Entry Formalities
The authorities in Sudan set and enforce entry rules. Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of entry into Sudan. Visas are available on arrival for most nationalities, provided visitors have an entry permit arranged via a local tour operator, a hotel or a Sudanese embassy in your country. The authorities in Sudan set and enforce entry rules. For further information contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of Sudan in your country.

Black Pharaohs and Ancient History

Ancient Nubia

The earliest inhabitants of what is now Sudan can be traced to African peoples who lived in the vicinity of Khartoum in Mesolithic times (Middle Stone Age; 30,000–20,000 BCE). They were hunters and gatherers who made pottery and objects of ground sandstone. Toward the end of the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age; 10,000–3,000 BCE) they had domesticated animals. These Africans were clearly in contact with predynastic civilizations (before 2925 BCE) to the north in Egypt, but the arid uplands separating Egypt from Nubia appear to have discouraged the predynastic Egyptians from settling there.

Egyptian Influence

At the end of the 4th millennium BCE, kings of Egypt’s 1st dynasty conquered Upper Nubia south of Aswān, introducing Egyptian cultural influence to the African peoples who were scattered along the riverbanks. In subsequent centuries, Nubia was subjected to successive military expeditions from Egypt in search of slaves or building materials for royal tombs, destroying much of the Egyptian-Nubian culture that had sprung from the initial conquests of the 1st dynasty. Throughout these few centuries (c. 2925–c. 2575 BCE), the descendants of the Nubians continued to eke out an existence along the Nile River, an easy prey for Egyptian military expeditions. Although the Nubians were no match for the armies of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, the interactions arising from their enslavement and colonization led to ever-increasing African influence upon the art, culture, and religion of dynastic Egypt.

Sometime after about 2181 BCE, in the period known to Egyptologists as the First Intermediate Period (c. 2130–1938 BCE), a new wave of immigrants entered Nubia from Libya, in the west, where the increasing desiccation of the Sahara drove them to settle along the Nile as cattle farmers. Other branches of these people seem to have gone beyond the Nile to the Red Sea Hills, while still others pushed south and west to Wadai and Darfur. These newcomers were able to settle on the Nile and assimilate the existing Nubians without opposition from Egypt. After the fall of the 6th dynasty (c. 2150 BCE), Egypt experienced more than a century of weakness and internal strife, giving the immigrants in Nubia time to develop their own distinct civilization with unique crafts, architecture, and social structure, virtually unhindered by the potentially more dynamic civilization to the north. With the advent of the 11th dynasty (2081 BCE), however, Egypt recovered its strength and pressed southward into Nubia, at first sending only sporadic expeditions to exact tribute but by the 12th dynasty (1938–1756 BCE) effectively occupying Nubia as far south as Semna. The Nubians resisted the Egyptian occupation, which was maintained only by a chain of forts erected along the Nile. Egyptian military and trading expeditions, of course, penetrated beyond Semna, and Egyptian fortified trading posts were actually established to the south at Karmah in order to protect against frequent attacks upon Egyptian trading vessels by Nubian tribesmen beyond the southern frontier.

The Kingdom of Kush

Despite the Egyptian presence in Upper Nubia, the indigenous culture of the region continued to flourish. This culture was deeply influenced by African peoples in the south and was little changed by the proximity of Egyptian garrisons or the imports of luxury articles by Egyptian traders. Indeed, the Egyptianization of Nubia appears to actually have been enhanced during the decline in Egypt’s political control over Nubia in the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1630–1540 BCE), when Nubians were employed in large numbers as mercenaries against the Asian Hyksos invaders of Egypt. This experience did more to introduce Egyptian culture, which the mercenaries absorbed while fighting in Egyptian armies, than did the preceding centuries of Egyptian military occupation. Conversely, the presence of these mercenaries in Egypt contributed to the growing African influence within Egyptian culture.

The defeat of the Hyksos was the result of a national rising of the Egyptians who, once they had expelled the Hyksos from the Nile valley, turned their energies southward to reestablish the military occupation of Nubia that the Hyksos invasion had disrupted. Under Thutmose I (reigned 1493–c. 1482 BCE) the Egyptian conquest of the northern Sudan was completed as far as Kurqus (also spelled Kurgus, Korgus), about 50 km south of Abū Ḥamad, and subsequent Egyptian military expeditions penetrated even farther up the Nile. This third Egyptian occupation was the most complete and the most enduring, for, despite sporadic rebellions against Egyptian control, Nubia was divided into two administrative units: Wawat in the north, with its provincial capital at Aswān, and Kush (also spelled Cush) in the south, with its headquarters at Napata (Marawī). Nubia as a whole was governed by a viceroy, usually a member of the royal entourage, who was responsible to the Egyptian pharaoh. Under him were two deputies, one for Wawat and one for Kush, and a hierarchy of lesser officials. The bureaucracy was staffed chiefly by Egyptians, but Egyptianized Nubians were not uncommon. Colonies of Egyptian officials, traders, and priests surrounded the administrative centres, but beyond these outposts the Nubians continued to preserve their own distinct traditions, customs, and crafts. A syncretistic culture thus arose in Kush, fashioned by that of Egypt to the north and those of African peoples to the south.

Kush’s position athwart the trade routes from Egypt to the Red Sea, and from the Nile to the south and west, brought considerable wealth from far-off places. Moreover, its cultivated areas along the Nile were rich, and in the hills the gold and emerald mines produced bullion and jewels for Egypt. The Nubians were also highly valued as soldiers.

As Egypt slipped once again into decline at the close of the New Kingdom (11th century BCE), the viceroys of Kush, supported by their Nubian armies, became virtually independent kings, free of Egyptian control. By the 8th century BCE the kings of Kush came from hereditary ruling families of Egyptianized Nubian chiefs who possessed neither political nor family ties with Egypt. Under one such king, Kashta, Kush acquired control of Upper (i.e., southern) Egypt, and under his son Piye (formerly known as Piankhi; reigned c. 750–c. 719 BCE) the whole of Egypt to the shores of the Mediterranean was brought under the administration of Kush. As a world power, however, Kush was not to last. Just when the kings of Kush had established their rule from Abū Ḥamad to the Nile delta, the Assyrians invaded Egypt (671 BCE) and with their superior iron-forged weapons defeated the armies of Kush under the redoubtable Taharqa; by 654 the Kushites had been driven back to Nubia and the safety of their capital, Napata.

