The fortifications of Alexandria
in the medieval and Ottoman periods

Few vestiges still exist in present-day Alexandria of the fortifications that protected its inhabitants for almost two millennia. The best-known monument to the ancient defensive system is Qaitbay Fort, built in the 15th century, which stands at the entrance to the Eastern Harbour. Other structures that recall the city’s military past can be found in Shallalat Gardens. The most prominent of these is a tall, free-standing tower that once marked the north-east corner of the medieval double wall. When the Municipality demolished the adjacent curtain walls at the beginning of the 20th century, it was decided to preserve the tower as a feature of the gardens. A similar medieval tower can be seen by the modern football stadium: what was once the south-east corner tower of the medieval wall has been set into the masonry of the stadium enclosure. Finally, a cartridge factory, known as Tabiyet Nahassin, and an enormous solid bastion belonging to the fortifications erected in the mid-19th century in front of the medieval wall can also be visited in Shallalat Gardens.

In 1975, excavations conducted by the Graeco-Roman Museum of Alexandria revealed a section of the western part of the medieval wall, complete with a postern gate. Not far from this site, on the hill of Kom el-Nadoura between the two harbours, one can visit the remains of a Napoleonic fortress, evidence the French army’s presence at the end of the 18th century.

These remains of Alexandria’s ancient defensive system represent an important research area in the study of the history of Medieval and Ottoman Alexandria. Since 1994, the CEAlex team has been carrying out underwater excavations at the foot of Qaitbay Fort. Excavations on land in the fort and studies of the buildings have provided valuable information. In 2019, excavations were carried out along the line of the medieval wall in front of Tabiyet Nahassin, which has been the CEAlex’s archaeological storehouse since 1998.

Fortifications of the town: walls, waterfront forts and towers

Like all ancient cities, Alexandria was equipped from its foundation with powerful fortifications to protect it from enemy attacks arriving from both sea and land. However, with the Arab conquest in 642 AD and the creation of a new capital inland at Fustat, the number of inhabitants of the old port city began to decline considerably and the residential areas furthest from the two harbours gradually emptied.

By the 9th century, the ancient walls had become too large to be adequately defended during a siege. Under the reign of Ibn Tulun, a new wall was built with a smaller perimeter, abandoning the depopulated areas to the east and south of the old town. This medieval wall, punctuated by defensive towers, underwent numerous restorations in subsequent eras. The Fatimids reinforced the city gates, while the Ayyubids built the forward wall of the defences and founded several Sufi strongholds on the peninsula between the two harbours. The Mamluks improved the Eastern Harbour defences with several new forts, and the Ottomans did the same in the Western Harbour. The engineers of Napoleon’s army established a multitude of forts, redoubts and batteries on the surrounding coastline and in the city itself. The last major modernisation of Alexandria’s fortifications took place in the mid-19th century with bastions added to the eastern curve of the Toulunid wall and the construction of several pentagonal forts on the coast.

However, the wall and most of the forts would give way to the expansion of the city and were dismantled for the most part at the beginning of the 20th century.

Further reading

Kathrin Machinek sur

K. Machinek, «  L’eau dans les fortifications  », in I. Hairy (éd.), Du Nil à Alexandrie. Histoires d’eaux, catalogue d’exposition, Alexandrie, 2011, p.  590-609.

K. Machinek, «  Aperçu sur les fortifications médiévales d’Alexandrie. Histoire, architecture et archéologie  », in M. Eychenne, A. Zouache (éd.), La guerre dans le Proche-Orient  : État de la question, lieux communs, nouvelles approches, RAPH  37, Le Caire, Damas, 2015, p.  363-394.

K. Machinek 2015 sous presse, «  Evliya Celebi  : ein türkischer Blick auf die mittelalterlichen Wehrbauten des Orients im 17. Jahrhundert  », colloque Burg, Stadt und Kriegführung im 17. Jahrhundert, Oberfell, 06-08 novembre 2015.

K. Machinek 2018 sous presse, «Alexandria – Ottoman fortifications in a Mediterranean trading town  », Colloque Fortifications of the Ottoman period in the Aegean, Mytilene, Tuesday 30th October –Wednesday 31st October.

Qaitbay Fort: a case study

Fort Qaitbay stands on the tip of a spit of land at the entrance to Alexandria’s Eastern Harbour. This was once the site of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, which collapsed in 1303 following a violent earthquake. In 1477, the Mamluk sultan el-Ashraf Qaitbay visited the site and built a a tall square tower using blocks from the ruined lighthouse. The tower was defended by an enclosure that Qaitbay equipped with four artillery pieces. The main purpose of the new fort was to protect the harbour and the town from the numerous corsair raids and from the Ottomans, who had been a growing threat since the capture of Constantinople in 1453.

Since this military structure was essential to the protection of the city, the new fort underwent various restorations and adaptations to ballistic innovations over the following centuries. The Mamluks reinforced the original enclosure with a forward wall and enlarged the keep, while the Ottomans built artillery platforms and accommodation for the Janissaries and their families. These civilian housing units were demolished by Napoleonic engineers in 1798. In the mid-19th century, the fort was transformed into a modern bastioned fortification with casemate firing chambers and new barracks.

The fort came to an end as a military structure in 1882 when the British bombarded the revolutionaries led by Orabi. Despite being listed as an Islamic monument in 1887, the fort remained in ruins for almost 60 years. The main tower was finally rebuilt in 1938 and the enclosing wall in the 1950s.

In 1984, the Ministry of Antiquities carried out major restoration work on the fort, which was subsequently opened to the public. In 2001-2002, during further restoration work, the CEAlex was able to carry out archaeological soundings, architectural surveys and a study of the buildings.

Further reading:

Kathrin Machinek sur

K. Machinek, «  Sondages archéologiques au fort Qaitbay à Alexandrie  », in Chr. Décobert, J.-Y. Empereur (éd.), Alexandrie médiévale 3, ÉtAlex 16, Le Caire, 2008, p.  347-367.

M. Fior, Cl. Lacher, G. Nogara, Ph. Speiser, «  La forteresse du sultan Qaitbay à Alexandrie  », in Chr. Décobert, J.-Y. Empereur (éd.), Alexandrie médiévale 3, ÉtAlex 16, Le Caire, 2008, p. 313-346.

K. Machinek, Le fort Qaitbay, Les petits guides d’Alexandrie, Alexandrie, 2009, édition en anglais, arabe et français.

K. Machinek, Das Fort Qaitbay in Alexandria – Baugeschichte und Architektur einer mamlukischen Hafenfestung im mittelalterlichen Stadtbefestigungssystem von Alexandria ; thèse de doctorat, soutenue à la Faculté d’Architecture de l’Université de Karlsruhe (KIT) en 2014.

K. Machinek, «  Hygiene in islamischen Festungsbauten  », in O. Wagener (éd.), Aborte im Mittelalter und der Frühen Neuzeit – Bauforschung, Archäologie, Kulturgeschichte, Studien zur internationalen Architektur- und Kunstgeschichte 117, Petersberg, 2014, p.  292-301.