in Fatimid times, Bab Zwayla was the city’s main southern gate. It was constructed during the 1090s, when the Fatimid city’s defences (including sixty gates) were being reinforced using Anatolian or Mesopotamian Christian architects and Egyptian labour. The minarets of Al-Muayyad’s Mosque, added to its turrets some four hundred years after they were built, make it look far mightier than the Northern Gates. In the Mamluke city, which had outgrown the Fatimid walls and pushed up against Salah al Din’s extensions, Bab Zwayla become a central point, but the practice of barring the gates each night continued well into the nineteenth century, maintaining a city within a city. There’s a strikingly medieval passage just on the north side of the gate, but the full awesomeness of the Bab itself is best seen from the south side.
The gate was named after Fatimid mercenaries of the Berber al-Zwayla tribe, quartered nearby, whom the Mamlukes displaced. Through the centuries it was the point of departure for caravans to Mecca and the source of the drum rolls that greeted the arrival of senior “Amirs of One Hundred”. Dancers and snake charmers performed here, and punishments provided another spectacle. Dishonest merchants might be hung from hooks; garroting, beheading or impalement were favoured for common criminals; while losers in the Mamluke power struggles were often nailed to the doors. It was here that Tumanbey, the last Mamluke sultan, was hanged in 1517, after a vast crowd had recited the Fatah (the opening sura of the Koran) and the rope had broken twice before his neck did. Bab Zwayla’s reputation was subsequently redeemed by its association with Mitwalli al-Qutb, a miracle working local saint said to manifest himself to the faithful as a gleam of light within the gatehouse.
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