Although reduced from a great power to an isolated kingdom behind the barren hills that blocked the southward advance from Aswān, Kush continued to rule over the middle Nile for another thousand years. Its unique Egyptian-Nubian culture with its strong African accretions was preserved, while that of Egypt came under Persian, Greek, and Roman influences. Although Egyptianized in many ways, the culture of Kush was not simply Egyptian civilization in a Nubian environment. The Kushites developed their own language, expressed first by Egyptian hieroglyphs, then by their own, and finally by a cursive script. They worshipped Egyptian gods but did not abandon their own. They buried their kings in pyramids but not in the Egyptian fashion. Their wealth continued to flow from the mines and to grow with their control of the trade routes. Soon after the retreat from Egypt, the capital was moved from Napata southward to Meroe near Shandī, where the kingdom was increasingly exposed to the long-established African cultures farther south at the very time when its ties with Egypt were rapidly disappearing. The subsequent history of Kush is one of gradual decay, ending with inglorious extinction in 350 CE by the king of Aksum, who marched down from the Ethiopian highlands, destroyed Meroe, and sacked the decrepit towns along the river.

Christian and Islamic Influence

Medieval Christian Kingdoms

The 200 years from the fall of Kush to the middle of the 6th century is an unknown age in the Sudan. Nubia was inhabited by a people called the Nobatae by the ancient geographers and the X-Group by modern archaeologists, who are still at a loss to explain their origins. The X-Group were clearly, however, the heirs of Kush, for their whole cultural life was dominated by Meroitic crafts and customs, and occasionally they even felt themselves sufficiently strong, in alliance with the nomadic Blemmyes (the Beja of the eastern Sudan), to attack the Romans in Upper Egypt. When this happened, the Romans retaliated, defeating the Nobatae and Blemmyes and driving them into obscurity once again.

When the Sudan was once more brought into the orbit of the Mediterranean world by the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 6th century CE, the middle course of the Nile was divided into three kingdoms: Nobatia, with its capital at Pachoras (modern Faras); Maqurrah, with its capital at Dunqulah (Old Dongola); and the kingdom of ʿAlwah in the south, with its capital at Sūbah (Soba) near what is now Khartoum. Between 543 and 575 these three kingdoms were converted to Christianity by the work of Julian, a missionary who proselytized in Nobatia (543–545), and his successor Longinus, who between 569 and 575 consolidated the work of Julian in Nobatia and even carried Christianity to ʿAlwah in the south. The new religion appears to have been adopted with considerable enthusiasm. Christian churches sprang up along the Nile, and ancient temples were refurbished to accommodate Christian worshippers. After the retirement of Longinus, however, the Sudan once again receded into a period about which little is known, and it did not reemerge into the stream of recorded history until the coming of the Arabs in the middle of the 7th century.

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, the Arabs erupted from the desert steppes of Arabia and overran the lands to the east and west. Egypt was invaded in 639, and small groups of Arab raiders penetrated up the Nile and pillaged along the frontier of the kingdom of Maqurrah, which by the 7th century had absorbed the state of Nobatia. Raid and counterraid between the Arabs and the Nubians followed until a well-equipped Arab expedition under ʿAbd Allāh ibn Saʿd ibn Abī Sarḥ was sent south to punish the Nubians. The Arabs marched as far as Dunqulah, laid siege to the town, and destroyed the Christian cathedral. They suffered heavy casualties, however, so that, when the king of Maqurrah sought an armistice, ʿAbd Allāh ibn Saʿd agreed to peace, happy to extricate his battered forces from a precarious position. Arab-Nubian relations were subsequently regularized by an annual exchange of gifts, by trade relations, and by the mutual understanding that no Muslims were to settle in Nubia and no Nubians were to take up residence in Egypt. With but few interruptions, this peaceful, commercial relationship lasted nearly six centuries, its very success undoubtedly the result of the mutual advantage that both the Arabs and the Nubians derived from it. The Arabs had a stable frontier; they appear to have had no designs to occupy the Sudan and were probably discouraged from doing so by the arid plains south of Aswān. Peace on the frontier was their object, and this the treaty guaranteed. In return, the kingdom of Maqurrah gained another 600 years of life.

Islamic Encroachments

When non-Arab Muslims acquired control of the Nile delta, friction arose in Upper Egypt. In the 9th century the Turkish Ṭūlūnid rulers of Egypt, wishing to rid themselves of the unruly nomadic Arab tribes in their domain, encouraged them to migrate southward. Lured by the prospects of gold in the Nubian Desert, the nomads pressed into Nubia, raiding and pillaging along the borders, but the heartland of Maqurrah remained free from direct hostilities until the Mamlūks established their control over Egypt (1250). In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the Mamlūk sultans sent regular military expeditions against Maqurrah, as much to rid Egypt of uncontrollable Arab Bedouin as to capture Nubia. The Mamlūks never succeeded in actually occupying Maqurrah, but they devastated the country, draining its political and economic vitality and plunging it into chaos and depression. By the 15th century Dunqulah was no longer strong enough to withstand Arab encroachment, and the country was open to Arab immigration. Once the Arab nomads, particularly the Juhaynah people, learned that the land beyond the Aswān reach could support their herds and that no political authority had the power to turn them back, they began to migrate southward, intermarrying with the Nubians and introducing Arab Muslim culture to the Christian inhabitants. The Arabs, who inherited through the male line, soon acquired control from the Nubians, who inherited through the female line, intermarriage resulting in Nubian inheritances passing from Nubian women to their half-Arab sons, but the Arabs replaced political authority in Maqurrah only with their own nomadic institutions. From Dunqulah the Juhaynah and others wandered east and west of the Nile with their herds; in the south the kingdom of ʿAlwah stood as the last indigenous Christian barrier to Arab occupation of the Sudan.

