A History of Sudan: The Somewhat Condensed Version

If you ask someone about the country of Sudan, you’re likely to get some blank stares or a tentative response that includes words like “terrorism” and “wartorn.” Someone up on their human rights atrocities might know that there is a continuing conflict in Darfur and that there have been efforts to bring charges against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity; or they might associate the country with its refugees, perhaps having seen a documentary about the Lost Boys or having read Dave Eggers’s book What is the What? You’re certainly unlikely to hear anyone recommend Sudan as a honeymoon destination.

The ongoing and very real conflicts have darkened what would otherwise be, and in many places still is, a wonderful country to visit. It was a privilege to spend several weeks cycling through a place where few foreigners travel, where the friendliness of the people is overflowing and genuine, and where the history is rich and complex.

In this post I’ll provide a window into that history, but as a refresher you may first want to review my post on A History of Egypt: The Condensed Version. I know, even the condensed version was long – but there were some nice pictures and a few funny bits to get you through! More importantly, just about every power that has controlled Egypt has controlled Sudan at some point – the Ancient Egyptians, the Christians, the Islamic caliphates, the Ottoman Empire, and the Brits – so it might be good to remind yourself how those powers affected the development of Egypt.

imageIt will also be helpful to know a little about Sudan’s geography. The north of Sudan looks very similar to Egypt, and its history is more intimately tied to Egypt’s than the rest of the country. Civilization is centered on the Nile, which continues to wend its way south through a series of five cataracts (making six in total, including the first at Aswan in Egypt). Just a few miles away from the Nile, the desert becomes harsh and inhospitable (we biked through this part, so I speak from experience) and is home mostly to nomadic tribes.

At modern-day Khartoum, the Nile splits into its two main tributaries: the Blue Nile, which has its source at Lake Tana in Ethiopia; and the White Nile, which begins at Lake Victoria in Uganda. Interestingly, the reason why the source of the White Nile remained elusive to European explorers for some time is because the river passes through the Sudd, a swamp in what is now South Sudan that is mostly unnavigable. While some explorers, such as Sir Howard Baker, attempted to trace the source of the Nile by heading upstream through the Sudd, other explorers, most notably David Livingstone, tried with varying degrees of success to determine the Nile’s source from the other direction.

(Livingstone died in 1873 believing that the Lualaba River eventually became the Nile. He was wrong; the Lualaba turns into the other great river of Africa, the mighty Congo. This fact was proved conclusively to European eyes after an expedition by the American Henry Morton Stanley, an event that was one of the triggers for a massive episode of European colonialism commonly referred to as the Scramble for Africa. But that’s a story for another post.)

Between the two Nile tributaries lies a fertile area home to the modern province of Sennar, which was at one time dominated by the Funj Sultanate. To the west of the country lies the arid Darfur region, which became a center of power for the Fur Sultanate in the fifteenth century. Between these two areas is the region of Kordofan, which historically has been a buffer zone in the power struggle between the two sultanates. In the South of Kordofan, the Nuba Mountains divide Sudan from what is now South Sudan. All of these regions are quite large: to get an idea of the scale, Darfur is the same size as France.

The ancient Sudanese history for which we have the best historical record centers around the Nile in the north. South of Aswan, the Nubia region has been inhabited for over 10,000 years, including a settlement at Kerma where a huge mudbrick structure called the Deffufa is the largest, and possibly oldest, manmade structure in sub-Saharan Africa.

imageA number of ancient Egyptian dynasties made incursions into Nubia during the Old and Middle Kingdoms; this turned into active conquest during the reign of Thutmose I, who founded the New Kingdom. The Egyptian province in Nubia was known as Kush, which is possibly the same Cush referred to in the Old Testament. The Egyptians built a Temple of Amun (like the temple dedicated to the same deity at Karnak in Luxor) at Jebel Barkal, which means “sacred mountain.” On one of our rest days, we climbed to the top of this mountain near modern-day Kerima to survey what would have been the southernmost point of the ancient Egyptian empire. When the New Kingdom disintegrated around 1070 BC, Kush was released from Egyptian control.

