Mahdi uprising

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The Flight of the Khalifa after his defeat at the Battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898 , by Robert Talbot Kelly

The Mahdi uprising (or Mahdiya ) was a rebellion against Egyptian rule in the Sudan provinces that lasted from 1881 to 1899 - led by the Islamic political leader Muhammad Ahmad , who had declared himself a Mahdi (a kind of Islamic messiah). It is considered to be the first - at least briefly - successful uprising by an African population group against colonialism and led to the formation of the " Caliphate of Omdurman " (also Mahdi Empire or Empire of the Mahdi ) at the end of the 19th century . The Mahdists conquered large parts of the country by 1885 and were defeated by an Anglo-Egyptian force in 1898.

The Mahdi and the conquest of Sudan

Situation in Sudan

Egypt, Sudan, Darfur and Abyssinia (Ethiopia) around 1892

In the early 19th century, the viceroys of Egypt began to conquer the Nile lands in eastern Sudan. For centuries this had been the mixed zone between the Arab, Islamic north of Africa and the black African south. Egypt was officially part of the Ottoman Empire , but had achieved relative independence under the Muhammad Ali dynasty . Egyptian troops pushed ever further south along the Nile . In 1871 this expansion finally reached the Central African Lakes with the province of Equatoria . The main reason for the conquest of Sudan was the need of the Egyptian viceroys for soldiers. After the conquest of the country, therefore, immediately began to enslave black inhabitants for the Egyptian army .

Due to the administrative reforms, a strong construction activity and a failed financial policy, the national debt of the Khedivat Egypt under the Khedive Ismail Pasha (1863–1879) rose sharply. It was mainly the participation in the construction costs of the Suez Canal that led to the financial ruin of Egypt . After the de facto national bankruptcy in 1875, an international financial regulator was set up under British leadership. Under the influence of the great European powers, the Egyptian government sent more European officials to the Sudan provinces from the 1870s onwards. These should organize the administration in the occupied territories and put an end to the slave trade. In 1877 Charles George Gordon (Gordon Pascha) became Governor General . However, even through him, slavery could not be completely overcome.

From 1879 onwards, the nationalist Urabi movement developed in Egypt against international financial control . The Khedive Ismail did little to counter the revolt in the hope of getting rid of the European powers. On June 26, 1879, he was forced to abdicate by the Turkish sultan . His office was taken over by his son Tawfiq , who was more obedient to the wishes of the powers that be. In the fall of 1881 there was unrest in the country. As a result, the new Khedive had to dismiss his Prime Minister Riaz Pascha. In February 1882 Secretary of War appointed Urabi Pasha demanded the abolition of European financial control. On June 11, there were bloody excesses against foreigners in Alexandria . In order to secure the Suez Canal as an important connection to its colonies in India , Great Britain occupied the country in the autumn of 1882 in the short Anglo-Egyptian War and defeated the movement. Egypt remained occupied even after the movement was put down. The slave trade revived in Sudan during the Urabi uprising . On December 20, 1882, the Egyptian army was disbanded. The unemployed soldiers caused an uproar in the garrison towns in Sudan. Additional unrest was caused by the fact that Gordon had resigned from the office of governor general in 1880 for health reasons and his successor, Rauf Pascha, was barely able to maintain order in Sudan.

The expected Mahdi

Muhammad al-Mahdi. Undated steel engraving by an unknown artist

Muhammad Ahmad , son of a boat builder from a village near Dongola , developed an oppositional stance against the consequences of foreign rule on his travels through Sudan. He turned against the repressive tax policy, the arbitrariness of the officials and the lack of seriousness in the practice of Islam under the Egyptian occupiers. He had been gathering supporters as a sheikh since 1871 and was known as an eloquent preacher for the return to the values ​​of the Koran . But only Abdallahi ibn Muhammad , his later successor, regarded him as the Mahdi . In Islam, the Mahdi is the last leader of the believers chosen by Allah who will eliminate injustice in the world. Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, after recovering from an illness, spread the image of the master performing miracles. In 1881 Muhammad Ahmad finally declared himself a Mahdi. Belief in the arrival of the Mahdi was widespread in Sudan at this time. Muhammad Ahmad headed an uprising against the Egyptian government and declared his mission to it in writing on June 29, 1881. It was not limited to Sudan or Egypt, the entire Ottoman Empire from Mecca to Constantinople was to give way to an Islamic state modeled on the Muslim community of the 7th century.

Thereupon tried on August 12, 1881 Rauf, the governor of Egyptian Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad to arrest. But the two companies dispatched were ambushed and defeated in battle on Aba Island . Muhammad Ahmad then called for holy war . He was able to gather an army of so-called Ansar around him and won numerous tribal leaders for his cause. The motivation of his followers was varied: While the once wealthy slave traders wanted to abolish the taxes and reprisals of the Egyptians, large parts of the poor population followed him for the sake of his religious importance. In order to evade the access of the authorities, he went on the march to Kordofan . There he established a base in the Nuba Mountains , where he won his second victory on December 9, 1881 in the Battle of Jebel Gedir . Rauf was then recalled. He was accused of underestimating the danger of the Mahdi uprising. The German-born Giegler Pascha sent a force of 6,000 men under the command of Jusuf el-Schallali Pascha to the Nuba Mountains in June 1882. They were supposed to storm Mount Gedir, on which Muhammad Ahmad had set up his headquarters. However, on the night before this attack, on June 6th, the Egyptian troops were attacked by thousands of mostly unarmed Mahdists and crushed in the Second Battle of Jebel Gedir . 1000 men of the expeditionary troops and their leader were killed, and the Mahdists captured weapons and ammunition. After this victory, large parts of the population believed that Muhammad Ahmad was the expected Mahdi. The turmoil in Egypt in the course of the occupation of the country by Great Britain favored the spread of his idea. After the suppression of the Urabi movement, the Mahdi met with new followers. The religious movement of Mahdism, which had existed long before in the Islamic world, now gripped the whole country with the British invasion of Egypt. The force of the Mahdists continued to grow and was able to take the provincial capital El Obeid on January 19, 1883 after a four-month siege . The Mahdists fell into the hands of 6,000 rifles, five pieces of artillery and £ 100,000 . Muhammad Ahmad established his headquarters in El Obeid.