ʿAlwah extended from Kabūshiyyah as far south as Sennar (Sannār). Beyond, from the Ethiopian escarpment to the White Nile, lived peoples about which little is known. ʿAlwah appears to have been much more prosperous and stronger than Maqurrah. It preserved the ironworking techniques of Kush, and its capital at Sūbah possessed many impressive buildings, churches, and gardens. Christianity remained the state religion, but ʿAlwah’s long isolation from the Christian world had probably resulted in bizarre and syncretistic accretions to liturgy and ritual. ʿAlwah was able to maintain its integrity so long as the Arabs failed to combine against it, but the continuous and corrosive raids of the Bedouin throughout the 15th century clearly weakened its power to resist. Thus, when an Arab confederation led by ʿAbd Allāh Jammāʿ was at last brought together to assault the Christian kingdom, ʿAlwah collapsed (c. 1500). Sūbah and the Blue Nile region were abandoned, left to the Funj, who suddenly appeared, seemingly from nowhere, to establish their authority from Sennar to the main Nile.

The Funj

The Funj were neither Arabs nor Muslims, and their homeland was probably on the upper Blue Nile in the borderlands between Ethiopia and the Sudan. Under their leader ʿAmārah Dūnqas, the Funj founded their capital at Sennar and throughout the 16th century struggled for control of the Al-Jazīrah (Gezira) region against the Arab tribes who had settled around the confluence of the Blue and the White Niles. The Funj appear to have firmly established their supremacy by 1607–08.

By the mid-17th century the Funj dynasty had reached its golden age under one of its greatest kings, Bādī II Abū Daqn (reigned 1644/45–80), who extended Funj authority across the White Nile into Kordofan and reduced the tribal chieftaincies scattered northward along the main Nile to tribute-paying feudatories. But as Bādī II expanded Funj power, he also planted the seeds of its decline. During his conquests, slaves were captured and taken to Sennar, where, as they grew in numbers and influence, they formed a military caste. Loyal to the monarch alone, the slaves soon came to compete with the Funj aristocracy for control of the offices of state. Intrigue and hostility between these two rival groups soon led to open rebellion that undermined the position of the traditional ruling class.

Under Bādī IV Abū Shulūkh (reigned 1724–62), the ruling aristocracy was finally broken, and the king assumed arbitrary power, supported by his slave troops. So long as Bādī IV could command the loyalty of his army, his position was secure and the kingdom enjoyed respite from internal strife, but at the end of his long reign he could no longer control the army. Under the leadership of his viceroy in Kordofan, Abū Likaylik, the military turned against the king and exiled him to Sūbah. Abū Likaylik probably represented a resurgence of older indigenous elements who had been Arabized and Islamized but were neither Arab nor Funj. Thenceforward the Funj kings were but puppets of their viziers (chief ministers), whose struggles to win and to keep control precipitated the kingdom’s steady decline, interrupted by only infrequent periods of peace and stability established by a strong vizier who was able to overcome his rivals. During its last half century the Funj kingdom was a spent state, kept intact only through want of a rival but gradually disintegrating through wars, intrigue, and conspiracy, until the Egyptians advanced on Sennar in 1821 and pushed the Funj dynasty into oblivion.

The spread of Islam

The Funj were originally non-Muslims, but the aristocracy soon adopted Islam and, although they retained many traditional African customs, remained nominal Muslims. The conversion was largely the work of a handful of Islamic missionaries who came to the Sudan from the larger Muslim world. The great success of these missionaries, however, was not among the Funj themselves but among the Arabized Nubian population settled along the Nile. Among these villagers the missionaries instilled a deep devotion to Islam that appears to have been conspicuously absent among the nomadic Arabs who had first reached the Sudan after the collapse of the kingdom of Maqurrah. One early missionary was Ghulām Allāh ibn ʿĀʾid from Yemen, who settled at Dunqulah in the 14th century. He was followed in the 15th century by Ḥamad Abū Danana, who appears to have emphasized the way to God through mystical exercises rather than through the more orthodox interpretations of the Qurʾān taught by Ghulām Allāh.

The spread of Islam was advanced in the 16th century when the hegemony of the Funj enhanced security. In the 16th and 17th centuries, numerous schools of religious learning were founded along the White Nile, and the Shāyqiyyah confederacy was converted. Many of the more famous Sudanese missionaries who followed them were Sufi holy men, members of influential religious brotherhoods who sought the way to God through mystical contemplation. The Sufi brotherhoods played a vital role in linking the Sudan to the larger world of Islam beyond the Nile valley. Although the fervour of Sudanese Islam waned after 1700, the great reform movements that shook the Muslim world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries produced a revivalist spirit among the Sufi brotherhoods, giving rise to a new order, the Mīrghāniyyah or Khatmiyyah, later one of the strongest in the modern Sudan.

The “missionaries” were faqīhs (Islamic jurists) who attracted a following through their teachings and piety and laid the foundations for a long line of indigenous Sudanese holy men. They passed on the way to God taught them by their masters or founded their own religious schools or, if extraordinarily successful, gathered their own following into a religious order. The faqīhs played a vital role in educating their followers and helped place them in the highest positions of government, which allowed them to spread Islam and the influence of their respective brotherhoods. The faqīhs held a religious monopoly until the introduction, under Egyptian-Ottoman rule, of an official hierarchy of jurists and scholars (the ʿulamāʾ) whose orthodox legalistic conception of Islam was as alien to the Sudanese as were their origins. This disparity between the mystical, traditional faqīhs (close to the Sudanese, if not of them) and the orthodox ʿulamāʾ (aloof, if not actually part of the government bureaucracy) created a rivalry that produced open hostility in times of trouble and sullen suspicion in times of peace. This schism has since diminished; the faqīhs continue their customary practices unmolested, while the Sudanese have acknowledged the position of the ʿulamāʾ in society.

