Sudan has since prehistoric times been a region where
cultural traditions from the Mediterranean and Africa met.
This is evident from the first complex community of Kush
originated in the Bronze Age. Christianity was introduced to
northern Sudan in the late 500s, and the Nubian Middle Ages
lasted for the next thousand years.
From 1899 to 1956 Sudan was ruled jointly by the United
Kingdom and Egypt under the so-called Anglo-Egyptian
condominium. In 1956, the colony became an independent
republic. After political turmoil, the military seized power
in 1969, and Sudan has since been essentially authoritarian,
with the exception of a short period after the 1986
Sudanese politics was largely characterized by the schism
between an Arab/Muslim north and an African Christian/
animist south. Civil war broke out in 1955, but was annexed
in 1972. From the early 1980s, the conflict flared up again,
while Sudan evolved to become a fundamentalist Islamic
The name Sudan
Sudan can also be used throughout the area south of the
Sahara desert between the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the
Red Sea in the east. The term comes from the Arabic term
Bilad as-Sudan which means "the land of the black
people", but it has been used especially to describe the
region south of Egypt - what is today's Sudan. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Sudan.
Although the name Sudan is mentioned in written sources
as early as the Middle Ages, the history of the state of
Sudan starts with Muhammad Ali, Egypt's 19th-century leader,
and his army's conquest of the Middle Nile and neighboring
regions. Nevertheless, the regions that came under the
authority of the new state of Khartoum - founded in 1821 by
the brother of Muhammad Ali - have pretty much a common
From ancient times, the northern part of Sudan had close
links north to Egypt, and it is this part of Sudan's oldest
history that is best documented. Sudan's oldest history is
closely related to the Nile and the lush areas along the
river. In today's South Sudan, the Nilvass River forms a
large swamp area called Sudd. Until recently, this was a
barrier to expansion from the north. As a result, the
independent state of South Sudan did not come under the
influence of neither ancient Egypt, the Kushite states, the
Christian Nubia, nor the Islamic caliphate.
The main periods of the older history of northern Sudan
are also described in the article Nubia's story.
As in many other areas, the different cultures of the
earliest Stone Age are not so visible. The large and roughly
cut tools in the Paleolithic are gradually getting finer and
already from the Mesolithic people are making pottery along
the Middle Nile pottery.
The Bronze Age
Copper and bronze were imported from Ancient Egypt to the
northernmost parts of Sudan from ca. 3000 BCE The people of
northern Sudan thus shared important cultural features with
the Bronze Age in Egypt, the Middle East and Europe.
South of the 3rd Nile Cataract, the city of Kerma became
the headquarters of the Kush kingdom, the earliest complex
community in Africa south of Egypt. The settlement and the
large burial ground at Kerma were established around 2500
BCE. The kingdom of Kush was at its peak in the period
Kerma was conquered by Egypt's 18th dynasty around 1550
BCE. The Egyptians established themselves along the Nile up
to the 5th cataract. Many Egyptian urban settlements,
temples and hieroglyphic inscriptions refer to their control
over long stretches of the Nile in northern Sudan. The
Egyptian colonies were abandoned approx. 1200 BCE
The period from approx. 1000 BCE to approx. 400 AD is the
highlight of Kush's culture. Local kings take power from the
Pharaohs, but also adopt their power models, monuments such
as pyramids, religious figures and temples, scriptures, etc.
between 750 and 660 BCE. the kings of Napata (the region
around Jebel Barkal, Kurru, Sanam and Nuri) become Pharaohs
of the 25th Dynasty, to be called the Kushite Dynasty or the
Following an attack by the Egyptian army under
Psammetikus, the capital moved south to the region of
today's city of Shendi. The new capital is called MeroŽ, and
today there is the largest pyramid burial ground in the
world. The Meroite kingdom came under the influence of
Hellenistic Egypt and the Roman Empire, but when the Nile in
sentiment lost its importance to the Roman world around the
Mediterranean, MeroŽ collapsed. At the same time emerged the
Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum, which was considered one of the
four greatest powers in the world of the Senate (the others
were Rome, Persia and China).
The Christian Middle Ages
Following the collapse of the Meroitic kingdom, at least
three new kingdoms took power in Sudan. Nobadia between the
first and the third Nile cataracts; Makuria between the
third cataract and the region around the river Atbara; and
Alwa south of Atbara. These kingdoms were Christians with
distinctive features of Coptic and Byzantine Christianity.
Old Nubian, Greek, Coptic and Arabic were all used in these
multilingual states. Their power lasted for almost 1,000
years, in some cases even longer.
