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Antiquity to Independence

Meroe Sudan Antiquity
Meroe, Sudan. Photo Valerian Guillot.


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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.

Turkish Invasion

In 1821, Ismail Pasha, the general and youngest son of the nominally Ottoman khedive of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, led an army into Sinnar (not to be confused with Muhammad Ali’s grandson Ismail Pasha who was proclaimed as the Khedive of Egypt in 1863). The occupation was aimed mainly at controlling the material and human resources of the country. Muhammad Ali was interested in the gold and slaves that the Sudan could provide to build the modern state in Egypt to which he aspired.

The occupation was accomplished in stages, the last of which was to annex Bahr al-Gazal, Darfur, and Equatoria in the south. After the occupation, the country entered a new era, evolving from a group of political systems with limited relations to the external world to a new, united polity.

During the Turkish-Egyptian rule of Sudan, the country began to be integrated into regional and international markets and politics. To some extent, the administration was modernized, new crops and agricultural methods were introduced, and foreign trade expanded. It was also during that era that European explorers began to flock into Sudan in attempts to reach the sources of the Nile.

Turkish internal policy was very harsh, depending on repression and the forcible collection of exorbitant taxes and customs, regardless of the local producers’ ability to pay. The Sudanese resisted the new regime, eventually erupting into rebellion with the murder of Ismail Pasha and his bodyguards in Shendi, at the beginning of the invasion, and, for instance, their revolt of 1822-25, the tribal resistance, and the Jihadiya soldier’s mutiny. These incidents paved the way for the Mahdist revolt in 1881.

Mahdia, 1885-98

The Mahdia revolution was a result of the cruelty and injustice of Turkish rule. It manifested itself in religious terms to a reformation and renewal of the faith as expressed by its leader, Mohammed Ahmed al-Mahdi, a Sufi religious figure.

In June 1881, the Mahdi called on the people to support him in overthrowing Turkish rule. The revolution began at Aba Island, on the White Nile. Many gathered at the island in support, and to fight the first victorious battle of the revolution. The Mahdi sought refuge to the west, at Gadir in the Nuba Mountains, where, in 1882, he defeated a force of six hundred soldiers led by Yousif Shalali.

By September 1882, the Mahdists controlled all of Kordofan, and at Shaykan on 5 November 1883, they destroyed an Egyptian army of ten thousand men under the command of a British colonel. After Shaykan, the defeat of the Turks was assured, and not even the leadership of Colonel Charles Gordon, who was hastily sent to Khartoum, could save the situation for Egypt. On 26 January 1885, the Mahdists captured Khartoum and killed Colonel Gordon.

The Mahdi died in June 1885, and he was succeeded by the Khalifa Abdallahi ibn Muhammad. The khalifa’s first task was to secure his own position against a conspiracy by the Mahdi’s relatives. He established a highly centralized administrative system—essentially military rule by a tyrant. This way of dealing with the affairs of the country differed little from the Turkish occupation, and led to several mutinies and broad opposition to his rule. Some tribes of central and western Sudan revolted against the khalifa; the rebellions were put down ruthlessly.

The foreign policy of the khalifa was based on spreading Mahdism by military means. He sent his forces to Darfur, and in the east, defeated the Ethiopians. In southern Sudan, he was driven from the upper Nile in 1897 by the forces of the Congo Free State. On the Egyptian frontier, in the north, his armies met their worst defeat at Tushki in August 1889, when an Anglo-Egyptian army under General F.W. Grenfell destroyed Abd al-Rahman al-Nujumi’s army. British forces defeated the Mahdist state on 2 September 1898, at the Battle of Omdurman, where thousands of Sudanese were massacred.

The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, 1899-1955

In January 1899, an Anglo-Egyptian agreement restored Egyptian rule in Sudan, but now as part of a condominium, or joint authority, exercised by Britain and Egypt. The khedive and the British Crown shared sovereignty. The Egyptian treasury had borne the greater part of the expense. In reality, the partnership between the two countries existed only on paper, as the British dominated the condominium. A governor general was to be nominated by the British government and appointed by the khedive of Egypt. The governor exercised his powers and directed the condominium government from Khartoum, as if it were a colonial administration. After 1910, however, an executive council, whose approval was required for all legislation and budgetary matters, assisted the governor general.

During the condominium period, economic development occurred only in the north. In the first two decades, the British extended telegraph and rail lines, but services did not reach remote areas. Port Sudan, on the Red Sea, opened in 1906 as the country’s principal outlet to the sea. In 1911, the Gezira Scheme was launched to provide high-quality cotton for Britain’s textile industry. An irrigation dam near Sennar was completed in 1925. Planters shipped cotton abroad, as the Gezira Scheme made cotton the basis of the country’s economy and turned the region into Sudan’s most densely populated area. In addition, technical and primary schools were established, including the Gordon Memorial College, which opened in Khartoum in 1902.