Egyptian-Ottoman rule

Muḥammad ʿAlī and his successors

In July 1820 Muḥammad ʿAlī, viceroy of Egypt under the Ottoman Empire, sent an army under his son Ismāʿīl to conquer the Sudan. Muḥammad ʿAli was interested in the gold and slaves that the Sudan could provide and wished to control the vast hinterland south of Egypt. By 1821 the Funj and the sultan of Darfur had surrendered, and the Nilotic Sudan from Nubia to the Ethiopian foothills and from the Atbara River to Darfur became part of Muḥammad ʿAlī’s expanding empire.

The collection of taxes under Muḥammad ʿAlī’s regime amounted to virtual confiscation of gold, livestock, and slaves, and opposition to his rule became intense, eventually erupting into rebellion and the murder of Ismāʿīl and his bodyguard. But the rebels lacked leadership and coordination, and their revolt was brutally suppressed. A sullen hostility in the Sudanese was met by continued repression until the appointment of ʿAlī Khūrshīd Āghā as governor-general in 1826. His administration marked a new era in Egyptian-Sudanese relations. He reduced taxes and consulted the Sudanese through the respected Sudanese leader ʿAbd al-Qādir wad al-Zayn. Letters of amnesty were granted to fugitives. A more equitable system of taxation was implemented, and the support of the powerful class of holy men and sheikhs (tribal chiefs) for the administration was obtained by exempting them from taxation. But ʿAlī Khūrshīd was not content merely to restore the Sudan to its previous condition. Under his initiative, trade routes were protected and expanded, Khartoum was developed as the administrative capital, and a host of agricultural and technical improvements were undertaken. When he retired to Cairo in 1838, he left a prosperous and contented country behind him.

His successor, Aḥmad Pasha Abū Widān, continued his policies with but few exceptions and made it his primary concern to root out official corruption. Abū Widān dealt ruthlessly with offenders or those who sought to thwart his schemes to reorganize taxation. He was particularly fond of the army, which reaped the benefits of regular pay and tolerable conditions in return for bearing the brunt of the expansion and consolidation of Egyptian administration in Kassalā and among the Baqqārah Arabs of southern Kordofan. Muḥammad ʿAlī, suspecting Abū Widān of disloyalty, recalled him to Cairo in the autumn of 1843, but he died mysteriously, many believed of poison, before he left the Sudan.

During the next two decades the country stagnated because of ineffective government at Khartoum and vacillation by the viceroys at Cairo. If the successors of Abū Widān possessed administrative talent, they were seldom able to demonstrate it. No governor-general held office long enough to introduce his own plans, let alone carry on those of his predecessor. New schemes were never begun, and old projects were allowed to languish. Without direction the army and the bureaucracy became demoralized and indifferent, while the Sudanese became disgruntled with the government. In 1856 the viceroy Saʿīd Pasha visited the Sudan and, shocked by what he saw, contemplated abandoning it altogether. Instead, he abolished the office of governor-general and had each Sudanese province report directly to the viceregal authority in Cairo. This state of affairs persisted until Saʿīd’s death in 1863.

During these quiescent decades, however, two ominous developments began that presaged future problems. Reacting to pressure from the Western powers, particularly Great Britain, the governor-general of the Sudan was ordered to halt the slave trade. But not even the viceroy himself could overcome established custom with the stroke of a pen and the erection of a few police posts. If the restriction of the slave trade precipitated resistance among the Sudanese, the appointment of Christian officials to the administration and the expansion of the European Christian community in the Sudan caused open resentment. European merchants, mostly of Mediterranean origin, were either ignored or tolerated by the Sudanese and confined their contacts to compatriots within their own community and to the Turko-Egyptian officials whose manners and dress they frequently adopted. They became a powerful and influential group, whose lasting contribution to the Sudan was to take the lead in opening the White Nile and the southern Sudan to navigation and commerce after Muḥammad ʿAlī had abolished state trading monopolies in the Sudan in 1838 under pressure from the European powers.

Ismāʿīl Pasha and the growth of European influence

After Saʿīd’s death in 1863, Ismāʿīl Pasha became viceroy of Egypt. Educated in Egypt, Vienna, and Paris, Ismāʿīl had absorbed the European interest in overseas adventures as well as Muḥammad ʿAlī’s desire for imperial expansion and had imaginative schemes for transforming Egypt and the Sudan into a modern state by employing Western technology. First he hoped to acquire the rest of the Nile basin, including the southern Sudan and the Bantu states by the Great Lakes of east-central Africa. To finance this vast undertaking and his projects for the modernization of Egypt itself, Ismāʿīl turned to the capital-rich nations of western Europe, where investors were willing to risk their savings at high rates of interest in the cause of Egyptian and African development. But such funds would be attracted only as long as Ismāʿīl demonstrated his interest in reform by intensifying the campaign against the slave trade in the Sudan. Ismāʿīl needed no encouragement, for he required the diplomatic and financial support of the European powers in his efforts to modernize Egypt and expand his empire. Thus, these two major themes of Ismāʿīl’s rule of the Nilotic Sudan—imperial expansion and the suppression of the slave trade—became intertwined, culminating in a third major development, the introduction of an ever-increasing number of European Christians to carry out the task of modernization.