Spread of Mahdism

Hicks Pasha's army on the march. Drawing by an unknown artist from 1883

After the Egyptian army had been disbanded after the Urabi uprising, 10,000 men in the Urabi army had to be reactivated. In the spring of 1883 these and all other available Egyptian troops were dispatched under Suliman Pasha to retake El Obeid. The chief of staff was the British Colonel Hicks Pasha . On September 9, 1883, Hicks, who had meanwhile been appointed commander, moved up the Nile with 14,000 Egyptian soldiers to Duem , where he built a strong fortification, which he had 2,000 men guarded. On the advance, his army suffered from constant Mahdist attacks, water shortages and desertion . On November 1, she approached the city of El Obeid from the southwest and defeated Muhammad Ahmad's vanguard there. Then Hicks temporarily divided his army. Although he succeeded in reuniting his armed forces on November 4th after a bloody battle, the army was cut off from the watering holes and had used up its ammunition. The entire army was wiped out on November 5th in the Battle of Sheikan . His equipment and weapons, including the 36 guns , fell into the hands of the Mahdists. Hicks and the Governor General of Sudan fell in battle.

Emir Naaman of the Baggara tribe. Photograph from 1898. He wears the jibba, the typical wrap.

On December 23, 1883, the governor of Darfur , the Austrian adventurer Rudolf Slatin (Slatin Pascha), surrendered to Muhammad Ahmad's troops. Rudolf Slatin was able to save his life by converting to Islam and was imprisoned for years.

Muhammad Ahmad established the jibba as the typical clothing of his followers. He wanted to take action against the tendency to waste that had spread among his supporters after the first victories. The jibba consisted of a knee-length white shirt, ankle-length trousers and a turban. Holes were mended with colored patches. The result was a kind of Mahdist uniform , in which the colored patches were later replaced by colored imprints. The Mahdi uprising was mainly supported by two groups: The Baggara were the main supporters. They were dressed in the jibba. The second important group was the multi-tribal bedjah. One of them were the Hadendoa , nomads who lived on the Sudanese coast on the Red Sea. The Hadendoa wore long, curly hair that was styled with butter and were also known as Fuzzi Wuzzi because of their striking hairstyle . Osman Digna was their guide.

Osman Digna carried the Mahdiya to eastern Sudan. He besieged the garrisons of Tokar and Sinkat. After several unsuccessful attacks on these garrisons, he was able to crush a relief force from Sawakin in mid-October 1883 . As a result, his reputation increased and his following in eastern Sudan increased. On November 4, 1883, he defeated Egyptian troops at Tokar under the British consul of Sawakin, Captain Moncrieff. Since all available Egyptian army units were destroyed at El Obeid and the British government was unwilling to get involved, the Egyptian gendarmerie under their leader, the British Baker Pasha , was sent to Sawakin. On February 4, 1884, Osman Digna was able to defeat Baker's army in the First Battle of El Teb . In order to hold the Red Sea coast, which is important for securing the sea routes to India , and to maintain an alternative to the route to Khartoum over the Nile, the British now sent their own troops to Sawakin. The Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy East Indies, Admiral Sir William Hewett, was appointed Governor of Sawakin and began landing Marines there on February 10, 1884. Two days later another 5,000 men from the British Indian Army and other troops under Gerald Graham landed here to support him. These had taken part in the occupation of Egypt and were now partly on their way back to India . Graham defeated Osman Digna on February 29 in the Second Battle of El Teb . On March 13, 1884, the battle of Tamanieh took place , in which Osman Digna was expelled for the time being. The coastal area was then in Anglo-Egyptian hands and the British troops were withdrawn.

The Mahdists meanwhile turned north and conquered Berbers on May 20, 1884 . This cut off supplies from Egypt to Khartoum.

Siege of Khartoum and Gordon Relief Expedition

Khartoum, based on an English template drawn by R. Büttner, Die Gartenlaube (1888)

Britain's colonial forces at the time were mainly focused on the conflict with Russia. Due to the desolate situation of the Egyptian troops in Sudan, the British government under Gladstone ordered Egypt in December 1883 to give up the Sudan provinces. However, this was difficult insofar as thousands of Egyptian soldiers, civil servants and their relatives had to be evacuated from Sudan. The British government therefore commissioned Gordon, who had been Governor of Sudan from 1877 to 1880, to go to Khartoum to organize the evacuation from there.

Gordon left for Cairo in January 1884. There he received further instructions from the Consul General of Egypt, Evelyn Baring , and was appointed Governor General with executive powers. Gordon reached Khartoum on February 18, 1884 and was able to evacuate around 2500 women, children, the sick and wounded to Egypt before the Mahdists enclosed the city on March 18 and besieged it for ten months. Gordon initially planned to use the influential al-Zubayr Rahma as his successor. However, this was rejected by the government, which did not want to see a former slave trader at the head of Sudan. Gordon also tried through negotiation to save Khartoum from being captured. He allegedly made an offer to Muhammad Ahmad to make him Sultan of Kordofan. But this could not be fobbed off with a title that would give him power over an area that he already controlled.

