The region known in modern times as the Sudan (short for the Arabic bilad as-sudan, ‘land of the blacks’) has for much of its history been linked with or influenced by Egypt, its immediate neighbour to the north. But it also has a strong identity as the eastern end of the great trade route stretching along the open savannah south of the Sahara.
Soon after the uniting of the kingdoms of Egypt, in about 3100 BC, the pharaohs extend their control as far up the Nile as a boat can easily travel. This brings them to the first cataract (or rapid), in the region of modern Aswan.
Over the centuries the Egyptians push further south, past a succession of cataracts, first to raid and then to build fortified settlements among the people of these middle reaches of the Nile. By about 1500 BC the Egypt of the pharaohs extends as far up the river as the fourth cataract, in the region of the modern Merowe.
The area between the first and fourth cataracts is known to the Egyptians as Cush. To the Greeks, from Homer onwards, all the known people living south of Egypt are called Ethiopians (inhabiting the areas of modern Sudan and Ethiopia). Later again Sudan as far south as Khartoum becomes widely familiar under the Latin name Nubia. The whole region is rich in gold mines, and the name probably derives from the word for gold (nub in Mahasi, though this is only one among the many dialects of Nubia past and present).
During the most expansive period of dynastic Egypt, from the 16th century BC, it becomes conventional for pharaohs to build temples, monuments and proud boundary inscriptions in Cush (or Nubia).
Thutmose I, in about 1520 BC, penetrates further south than any of his predecessors and leaves an inscription some fifty miles upstream of Abu Hamad. In the north the most flamboyant statement of possession is the four colossal statues of Ramses II, carved in the sandstone cliff at Abu Simbel in about 1250 BC.
As in any outpost of a long-lasting empire, the ruling class in Cush adopts the customs and beliefs of their imperial masters. The first lasting Cushite dynasty, established at some time before the 8th century BC with its capital city at Napata (near modern Merowe), is entirely Egyptian in style. And the Cushite god by this time is Amen-Re.
Indeed Kashta, the king of Cush in the early 8th century, maintains a court so authentic in its Egyptian manner that his descendants, after conquering Egypt, are willingly accepted as a dynasty of pharaohs.
The Cushite Dynasty: from c.730 BC
The first incursion of the kings of Cush into Egypt occurs in about 750 BC, when Kashta conquers upper Egypt (the region north of the first cataract and Abu Simbel). But it is his son Piye, also known as Piankhi, who from about 730 BC captures cities the entire length of the Nile as far north as Memphis and receives the submission of the local rulers of the delta region.
After this achievement Piye retires to his capital at Napata, where be builds a great temple to Amen-Re. But it is impossible to remain in control of Egypt from as far south as Napata. The final establishment of the Cushite or 25th dynasty is therefore the work of Piye’s brother, Shabaka, who succeeds him in about 719 BC.
Shabaka renews the campaign to the north, defeating Bochoris (a descendant of the previous Egyptian dynasty, whom Shabaka is said to have burnt alive) and installing himself securely in Thebes and Memphis.
Here he and and his descendants might well have ruled peacefully for some time, since they are widely welcomed for their pious safeguarding of the cult of Amen-Re. But it is their misfortune to coincide with the greatest external threat yet to confront the Nile civilization. The new power in the middle east is the formidable state of Assyria, now brutally subduing the many small states and cities of Palestine and Phoenicia.
From about 705 BC, when Assyria has a new king (Sennacherib), there is a widespread rebellion in the middle east against Assyrian rule. In support of the rebels the pharaoh (now Shabaka’s nephew Shebitku) marches north from Memphis with an Egyptian army. He is heavily defeated. Egypt becomes the next Assyrian target.
In 663 the Assyrian king (Esarhaddon, son of Sennacherib) captures Memphis, seizes the royal treasure and harem and claims the title ‘king of Egypt’. When the Assyrian army withdraws, leaving Egypt under the control of vassal rulers, the Cushites briefly recover Memphis. But another Assyrian expedition, in 663, settles the issue. This time Thebes is reached and plundered.
The traditional date for the end of the Cushite dynasty in Egypt is 656 BC. But this is very far from the end of the dynasty itself, which survives in the Sudan for another thousand years – still interring the royal family in Egyptian pyramids, at Napata and subsequently at Meroe.