The use of Arabic is linked to contacts with the
Caliphate in Egypt, from which the Arabic-speaking
population moved to Sudan and settled among Nubians,
especially in Lower Nubia. Gradually, the Arabic language
became more popular, and Nubians even chose Arabic names for
their children. Arabization therefore appears to be a
process that began earlier than, and independently of, the
Islamization of Nubia.
The Christian Middle Ages concentrate along the Nile.
Very little is known about this period from both the east
and west of the Nile, although macurithic activity has been
detected in Kordofan.
Islam in Sudan
From the end of the 600s, Arab immigration also increased
to Sudan, and Islam gained increasing influence. Clashes
between Arabs and Nubians were frequent, and pressure from
the caliphate led the king of Makuria to enter into a peace
and trade agreement (known as baqt) with the
After the first contacts, war and the agreement in the
6th century, a period of relative peace culminated in the
period of the Fatimids (969-1169 AD). Nevertheless, when the
Ayyubids conquered Egypt, they chose a more aggressive
policy against the neighbor in the south and attacked Nubia
in 1169/70 AD.
After the Mamluks established control of Egypt in 1250,
new expeditions were sent against Makuria, which was thrown
into chaos to a Muslim king seated on the throne of Old
Dongola in 1317 AD. Only small parts of Makuria and Alwa in
the southeast continued to be Christians after this period
and up to the 16th century.
The only state to seize power after the collapse of the
Makuritic kingdom was the Ottoman Empire. On the island of
Sai there are ruins of the southernmost fort of Ottomans.
South of the third cataract, the country was under the
control of the Funj Sultanate.
The highlight of the Funj dynasty was in the mid-1600s,
when the kingdom extended into Kordofan and subjugated the
Takali Kingdom, among others. Funj collapsed when Egypt
seized the capital Sennar in 1821. It was Muhammad Ali Pasha
who belonged to the Ottoman world and his army that
In Western Sudan, the Fur Sultanate grew in the 18th
century; located east of Wadai, a rival sultanate within the
Kayra Dynasty, established in 1445. Fur (later Darfur),
headquartered by the Marra Mountains and names from the
area's original population (fur), became an economic and
cultural center based on caravan trade.
Arabization and Islamization also spread to eastern
Sudan, to a lesser extent to the more difficult to access
North Sudan was conquered by Ottoman Egypt from 1820. In
1821 Funj was conquered and the sultan of Darfur
surrendered. The Nilotic Sudan, from Nubia to Ethiopia and
to Darfur, was incorporated into the Egyptian empire under
the expansive Muhammad Ali. Many of the smaller states were
dissolved, and a centralized government was exercised from
Khartoum, which was developed as the administrative capital.
The eastern parts, with Kassala and Suakin, were
subjugated to Khartoum in 1840, Equatoria in 1871, Bahr al-Ghazal
in 1873, Darfur in 1874. Extensive local resistance was
defeated by military force. With British support, Egyptian
hegemony was gradually established also over South Sudan,
and the Egyptian conquest meant that Sudan, by the end of
the 19th century, was for the first time assembled into a
modern state unit.
From 1877 Charles George Gordon became Governor General
of Sudan. His reforms met with resistance and thus weakened
central power. When in 1881 a revolt broke out against the
Egyptian supremacy, the religious leader Muhammad Ahmad ibn
Abdallah, the Mahdi, took power. For a time, the
Mahdi ruled an Islamic state. Mahdi's forces struck an
Egyptian army in 1883, and Sudan was lost to Egypt.
Gordon returned as general governor in 1884 and was
killed by the Mahdi troops the following year when the Mahdi
invaded Khartoum. The new Mahdi, Khalifah Abdallah, took
control of Darfur in the west and struck an Ethiopian force
in the east. The advance march in the south was halted by
forces from the Congo Free State (later Belgian Congo).
Subsequently, the Mahdi army was beaten by an Egyptian and
British force, led by General Horatio Kitchener, at the
Battle of Omdurman in September 1898. Sudan was thus
Colonial era and Anglo-Egyptian condominium
In the conquest, the Egyptian-British expeditions faced
resistance from slave traders, who had extensive power in
parts of Sudan, and in practice ruled large areas. The
struggle for the abolition of slavery was part of the
British motive to support Egyptian colonization. Egypt's
motive was to strengthen its regional position, politically
and economically. The economic influence was the
establishment of modern agriculture and communication, not
least to open South Sudan for trade, including ivory and
Britain's interest in Sudan was linked to the desire for
control over the Nile - and fears that other colonial powers
would establish themselves there. A diplomatic
confrontation, the so-called Fashoda crisis, occurred in
1898, threatening war between France and the United Kingdom.