The British government, because it wanted to give up the Sudan provinces anyway, did not send relief troops . On the other hand, she could not sacrifice Gordon, who was celebrated as a national hero at home, and asked him to save himself. Gordon replied, “ I am in honor bound to the people ”. In the summer of 1884, the discussion about the rescue of Gordons expanded to a motion for a vote of no confidence in the government. Gladstone finally gave in and sent an army under Garnet Joseph Wolseley , called the Gordon Relief Expedition . However, she was not ready to march until November 1884. In December the troops reached Korti . The main force (River Column) , under Major General William Earle, advanced from here by steamers and boats on the Nile. At the same time, the so-called Camel Corps marched directly through the desert under Sir Herbert Stewart . On December 30, 1884, Stewart began his 185-mile march towards Metemmeh with 1,600 men and 2,400 camels. On the advance from Korti to Metemmeh, the Camel Corps encountered an army of Mahdists near Abu Klea on January 17, 1885 . With 1,500 men, Stewart was able to beat the 10,000 Mahdists, who were far superior in numbers. Muhammad Ahmad, who in the meantime led the siege of Khartoum himself, decided to break it off, but his generals changed his mind. In Khartoum the supplies were meanwhile exhausted and the defenders exhausted. Against the background of the threatened relief of the city by British troops, the attack was scheduled for January 26, 1885. Meanwhile, Stewart was advancing on Metemmeh and was attacked at Gubat on January 19. He was fatally wounded in the process; he had given command to Sir Charles Wilson. Wilson reached the Nile on January 21st and encountered four steamers that Gordon had dispatched with a request for assistance. Gordon sent a message on Jan. 14 that he would be able to hold out for ten days if British troops did not arrive. Wilson took a three-day break to tend his wounded. On January 24th, he loaded two steamers with troops and drove towards Khartoum. One of the steamers ran aground on the sixth cataract , which again caused a delay.

Photograph of the Camel Corps by Felice Beato

The besiegers knew of the nearby relief force. On the morning of January 26th, 50,000 Mahdists took to the attack. The Ansari had waited for the spring floods of the Nile to recede and then attacked the poorly defended river side of Khartoum in boats. At around 3 a.m. they stormed into town and killed Gordon, presumably in the governor's palace . The Mahdists displayed Gordon's head as a trophy in their camp.

On January 27, Wilson's two steamers came under gunfire. During a stopover, they learned that Khartoum should have fallen. One day later, on January 28th, the steamers arrived in Khartoum. Under heavy artillery and rifle fire, they came within sight of the governor's palace and found that any help came too late.

On February 10th, the Battle of Kirbekan broke out, where the Nile Column under Earle defeated an outnumbered Mahdist force. Earle was killed and Henry Brackenbury took command of the Nile Column .

The Mahdists soon conquered Kassala and Sannar . In the fall of 1885 one of their armies under Muhammad el-Kheir reached the Egyptian border. On December 30, 1885 there was a battle with Egyptian troops under Sir Frederick Stephenson. The Egyptian army won its first victory without the support of British troops and stopped the advance of the Mahdists. The Mahdiya then began to expand south.

Battle for the Red Sea coast

Gate on Sawakin's outer city walls commissioned by Kitchener in 1886

In order to limit the British loss of prestige in the failed rescue attempt by Gordon and to prevent Wolseley's feared renewed attack by the Mahdists on Egypt, General Graham von Sawakin was to take action against Osman Digna on the Red Sea with 13,000 men. He also had the task of penetrating the Upper Nile via Berber and enabling the construction of a railway line to connect these two places. This line was intended to support military advances. A contract was signed with Lucas & Aird for the construction of the railway . However, the conquest of Sudan was still not the goal of British policy, and after the completion of 30 km the company was abandoned in 1886 because the deployment of the Russians on the Afghan border required the withdrawal of British troops from Sudan (see Great Game ): Great Britain failed further attempts to advance into Sudan for the next ten years and limited to holding a few bases. Only Sawakin, which was reinforced by Indian colonial troops, and Wadi Halfa near the Egyptian border remained occupied.

Governor General of Eastern Sudan and Commandant of Sawakin became Colonel Horatio Herbert Kitchener in August 1886 . In late 1887, Osman Digna tried again to drive the British out of Sawakin and besieged the city. Kitchener's soldiers reinforced the base, were able to end the siege and counterattacked. Subsequently, the new Sirdar of the Egyptian Army, the British General Sir Francis Grenfell , took command himself and was able to defeat Osman Digna on December 20, 1888. On February 19, 1891, Osman Digna was beaten again near Tokar, had to give up the city and withdrew to the Atbara .

Caliphate of Omdurman

Struggle for succession

Expansion of the area controlled by the Mahdists in 1891 into the present-day borders of Sudan and South Sudan

During the siege of Khartoum, the Mahdists had established their headquarters in Omdurman, across from Khartoum on the western bank of the Nile. After the siege was over, they made Omdurman the new capital of Sudan. Muhammad Ahmad died here on June 22, 1885 suddenly and under unexplained circumstances. His death was followed by a period in which the following three interest groups vied for power:

  • The Abkār al-Mahdī were the original, religiously motivated followers of Muhammad Ahmad, who came through Ali b. Muhammad Hilu were cited.
  • The Awlād al-balad were the followers who rejected Egyptian rule out of commercial interests and joined Muhammad Ahmad. This group was led by relatives of Muhammad Ahmad ( Ashraf ) with Muhammad Sharif b. Hamid at the top.
  • Abdallahi b. Muhammad led the group of Ta'ishah tribes ( Baggara ) who joined the Mahdi movement in order to free themselves from the heteronomy and tax burden imposed by the Egyptian administration.

