al-Qahirah Castle in Taiz: Between Reality and the Symbolic

al-Qahirah Castle sits on Mount Sabr overlooking the city of Taiz, and stands as an additional element to the beauty of the natural landscape that surrounds the city. The castle was mentioned in the writings of many travelers and historians, including Ibn Battuta (1377) and Yaqout al-Hamawi (1229). On the southern side of Taiz, the castle rises approximately 280 meters above the residential buildings of the city. Throughout its history, this has made it a strategic military location that all parties have battled for control of during conflicts. For this reason, al-Qahirah Castle has been one of the most important monuments damaged by the ongoing war in the city between the Houthis and the forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, on the one hand, and the internationally recognized government forces and other militias, on the other. The violence that the city of Taiz witnessed during the war has caused major damage to many important and historical districts and archaeological sites.

Since the beginning of the war in Taiz in March 2015, al-QahirahCastle has been under Houthi control. The Houthis were stationed there because of its strategic location, firing shells at civilians from its high position. From then on, the castle was turned into a military barracks and became an active target of the Arab Alliance, and was hit by numerous air strikes. Even as forces loyal to President Abdu Rabo Mansour Hadi regained control of the city in mid-August 2015, the castle remained a target of the Houthi forces. The castle’s entryways and corridors, once frequented by visitors and their families, were badly damaged. At the moment, the castle is under the control of Abu Abbas Brigade, now part of the 35th Armored Brigade. This current reality discourages people from visiting a tourist site that they used to visit regularly in the past.

Photo Courtesy of Mohammed al-Tawiji

Photo Courtesy of Mohammed al-Tawiji

Restoration project: The joy that never was

The project to restore al-Qahirah Castle and rebuild a new wall around it was launched by the local council in Taiz in 2002, and continued until the beginning of 2014. After its completion, the castle appeared anew, befitting its tourist status; this was despite the fact that the modifications were the subject of criticism among locals and specialists in Yemeni cultural and architectural history. Their main objection was the demolition of the ancient wall and its replacement with a new wall.

As we explored the city’s views from the castle, Wadee al-Shaibani told us that he often visited the castle before the war, whenever he had the chance to come to the center of the city. For Wadee, the castle is “a symbol of safety, glory and ancient history”.

As for the renovations, Wadee commented: “The restorations would have been good, if not for the excessive reconstruction that tore through the walls of the castle, destroying their archaeological value and erasing them from the original form and time they belong to.”

Regarding the strategic value of the castle, he reminded us that, “During the revolution in 2011, the castle, which was under the control of the former regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was used to attack the city and its neighborhoods with shells that hit most of the neighborhoods. A number of people were killed and wounded. Today, in the current war, the scenario is repeating again. As a result of Houthi control of the castle, the Arab coalition supporting the internationally recognized government continues to target the historic site with air strikes. This war rivalry has terrified the residents living around the castle, and they are in constant fear that the bombing will hit them.”

Salah al-Jundi, a resident of Jend province, 21 kilometers northeast of Taiz, said that when he was a high school student, he frequented the castle, despite its distance from his home. From Salah’s point of view, the castle “is a beautiful and elegant expression of civilization and history in Yemen, and carries a meaning of  glory and resistance against those who want to control the city or humiliate its people”.

For Salah, the castle also carries other meanings connected to recreation and an escape from worries. He considers it an “aesthetic recreation for the people of Taiz, where one can escape his daily routine and overlook the comings and goings of people from above, while enjoying the distance from negative feelings”.

“I was able to visit the castle about a month ago, and I saw the damage that it sustained, which is no different from the streets of Taiz and its bombed and destroyed buildings. That day the city was washed by rain; it was a magical moment that brought happiness to me after three years of misery and war.”

 

The castle as a witness to love stories

al-Qahirah Castle was a silent witness to the love that slowly grew between Abdullah Mahmoud and his wife Amani. While many lovers go to gardens or restaurants, the couple chose the castle as a witness to their love.

“During our engagement, we spent a wonderful time near the castle, watching the city awash in the rain in the daytime and seeing the lights of the houses shining through the night”, Abdullah recalled.

“With beautiful conversations and the fresh breeze by the castle, one forgets the worries of life. After seven years of marriage, our love has become as great as the castle, and will endure as the castle has over time.”

Photo Courtesy of Mohammed al-Tawiji

Photo Courtesy of Mohammed al-Tawiji

 

The history of the castle

Regarding the history of the castle, researcher Ahmed Abdel Wahab told al-Madaniya that there are records that date the castle back to the pre-Islamic era (5,000 to 6,000 years ago). This was also confirmed by monuments and inscriptions, which were found at the entrance of the main gate of the castle. It was seized by the Sulayhid dynasty in the first half of the sixth century AH, and some renovations and fortifications were added. According to Abdel Wahab, the castle gained a more important role during the reign of the Rasulid dynasty. The second king of the Rasulid dynasty, and the greatest of them, al-Malik al-Muzaffar Yusuf Bin Omar al-Rasuli (1222–1297 AD), took the castle as his stronghold and named it ‘Dar al-Adab’ (House of Literature). Later, he declared Taiz as a whole the capital of his rule. The castle continued to have its own importance, but also increased in prominence as Taiz itself was significant during the reign of the Tahirid dynasty and later during the Ottoman era.