From 1899 Sudan was ruled jointly by Egypt and the United
Kingdom, as a condominium, until independence in 1956, but
with the United Kingdom as the dominant party. A general
governor was appointed by the Egyptian governor, but elected
by the British government.
North Sudan accepted Egyptian-British rule faster than
South Sudan, where there was greater and more active
resistance. But political resistance, in the form of
Sudanese nationalism, first emerged in the north, after the
First World War. A rebellion led by educated Sudanese in the
north was wiped out in 1924.
Several political groups were formed that sought
independence, first the Graduates' General Congress,
which was rejected by the British authorities to become the
official speaker for the Sudanese. A split here led to the
establishment of the Ummah Party, which became an advocate
for independence in collaboration with the British.
The pressure for independence in the 1940s led to the
creation of a legislative assembly in 1948. This followed a
governing council, which was first established only with
participation from the north, from 1947 with representatives
from the south. Egypt responded in 1951 to the establishment
of a legislative assembly to terminate the Anglo-Egyptian
Treaty of 1936, declaring unilaterally Egyptian rule over
Sudan. This attitude changed with the revolution in Egypt in
1952, after which the new rulers declared themselves willing
to grant Sudan the right to self-government.
A new Anglo-Egyptian agreement in 1953 gave Sudan
internal autonomy for three years, with the withdrawal of
all Egyptian and British forces. The first elections were
held in 1953, won by the National Unionist Party (NUP)
with its leader, Ismail al-Azhari, as Sudan's first prime
minister. The NUP had opted for unity with Egypt - unlike
the Ummah party - and was supported by Egypt. Al-Azhari
formed government in 1954, also with representatives from
the south, where the discontent in 1955 led a group of
soldiers to revolt; the rebellion was quickly turned down.
Sudan became independent on January 1, 1956. In 1958, the
commander-in-chief, General Ibrahim Abboud, took power in a
military coup and established a military council to govern
the country; political parties were dissolved. He was even
forced to step down after a civil uprising in 1964.
The subsequent elections in 1965 were won by the Ummah
Party, and a coalition government was formed, without the
success of establishing political stability in the north, or
peace in the south. In 1969, the military regained power
under the command of Colonel Jaafar Mohammed al-Nimeiri. He
introduced a radical government in the country; banks and
parts of the business community were nationalized and a
socialist, state-supporting party, the Sudanese
Socialist Union (SSU), was formed.
Nimeiri defeated a Communist-backed coup in the summer of
1971, and was elected president that year - without a
counter candidate. In South Sudan, the Sudan African
National Union (SANU) was established in 1962. The
party demanded federal governance, subsidiary independence;
backed by armed resistance.
The opposition to the Khartoum government was
considerable in the north, both against Abboud and Nimeiri.
The opposition to Nimeiri's regime worked in exile, where it
received various support from Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and
Ethiopia at various times.
Islamization and civil war in the south
In the 1980s, the influence of conservative Islamic
forces continued to prevail, partly influenced by the Muslim
Brotherhood. Resistance to Nimeiri's regime in the south
increased after he introduced Sharia, Islamic law,
in 1983, accelerated by the influence of Islamists in the
military as well. The civil war in South Sudan broke out
again in 1983, much as a result of dissatisfaction with the
The Khartoum regime responded with a military campaign
aimed specifically at the civilian population, by destroying
crops, preventing food supplies, and displacing people from
their homes - with widespread distress in South Sudan and
widespread international condemnation.
In 1984, the president allowed thousands of Ethiopian
Jews to be evacuated to Israel. Cooperation with Israel
further weakened Nimeiri's position, and he was dismissed in
1985. Following a transitional government led by Defense
Secretary Abdel Rahman Swar ad-Dahab, parliamentary
elections were held in 1986, won by former Prime Minister
Sadiq al-Mahdi's Ummah party.
Al-Mahdi tried to find a peaceful solution to the war in
South Sudan, which failed because of opposition from his
government partner Hassan al-Turabi and his National
Islamic Front (NIF). When al-Mahdi was deposed in a
military coup in 1989, led by Brigadier Omar Hassan Ahmad
al-Bashir, al-Turabi gained more influence and was regarded
as the real leader of Sudan in the 1990s. In doing so, the
fundamentalist Islamist opposition had emerged and gained
political power. Al-Bashir sat with the board in Sudan for
30 years and was deposed in April 2019.