The Ashraf won Muhammad Khalid, the governor of Darfur, for themselves. This moved with his army against Omdurman. Abdallahi sent his own force against him and was able to take Muhammad Khalid prisoner. Abdallahi gave up Khartoum, the stronghold of the Ashraf, and installed his own followers as governors of the provinces. In 1889 the Aschraf uprising almost broke out. However, through the mediation of Ali b. Muhammad Hilu, who had always sought a balance between the caliphs, could be prevented. The phase of power struggles ended in March 1892 with the capture of Muhammad Sharif by followers of Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, who then held power as the sole caliph.

Caliphate of Omdurman

Followers of the Mahdi in typical clothing. Photograph from 1936

Abdallahi ibn Muhammad succeeded in subjugating the entire area between the provinces of Darfur in the west, Sawakin in the east (excluding the city of Sawakin itself, which was held by a British garrison), Dungula in the north and Bahr al-Ghazal in the south.

The Caliphate formed the first Sudanese national government. The Sharia governed all areas of human existence. The slave trade was allowed again under the caliph. Only the export of slaves was forbidden. Since many slaves fought in the Mahdist army, the main reason for the export ban was to prevent the army from weakening.

Under Caliph Abdullahi, the Mahdi movement "secularized". While the Mahdi had gone out against the lack of seriousness in the practice of Islam under the Egyptian occupiers, the Mahdists now returned to the original, mystical beliefs from the time before the occupation. The Shahada , the creed of Islam, was expanded to include a formula that included the Mahdi in prayer. The Hajj , the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca , was replaced by a trip to the tomb of the Mahdi.

The Mahdi maintained a river flotilla of steamboats , a factory system for weapons production, and a telegraph system in Sudan. Overall, however, the country suffered an economic decline. Because of this and because of bad harvests in the middle of the reign, the population decreased sharply during this time.

The German researcher Emin Pascha asserted himself as governor of the southernmost Sudan province of Equatoria. Several spectacular expeditions (among others by Henry Morton Stanley and Carl Peters ) were undertaken to rescue Emin . Until his escape in 1895, the former governor of the Darfur province, Slatin , also lived as a slave at the court of the caliph.

Mahdist army

The Mahdist army was divided into 800 to 1,200-strong units. Each unit in turn consisted of three combat units, the spearmen, riflemen and horsemen, as well as an administrative unit.

At the beginning of the Mahdi uprising, almost all Mahdists were armed only with long spears with broad blades, swords and daggers. In the course of the campaigns around 21,000 rifles were captured from the Egyptian army. In the end, the Mahdist army had eleven artillery batteries with six cannons each. The 156 artillerymen had been trained in the Egyptian army.

Formation of the army around 1896:

  • Omdurman: 15,000 riflemen, 45,000 spearmen, 3,500 cavalrymen, 46 cannons
  • Egyptian border: 4,600 riflemen, 8,000 spearmen, 1,200 cavalrymen, 18 cannons
  • Eastern Sudan: 6,900 riflemen, 1,100 spearmen, 2,150 cavalrymen, 4 cannons
  • Western Sudan: 6,000 riflemen, 2,500 spearmen, 350 cavalrymen, 4 cannons
  • South Sudan: 1,800 riflemen, 4,500 spearmen, 3 cannons

Uprisings in the west

The Mahdi Empire in 1895

In the course of the power struggles of the successors of the Mahdi, the family of the Fur-Sultans, deposed by the Egyptians, was reinstated by Muhammed Khalid as an ally against Abdallahi ibn Muhammad. After the capture of Mohammed Khalid, Fur-Sultan Yusuf Ibrahim sought independence. Abdullahi sent Osman Adam, the governor of Kordofan, and he defeated the insurgents in two battles. Yusuf Ibrahim withdrew to the Marra Mountains and was killed there. His brother Abu Kairat then called himself Sultan of Darfur.

In the West, Ahmed Abu Jummaisa declared himself the new Mahdi in the fight against the progressive "secularization" of the Mahdists. He allied himself with the Fur-Sultan Abu Kairat. Abdullahi again sent an army under Osman Adam. On February 22nd, 1889 there was a battle near El Fascher . Ahmed Abu Jummaisa, who was dying of smallpox , could no longer inspire his followers. The uprising was put down.

War against Ethiopia

John IV, Emperor of Ethiopia , Neguse Negest

The Christian Ethiopian Emperor John IV had helped the British and Egyptians evacuate their garrisons on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. Fighting with the Mahdists had therefore already broken out in 1885. In 1886 the Mahdists finally occupied Gallabat , which lies on the border with Ethiopia. In 1887, the governor of the former Ethiopian capital, Gonder Ras Adar, launched an attack on Gallabat and destroyed the city. The subsequent counter-attacks by the Mahdists and the peace offer by the caliph were unsuccessful. The caliph then held a large army show in Omdurman on July 31, 1887 under the command of his commander-in-chief Abu Angia and sent him to fight the Abyssinians. This invaded Ethiopia with 100,000 men. At Debra Sin there was a battle against 200,000 Ethiopians. Abu Angia was victorious, was able to take and plunder Gonder.

Caliph Abdullahi rejected the emperor's subsequent offer of peace. John IV therefore announced that he would march against Khartoum. In March 1889, the Ethiopians attacked Sudan under the leadership of their emperor. In May 1888, the successful Mahdist commander, Abu Angia, had died. The caliph then divided the supreme command over four emirs. At Gallabat, Zaki Tamal was in command. The battle of Metemma / Gallabat took place near Gallabat on March 9th . 150,000 Ethiopians attacked 80,000 Mahdists. A victory for the Ethiopians was already looming when the emperor was hit by a stray bullet. The Ethiopian troops then withdrew. Zaki Tamal went into pursuit on March 11, and a second battle broke out on the Atbara River. The Ethiopians were forced to flee and the emperor's body fell into the hands of the Mahdists.

