Ancient History of Western Sudan

By: Ibrahim.B.Musa 08/13/06

The name Sudan is probably a confusing term, especially to modern learners of history as it is a recent name given to the current Republic of Sudan governed by its capital city Khartoum. Geographically, it is the areabordered by Ethiopia andEritrea from the East, Egypt and Libya from the North, Chad and Central Africa from the West and Zaire, Uganda and Kenya from the South.

With reference to ancient factsof history, to giveany piece of information aboutancient history of Western Sudan, it is necessary to point out to two important historical facts. First, the origin of the term Sudan and the source from which it isderived. Second, what part of Africa is said to be known as Sudan in ancient history.

With regards to the name Sudan, originally it comes from the term`Bilad -al- Sudan` which means “Land of Blacks”. So the term is a mere derivation from the Arabic word ` Sauod` meaning ‘Blacks’ as an indication to the skin colour of the inhabitants living in the region. The term is said to be used by Arab travelers, geographers and historians who first wrote the history of the region.

In course of the African part known as Sudan, ancient history indicates to the area lying from Ethiopia and Eritrea on the Eastern Coast of Africa stretching to Ghana, Guinea and Mali on the Western Coast of Africa. On such basis, ancient history divides the region into three divisions: Eastern Sudan, Central Sudan and Western Sudan.

Eastern Sudan is referred to the area lying from Ethiopia in the East where the Kingdom of Iksum used to dominate, stretching to the region ofthe current Republic of Sudan where the Nubian Kingdom used to dominate. On other hand, the area encompasses the broad expanse of savannastretching between the vast Sahara Desert to the North and the tropical rain forests of Guinea Coast to the southand north to Ghanaand Mali is said to be known as Western Sudan.

The period prior to Islamic contact with this region, is largely unknown though archaeological remains indicate to existence of inhabitants thousands of years ago, the result of which the study of ancient History of Western Sudan begins from the Medieval Age. Moreover, inspite of the tantalizing of archaeological remains, understanding of the great medieval kingdoms of ancient Western Sudan depends upon and limited by these early written sources.

Medievalempires of Ghana, Mali andSonghai that controlled WesternSudan had no fixed geopoliticalboundariesor singular ethnic or national identities. Although each empire possessed important political and economic centers, such as Ghana’s Kombi Saleh and Songhai`s Gao, it is not certain that these were permanent capitals. Instead, the empires might have had ‘floating’ capitalsthat shiftedbetweena number of urbanizedcentersor traveled with their ruling monarchs. Furthermore, the empires of Western Sudan were unified by strong leadership, kin-based societies, and the trade routes they sought to dominate.

The Islamic impact on these empires is usually related to the extensive trading networks andtrans-Saharan commerce which was developed in the 7th century by Arab and Berbers. Naturally, the savanna region is hospitable to both agriculture and livestock breeding as well as it is ideallysituated for trade. Such properties made the regionmore attractive toArab from northAfricato impose Islamic culture while seeking for a rich diversity of goods represented in gold and salt as well assearching for grazing land for their animals.

The partof Africawhich is somewhat confusing tomodern history, isthe area lyingfrom Lake Chad stretching toDar fur and Kordofan and further east to the land of ancient Nubia. This is because this area is said to be known as Central Sudan in ancient history. The history of the regionin the period prior to Islamic contact is not known largely though some earliest records point out to the existence of Kanem Bornu, Bagirmi and Hausa kingdoms dominating the area around Lake Chad, and the Kingdom of Daju which is saidto be dominating the area around JebelMarra stretching to Kordofan in the East, and bordering Kanem and Bagirmi kingdoms in the West.

With respect to the Islamic contact with the region as mentioned by Al-haj Mekki Abdallah Al-tijani theChadianresearcher, the impact of the Islamicculture on the kingdoms around Lake Chad, especially Kanem Bornu took place around 666 when Muslim scouts had reached the region of Kowra headed by Ogba-ibn Nafi’ the Muslim commander who was sent from Egypt to discover the region. Since that time, theimpact had been going on until it reached the highest peak by the beginning of the 7th century by means of extensive trade and Arab search for grazing land.Even thekingdoms of Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Hausaand Songhai, are said to have known Islam through Kanem Bornu which used to dominate a large area around Lake Chad.

By the end of the 12th to the beginning of the 13th century, Kanem Bornu wasn’t strong enough the result of which it lost a large part of it to be under the dynasty of Tunjur who themselves in 1635 were displaced by Waddai from that part to be the Kingdom of Waddai. Waddai ruled the area lying from the east of Lake Chad stretching to the western part of Dar fur from 1635 to 1909 and was ended by the French colonization. It is strongly believed that the founder of Waddai, Abd-al-kareem ibn Salih is originally from theAbbasid family.HeleftBagdadafter the Abbasid dynasty had been destroyed.

The Daju kingdom used to rule a large area stretching from east of Kanemin the West to Dar fur and Kordofanin the East during the period prior to the Islamic contact. It was displaced by Tunjur in about the end of the 13th to thebeginning of the 14th century. Islam is said to be introduced to Dar fur by Tunjur who claim of being Arab origin reached Dar fur by way of Bornu and Waddai. The first Tunjur king is said to have been Ahmed-el-Makurwho married the daughter of the last Daju monarch.