In 1869 Ismāʿīl commissioned the Englishman Samuel White Baker to lead an expedition up the White Nile to establish Egyptian hegemony over the equatorial regions of central Africa and to curtail the slave trade on the upper Nile. Baker remained in equatorial Africa until 1873, where he established the Equatoria province as part of the Egyptian Sudan. He had extended Egyptian power and curbed the slave traders on the Nile, but he had also alienated certain African tribes and, being a rather tactless Christian, Ismāʿīl’s Muslim administrators as well. Moreover, Baker had struck only at the Nilotic slave trade. To the west, on the vast plains of the Baḥr al-Ghazāl (now in South Sudan), slave merchants had established enormous empires with stations garrisoned by slave soldiers. From these stations the long lines of human chattels were sent overland through Darfur and Kordofan to the slave markets of the northern Sudan, Egypt, and Arabia. Not only did the firearms of the Khartoumers (as the traders were called) establish their supremacy over the peoples of the interior but also those merchants with the strongest resources gradually swallowed up lesser traders until virtually the whole of the Baḥr al-Ghazāl was controlled by the greatest slaver of them all, al-Zubayr Raḥmah Manṣūr, more commonly known as Zubayr (or Zobeir) Pasha. So powerful had he become that in 1873, the year Baker retired from the Sudan, the Egyptian viceroy (now called the khedive) appointed Zubayr governor of the Baḥr al-Ghazāl. Ismāʿīl’s officials had failed to destroy Zubayr as Baker had crushed the slavers east of the Nile, and to elevate Zubayr to the governorship appeared the only way to establish at least the nominal sovereignty of Cairo over that enormous province. Thus, the agents of Zubayr continued to pillage the Baḥr al-Ghazāl under the Egyptian flag, while officially Egypt extended its dominion to the tropical rainforests of the Congo region. Zubayr remained in detention in Cairo after going there in 1876 to press his claims for a new title.

Ismāʿīl next offered the governorship of the Equatoria province to another Englishman, Charles George Gordon, who in China had won fame and the sobriquet Chinese Gordon. Gordon arrived in Equatoria in 1874. His object was the same as Baker’s—to consolidate Egyptian authority in Equatoria and to establish Egyptian sovereignty over the kingdoms of the great East African lakes. He achieved some success in Equatoria but none in the lakes region. When Gordon retired from Equatoria, the lake kingdoms remained stubbornly independent.

In 1877 Ismāʿīl appointed Gordon governor-general of the Sudan. He returned to the Sudan to lead a crusade against the slave trade and, to assist him in this humanitarian enterprise, surrounded himself with a cadre of European and American Christian officials. In 1877 Ismāʿīl had signed the Anglo-Egyptian Slave Trade Convention, which provided for the termination of the sale and purchase of slaves in the Sudan by 1880. Gordon set out to fulfill the terms of this treaty, and, in whirlwind tours through the country, he broke up the markets and imprisoned the traders. His European subordinates did the same in the provinces.

Gordon’s crusading zeal blinded him to his invidious position as a Christian in a Muslim land and obscured from him the social and economic effects of arbitrary repression. Not only did his campaign create a crisis in the Sudan’s economy but the Sudanese soon came to believe that the crusade, led by European Christians, violated the principles and traditions of Islam. By 1879 a strong current of reaction against Gordon’s reforms was running through the country. The powerful slave-trading interests had, of course, turned against the administration, while the ordinary villagers and nomads, who habitually blamed the government for any difficulties, were quick to associate economic depression with Gordon’s Christianity. And then suddenly, in the middle of rising discontent in the Sudan, Ismāʿīl’s financial position collapsed. In difficulties for years, he could now no longer pay the interest on the Egyptian debt, and an international commission was appointed by the European powers to oversee Egyptian finances. After 16 years of glorious spending, Ismāʿīl sailed away into exile. Gordon resigned.

Gordon left a perilous situation in the Sudan. The Sudanese were confused and dissatisfied. Many of the ablest senior officials, both European and Egyptian, had been dismissed by Gordon, departed with him, or died in his service. Castigated and ignored by Gordon, the bureaucracy had lapsed into apathy. Moreover, the office of governor-general, on which the administration was so dependent, devolved upon Muḥammad Raʾūf Pasha, a mild man ill-suited to stem the current of discontent or to shore up the structure of Egyptian rule, particularly when he could no longer count on Egyptian resources. Such then was the Sudan in June of 1881 when Muḥammad Aḥmad declared himself to be the Mahdī (the “Divinely Guided”).

The Mahdiyyah of Sudan

Muḥammad Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd Allāh was the son of a Dunqulahwi boatbuilder who claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Deeply religious from his youth, he was educated in one of the Sufi orders, the Sammāniyyah, but he later secluded himself on Ābā Island in the White Nile to practice religious asceticism. In 1880 he toured Kordofan, where he learned of the discontent of the people and observed those actions of the government that he could not reconcile with his own religious beliefs. Upon his return to Ābā Island, he clearly viewed himself as a mujaddid, a “renewer” of the Muslim faith, his mission to reform Islam and return it to the pristine form practiced by the Prophet. To Muḥammad Aḥmad the orthodox ʿulamāʾ who supported the administration were no less infidels than Christians, and, when he later lashed out against misgovernment, he was referring as much to the theological heresy as to secular maladministration. Once he had proclaimed himself Mahdī, Muḥammad Aḥmad was regarded by the Sudanese as an eschatological figure who foreshadowed the end of an age of darkness (his arrival coincided with the end of a century—in this case, the 13th—of the Islamic calendar, a period traditionally associated with religious renewal) and heralded the beginnings of a new era of light and righteousness. Thus, as a divinely guided reformer and symbol, Muḥammad Aḥmad fulfilled the requirements of mahdī in the eyes of his supporters.