The war ended when the caliph did not have the military strength to take advantage of this victory. The caliph turned down an offer of alliance against the Europeans made by the new emperor Menelik II .

Attack on Egypt

Sudanese soldier in the Anglo-Egyptian army

After the battles of El Fascher and Metemma, the caliph was at the height of his power. He had vanquished all internal and external enemies, and the false Mahdi was also dead. Abdallahi now felt strong enough to take up the Mahdi’s original idea of ​​bringing jihad to Egypt. As early as April 1887 he had sent letters to Queen Victoria , the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II and the Viceroy of Egypt Tawfiq, in which he asked them to submit to him.

In June 1889 a force under Abd ar Rahman marched on Nujumi to Wadi Halfa. With the armies that Abdallahi had sent against the Fur-Sultans and Emperor John IV, however, this force could not be compared. On July 2, she was beaten by Colonel Wodehouse near Wadi Halfa. Subsequently, the Sirdar, General Grenfell, himself took command on the Sudanese border and concentrated his troops at Toski , near Abu Simbel . There it came to the battle of Toski on August 3rd . After five hours of fighting, Abd ar Rahman an Nujumi, most of his emirs and more than 1,200 men were dead, 4,000 men were captured and the Mahdist forces on the Egyptian border were practically destroyed. The expansion efforts of the caliph to the north were thus ended.

End of the Mahdi movement

Herbert Kitchener as Sirdar from Celebrities of the Army , London 1900

Interests of the colonial powers

Italy had already managed to establish itself in Eritrea after the death of Emperor John IV . An attack by the caliph was repulsed at Akordat in 1893 and led to the withdrawal of the Mahdists from Ethiopia. In return, the Italians began an offensive on Kassala, the most important place in eastern Sudan, and were able to take the city in July 1894.

France , which had decided in 1882 not to take part in the occupation of Egypt, had increasingly lost its previously great influence in the region to the British. It was now trying to gain influence on the Upper Nile. An expedition under Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand set out from Brazzaville for Faschoda .

The Belgian King Leopold II had secured his own empire in the Congo Basin with the Congo Free State and expanded his bases on the northern border. In 1896 an army of 30,000 men marched under the banner of the Free State with soldiers from the Force Publique , as well as numerous indigenous auxiliary troops under Baron Francis Dhanis , towards Obernil , in order to connect Equatoria with the Congo Free State and, if successful, advance towards Khartoum. The huge army, until then the largest that Central Africa had seen, was completely heterogeneous. Numerous Arab soldiers had been squeezed by the Belgians and, for their part, had fought under Tippu Tip against the Belgian troops in the Belgian-Arab war in East Africa from 1892 to 1894 . Many of them therefore had little motivation as Arab Muslims to fight for their new European-Christian masters against the likewise Muslim-Arab Mahdists. The indigenous auxiliary troops, on the other hand, had ever greater problems with their colonial masters, as they showed little respect for and understanding of their cultural customs. In addition, the army was completely insufficiently supplied with provisions, since it was impossible to carry enough provisions for such a large number of people. Hundreds of civilians accompanied the army. The troops plundered more and more, which with the increasing hunger undermined the discipline. As a result, the troops mutinied and killed 10 of their Belgian officers. The army, which was huge for its time, then dispersed. On the other hand, Louis Napoléon Chaltin succeeded in occupying the Lado enclave with a small but powerful, homogeneous army of 800 soldiers from the Force Publique between 1896 and 1897 and defeating 2,000 Mahdists at the Battle of Rejaf on February 17, 1897 . However, due to limited funds, he was unable to implement Leopold's order to advance further in the direction of Central Sudan. In addition, the advance of Dhani's large marauding army had shaken the northeast of the Congo. This made it difficult to replenish Chatlin's troops and forced the Belgians to expend considerable resources to re-stabilize their own colony.

Britain's position changed under pressure from the other colonial powers. In 1895 there was also a change of government in London. The conservative party under Lord Salisbury , which had always advocated tougher action in Sudan, replaced the liberal party . While the interests of the liberals until then were limited to securing the Egyptian border and, with the port of Sawakin, the sea route to India , the race for Africa began in Sudan as well . The Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 gave Great Britain the opportunity to put a stop to the expansion of the other colonial powers into Sudan from Uganda .

In addition, the British feared a coalition between France and Ethiopia for the purpose of dividing the Mahdi Empire. The defeat of the Italians at the Battle of Adwa had made clear to them the danger posed by Ethiopia. Not least because of the public mood in Great Britain, the British government decided in 1896 to take action against the Mahdists. The mood had been against the caliphate since Gordon's death. The report by Slatin and Father Josef Ohrwalder published by the head of the Anglo-Egyptian intelligence service , Francis Reginald Wingate , made the European public aware of the slave trade in Sudan.

Dongola expedition 1896

Muhammad Ahmad's grave after the bombardment

Kitchener had been preparing for the reconquest of the Sudan provinces since his appointment as sirdar in the Egyptian army in 1892. On March 12, 1896, he was finally ordered to march along the Nile and attack the Mahdists. Thereupon the Anglo-Egyptian Nile Expeditionary Force was put on the march under his command. In the so-called Dongola expedition , the northern province of Sudan was first to be occupied and the logistical prerequisites for a campaign to Omdurman were to be created. Advance troops under Colonel Archibald Hunter reached Akasheh on March 20 . A railway line to Ambigole could be driven forward by the end of May. From here Kitchener prepared the attack on Firket, where the northern Mahdist army was located. Its main force, called the River Column , advanced along the Nile. The River Column consisted of an Egyptian infantry division under Hunter and was 7,000 strong. His second force, the Desert Column , marched through the desert and was 2,100 strong. The River Column began its advance on the evening of June 6th. On the morning of June 7, 1896, the Battle of Firket broke out , in which the Mahdists were defeated. Kitchener could now have marched further in the direction of Dongola. He preferred, however, to await the arrival of the gunboats and to advance the railway line further south. During this time the Anglo-Egyptian Nile Expeditionary Force was plagued by a violent cholera epidemic . A total of 235 men died of cholera during the Dongola expedition. In September the force reached Kerma, and at the end of the month Dongola himself fell. Kitchener and Hunter were named major general for their success in the campaign. The entire province was placed under military law and Hunter was its commander.