His Grandson Sultan Dali, a celebrated figure in the Historyof Dar fur was a Fur on his mother’s side, and thus he brought the dynasty closer to the people it ruled. He divided the country into provinces, and established a penal code under the title of ‘Kitab Dali’ meaning ‘Dali’s Book’. This code is still preserved and differs in some respects from Quranic law.

His grandson Soleiman Solon as the name is derived from the Fur word ‘solonger’ which means the Arab referringto his red skin, reigned from 1596 to 1637. He was known as a great warrior and a devoted Muslim, and is said to be the founder of the Keira dynasty.From 1682 to 1722 the country wasruledby Solon’s grandson Ahmed Bakrn who concentrated on Islamicculture and increasedthis byencouraging immigration from Bornu, Bagirmi and Waddai. His rule extended east of the Nile as far asthe banks of Atbara. His death caused a fatal crisisto the kingdom as a civil war broke out due to his sons conflicts over succession to be on the throne. Obviously, this directly led the kingdom to internaldivisions andseriousweakness,the result ofwhichit was targeted by Sennar and Waddai.

One of the most capable monarchs during this period was Sultan Mohammed Terab,oneof Ahmed Bakr’s sonswholed a number of successful campaignsagainst the Funj in 1785, but he could not go farther than Omdurman as he was stopped by the Nile, and was not able to get his army across the river. Unwilling to give up his project, Terab remained in Omdurman for three months and returned to Dar fur having his army disaffected. His death is said to be caused by his wifewho poisoned him at theinstiga- tions of disaffectedchiefs. Thethrone instead of going to his son, went to his brother Abd-er Rahman el- Rashid during whose reign Napoleon Bonaparte was campaigning in Egypt. He wrote to the French General congratulating him on his victory over Mamelukes, the result of which Bonaparte in his reply asked the Sultan to send him 2000 black slaves, strong and vigorous. Moreover, el-Rashid established a new capital as the royal township in Al-fashir in 1791.

Mohammed –el-Fadli, the son of Abder Rahman was for sometime under the control of an energetic eunuch, Mohammed Kurra, but he ultimately made himself independent. Before his death in 1838,he had devoted himself largely to the subjection of thesemi- independent Arab tribes, notably Rizeigat, thousands of whom he slew. In 1821 he lost the province of Kordofan which was conquered by the Turks. After his death, his third son Mohammed Hassan was appointed as his successor, but he went blind in 1856 leaving the rest of his reign to his sister Zamzam.

By the beginning of 1856, a Khartoum businessman al-Zubayr Rahama began to set up operations in the land Southof Dar Fur, a kind of network trading posts defended by armed forces and soon he had a sprawling stateunder his rule. He issaidto be dealing with slaves and ivory trade which he used to send from Bahr-el-Ghazal to Asyut and Khartoum through Dar fur. This went on for some years and soon Sultan Ibrahim, the youngest son and the successor of Hassan found himself engaged in conflicts with al-Zubayr.

Al- Zubayr, after earlier conflicts with the Egyptians, had become their ally and in cooperation with them, heagreed to conquer Dar fur and ignited a war on the area. This resulted in the destruction of the kingdom and Ibrahim’s being slain leaving the throne for his uncle Hasaballa,who was also captured by the troop of the Khedive in 1875 and was sent to Cairo with his family. By now Dar fur was restive under Egyptian rule until 1879 in which The General Gordon suggested the reinstatementof theancient royal family. As a result, Slatin Bey was appointed as a governor to defend the province against theforces of Mohammed Ahmad al-Mahdi led by a Rizeigat sheik called Maddibo. Slatin was obliged to surrender in 1883, and Dar fur was incorporated into the Mahdi’s dominions.

After defeating Abdallah-al-tayshi, Mahdi’s successor in Omdurman in 1898, and the beginning of the new Anglo-Egyptian Government in Sudan, Ali Dinar, the grandson of Mohammed-el-Fadli was recognized as the Sultan of Dar fur. Ali Dinar, after being kept as a prisoner in Omdurman during Mahdi’s era, in 1916 during the First Word Warallied with theOttoman Empire and declared a war on Britain. This war ended in killing Ali Dinar and Dar fur’s being incorporated into Britishruled Sudan. Since that time Dar fur had been a part of the Republic of Sudan until 1956 the year in which Sudan was announced as an independent country, and since the independence Dar fur has been a part of the Republic of Sudan up to the current burning situation.

To conclude, with consideration to the historical facts which have already been mentioned, Dar fur and Kordofan have nothing to do with ancient History of Western Sudan as they are said to be known as Central Sudan. Therefore, focusing on the History of Dar fur and Kordofan under the title Western Sudan is always referred to the modern history of Sudan, particularly from the period when the region became a part of theRepublic of Sudan. In ancient history, Werstern Sudan is different from what is supposed to be, the result of which it seems somewhat confusing.




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The primary material of the website is authored by Ibrahim Omer © 2008.