Modern history of Sudan begins in 1820 when Ibrahim Pasha, son of Egyptian ruler/governor Muhammad Ali, conquers much of the modern nation.
Before this conquest, Sudan was mostly divided between various, independent tribal leaders. Individually, they were too weak to stand up against Ibrahim Pasha’s organized troops.
A garrison is established for the Egyptian troops on the narrow strip of land where the Blue and White Niles converge. This garrison is called Khartoum, meaning trunk, or snout, and eventually grows into a large city.
Sudan remained a province of Egypt, which was itself an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire, until 1885. By then, the Ottoman Empire was too weak to exert control, and the descendants of Muhammad Ali were poor leaders.
This poor leadership led to instability and some areas of Sudan breaking free from Egyptian control.
The Suez Canal
In 1869 the Suez Canal opened, linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. This was vitally important for Britain because it gave them easy access to the crown jewel of their empire, India.
Britain had to make sure whoever was running things in Egypt was favorable to British interests. Together with the French, they maneuver to make Muhammad Ali’s grandson Tewfik Pasha, Khedive, or Administrator, of Egypt.
With British and French support, Ismail reestablishes control over Sudan. By 1880, there are several Egyptian garrisons throughout Sudan, and things are looking good for Egypt and Britain.
By 1881, the Sudanese were tired of the Egyptian-Turkish-European subjugation. This animosity led to a Sudanese man named Muhammad Ahmed claiming to be the Mahdi.
According to Islamic eschatology, the Mahdi is a messianic Islamic reviver who will bring victory to Muslims over their non-Muslim oppressors.
Muhammad Ahmed was based on an island in the Nile river. After he claimed to be the Mahdi he also called for the establishment of Shariah law. With this, the Egyptian government sent soldiers to the island to arrest him.
The small Egyptian arresting party were overwhelmed on this isolated island and over half of them were killed by Muhammad Ahmed’s followers.
This was the beginning of the Mahdist War.
The Mahdist War
Muhammad Ahmed called for a Jihad against the Egyptian and Turkish government. Other local tribes, who didn’t care for their foreign rulers, joined his crusade.
Despite a lack of weapons and formal training, Muhammad Ahmed’s rebellion was surprisingly successful. By 1884 they’ve reached the capital, Khartoum, and begin to lay siege to the city.
The British send one of their best generals, Charles Gordon, to Sudan to end the rebellion. Gordon had previously worked with the Egyptian Pasha’s to subdue Sudan four years earlier.
However, by now all he can do is try to organize a successful evacuation of the citizens. He manages to get most of the civilians out of Khartoum and up the Nile back into Egypt.
Gordon stays in Khartoum with his soldiers, hoping to hold out until the British send more reinforcements.
Ten months later, the British did send more troops, but by then it was too late. Gordon’s troops had been decimated by hunger and disease.
Muhammad Ahmed’s soldiers, called Mahdiyya, breached Khartoum’s defenses and killed most of the survivors, including Charles Gordon himself.
The British and Egyptian troops that were sent to relieve Gordon have no choice but to withdraw and Muhammad Ahmed establishes an Islamic government in Sudan. He rules for another six months before dying of typhoid fever.
Nonetheless, it will be another thirteen years before the British and Egyptians finally defeat the Mahdiyyas. In 1898, the Mahdi troops are wiped out by British artillery and machine guns, and the British reestablish control over Sudan.
The British publicly state they are only fighting to restore the rightful authority of the Egyptian Pasha’s over the region of Sudan. But of course, they really want to make sure a friendly and stable government is in place so they have easy access to the Suez Canal.
Essentially, the British allow the Egyptians to have control over domestic affairs. But they are still subservient to the British who handle all of their foreign affairs.
The Beginning of Discord
However, during this time, the British do impose some strange rules governing Sudanese internal policy.
Most of northern Sudan is Muslim and the people there consider themselves Arab. Arabic is their native language, and though they tend to be darker than the Egyptians, they do have some Arab features.
Most of southern Sudan is African, and follow various traditional African religions, mostly some form of animism.
The British prohibit norther Sudanese from traveling south of the 10th parallel. They likewise prevent southern Sudanese from traveling north of the 8th parallel.
Meanwhile, the British allow and encourage various Christian missionary groups to move into southern Sudan and begin spreading Christianity.
These rules prevent Islam from penetrating the southern regions of Sudan. And within a few generations, most of the traditional African religions are gone, and southern Sudan is primarily Christian.
This situation would continue for the next fifty-seven years until Sudan is finally granted independence from both the British and Egypt.
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