Nile campaign

Emir Mahmud Ahmad as a prisoner after the battle of Atbara (photograph from 1898)

After the problem of the long supply routes had been solved by the construction of a 350 km long railway line in the great Nile arc from Wadi Halfa to Abu Hamed, the Egyptian army was able to advance in the Nile campaign towards Omdurman. The caliph meanwhile gathered his troops there. Emir Mahmud Ahmad , who commanded the army in Kurdufan and Darfur, was commanded to Omdurman with more than 10,000 men. Emir Ibrahim Khalil and 4,000 men advanced from the Jazirah plain . In early June 1897, the caliph decided to move Mahmud's troops to Metemmeh, into the area where Kitchener's anticipated advance was. However, the Jaalin tribe living there refused to support the caliph for this undertaking. The Jaalin wrote a letter to Kitchener on June 24th, informing the Caliph of their resistance. On July 1, Mahmud attacked Metemmeh with around 12,000 men, conquered the city and caused a bloodbath among the population.

In July 1897 a flying column was formed under General Hunter to take Abu Hamed. From July 29 to August 7, this column advanced 133 miles through the desert in forced marches and was able to reach Abu Hamed before the relief troops of the Mahdists. The Sheikh of the Berber Province, Zeki Osman, then evacuated the city of Berber on August 24th . It was occupied by irregular camel riders from the Egyptian army on August 31 and by Hunter's column on September 5.

Emir Mahmud Ahmad then urged Caliph Abdallahi ibn Muhammad to allow him to attack Kitchener's army. But it was not until the beginning of December 1897 that the caliph decided to attack. Disputes over the occupation of the supreme command meant that not all Mahdist forces were deployed, as planned, but only Mahmud Ahmad's contingent, reinforced by Osman Digna's troops. He marched with an army of 15,000 men north to the confluence of the Nile and Atbara rivers to attack Kitchener. Kitchener therefore ordered the Egyptian army to rally at Berber. He asked Evelyn Baring, 1st Earl of Cromer , for assistance from a British brigade. The British government then put together a brigade of troops from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment , Lincoln Regiment , Cameron Highlanders and later the Seaforth Highlanders under the leadership of William Gatacre . Since the steamers of the British-Egyptian army were already at the confluence of the Atbara and Nile and could no longer cross the cataracts at this time of year, Kitchener transferred a brigade to his fleet on December 22nd.

On April 8, 1898, Kitchener's united Anglo-Egyptian army was able to thwart Mahmud Ahmed's advance in the Battle of Atbara . 13,000 British and Egyptians encountered 15,000 Mahdists. The British lost 24 men, the Egyptians 68 and the Mahdists about 3000. In the course of the Nile campaign, all leading Mahdist emirs in this area were killed, including the Emir of Dongola, the Emir of Berber and the Emir of Western Sudan. Only Osman Digna escaped with the cavalry.

Battle of Omdurman

The Battle of Omdurman. Contemporary British representation

In July 1898 a second British brigade was transferred to Sudan. The two British brigades were combined into a second division alongside the Egyptian one. Kitchener's army was then structured as follows:

On September 1, 1898, the main armies finally faced each other eleven kilometers north of the Mahdist capital Omdurman. In the battle of September 2, 1898, 8,200 British and 17,600 Egyptians and Sudanese fought in Kitchener's army. The British-Egyptian army was divided into a British and an Egyptian division . In addition, the Sirdar had ten gunboats . The Mahdist army comprised around 50,000 men and was led by the caliph himself.

Even in the run-up to the battle, Omdurman was shot at by the guns of the cannon boats, damaging Muhammad Ahmad's grave. On the morning of September 2, 1898 around 6:30 a.m., the Mahdist attack began. This was repulsed in the fire of Anglo-Egyptian artillery, Maxim machine guns and rifles. Kitchener's forces counterattacked and were able to completely defeat the Mahdists.

“The fierce battle dragged on for several hours until modern weapons prevailed. 27,000 followers of the Mahdi came to the battlefield, 11,000 of them perished. Kitchener arranged for the Mahdi's mortal shell to be dragged from his mausoleum; and at his command the corpse was thrown into the river. "

Kitchener had desecrated the Mahdi's body to avoid future mystification, among other things. This process shocked the British public, especially Queen Victoria, who had always stood behind Kitchener.

Subsequently, Omdurman and the destroyed Khartoum were occupied, which was then rebuilt by Kitchener. After the Battle of Omdurman, the Mahdists fled south. Here they controlled the area from Darfur to the border with Ethiopia until 1899. In October 1899, Kitchener dispatched 8,000 soldiers under Francis Reginald Wingate to defeat Abdallahi ibn Muhammad once and for all. He was killed in the battle of Umm Diwaykarat in the province of Kordofan. The only Mahdist leader who escaped was Osman Digna. He wasn't captured until 1900 and survived Egyptian captivity until 1926.


