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Pre 20th Century History of Sudan

Sudan was a collection of small, independent kingdoms and principalities from the beginning of the Christian era until 1820-21, when Egypt conquered and unified the northern portion of the country. It, like many African countries, consists of numerous ethnic groups. Unlike most states, however, Sudan has two distinct divisions: the north, which is largely Arab and Muslim, and the south, which consists predominantly of black Nilotic peoples, some of whom are members of indigenous faiths and others who are Christians.


For centuries, sovereignty was shuttled back and forth between the Egyptians, indigenous empires such as Kush, and a succession of independent Christian kingdoms. After the 14th century AD, the Mamelukes (Turkish rulers in Egypt) breached the formidable Nubian defences and established the dominance of Islam. By the 16th century the kingdom of Funj had become a powerful Muslim state and Sennar, 200km (124mi) south of present-day Khartoum, was one of the major trading centre of Islamic Africa.

However, neither the Egyptian nor the Mahdist state (1883-1898) had any effective control of the southern region outside of a few garrisons. Southern Sudan remained an area of fragmented tribes, subject to frequent attacks by slave raiders.

British policy during the Anglo-Egyptian condominium (1899-1955) intensified the rift because Britain established separate administrations for the two areas and forbade northerners to enter the south. In the 1990s, many southerners continued to fear being ruled by northerners, who lacked familiarity with their beliefs and ethnic traditions and sought to impose northern institutions on them.

In 1820 Muhammad Ali, who ruled Egypt on behalf of the Ottomans, sent 4,000 troops to Sudan to clear the area of Mamluks. The invasion resulted in Ottoman-Egyptian rule of Sudan from 1821 to 1885; the rule was accompanied by the introduction of secular courts and a large bureaucracy.

The 1880s saw the rise of the Mahdist movement, consisting of disciples of Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah, a Sudanese who proclaimed himself the Mahdi or "guided one," and launched a jihad against the Ottoman rulers.

In 1821 the viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, conquered northern Sudan and opened the south to the slave trade, with catastrophic results. Within a few decades British interests were also directed towards Sudan, aiming to control the Nile, contain French expansion from the west and draw the south into a British-East African federation. The European intrusion, and in particular the Christian missionary zeal that accompanied it, was resented by many Muslim Sudanese.

The Mahdi's Crusade

In 1881, a religious leader named Muhammad ibn Abdalla proclaimed himself the Mahdi, or the "expected one," and began a religious crusade to unify the tribes in western and central Sudan. He proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi - the person who, according to Muslim tradition, would rid the world of evil. His followers took on the name "Ansars" (the followers) which they continue to use today and are associated with the single largest political grouping, the Umma Party, led by a descendant of the Mahdi, Sadiq al Mahdi.

Four years later Mahdi rid Khartoum of General Gordon, the British-appointed governor, and the Mahdists ruled Sudan until 1898, when they were massacred outside Omdurman by Lord Kitchener and his Anglo-Egyptian army.

Anglo-Egyptian Response

Taking advantage of dissatisfaction resulting from Ottoman-Egyptian exploitation and maladministration, the Mahdi led a nationalist revolt culminating in the fall of Khartoum in 1885. The Mahdi died shortly thereafter, but his state survived until overwhelmed by an invading Anglo-Egyptian force under Lord Kitchener in 1898. While nominally administered jointly by Egypt and Britain, Britain exercised control, formulated policies, and supplied most of the top administrators. The British then imposed the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement, effectively making Sudan a British colony.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008