Remember how we skipped a bunch of Egyptian history from the downfall of the New Kingdom until Alexander the Great came along? So one of the things we skipped was an important period of Nubian history. Alara, King of Kush, established the city of Napata at the foot of Jebel Barkal around 780 BC and consolidated Nubian power so successfully that his grandson Piye was able to conquer Egypt fifty years later, establishing the 25th dynasty – the so-called Nubian Dynasty. The most powerful Kushite king, Taharqa, expanded the borders of Nubian control to the edges of Libya and Palestine and constructed a new temple at Jebel Barkal.

imageAfter Taharqa, the Nubians lost control of Egypt. Around 270 BC, while the Ptolemies were busy living it up in Egypt, the Kushite rulers moved their power center further south, abandoning the tomb-building at Napata and Jebel Barkal for a site between the fifth and sixth cataracts of the Nile at Meroë. There are around 100 pyramids at the site in Meroë and unfortunately the cycle tour missed this site by taking a shortcut through the desert to Khartoum (although luckily we were able to see great pyramids at Jebel Barkal). The pyramids in Sudan are both shorter and steeper than their Egyptian counterparts, but equally beautiful; Meroë is the best place to view them if you fancy an archaeological holiday.

When the Romans grabbed control of Egypt from Antony and Cleopatra, they were unable to extend their power into Nubia despite a number of military incursions. Eventually the Romans sued for peace, an entente that lasted 300 years until the Kushites lost power and the now-Christian Romans were able to establish control in a number of areas. The Nubian Christians followed the Coptic Church in Egypt after it split from other branches of Christianity. This period is marked artistically by a number of beautiful frescoes in cathedrals that were built along the Nile; we saw several examples that are now preserved at the National Museum in Khartoum.

In a repeat of what we just saw with the Romans, the Arab invaders who took control of Egypt in 640 failed to extend their authority south into Nubia. There’s just something about that first cataract at Aswan. Instead, the Arabs and Nubians negotiated a baqt, or peace treaty, which remained in place for 600 years. During this time, Islam very slowly spread south; this process was aided by the establishment of a port at Suakin on the Red Sea Coast, which was built for pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

When the Mamluks came to power in Egypt in 1250 (remember them? They’re the slaves that overthrew their masters, the Ayyubids), they became more aggressive with their military incursions into Christian Nubia. In 1323, Kanz al-Dawla, a Nubian convert to Islam, became king.

Over the next several hundred years, three main power centers arose – all of which were Islamic. Besides the Arab Mamluk rulers in the north, there were two sultanates in the southwest and southeast of present-day Sudan. Amara Dunqas founded the Funj Sultanate in Sennar; his descendants were able to push the Arabs back to the third cataract and extend the power of the Funj past the White Nile and the Nuba Mountains. Meanwhile, the Fur Sultanate in the west became a powerful force. The Fur and Funj clashed repeatedly in the Kordofan region.

Both of these sultanates derived their wealth from trade in human traffic. Slaves went north from the Funj through the major slave town of Shendi on their way to Cairo. Slaves also traveled north from the Fur region along the arduous Forty Days Route, a desert route that derives its name from its forty marching segments. The actual journey was much longer and many people died during the march. We passed by part of the route, which is still used to herd camels to Cairo; it was sobering to see the number of camel carcasses along the way and to imagine how at one time the route would have been littered with human remains.

Everything changed in Sudan when Mohammed Ali came to power in Egypt in the early 1800s. He’s the guy that invited all the remaining Mamluk leaders to dinner AND THEN KILLED THEM. He was similarly ruthless in Sudan. In 1821, he sent his son Ismail to gain control over the area. Ismail quickly demolished the remaining Mamluks up north before establishing the city of Khartoum at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile and conquering the Funj. Ali’s primary interest in Sudan was the slave trade, and an increasing number of people were sent north into bondage.

Ali’s grandson Khedive Ismail saw himself as a reformer and attempted to stem the traffic in human beings. By this time, Britain had also abolished slavery and wanted to stop the practice in areas under its control. As we have seen, those areas included Egypt after Ismail’s government went into debt to the tune of the Suez Canal and Britain stepped in to establish the veiled protectorate. Britain sent General Charles Gordon to become the Governor General of Sudan, but Gordon found the work disillusioning. Slavery was the bedrock of Sudanese trade and disrupting the practice was a monumental task. The powerful slaver Zubeir Pasha had overthrown the Fur Sultanate in Darfur and gained so much influence that the Ottoman Empire proclaimed him governor of the region in 1873. Gordon had some success bringing Darfur to heel, but made little impact elsewhere. In 1879, Gordon tendered his resignation, and Britain turned a blind eye to a new power center that was growing to the south of Khartoum.


imageThe son of boat-builders from the north of Sudan, Mohammed Ahmed was a holy man who began preaching on Aba Island in the south. He proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer of Islam, and vowed to overthrow the Turks – who, despite all the British meddling, were still officially in control. The Mahdi successfully captured the second largest town in Sudan: El Obeid, the center of Kordofan. Britain and the Ottomans took notice, and the colonial powers sent an Egyptian army led by British officer William Hicks to recapture the town. It was a disaster. During the Battle of Sheikan, the Ansar (the followers of the Mahdi) massacred the entire army of 10,000 men. Darfur and the Bahr al Ghazal area in what is now South Sudan fell soon after; and in the east, the nomadic Beja tribes under the leadership of Osman Digna signaled their support of the Mahdi. Only Khartoum and the port at Suakin held out.