The move further up the Nile to Meroe is made after an Egyptian expedition sacks Napata in about 590 BC. Over the centuries, living in remote isolation (as Persians, Greeks and Romans follow each other in control of Egypt itself), this southern outpost of Egyptian culture gradually fades away. Pyramids begin to be built in brick instead of stone. The knowledge of writing is forgotten. Finally, in the 4th century AD, Meroe is sacked by an army from neighbouring Aksum.
Nubia has Christian neighbours to the north and to the southeast from the 4th century, when Egypt formally adopts the religion (along with the rest of the Byzantine empire) and when the ruler of Ethiopia is converted to Christianity by Frumentius. But it is another 200 years before Dongola, by now the main kingdom in Nubia, is brought within the Christian fold.
In about AD 543 the king of Dongola is converted to the monophysite version of Christanity, associated in particular with the Coptic church of Egypt and Ethiopia. A few years later, in about 569, the orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine empire reaches Mukarra, a neighbouring kingdom to the south.
During the following century the Christians of Egypt and north Africa succumb to the expansionist vigour of Islam. But Nubia is left free to follow its new Christian path, thanks partly to a treaty agreed in 652. In this year Muslim Arabs invade the northern part of the region from Egypt. But they agree to withdraw on condition that they are sent an annual tribute of 400 slaves.
The treaty holds for more than six centuries, during which the trade routes bring many Muslims south into Nubia. But Muslim raids begin in earnest in the 1270s during the reign of Baybars, the energetic Mameluke sultan of Egypt. In 1315 the annual tribute is finally abolished and a Muslim is placed on the throne of Dongola.
For the next five centuries the Muslim rulers of the Sudan are sometimes the representatives of a powerful administration in Egypt (for example in the early Ottoman years, after 1517). But they are more often tribal dynasties, managing to assert control for a while over a territory more extensive than their immediate local area.
This changes in 1821, when the the region is forcefully taken in hand by the most aggressive ruler of Egypt since the time of Baybars – the Ottoman viceroy Mohammed Ali.
Egyptian rule: from AD 1821
In 1820 Mohammed Ali sends two armies south into the Sudan, each commanded by one of his younger sons. By 1821 they have conquered sufficient of the territory to establish themselves in military headquarters on the point of land formed by the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. The long narrow shape of the camp, coming to a point where the waters join, gives it the name ‘elephant’s trunk’ – or Khartoum in Arabic.
A few years later Khartoum is made the administrative centre of an Egyptian province in the Sudan, acquiring the status of a capital which it and Omdurman, on the opposite bank, have retained ever since.
Though at first seen as part of the Ottoman empire, the independence claimed by Mohammed Ali means that the Sudan becomes once again what it has been in ancient times – the southern province of Egypt. And Egypt steadily claims more and more of the surrounding territory.
From 1846 there are Egyptian officials in the Red Sea ports of Suakin and Mits’iwa. And in 1869 Samuel Baker returns to the southern Sudan, this time with an army, to annexe the vast region known as Equatoria on behalf of the khedive of Egypt (now Ismail, a grandson of Mohammed Ali). But Egyptian control remains tenuous in much of this region. And it is made particularly unwelcome by the western influences to which Ismail inclines.
One cause of friction is the secular nature of Ismail’s westernized administration, which is deeply offensive to the traditionally pious Muslims of the Sudan. Another is the policy, inspired by western pressures but fully accepted in Cairo, of putting an end to the slave raiding and trading which is a central feature of the Sudanese economy.
When Baker marches south into Equatoria, as the khedive’s governor general, the suppression of the slave trade is part of his brief – together with the imposition of order in some very unruly regions. Four years later the same two tasks still confront his rather more effective successor in this role, Charles Gordon.
General Gordon accepts in 1873 the khedive’s appointment as governor general of Equatoria. His role is extended in 1877 to cover the whole of the Sudan. In six years of ceaseless effort, employing the decisive vigour for which his Chinese exploits have already made him famous, Gordon subdues rebellious groups in many different regions of the Sudan.
On his return to England, in 1880, he appears to leave a Sudan in which the Egyptian garrisons have the province well under control. But the situation is tranformed a year later by the emergence of a charismatic religious leader who takes advantage of the widespread discontent of the local Muslims.
