intended victim by a divine to whom the conspirators had unwisely confided their secret. Saladin waited until his information was fully confirmed, and then swooped down upon the plotters, seized the leaders, including the too political poet, and had them all crucified on the 6th of April, 11 74. The revolting Egyptians and black slaves were exiled to Upper Egypt.

1174] Sicilians Besiege Alexandria

The sea attack, which was to have supported the Cairo conspiracy, did not take place till the late summer. The Franks of Palestine did not move when they heard that the plot had failed; but the King of Sicily, less well-informed, dispatched a large fleet, estimated at 282 vessels, which arrived off Alexandria on the 28th of July. The inhabitants of the scanty garrison were completely taken by surprise, but they tried to resist the landing, which was nevertheless effected near the pharos. The catapults and mangonels which the Sicilians had brought were soon playing upon the curtain of the city walls, and the defenders were obliged to fight desperately all the first day till night fell, to resist the storming parties.

The next day the Christians advanced their machines close up to the walls, but reinforcements had joined the garrison from the neighboring villages, and again the attack was beaten off. On the third day, there was a vigorous sortie: the machines were burnt, the enemy lost severely, and the garrison returned flushed with triumph. Scarcely were they within the gates, when an express arrived from Saladin, to whom they had sent for support. The courier had ridden from Cairo that same day with relays of horses, and, reaching Alexandria between three and four in the afternoon, loudly proclaimed the approach of Saladin’s army. The tidings put fresh heart into the defenders, and they rushed out again in the gathering darkness, fell upon the camp of the Sicilians, and drove them, some to the ships, some into the sea. The news that Saladin was on the march finished the fiasco: the Sicilians slipped their moorings and fled, as suddenly as they had come.

The danger from the Franks was over, but it had been very grave. Nevertheless the Sicilian invasion, the conspiracy at Cairo, and the insurrection up the Nile, weighed nothing in the balance against the important news which had been brought from Syria. The greatest of dangers was past, the greatest of rivals was no longer formidable; for on the 15th of May the Sultan of Syria lay dead.