Saladin (Salah ad-din al Ayyubi) the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty (1174-1260) is one of the greatest sovereigns in the history of Islam. In 1171, he managed to put an end to the Shiite Fatimid caliphate in Cairo (979-1171), to re-establish Sunnism in Egypt and obtained the investiture from the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. On 5th July 1187, after the famous battle of Hattin which took place to the west of Lake Tiberias, he regained the city of Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
The Ayyubids reigned in Egypt, Syria and Upper Mesopotamia (1174 to 1260) and extended their power as far as Yemen.
The Crusaders occupied Syria and Palestine from 1098 to 1291 and founded a Kingdom in Jerusalem in 1099.
Since they seized Ascalon in 1153, the last Fatimid bastion in Palestine, the way to the country of the Nile was left open. Amaury, the king of Jerusalem, made the most of the confusion which prevailed in Cairo and using the non-payment of the annual tribute by the Fatimids as a pretext, invaded the country. But this invasion was soon curtailed but nevertheless revealed the Crusaders' real intention which was the occupation of Egypt.
After several campaigns between 1164 and 1169, Saladin became the undisputed master of Egypt (1171) and started strengthening its defences. He built one of the biggest citadels in the world in Cairo already in 1166.
The very same year when he re-conquered Jerusalem from the crusaders in 1187, he ordered two citadels to be repaired in Egypt, one in Wadi ar-Rahla which disappeared in the meantime and the other one in al-Gundi where some ruins are still left 20 km from the Suez-Taba route in the open Sinaï desert.
The road taken by Saladin to free the Pharaoh's island citadel"Leaving Cairo, he followed the Darb ach-Cha'awi as far as the north of Suez where he started to cross the Sinaï by following the Wadi ar-Rahia (where he ordered the construction of a citadel in 1183). He reached the al-Gundi citadel where he turned east towards the mountain of al-Munaydira, then al-Badhi, then to the right as far as the crossing of the Wadi al-Arissa and Bir Om Said. He crossed several valleys as far as Bir at-Tamr and Wadi Tawaba until he arrived finally in front of Pharaoh's island in the middle of the Gulf of Aqaba where the fortress was occupied by the Crusaders from whom he seized the fortress.
1°) The al-Gundi citadel
It occupies a strategic position between Suez and Aqaba along a very important route which for centuries had been the land route for trade, pilgrimage and for military purposes and which connected the two gulfs (Suez and Aqaba).
It is built on a steep, 285 m high escarpment, difficult to climb especially on the northern and north-western side (where the danger came from). It rises on a plateau which itself is 645 m above sea level.
It was supplied with drinking water from the Ayn Sadr source which was at a distance of 5 km or through run-off waters (there was a small dam to the north) or through the big cisterns dug in the ground.
The building material was basically limestone which was easy to work in the area and a kind of mortar, found near the run-off waters.
Description A 5 to 6 m ditch separates it from the ravine whose shape it takes, that of an irregular rectangle. Extending from north-east to south-west over a lengh of between 100 and 150 m with a maximum width of 120 m, it is surrounded by a 2 m thick wall reinforced at regular intervals with square and round towers.It is opened by a monumental square door crowned with a limestone archstone whose keystone bears an inscription in the name of Allah. There is another inscription in nashki which says:- the name of the founder: Salah ad-din Ab'l Mudhafar Yussuf Ibn Ayub Ibn Khalil, emir of the believers (Saladin)- the name of the builder: Ibrahim Ibn Abi Bahr and his son- date of building: Jumada II 538/1187-nature of the works: two towers, the door and the mosque.A courtyard is surrounded by several halls to accommodate the guardians and other halls for service purposes. On the western side (20,5 m x 11,30 m) is a meeting room covered with vaults borne by pointed arches. There are two further prayer rooms, one in ruins and the other one relatively well preserved (12 m x 6 m) with a beautiful Mirhab niche enhanced with decorations, namely an epigraphy.There are three underground cisterns; one to the west (6 m x 10 m x 5,5 m) dated by an inscription from the time of Saladin (Rajab 581/1189). These three cisterns are in a perfect state of conservation.
In the light of the inscriptions on the monument, it seems that Saladin only tackled an old citadel and consolidated its north-western façade, especially the entrance flanked by two towers and added a mosque. The work is thought to have started with the mosque and its cistern in Rajab 581/1185 and to have been completed with the door and the two towers in Jumada II 583/1187.
2°) The citadel on Pharaoh's island
About 250 m from the bank of the Taba, at the tip of the Gulf, covering a surface area of approx. 2200 m (65 m x 32,5 m), it was of undoubted strategic importance. It controlled the traffic between the three banks of the Gulf of Aqaba; from the north coming from Palestine and Syria, from the east from the Arab Peninsula and from the west from Sinaï and from Egypt. It was important from at least the Byzantine era (the remains of a Byzantine church from the time of Justinian VI are still visible lower down). It grew even more in importance during the Moslem period with the development of the pilgrimage to Mecca then when the Christian kingdoms were set up in Palestine and Syria in 1099.
The Crusaders built a fortress there and exacted a ransom from the passing pilgrims until Saladin decided to seize it in 1171 at the same time as Aqaba. He then ordered the fortress to be consolidated and redeveloped.
When the Crusades came to an end (1291) and a pilgrims' road was built passing through Eilat, it seems to have lost its importance and may even have been abandoned. Great restoration and development works were carried out in 1986.
Inside the tall walls flanked by still well preserved towers, with a rampart and battlements, on two storeys there is a succession of architectural units belonging to different periods of the XIIth century, including:
-a fortified entrance
-a residence of the citadel's governor
-a hammam with three rooms and a water supply system
-oven for baking bread
-lined cisterns dug in the rock
-a mosque with its mihrab
-a big meeting room
-numerous cells on the storey for the guards
-a pigeonry for the post
-a workshop to produce arrow tips, dated by a foundation inscription from the time of Saladin