Surrounding the Mahdī were his followers, the anṣar (“helpers,” a Qurʾānic term referring to one group of Muhammad’s early followers), and foremost among them was ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muḥammad, who came from the Taʿāʾishah tribe of the Baqqārah Arabs and, as caliph (khalīfah, “successor”), assumed the leadership of the Mahdist state upon the death of Muḥammad Aḥmad. The holy men, the faqīhs who had long lamented the sorry state of religion in the Sudan brought on by the legalistic and unappealing orthodoxy of the Egyptians, looked to the Mahdī to purge the Sudan of the faithless ones. Also in his following, more numerous and powerful than the holy men, were the merchants formerly connected with the slave trade. All had suffered from Gordon’s campaign against the trade, and all now hoped to reassert their economic position under the banner of religious war. Neither of these groups, however, could have carried out a revolution by themselves. The third and vital participants were the Baqqārah Arabs, the cattle nomads of Kordofan and Darfur who hated taxes and despised government. They formed the shock troops of the Mahdist revolutionary army, whose enthusiasm and numbers made up for its primitive technology. Moreover, the government itself only managed to enhance the prestige of the Mahdī by its fumbling attempts to arrest him and proscribe his movement. By September 1882 the Mahdists controlled all of Kordofan, and at Shaykān on November 5, 1883, they destroyed an Egyptian army of 10,000 men under the command of a British colonel. After Shaykān, the Sudan was lost, and not even the heroic leadership of Gordon, who was hastily sent to Khartoum, could save the Sudan for Egypt. On January 26, 1885, the Mahdists captured Khartoum and massacred Gordon and the defenders.

The reign of the Khalīfah

Five months after the fall of Khartoum, the Mahdī died suddenly on June 22, 1885. He was succeeded by the Khalīfah ʿAbd Allāh. The Khalīfah’s first task was to secure his own precarious position among the competing factions in the Mahdist state. He frustrated a conspiracy by the Mahdī’s relatives and disarmed the personal retinues of his leading rivals in Omdurman, the Mahdist capital of the Sudan.

Having curtailed the threats to his rule, the Khalīfah sought to accomplish the Mahdī’s dream of a universal jihad (holy war) to reform Islam throughout the Muslim world. With a zeal compounded from a genuine wish to carry out religious reform, a desire for military victory and personal power, and an appalling ignorance of the world beyond the Sudan, the Khalīfah sent his forces to the four points of the compass to spread Mahdism and extend the domains of the Mahdist state. By 1889 this expansionist drive was spent. In the west the Mahdist armies had achieved only an unstable occupation of Darfur. In the east they had defeated the Ethiopians, but the victory produced no permanent gain. In the southern Sudan the Mahdists had scored some initial successes but were driven from the upper Nile in 1897 by the forces of the Congo Free State of Leopold II of Belgium. On the Egyptian frontier in the north the jihad met its worst defeat, at Tūshkī in August 1889, when an Anglo-Egyptian army under Gen. F.W. (later Baron) Grenfell destroyed a Mahdist army led by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Nujūmī.

The Mahdist state had squandered its resources on the jihad, and a period of consolidation and contraction followed, necessitated by a sequence of bad harvests resulting in famine, epidemic, and death. Between 1889 and 1892 the Sudan suffered its most devastating and terrible years, as the Sudanese sought to survive on their shriveled crops and emaciated herds. After 1892 the harvests improved, and food was no longer in short supply. Moreover, the autocracy of the Khalīfah had become increasingly acceptable to most Sudanese, and, having tempered his own despotism and eliminated the gross defects of his administration, he, too, received the widespread acceptance, if not devotion, that the Sudanese had accorded the Mahdī.

In spite of its many defects, the Khalīfah’s administration served the Sudan better than its many detractors would admit. Certainly the Khalīfah’s government was autocratic, but, while autocracy may be repugnant to European democrats, it not only was understandable to the Sudanese but appealed to their deepest feelings and attitudes formed by tribe, religion, and past experience with the centralized authoritarianism of the Ottomans. For them the Khalīfah was equal to the task of governing bequeathed him by the Mahdī. Only when confronted by new forces from the outside world, of which he was ignorant, did ʿAbd Allāh’s abilities fail him. His belief in Mahdism, his reliance on the superb courage and military skill of the anṣar, and his own ability to rally them against an alien invader were simply insufficient to preserve his independent Islamic state against the overwhelming technological superiority of Britain. And, as the 19th century drew to a close, the rival imperialisms of the European powers brought the full force of this technological supremacy against the Mahdist state.

Colonial History

The British conquest

British forces invaded and occupied Egypt in 1882 to put down a nationalist revolution hostile to foreign interests and remained there to prevent any further threat to the khedive’s government or the possible intervention of another European power. The consequences of this were far-reaching. A permanent British occupation of Egypt required the inviolability of the Nile waters—without which Egypt could not survive—not from any African state, which did not possess the technical resources to interfere with it, but from rival European powers, which could. Consequently, the British government, by diplomacy and military maneuvers, negotiated agreements with the Italians and the Germans to keep them out of the Nile valley. They were less successful with the French, who wanted them to withdraw from Egypt.

Once it became apparent that the British were determined to remain, the French cast about for means to force the British from the Nile valley. In 1893 an elaborate plan was concocted by which a French expedition would march across Africa from the west coast to Fashoda (Kodok) on the upper Nile, where it was believed a dam could be constructed to obstruct the flow of the Nile waters. After inordinate delays, the French Nile expedition set out for Africa in June 1896, under the command of Capt. Jean-Baptiste Marchand.

As reports reached London during 1896 and 1897 of Marchand’s march to Fashoda, Britain’s inability to insulate the Nile valley became embarrassingly exposed. British officials desperately tried one scheme after another to beat the French to Fashoda. They all failed, and by the autumn of 1897 British authorities had come to the reluctant conclusion that the conquest of the Sudan was necessary to protect the Nile waters from French encroachment. In October an Anglo-Egyptian army under the command of Gen. Sir (later Lord) Horatio Herbert Kitchener was ordered to invade the Sudan. Kitchener pushed steadily but cautiously up the Nile. His Anglo-Egyptian forces defeated a large Mahdist army at the Atbara River on April 8, 1898. Then, after spending four months preparing for the final advance to Omdurman, Kitchener’s army of about 25,000 troops met the massed 60,000-man army of the Khalīfah outside the city on September 2, 1898. By midday the Battle of Omdurman was over. The Mahdists were decisively defeated with heavy losses, and the Khalīfah fled, to be killed nearly a year later.