During the reign of the Zaydi Mutawakkilite Kingdom, Imam Yahya bin Muhammad Hamid al-Din (1948) and his son Ahmed bin Yahya Hamid al-Din (1962) used the castle as a detention building for the sons of tribal leaders who were held hostage by the imams until they secured the loyalty of their fathers and tribes.

In addition to its military and political role, according to Ahmed Abdul Wahab, the castle also had a civil function. It was a lighthouse connecting commercial routes before the 1962 revolution against the Imamate in northern Yemen.

 

Name and architecture

There are different opinions about the name of Taiz. There are those who believe that the name ‘Taiz’ was used to refer to the castle only, while the city itself was called ‘Odaina’ or ‘Thee Odaina’ (an abbreviation of Aden because the traders of the city frequented Taiz as a tourist resort); and later, the castle’s name became that of the city. Then there are those who believe that Taiz is older than the castle, and that the origin of its name is ‘Ta’uz’, dating back more than six thousand years.

The castle itself has several names, the most important being ‘al-Qahirah’. It is said that it was named by Imam Yahya Sharaf al-Din (d.1555) and his son, al-Mutahar Yahya Sharaf al-Din (d. 1572). The story goes that those who control the castle are able to conquer their enemies, because of its fortifications and its location on the trade route extending from Aden to al-Maafer, and further on to Birak al-Ghamad in Sawda province, and all the way to Mocha. The Rasulids called it the House of Literature, as mentioned earlier, and it is also referred to as al-Emara.

During the recent restoration of the castle, new sections were discovered. The castle itself consists of two parts. The first part, which is called al-Odaina, includes suspended gardens in the form of terraces built on the slope of the mountain. Water vapor and basins are carved and built in one of the facades of the mountain, as well as on a number of scattered mansions surrounded by towers and parks. This part also includes tunnels and secret passages connecting the palaces together. The second part of the castle is referred to as ‘The Area of he Maghreb’. In this area there are a number of palaces, guard towers, grain storage facilities and water reservoirs. The final part is the wall of the castle, which is 120 meters high and four meters thick. In ancient times, the castle wall was connected to the walls of the old city of Taiz. The Old City Gate has four main entrances: Bab al-Kabir, Bab al-Sheikh Musa, Bab al-Madjar and Bab al-Nasr. Today the only remaining part of old castle wall is the part that surrounds it directly.

Among the structural additions that took place in the vicinity of the castle, and were mentioned in historical records, is the building of what was later known as the Dar al-Adab by the Sulayhids. Later, a public school (702 AH/1402 AD) and a small dome and park were added by al-M’ayyad Daud Bin Yusuf al-Rasuli (1297 AD–1321 AD). Some of these monuments still exist today. During the Ottoman era, deep tunnels were created under the rock formations. These were used as shelters, storage and vaults, and their access entryways on the other side of the castle remained unknown till today.

According to Fakhr al-Azab, Cairo Castle carries a great symbolic value. In addition to being a valuable fortress in the history of the city’s fortifications, the castle stands in harmonious association with other structures, such as: the Mudhaffar Mosque, the Madrasat al-Ashrafiya, the Tomb of Mutab; and the ancient gates, including Bab al-Sheikh Musa and Bab al-Kabir. These strategic and aesthetic characteristics are the reason behind the castle’s great fame, in comparison to other castles surrounding Taiz, such as the Makatirah Castle or the Damloa Castle in Silw.

 

Photo Courtesy of Mohammed al-Tawiji

Photo Courtesy of Mohammed al-Tawiji

The castle in Yemeni literature and music

al-Qahirah Castle has a pervasive presence in modern Yemeni literature, especially in the novel The Hostage (published in 1984) by the novelist Zayd Mutee Dammaj (1943–2000). The novel documents the history of the Yemeni people’s struggle against the imams who used the castle as a prison to hold hostages. Today history repeats itself, as the castle witnesses the conflict between the people and the new imams.

The castle is also mentioned in Yemeni songs, by musicians such as Ayoub Tarish Abassi, who sings: “Oh Nour, Oh Musk, Oh Beautiful Ones, Oh Khawla... Put the roses and basil and light the candle... Embellish the crown of the castle with lights.” Here, the castle is a social landmark that merges with the night-lights that signal the joy of the city and its inhabitants.