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 Democratic elections.
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 state.
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 historical background.
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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 1750-1550 BCE.
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 Black Pharaohs.
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 Meroë, 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, Meroë 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 Muslims.
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 conquered Funj.
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 southern parts.
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 recaptured.
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 slaves.
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 Nimeiri regime.
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.