The Mahdi and the British: AD 1881-1898
In or shortly before 1881 an ascetic religious leader, Mohammed Ahmed, living with his disciples on an island in the White Nile, is inspired by the revelation that he is the long-awaited Mahdi. Publicly announcing his new role, he calls for the creation of a strict Islamic state. The immediate result is an order from Khartoum for his arrest, followed by the escape to the mountains of the Mahdi and his followers.
The fervour of the faithful, combined with the Mahdi’s own skills, results during 1883 in a series of astonishing victories – the rapid defeat of three Egyptian armies (the last of them under a British general) and the capture of several key towns, including El Obeid.
The Egyptian garrisons further to the south are now dangerously isolated. So is the capital, Khartoum, with its vulnerable population of non-Sudanese civilians. In this crisis the British government, led at the time by Gladstone, hastily appoints Gordon to rush south to Khartoum on a rescue mission. But he is provided with woefully inadequate support.
Gordon reaches Khartoum on 18 February 1884 and begins to organize an evacuation. Some 2000 people – mainly women, children and the sick – have escaped by the time the Mahdi’s forces close in, on March 13, to begin the siege of the city.
Gordon has only a demoralized Egyptian garrison under his command, but he contrives to defy the Mahdi’s forces for a space of ten months. For nine of these London has no news of what is happening, for the Sudanese cut the telegraph line to Cairo in mid-April.
The unknown but all too imaginable fate of Gordon, already a hero from past campaigns, galvanizes public opinion in Britain and eventually forces a vacillating government to plan for the relief of Khartoum. In September 1884 Garnet Wolseley sails from London to lead an expedition up the Nile. His vanguard reaches Khartoum on 28 January 1885 – too late by just two days.
On 26 January the Mahdi’s forces have finally breached the walls of Khartoum and have massacred Gordon and the starving troops and citizens. Wolseley’s small army withdraws. The remaining Egyptian garrisons in the Sudan make their way north as best they can.
The Mahdi has made his camp around the small village of Omdurman, on the left bank of the Nile a short way downstream from the confluence of the two rivers. This now becomes the capital of a Sudan administered as an Islamic state in imitation of the early caliphate. The Mahdi rules until his death in June 1885, when he is succeeded by the man whom he has appointed as caliph – Abdullahi ibn Mohammed, usually known simply as the Khalifa.
For thirteen years the Khalifa maintains a military Islamic state in keeping with the early traditions of the caliphate, and on occasion his efforts at expansion meet with some success – as in his interference in 1889 in neighbouring Ethiopia.
But in the long run the Anglo-Egyptian alliance to the north has an irresistible military advantage. The death of Gordon is finally avenged in 1898 when Herbert Kitchener (a member as a young man of Wolseley’s failed expedition) mows down the Khalifa’s forces at Omdurman with artillery and machine-gun fire. This victory restores British and Egyptian control in the Sudan – though it is challenged two weeks later by France in the dangerous confrontation known as the Fashoda Incident.
Anglo-Egyptian Condominium: AD 1899-1956
The victorious army at Omdurman is mainly composed of Egyptian troops, though led by senior British officers, and the avowed purpose of the campaign is to restore order in this southern province of the khedive of Egypt. The Anglo-Egyptian partnership continues in the arrangements now made for the government of the Sudan. Sovereignty in the region is to be shared by the British crown and the khedive. British and Egyptian flags are to fly side by side.
But cooperation does not prove easy, particularly when politicians in Cairo after World War I begin to demand the incorporation of Sudan within Egypt – a policy vigorously opposed by Britain.
In 1924 outbreaks of anti-British violence in Egyptian units in the Sudan are followed by the assassination in Cairo of Lee Stack, the British governor general of the southern colony. The British response is to force the withdrawal of all Egyptian forces. For twelve years the British govern the Sudan on their own, until an Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1936 restores the role of Egyptian officials.
There are further disputes. In 1951 Egypt’s king Farouk, indignant that Britain has facilitated the first steps towards Sudanese independence (in the form of a legislative council), unilaterally declares himself ruler of a united kingdom of Egypt and the Sudan.
This declaration has little meaning on the ground, pleases no one in the Sudan and is soon rendered irrelevant when Farouk is himself overthrown in the 1952 coup by Naguib and other officers.