Kitchener did not long remain at Omdurman but pressed up the Nile to Fashoda with a small flotilla. There, on September 18, 1898, he met Captain Marchand, who declined to withdraw: the long-expected Fashoda crisis had begun. Both the French and British governments prepared for war. Neither the French army nor the navy was in any condition to fight, however, and the French were forced to give way. An Anglo-French agreement of March 1899 stipulated that French expansion eastward in Africa would stop at the Nile watershed.

The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium

The early years of British rule

Having conquered the Sudan, the British now had to govern it. But the administration of this vast land was complicated by the legal and diplomatic problems that had accompanied the conquest. The Sudan campaigns had been undertaken by the British to protect their imperial position as well as the Nile waters, yet the Egyptian treasury had borne the greater part of the expense, and Egyptian troops had far outnumbered those of Britain in the Anglo-Egyptian army. The British, however, did not simply want to hand the Sudan over to Egyptian rule; most Englishmen were convinced that the Mahdiyyah was the result of 60 years of Egyptian oppression. To resolve this dilemma, the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium was declared in 1899, whereby the Sudan was given separate political status under which sovereignty was jointly shared by the khedive and the British crown, and the Egyptian and the British flags were flown side by side. The military and civil government of the Sudan was invested in a governor-general appointed by the khedive of Egypt but nominated by the British government. In reality, there was no equal partnership between Britain and Egypt in the Sudan. From the first the British dominated the condominium and set about pacifying the countryside and suppressing local religious uprisings, which created insecurity among British officials but never posed a major threat to their rule. The north was quickly pacified and modern improvements were introduced under the aegis of civilian administrators, who began to replace the military as early as 1900. In the south, resistance to British rule was more prolonged; administration there was confined to keeping the peace rather than making any serious attempts at modernization.

The first governor-general was Lord Kitchener himself, but in 1899 his former aide, Sir Reginald Wingate, was appointed to succeed him. Wingate knew the Sudan well and, during his long tenure as governor-general (1899–1916), became devoted to its people and their prosperity. His tolerance and trust in the Sudanese resulted in policies that did much to establish confidence in Christian British rule by a devoutly Muslim, Arab-oriented people.

Modernization was slow at first. Taxes were purposely kept light, and the government consequently had few funds available for development. In fact, the Sudan remained dependent on Egyptian subsidies for many years. Nevertheless, railway, telegraph, and steamer services were expanded, particularly in Al-Jazīrah, in order to launch the great cotton-growing scheme that remains today the backbone of Sudan’s economy. In addition, technical and primary schools were established, including the Gordon Memorial College, which opened in 1902 and soon began to produce a Western-educated elite that was gradually drawn away from the traditional political and social framework.

Scorned by the British officials (who preferred the illiterate but contented fathers to the ill-educated, rebellious sons) and adrift from their own customary tribal and religious affiliations, these Sudanese turned for encouragement to Egyptian nationalists, and from that association 20th-century Sudanese nationalism was born. Its first manifestations occurred in 1921, when ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Laṭīf founded the United Tribes Society and was arrested for nationalist agitation. In 1924 he formed the White Flag League, dedicated to driving the British from the Sudan. Demonstrations followed in Khartoum in June and August and were suppressed. When the governor-general, Sir Lee Stack, was assassinated in Cairo on November 19, 1924, the British forced the Egyptians to withdraw from the Sudan and annihilated a Sudanese battalion that mutinied in support of the Egyptians. The Sudanese revolt was ended, and British rule remained unchallenged until after World War II.

The growth of national consciousness

In 1936 Britain and Egypt had reached a partial accord in the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that enabled Egyptian officials to return to the Sudan. Although the traditional Sudanese sheikhs and chiefs remained indifferent to the fact that they had not been consulted in the negotiations over this treaty, the educated Sudanese elite were resentful that neither Britain nor Egypt had bothered to solicit their opinions. Thus, they began to express their grievances through the Graduates’ General Congress, which had been established as an alumni association of Gordon Memorial College and soon embraced all educated Sudanese.

At first the Graduates’ General Congress confined its interests to social and educational activities, but, with Egyptian support, the organization demanded recognition by the British to act as the spokesman for Sudanese nationalism. The Sudanese government refused, and the Congress split into two groups: a moderate majority, prepared to accept the good faith of the government, and a radical minority, led by Ismāʿīl al-Azharī, which turned to Egypt. By 1943 Azharī and his supporters had won control of the Congress and organized the Ashiqqāʾ (Brothers), the first genuine political party in the Sudan. Seeing the initiative pass to the militants, the moderates formed the Ummah (Nation) Party under the patronage of Sayyid ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Mahdī, the posthumous son of the Mahdī, with the intention of cooperating with the British toward independence.

Sayyid ʿAbd al-Raḥmān had inherited the allegiance of the thousands of Sudanese who had followed his father. He now sought to combine to his own advantage this power and influence with the ideology of the Ummah. His principal rival was Sayyid ʿAlī al-Mīrghānī, the leader of the Khatmiyyah brotherhood. Although he personally remained aloof from politics, Sayyid ʿAlī threw his support to Azharī. The competition between the Azharī-Khatmiyyah faction—remodeled in 1951 as the National Unionist Party (NUP)—and the Ummah-Mahdist group quickly rekindled old suspicions and deep-seated hatreds that soured Sudanese politics for years and eventually strangled parliamentary government. These sectarian religious elites virtually controlled Sudan’s political parties until the last decade of the 20th century, stultifying any attempt to democratize the country or to include the millions of Sudanese remote from Khartoum in the political process.

Although the Sudanese government had crushed the initial hopes of the Congress, the British officials were well aware of the pervasive power of nationalism among the elite and sought to introduce new institutions to associate the Sudanese more closely with the task of governing. An advisory council was established for the northern Sudan consisting of the governor-general and 28 Sudanese, but Sudanese nationalists soon began to agitate to transform the advisory council into a legislative one that would include the southern Sudan. The British had facilitated their control of the Sudan by segregating the animist or Christian Africans who predominated in the south from the Muslim Arabs who were predominant in the north. The decision to establish a legislative council forced the British to abandon this policy; in 1947 they instituted southern participation in the legislative council.

