The Mahdist state of the Sudan lasted from the early 1880s to 1898. This independent state was founded by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah a charismatic Islamic leader in 1881, when he declared himself the Mahdi, which loosely means the ‘expected one’. As a prophet, the Mahdi was expected to cleanse society of corruption and the infidels – which in the Sudan meant the ‘Turks’, as the Sudanese called their Egyptian overlords. This piece is intended more as a background to what he accomplished. A detailed life history prior to the uprising can be found at Wikipedia.
His design was to return the Sudan to the original spirit of Islam, but his wider call to arms against oppression had the greatest appeal. Since 1821, the Sudanese had been under the heel of the Egyptian khedive, who ruled under Ottoman Turkish suzerainty. The ‘Turkiy’, or Egyptian government bled the poor tribes through taxation, demanded by whiplash, sword and gun point by the militia known as the bashi-bashouks.
Thought by his supporters to be a holy man, the Mahdi’s campaign soon bore fruit as he urged the notables of Kordofan and El Obeid, its capital, to join his jihad against the Turks. ‘I am the Mahdi,’' he told them, ‘the Successor of the Prophet of God. Cease to pay taxes to the infidel Turks and let everyone who finds a Turk kill him, for the Turks are infidels.’
Tribal leaders flocked to his standard and attacks against the Egyptian adminstration began in the summer of 1882. That was the year that Egypt came under British dominion after the failed Urabi revolt, which meant that the Sudan also came under the Union flag. In consequence, when the Mahdists captured El Obeid and made it their headquarters, the Khedive sent a force of 10,000 men south to the retake the city.
This was commanded by Colonel William Hicks – Hicks Pasha – a retired officer from the Indian Army. His march from Khartoum is told in Avenging Khartoum. As is made clear in Storm Over Khartoum, the doomed expedition marched to its death when Hicks was surrounded in November 1883 at Shaykan, still miles short of the objective. All but 250 Egyptians and Sudanese were killed, including Hicks and a number of British journalists.
In parallel, the Khedive named General Charles Gordon as governor of the Sudan. ‘Chinese’ Gordon had already spent years in the Sudan since 1874, breaking the power of the slave traders, and had resigned his position in 1880. As a sop to the Egyptians, the British prime minister, Gladstone, asked him to return, but not to rally support against the Mahdi, merely to arrange the evacuation of Egyptian officers, civilians and Europeans from the Sudan. Even as Gordon was arriving at Khartoum in February 1884, the Mahdi's forces had snatched control from the Egyptians on the Red Sea coast at Sinkat and Tokar through the military campaigns of Osman Digna. The resulting battles of El Teb and Tamai did little to dislodge the Mahdists; the British withdrew and the stranglehold on Khartoum and gordon began.
By early April 1884, Khartoum was cut off from the north when the tribes along the Nile rose in support of the Mahdi, and cut the Egyptian traffic on the river and the telegraph to Cairo. The siege had begun and Gordon had food, which could last only five or six months at the best. Two sorties from Khartoum met with defeat and the deaths of valuable Egyptian troops, while the Mahdi repeatedly refused Gordon’s offers of peace.
Storm Over Khartoum centres on the relief expedition finally sanctioned by Gladstone after giving in to imperialist pressure, embodied by General Sir Garnet Wolseley, who was given command of the operation. But as the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that it was all too little, too late. By the time the steamers actually reached Khartoum, on 28 January 1885 Khartoum had fallen, with the slaughter of its remaining garrison and the death of Gordon.
Gordon’s defeat signalled the completion of the creation of the Mahdiyah as nation, but the determination to advance northwards and conquer Egypt itself, stumbled when the Mahdi died on 22 June 1885. He was succeeded by the Khalifa (Caliph, which means ‘successor’), who ruled the Sudan until General Herbert Kitchener (who appears as a major and head of intelligence for Wolseley in Storm Over Khartoum) invaded in 1898, detailed in the novel Avenging Khartoum.
The Mahdi had chosen three Khalifas to succeed him, but rivalry between them, each supported by people of his native region, continued until 1891, when Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, with the help of the Baqqara Arabs of the Kordofan and Darfur regions, overcame the others and emerged as unchallenged leader of the Mahdiyah. It was he who finally faced off against the British army commanded by Kitchener outside Omdurman, across the river from Khartoum, in 1898. Kitchener’s decisive victory returned the Sudan to British control, although mopping up operations continued for some time thereafter.
The Mahdi taught the Arabs of the Sudan that they could take on the Egyptian armies and win battles, but even the famed courage of the Arab infantry and horse were no match for modern weaponry and British military discipline when it came to the crunch. Nor were they able to counter modern technology in the form of the railway which meant Kitchener could move vast amounts of men and material long distances in a short time span (denied to Wolseley in his attempt to relieve Khartoum). Further, while the war suited the deep desert Arabs like the Baqqara horsemen, it devastated the Nile tribes like the Ja’alin and laid waste entire regions of previously fertile agricultural land, a point made clear in Storm Over Khartoum.
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The best known image of the Mahdi is this engraving based on a comtemporary drawing (with even more soulful looking eyes and expression). The picture is almost certainly idealised.