Britain had to save face after the disaster at Sheikan, so prime minister Gladstone re-appointed General Gordon as Governor General and sent him to evacuate Khartoum. There was some ambiguity in the orders, and Gordon believed he needed to establish some form of administration to stand against the Mahdi before leaving. He proposed handing over power to the slaver Zubeir Pasha, but that plan proved disastrously unpopular, so he then resolved to hold Khartoum himself.

The Mahdi laid the city under siege in September 1884. Initially, Gordon was protected by both branches of the Nile; but as the waters began to drop, his defenses became increasingly exposed. Britain had to do something. The government ultimately sent a rescue expedition, but inexplicably opted to send the force up the Nile rather than make the dash across the desert from the port of Suakin. It was a fatal error: the rescue force arrived two days after Khartoum had fallen on 26 January 1885. General Gordon was stabbed to death on the steps of the governor’s palace and later beheaded.

The Mahdi wasn’t able to enjoy his victory for long – he died five months later, probably from typhoid – but his successor, Khalifa Abdullah, set about reshaping the country. Omdurman, on the West Bank of the Nile across from Khartoum, became the new capital and the Mahdi’s tomb became a required pilgrimage site. The Khalifa’s army flexed its muscles against both Egypt and Ethiopia, but at the cost of weakening the state and making it susceptible to a new British invasion.

Britain had turned its attention away from Sudan after the Gordon fiasco, but renewed its interest in the area after King Leopold II of Belgian started eyeing up parts of the Nile headwaters to add to his Congo Free State (spoiler alert: NOT a free state for the Congolese people who lived there). Britain sent General Kitchener to reestablish control. We’re going to meet Lord Kitchener again when we get to South Africa, so keep him in mind.

imageIn an extremely mismatched battle outside Omdurman on 2 September 1898, the British decimated the Ansar and destroyed the Mahdi’s tomb (it was later rebuilt and remains an important site today). The Khalifa fled and was killed a year later in Kordofan. Ali Dinar reestablished the Fur Sultanate in Darfur in the wake of the Mahdist collapse, but a military expedition in 1916 toppled him and settled Sudan’s western boundaries.

During this period, the Egyptians (aka the Turks) were nominally in control, but Britain really pulled the strings. What does this sound like? Oh yes, Egypt during the same time! Except in Sudan, the weird power sharing had an equally strange name: the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, which sounds more like a residential development.

When Egypt formally gained its independence in 1922 (but jokes! We all know Egypt wasn’t really independent until King Farouk sailed off in 1952), the Sudanese began calling for self-determination as well. Britain eventually agreed to a new legislative assembly and entered talks about self-determination with the Umma party, headed by the Mahdi’s grandson Siddiq al-Mahdi, and the Democratic Unionist Party.

Sudan became independent from both Egypt and Britain on 1 January 1956, with Ismail al-Azhari of the DUP as its first president. The traditional territory of Nubia was split, with the northern section just below Aswan going to Egypt. Things didn’t go well for the new Republic. General Abboud swept to power in a military coup in 1958, starting off a series of intermittent coups and elections for the next thirty years. Sudan’s current leader, Omar al-Bashir, gained control of the country in a military coup in 1989.

Sudan’s history over the past 60 years is complex and I was by no means able to become an expert during my short time there. But here are some broad strokes.

The main conflict in Sudan (and source of many refugees) since 1955 has been the tension between Khartoum and the area that is now South Sudan. Unlike the rest of Sudan, South Sudan remained Christian and never converted to Islam. As a result, there was a religious component to the dispute – but that seems like an oversimplification. In general, it appears that South Sudan never felt its interests were represented by the succession of governments in Khartoum. Not surprisingly, there was also a natural resources component of the tension: South Sudan has a lot of oil, an estimated four times the amount that is in Sudan.