In the south, the administration made no serious attempt at development. In 1922, a law of closed areas the “Closed District Ordinances” was enacted as part of a policy to isolate the South. This law prohibited or restricted the travel of northern Sudanese to the southern region, requiring pre-approval from British provincial governors, and imposed restriction on trade with the south. But, the Juba Conference in 1947 recommended the South’s representation in the legislative assembly.

In 1924, Sir Lee Stack, the governor general of Sudan, was assassinated in Cairo. Britain ordered all Egyptian troops, civil servants, and public employees to withdraw from Sudan.

Nationalist Movement and Independence

The roots of the Sudanese national movement go back to the growth of the new social stratum that was linked to the economic development fostered by the colonial authority, in the services sector, in industry, and in agriculture, and also to the modern education system established by the British colonial administration.

In this regard, this new nationalist movement differs significantly from the Mahdist or tribal mutinies that depended only on either reviving or repeating the Mahdia. The nationalist movement evolved in the cities and addressed the population there, with some echo in the rural areas, especially when religious leaders involved themselves in politics.

The traditional sectors of society—those that collaborated with the colonial administration in the native administration—allied themselves with the authorities against the emerging national movement that aimed at liberation, looking at Egypt as an example and ally. The movement demanded the unity of the Nile valley under the Egyptian crown.

The first organisation to be formed was the Sudanese Unity Society, led by Ali Abd al-Latif, a Sudanese army officer who was jailed in 1921 as an agitator. In 1924, a new organisation was formed, called the White Flag League, whose aim was to expel the British from the country. Demonstrations followed in Khartoum in June and August of that year, but were suppressed. When Sir Lee Stack, the governor general, was assassinated in Cairo on 19 November 1924, the British forced the Egyptians to withdraw from the Sudan and conquered a Sudanese battalion that mutinied in support of the Egyptians. The Sudanese revolt was ended, and British rule remained unchallenged until after the Second World War.

The long peace that reigned from 1924 ended in 1936, when the Anglo-Egyptian treaty was signed, allowed Egyptian officials to return. The educated Sudanese protested that Sudan’s future had not been negotiated and that they had not been consulted. In this atmosphere, the Graduate Congress was established, which remained the major Sudanese political body until the emergence of Sudanese political parties in 1946. The leaders of the Congress were inspired by the experience of the Indian Congress. In the beginning, the Congress confined itself to social and reform activities, but it gradually moved into politics. The administration refused, at first, to recognise the Congress as a representative body of the Sudanese, although it did, in fact, take into consideration the wide support enjoyed by the organisation.

There were two trends within the Congress—the moderate, which formed the majority, and the radical. The moderates tended to cooperate with the authorities, while the radicals, led by Ismail al-Azhari, who would later be the first Sudanese prime minister, turned to Egypt. They rapidly gained support within and outside the Congress. Azhari was able to dominate the Congress with the support of the Ashigga party, the first party to appear, under the patronage of Sayyid Ali al-Mirghani, the leader of the Khatmiyya religious sect. The moderates also formed their own party, the Umma Party, with the support of Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, the son of the Mahdi, and leader of the Ansar sect, with the intention of cooperating with the British while pursuing independence, under the slogan “Sudan for the Sudanese.”

Side by side with the political movement, the trade union movement, led by the workers of the Sudan Railways, was influenced by the Sudan Communist Party; they were able to form a trade-union federation that gained official recognition. The farmers were also active and formed their own union, under a leftist leadership, and contributed much to the struggle against colonialism.

The colonial administration tried to present some sort of constitutional transformation that would allow Sudanese participation in ruling the country, but it was too late. They proposed an advisory council for northern Sudan, composed of the governor general and 28 Sudanese, but this council faced a boycott by the strong unionist movement and the Khatmiyya sect. While Umma party and Ansar sect joined and supported the consultative council. The same fate faced the body known as the Legislative Assembly, which included the south Sudanese, a change from the British policy that sought initially to isolate the south.

Independence Sudan Antiquity
Sudan independence flag was raised on 1 January 1956 by PM Ismail Alazhari and opposition leader Mohamed Ahmed Almahjoub. Photo Sudan Films Unit / Flickr.

In 1952, Egypt unilaterally abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, and proclaimed Egyptian sovereignty over Sudan after a military coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy and took power. The new leaders were ready to reject the idea of sovereignty over Sudan and accept the country’s independence. As such, the Anglo-Egyptian treaty was signed in 1953, granting self-government and self-determination for the Sudanese within three years. Elections for a representative parliament to rule Sudan followed in November-December 1953, resulting in a victory for Azhari, who – while his Unionist party was strongly pro-unity agreed to support the vote for independence in the parliament late in 1955. Sudan became independent in January 1956.

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