Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sudan: Antiquity (from the Neolithic Period – 1762)

Meroe Sudan Antiquity
Meroe, Sudan. Photo Valerian Guillot.


The emergence of kingdoms south of Egypt, up to the sixth cataract on the Nile, began with the kingdom of Kush in its various phases, Kerma, Meroe, and Napata. The history of this epoch was closely tied to Egypt but possessed distinctive Sudanese features. Kush flourished for five centuries during the second millennium BCE, controlling vast lands in present-day Sudan. The Sudanese people of the past were idolatrous; some adopted Judaism but quickly moved to Christianity.

Christian kingdoms were established along the Nile just two hundred years after the fall of Kush, and survived until the coming of the Arabs in the middle of the 7th century. Again, new states—the Darfur and Tagali Islamic sultanates—were founded. In 1821, the Turks invaded the country and remained for 60 years. After a revolutionary interval of 13 years of the Mahdist state, the country fell under British (and Egyptian) colonial authority—the Condominium—until independence in 1956.

After independence, civil war broke out, which ended in the secession of South Sudan in 2011, while the war in Darfur, South Kordofan, and southern Blue Nile Province continued in 2015. The country is ruled by military regimes that have taken power through coups d’état, except for some brief democratic periods.


Sudan Kingdom of Kush Antiquity 700px
Map of the area historically known as the Kingdom of Kush. Source: the British Museum. ©Fanack

Towards the end of the Neolithic Period, the earliest inhabitants of Sudan developed an African civilization that later became the Kingdom of Kush, north of the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. Kush was centered at Kerma in its early phase, then at Napata, when King Kashta invaded Egypt in the 8th century BCE, to form the 25th dynasty of Egypt for a century, until they were expelled in 656 BCE.

During its classical stage, Kush had its capital at Meroe. The Meroitic Kingdom, known in Greek geography as Ethiopia, survived until the 4th century CE, when it weakened and disintegrated due to internal rebellion and tribal raids. The Kushite capital was eventually captured and burnt by the Kingdom of Axum.

Kushite archaeology, architecture, art, and burials practices are distinguished by their sharp angles. The steep-sided, solid pyramids found at Meroe and Jebel Barkal, although smaller than those of Egypt, are numerous. The written language of the Kushites, based on Egyptian hieroglyphics, has not yet been deciphered.

Kush was known as one of the first places in the world where ore was mined and where iron was produced for both agricultural tools and arms. The iron industry enabled the Kushites to maintain one of the best economies in Africa and a flourishing trade with Egypt, to the north. Other African exotic products, such as ebony, were exported to ancient Abyssinia in the east and Egypt in the north.

Christian Kingdoms

Uncertainty prevailed after the fall of Meroe, until the emergence of three Christian states along the Nile. Nubia was occupied by inhabitants called the Nobatae, also referred to as ‘the X group’. Their burial customs bear signs of Meroitic culture. The Nobatae attacked the Romans in Upper Egypt together with their allies, the nomadic Blemmyes (the Bija), but were defeated.

Christianity began to manifest itself as early as the end of the first century. It took more than two hundred years for the first Christian kingdom of Nobatia to appear (c. 543 CE), with its capital at Faras, in the far north of present-day Sudan. Faras was famous for its cathedral, which survived Islamisation and endured until it was inundated in 1964 by Lake Nasser, impounded by the Aswan High Dam in Egypt. The kingdom of Makouria, stretching from Dongola to the Atbara River, was established in 570 CE, and the kingdom of Alwah was founded to the south ten years later, with its capital at Soba, near Khartoum.

Makouria expanded at the expense of Nobatia and became the dominant kingdom in the region. By the 7th century, Makouria was flourishing and becoming strong enough to resist the Islamic expansion and the invading Arabs who had already taken over Egypt. After several failed invasions, the Arabs managed to advance as far as Dongola, laid siege to the town, and destroyed the Christian cathedral. But they suffered heavy casualties, so when the king of Makouria sought a settlement, Abd Allah ibn Sad, the leader of the campaign, agreed. The armistice was known as the “Baqt” and allowed for peaceful coexistence and trade. This treaty remained in force for six hundred years. Over time, the influx of Arab traders introduced Islam to Nubia, and Islam gradually superseded Christianity. The collapse of Soba, the last Nubian kingdom, occurred in about 1504.

Sinnar Funj and the Islamisation of Sudan

The Arabs who lived in the Christian kingdoms came to realize that they were numerous at a time when these kingdoms were weak, and the idea developed of making an alliance between Arab tribes that roamed the country. Abdallah Jamma (the Gatherer), who led the group that came later to be called the ‘Abdallab, came from the eastern regions that had grown wealthy and powerful from the Red Sea trade. He is credited with the capture of Soba. Jamma was, however, confronted by the Funj, an Islamized Nubian group of African tribes under Amara Dunkas that came from the region of southern Blue Nile Province. After several skirmishes ended in favour of the Funj, an alliance was agreed between the Funj and the ‘Abdellab, to divide the country into a confederation. The Funj ruled from Sinnar, in the south, and the ‘Abdellab ruled the northern section but were subject to Sinnar, sowing the seeds of present-day Sudan.

A semi-feudal system was established, and the state was divided along geographic and racial/ethnic lines; each part had to pay taxes and fees to the sultan of Sinnar. The Sultanate of Sinnar—known in Arabic also as the Blue Sultanate (al-Saltana al-Zarqa) was called Islamic, but it had a strong non-Islamic undercurrent, especially ancient pagan traditions that were at variance with Islam.

The capital, Sinnar, became prosperous through trade and hosted representatives from throughout the Middle East and Africa. The wealth and power of the sultans were due to their control of the economy. All caravans were controlled by the monarch, as was the supply of gold, which functioned as the state’s main currency.

Sinnar flourished for two centuries. In 1762, a group called al-Hamaj overthrew the sultan and subsequently installed another member of the royal family as a puppet sultan, while imposing one of their own as ruling vizier. That was the beginning of the long conflict between the Funj sultans and the Hamaj tribes of southern Blue Nile Province, both trying to dominate the Sultanate of Sinnar. This conflict weakened the kingdom and made it an easy prey for Turkish invaders.