Importance for Sudan

The tomb of the Mahdi in Omdurman

The Sudan provinces were not returned to Egypt after the Battle of Omdurman, but instead constituted as an Anglo-Egyptian condominium . This condominium existed from 1899 to 1956. Since Egypt was also under British control, the country was de facto a British colony. Egypt continued to claim the area for itself, but was only a junior partner in the condominium . British officials controlled the administration of the country, Egyptian officials were to be found at most in the middle management level. The condominium has always been administered by a British Governor General. The first governor general was Lord Kitchener.

Muhammad Ahmad founded a movement of religious fundamentalism that can still be found in today's Sudan. Against the background of the Egyptian foreign rule and the decline of this rule by the British occupation, a political movement quickly emerged that spread across the entire country. The Mahdi uprising developed into the first successful uprising against colonialism in Africa. Even today, Muhammad Ahmad is revered for this in Sudan as Abu l'Istiklal (father of independence). As in the time of the caliphate, his grave still serves as a place of pilgrimage. The movement he founded has around three million followers in Sudan today. Muhammad Ahmad's son Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi founded the National Umma Party in February 1945 . His grandson and great-grandson, Muhammad Ahmads Sadiq al-Mahdi, is now the chairman of the Umma party and has been the country's prime minister twice .

At the end of his life and especially under his successor, the caliph Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, the empire became more and more secularized and became a military dictatorship . The empire even colonized areas of non-Muslim blacks in the south. Through the jihad these areas were subjected to and forced Islamized, a practice under which the Nuba in Sudan had to suffer until the end of the 20th century. The slave trade, which the British governors had previously fought against, was reintroduced in the subject areas. The enslaved men went into the armies of the Mahdists, the women into the harems .

Consequences for the colonial powers

Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan 1912

Until the Mahdi uprising, Eritrea and Somaliland belonged to the Ottoman viceroyalty of Egypt. By losing the connection to these areas in the course of the uprising, the European colonial powers succeeded in occupying these countries. In 1884 the British founded British Somaliland . In 1892 France took possession of the area around Djibouti , which was declared a colony of French Somaliland in 1896. In 1890 Eritrea was constituted as an Italian colony. After the collapse of Egypt's rule over Eritrea due to the Mahdi uprising, Italy occupied Assab in 1882 and Massaua in 1885, provoking the first war with Ethiopia. Because Ethiopia was weakened in the war against the Mahdists, the European colonial powers were able to expand here unhindered.

In the course of the suppression of the Mahdi uprising, the Faschoda crisis broke out between Great Britain and France , as the two powers could not agree on their property claims in Sudan. One of the British arguments in negotiating was to act on behalf of the Egyptian government in Sudan. For this reason, after the crisis was resolved, the Sudan provinces were not incorporated into the British colonial empire, but instead declared an Anglo-Egyptian condominium . France relented in the negotiations, and shortly thereafter both sides delineated their respective areas of interest in the Sudan Treaty . The peaceful end to the Faschoda crisis is seen as an important prerequisite for the Entente Cordiale of 1904. This in turn formed the key to the alliance structures at the outbreak of the First World War . The fears in Germany caused by the Sudan Treaty are also considered to be the trigger for the first Moroccan crisis of 1905/1906.

Mahdi uprising in the film

  • In the film Khartoum (German alternative title: Khartoum - The Uprising on the Nile ), with Charlton Heston as Gordon and Laurence Olivier as Muhammad Ahmad, the events surrounding Gordon Pascha and the fall of Khartoum are described above all. The film was directed by Basil Dearden and Eliot Elisofon in 1966 and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 1967 Academy Awards.
  • Four Feathers (original title: The Four Feathers ) is a British adventure film , directed by Zoltan Korda in 1939 based on the novel of the same name by AEW Mason . The film deals with the story of a British officer during the Mahdi uprising up to the Battle of Omdurman. The young officer says goodbye to the military and is called a coward by his three best friends and his fiancée. These four feathers send him as a symbol of his cowardice. Then he tries to convince them all and himself of the opposite. The film wasnominatedfor Best Color Camera at the Academy Awards in 1940 .
  • In collaboration with Terence Young , Zoltan Korda shot a remake of this film in 1955 under the title " Storm Over the Nile " (Storm Over the Nile) with Anthony Steel and Laurence Harvey . A number of the film's recordings from 1939 were reused.
  • The 2002 film adaptation of The Four Feathers (starring Heath Ledger and Kate Hudson ) tells the same story. However, the action is set earlier during the uprising.
  • In the realm of the Mahdi - "A revolt of souls that terrified Europe" . Conversation between Erhard Oeser and Alexander Kluge on the course of the Mahdi uprising, broadcast on January 20, 2016 from the News & Stories series by dctp .
  • Riot in the desert - The rule of the Mahdi . Docu-drama , Germany 2017, 53 min., Director: Robert Schotter .


  • 1881
    • The Mahdi declared his mission to the Egyptian government in writing on June 29th
  • 1883
    • January 19 - the Mahdists take the provincial capital El Obeid after a four-month siege
    • November 5th - An Anglo-Egyptian army is annihilated at the Battle of Sheikan
    • December 23rd - Governor Slatin-Pasha surrenders in Darfur
  • 1884
    • February 4th - 1st Battle of El Teb
    • February 29th - 2nd Battle of El Teb
    • March 13th - Battle of Tamaii
  • 1885
  • 1889
  • 1891
    • February 19 - Osman Dignas lost at Tokar
  • 1896
  • 1898
  • 1899