The creation of this council produced a strong reaction on the part of the Egyptian government, which in October 1951 unilaterally abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 and proclaimed Egyptian rule over the Sudan. These hasty and ill-considered actions only managed to alienate the Sudanese from Egypt until the revolution in July 1952 led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muḥammad Naguib placed men with more understanding of Sudanese aspirations in power in Cairo. On February 12, 1953, the Egyptian government signed an agreement with Britain granting self-government for the Sudan and self-determination within three years for the Sudanese. Elections for a representative parliament to rule the Sudan followed in November and December 1953. The Egyptians threw their support behind Ismāʿīl al-Azharī, the leader of the NUP, who campaigned on the slogan “Unity of the Nile Valley.” This position was opposed by the Ummah Party, which had the less-vocal but pervasive support of British officials. To the shock of many British officials and to the chagrin of the Ummah, which had enjoyed power in the legislative council for nearly six years, Azharī’s NUP won an overwhelming victory. Although Azharī had campaigned to unite the Sudan with Egypt, the realities of disturbances in the southern Sudan and the responsibilities of political power and authority ultimately led him to disown his own campaign promises and to declare Sudan an independent republic with an elected representative parliament on January 1, 1956.

Major Historical Sites

Jebel Barkal and the sites of the Napatan Region

Jebel Barkal and the monuments of the Napatan region are situated about 325km north of Khartoum in Northern State, Sudan in the region of Karima. They were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2003 and include the monuments of Jebel Barkal, El-Kurru, Nuri, Sanam and Zuma.

Monuments and sites of the Island of Meroe

The archaeological sites of the Island of Meroe includes Meroe and the nearby settlements and religious centers at Naga and Musawwarat es-Sufra. Meroe itself comprises a walled Kushite royal city, non-royal habitations and industrial areas, temples both within and outside the walled town, as well as three royal necropolises (Begrawiya).

Monuments of the Kingdom of Kerma

Kerma was the capital of the first Kingdom of Kush and its culture, holds spiritual, national and political significance that continues to resonate with the present generation of Sudanese. Around 2500BC, one of the earliest urban centres in sub-Saharan Africa developed there and it was capital of a kingdom referred to in Egyptian hieroglyphic texts as the Kingdom of Kush. The kingdom flourished between 2500 and 1500 BC and encompassed the area from the 1st to the 5th cataracts at its height. Kerma is located 45km north of the modern city of Dongola, the capital of the Northern State near the 3rd cataract.

Monuments and sites of Sai Island

Sai is a Nile island located between the 2nd and 3rd cataracts of the Nile River in the Northern state of Sudan. Naturally protected from the dangers of development, the island hosts a unique set of archaeological sites ranging from prehistory to the modern era.

Ancient Egyptian pharaonic sites

The pharaoh monuments in Sudan represent an important exchange of culture and values between the Egyptian and Kushite civilizations that occurred during the Egyptian New Kingdom (1550-1070 BC). The nominated monuments include the temples of Soleb, Sedeinga, and Sesebi and the town and quarries of Tombos.

Monuments of the medieval Christian Kingdoms of Nubia

The medieval period (6th-14th centuries AD) is represented by several sites in Sudan of which Old Dongola, Banganarti and Ghazali. All are situated in northern Sudan.

Islamic Monuments of al-Khandaq and Wad Nimeiri

Al-Khandaq is situated about 423km north of Khartoum on the left bank of the Nile. The town and its environs, Wad Nimeiri, Magasir Island, Kabtod and Hannek-Koya, include houses, palaces, qubbas, cemeteries and khawas of Islamic date. Al-Khandag was a primary port on the river between the 17th and 20th centuries connecting western Sudan with the river.

The port of Suakin

Suakin is a historic port on the Red Sea known for its coral buildings. Though possibly Limen Evangelis, a Ptolemaic and Roman port mentioned by Pliny, Suakin is first mentioned by name in the 10th century AD. It reached the heights of prosperity in the 15th century following the demise of Aydhab, a port on the Red Sea located to the north, and remained an access point for the trade to the East until it began to decline in the 16th century as new trade routes developed.

Monuments of Greater Khartoum

The Greater Khartoum consists of three cities, namely Khartoum, Bahri / Khartoum North, and Omdurman. These three cities host various monuments and buildings dated from the Funj Kingdom with the capital in Sennar to the modern times. From the Funj Kingdom, it remain mosques, khalwas and tombs of the religious leaders known as Suffi. Two remarkable authentic tombs can represent this period: the tomb of Idris Wad el Arbab in Eliaphoon area located 20 km to the east of Khartoum, and the tomb of Ageeb ibn Elsheikh Abdelzazig Jamma known as Ageeb El Manjuluk, which is in the Qarri village in 50 km from Khartoum.

Few monuments from the Ottoman period remain in Khartoum including three tombs of Turkish Bashas and Army Officers, the Khartoum Greater Mosque, and the Arbab El Agael (Farouq) Mosque.

The remarkable buildings of the British period (1881- 1955) are the Gordon Memorial College (now the Library of the University of Khartoum), the Governor’s Palace (now the Old President Palace), the Old Post Office, the Ministry of Finance, the Judiciary, etc.

The Mahdi’s period (1885-89) mainly represented by buildings / monuments of Omdurman. Among them we can mention the Mahdi’s tomb, Khalifa’s House, etc. We can mention also the remains of old Omdurman known as Mulazimeen Sur, and a series of defensive forts built with mud bricks on both banks of the Nile River between Omdurman and Sabaloga / sixth cataract.


Sudan is truly a unique country, definitely off the beaten track, and not for your average traveler. Tourism in itself is in it's infant shoes, with a maximum of approximately 10,000 visitors a year. However for the hardened traveler, able to adapt to the rich multi-culture of Sudan, the rewards will be high. Sudan boasts different climatic regions, spanning from jungles, to desert and 750 Km of the most pristine, undeveloped shores of the Red Sea.