Disquiet began as early as the 1950s, and exiled rebel groups began coalescing in Kampala under the Sudan African Nationalist Union (SANU) and its military wing, Anyanya. The situation reached a fragile peace in 1972 with the Addis Ababa Agreement, but fighting broke out again in 1983. This time, the rebel movement was called the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Despite internal faultlines and the overthrow of Ethiopian dictator Haile Maryam Mengistu in 1991, who had provided training camps and supplies for the rebels, the SPLM/A kept up resistance until a ceasefire was brokered in the Nuba Mountains in 2002. A peace agreement signed in Nairobi in 2005 led to a 2011 referendum in which South Sudan voted for secession, becoming the newest country in the world.

While tensions between Sudan and South Sudan have subsided somewhat, they have not disappeared. The status of Abyei, a region on the border between the two countries, is still contested despite international arbitration. Meanwhile, South Sudan has struggled to get on its feet and internal power struggles and ongoing civil war have led to massive displacements and concerns about further deterioration and possible genocide. Needless to say, we did not cycle through South Sudan; instead, we entered Ethiopia directly from Sudan.

Meanwhile, concern over the fragility of the South Sudan peace deal led many international bodies to turn a blind eye to what was happening elsewhere in the country, especially Darfur. To an untrained eye (mine), the situation bears some similarities to the rebel movement in the south: namely, a frustration with the lack of representation in Khartoum. But whereas there was an additional religious component at play in the south, an added factor in Darfur (which is wholly Muslim) appears to be an ethnic tension between Arab nomadic tribes and the black Fur and Massalit famers – although again, this is an oversimplification of a complex conflict.

imageA major reason these groups have come into tension is the desertification of the area from Lake Chad all the way to northern Darfur, a process which many scientists attribute to climate change. The quickly changing conditions have caused the nomadic Arab tribes to migrate further south in search of water, bringing them into conflict with more settled Fur and Massalit farming communities. Since the late 1980s, the government in Khartoum has supported the Arab tribes by arming them – the so-called janjawid militias. Fur-Arab and Arab-Massalit conflicts led to the formation of two rebel groups: the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice & Equality Movement. These groups launched attacks in 2003, which brought swift retribution from the janjawid. The situation quickly deteriorated, with many international groups calling the actions of the janjawid genocide.

The International Criminal Court issued warrants for the arrest of President al-Bashir on multiple counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. While these warrants were issued in 2009 and 2010, they have not been executed. The Sudanese government has predictably refused, and other African governments where al-Bashir has visited (including Chad, Kenya, Malawi, and Libya) have failed to arrest him on the grounds that the African Union opposes the warrants due to the concern that the execution of the warrants would destabilize Sudan. Despite a peace agreement concerning Darfur signed in 2011, the area remains extremely tense.

A final feature that has put Sudan in the news for the wrong reasons during the past two decades is its association with fundamentalist terrorist organizations. In the 1990s, Khartoum was the home of Osama bin Laden after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia (in 1996, international pressure led Sudan to expel bin Laden as well, at which point he traveled to Afghanistan); the city also played host to Carlos the Jackal. Tensions with the United States were heightened after the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. As a result of those bombings, President Clinton launched a retaliatory attack on a pharmaceutical factory in North Khartoum (which later proved to be a legitimate facility making valuable drugs, not products for chemical warfare). While Sudan allowed US investigators access to information on al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States continues to impose sanctions on the country for its alleged associations with international terrorist organizations.

What does all this recent history say about gay rights in Sudan? It’s a bleak picture, at least for the immediate future. It’s difficult to obtain information about what’s happening on the ground; as far as I know, there are no organizations openly fighting for LGBT rights in the country. It is often the case that the rights of sexual and other minorities take a back seat during times of conflict, and these groups are prone to be scapegoated in political power struggles. Sudan imposes the death penalty for homosexuality, at least against men who have committed three offenses. There is little accurate information to determine if this is a penalty that has been carried out frequently or at all during recent times.

A final observation I noted about the country: environmental rights are not a priority, and a number of controversial projects have escaped the notice of international groups. In Egypt, there was massive controversy in the lead-up to the opening of the Aswan High Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser in 1971. Many international groups contributed to efforts to save important historical treasures from flooding, including the beautiful temples at Abu Simbel. In contrast, the Merowe Dam in Sudan, a project of similar magnitude built at the fourth cataract of the Nile, opened in 2009 with a fraction of the publicity. The dam caused the displacement of 60,000 people and, like the Aswan High Dam, created a massive reservoir that flooded a vast area of the Nile. Despite some attempts to salvage important archaeological sites, many were submerged.

Posted in Travel Blog.


  1. We are so loving the history lessons and thrilled that you are actually “touching” them.
    Miss you and love you our Nate.

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