  • Thomas Archer: The war in Egypt and the Soudan. An episode in the history of the British Empire, being a descriptive account of the scenes and events of that great drama, and sketches of the principal actors in it . 4 volumes. Blackie & Son, London 1885-1887 (digital copies: Volume 1 , Volume 2 , Volume 3 , Volume 4 , English).
  • Michael Barthorp: Blood-red desert sand. The British Invasions of Egypt and the Sudan 1882-98 . Cassell Military Trade Books, London 2002, ISBN 0-304-36223-9 (English).
  • A. Birken: The Empire of the Mahdi . In: Tübingen Atlas of the Middle East . Reichert, Wiesbaden 1987, ISBN 3-88226-610-4 , sheet B IX 23.
  • Winston S. Churchill , Georg Brunold (ed.): Crusade against the Empire of the Mahdi (original title: The River War. A Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan . London 1899, translated by Georg Brunold). Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 2008, ISBN 978-3-8218-6204-0 , (= The Other Library , Volume 282),
  • The Earl of Cromer: Modern Egypt . New edition. Macmillan, London 1911 (Reprint: BiblioBazaar, Charleston SC 2008, ISBN 978-0-559-78674-7 , English).
  • Donald Feathertone: Omdurman 1898. Kitchener's victory in the Sudan . Osprey, London 1993, ISBN 1-85532-368-0 , (= Osprey military campaign series Volume 29, English).
  • Philip J. Haythornthwaite: The Colonial Wars Source Book . Arms and Armor, London 1997, ISBN 1-85409-436-X .
  • Arthur Hodges: Kitchener . Vanguard Verlag Schlegel, Berlin 1937.
  • PM Holt: Mahdist State in the Sudan. 1881-98. A Study of Its Origins, Development and Overthrow . 2nd Edition. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1970, ISBN 0-19-821660-2 (English).
  • Fabian Leonard Lindner: The Mahdi uprising: a torn country under the banner of Islam . AV Akademikerverlag 2014, ISBN 978-3-639-47313-1 .
  • Erhard Oeser : The realm of the Mahdi. Rise and fall of the first Islamic state of God 1885–1897 , Primus, Darmstadt 2012, ISBN 978-3-86312-312-3 .
  • Rudolf Slatin Pasha: Fire and Sword in Sudan . Edition Erdmann, Lenningen 1997, ISBN 3-86503-195-1 , (reprint).
  • Heinrich Pleticha (ed.): The Mahdi uprising in eyewitness reports . dtv, Munich 1981, ISBN 3-423-02710-X , (= dtv 2710 - dtv eyewitness reports ).
  • Adrian Preston: In Relief of Gordon. Lord Wolseley's Campaign Journal of the Khartoum Relief Expedition 1884-1885 . Hutchinson, London 1967 (English).
  • Henryk Sienkiewicz : Through desert and wilderness (original title: W pustyni iw puszczy ), Roman, Engelbert, Balve / Sauerland 1978, ISBN 3-536-01422-4 ; Current new edition: Translation by Hubert Sauer-Žur, Weltbuch, Dresden 2012, ISBN 978-3-938706-22-0 (fiction).
  • Mike Snook: Go Strong Into the Desert. The Mahdist Uprising in Sudan 1881-85 , Perry Miniatures 2010, ISBN 978-0-9561842-1-4 (English).
  • W. Dennistoun Sword, Henry SL Alford: Egyptian Soudan. Its loss and recovery. With Records of the Services of the Officers (1896-8) . Macmillan, London et al. 1898 (Reprint: Naval & Military Press Ltd, Uckfield 2001, ISBN 1-84342-100-3 , English).
  • Bruce Vandervort: Wars of imperial conquest in Africa . UCL Press, London 1998, ISBN 1-85728-487-9 (= Warfare and history , English).
  • Hartwig A. Vogelsberger: Slatin Pascha. between desert sand and royal crowns . Styria, Graz and others 1992, ISBN 3-222-12113-3 .
  • Wilfried Westphal: Storm over the Nile. The Mahdi uprising. From the beginnings of Islamic fundamentalism . Thorbecke, Sigmaringen 1998, ISBN 3-7995-0092-8 .
  • Dominic Green: Armies of God: Islam and Empire on the Nile, 1869-1899 . Century, 2007. ISBN 1844138836 . Reprint edition: Three Empires on the Nile: The Victorian Jihad, 1869-1899 . Free Press, 2011. ISBN 145163160X
  • Robin Neillands: The Dervish Wars - Gordon and Kitchener in the Sudan 1880–1898 . John Murray Ltd., London 1996, ISBN 0-7195-5631-7 .

Web links

Commons : Mahdi Uprising  - Collection of Images, Videos, and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. al-Ahram weekly online: Tales of the Mahdi ( Memento from December 21, 2006 in the Internet Archive )
  2. BLOOD-RED DESERT SAND The British Invasions of Egypt and the Sudan 1882-98, p. 79
  3. Carl Peters: The German Emin Pascha Expedition . R. Oldenbourg, Munich / Leipzig 1891.
  4. Omdurman 1898. Kitchener's victory in the Sudan, p. 22 ff
  5. The Mahdi uprising in eyewitness accounts, p. 237
  6. Storm over the Nile: The Mahdi Uprising, from the beginnings of Islamic fundamentalism, p. 291
  7. Egyptian Soudan Its Loss and Recovery, p. 31ff
  8. a b Storm over the Nile: The Mahdi uprising, from the beginnings of Islamic fundamentalism
  9. David Van Reybrouk: Congo, A Story, p. 106, Amsterdam 2010
  10. ^ Wars of imperial conquest in Africa, p. 144
  11. ^ Egyptian Soudan Its Loss and Recovery, p. 154
  12. Winston S. Churchill: Crusade against the Empire of the Mahdi, p. 255
  13. Winston S. Churchill: Crusade against the Empire of the Mahdi, pp. 302 ff
  14. Omdurman 1898. Kitchener's victory in the Sudan
  15. ^ Joseph Ki-Zerbo : The History of Black Africa , Verlag Fischer, Frankfurt a. M. 1981, ISBN 3-596-26417-0
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on November 29, 2006 .