Naguib immediately recognizes Sudan’s right to self-determination, and in 1953 Britain and Egypt jointly agree to facilitate the transitional period. Elections in 1954 are won by the National Unionist Party, led by Ismail al-Azhari who has campaigned on a policy of merging Sudan with Egypt to achieve the ‘unity of the Nile Valley’. However his views are altered by the experience of office as prime minister. Contrary to his campaign rhetoric, he leads the nation into a separate independence at the start of 1956.
Independence and civil war: AD 1956-1985
In August 1955, less than six months before the agreed date of independence, the southern Sudan is convulsed by mutiny, riot and violent loss of life. The reason is alarm at the approaching event by the non-Muslim African majority in the south, where people are mainly Christian or animist. These southern Sudanese fear control by the more numerous Muslim Arabs of the northern regions.
With hindsight this event can be seen as a disastrous omen for the new nation. For the rest of the century the recurrent feature of the troubled political life of the area is the attempt by northern Muslim groups to transform the Sudan into a fundamentalist Islamic state.
The underlying strength of the Islamic movement derives from the strong Mahdist tradition in the Sudan. Indeed two of the main parties are at various times led by direct descendants of the Mahdi.
The political ambitions of the Muslim community fuel two separate long-running conflicts. One, in the north, is between religious and secular rivals, with the secular side at first advocating a Marxist economic policy. The other, between north and south, is a civil war in which insurgent groups in Equatoria fight for independence and freedom from the threat of Muslim domination.
The struggle for power in the north goes through several distinct phases. After a spell of military rule (1958-64), elections in 1965 bring in a Muslim government and a ban on the communist party. A left-wing coup in 1969 brings to power a colonel in the army, Gaafar Mohamed el-Nimeri, who establishes single-party rule by the Sudanese Socialist Party.
Nimeri aligns himself internationally with the socialist bloc, but at home he is a pragmatic ruler. This enables him in 1972 to end a 17-year-civil war in the rebellious southern province by signing the Addis Ababa Agreement, allowing for the internal autonomy of Equatoria.
However, ten years later, Nimeri reverses his policy – partly because violent unrest has recently revived in the south, but also in deference to the growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood in the north. In 1983 Nimeri amends Sudanese law to bring it into line with the strict and punitive Islamic legal code, the sharia. In the same year he abrogates the Addis Ababa Agreement, bringing the south back under central administration.
The result is an escalation of rebellion in the south and protest everywhere by moderates at the harsh application of the sharia. Nimeri vacillates, in an apparently hopeless situation. In 1985 he is toppled in a bloodless coup by his chief of staff.
National Islamic Front: from AD 1989
Elections are held within a year of the 1985 coup, bringing to power a succession of ineffective coalitions. Once again the situation is soon resolved by military intervention, in 1989. But this time the army and the Muslim fundamentalists are of one mind.
The general in command of the coup is Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. He rules at first through a Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation, a body closely linked to the NIF (National Islamic Front) which is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1996 elections are held. Bashir is confirmed in the presidency. The NIF, the only permitted party, wins all 400 seats in the national assembly.
With the coup of 1989 the outcome long feared by the south has come to pass. Sudan is in the hands of Muslim fundamentalists. Here, as elsewhere, they maintain control with a ruthlessness previously associated with secular dictators. Political liberties are suppressed, along with an independent press and judiciary. Extreme puritanism in everyday life is decreed for the population.
These developments add a new intensity to the civil war in the south, vigorously renewed by the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) after the collapse of the Addis Ababa Agreement. It now acquires the profile of a holy war with ethnic undertones. Impassioned Arab mujaheddin move south to confront the African infidels.
The result is another region of devastation and suffering, one of several which deface Africa at the end of the millennium. Since the resumption of the civil war in 1983 it is calculated that the Sudanese conflict has resulted in about 1.4 million deaths and 3 million displaced refugees.
In the second half of the 1990s there are steps towards peace, culminating in an agreement in 1998 between the government and the SPLA to hold a referendum on self-determination. No date has been set. But there are other signs that Bashir and the NIF wish to take tentative steps in the direction of democracy. Rival political parties are allowed legal existence from the start of 1999.
However the fragility of any such hope is evident in December 1999, when Bashir declares a three-month state of emergency just two days before a parliamentary vote on a proposal to limit the president’s powers.