Summary and Keywords
It is tempting to seek an auspicious beginning for the Sudanese city of Omdurman, given its eventual significance, but there is none to be found. From its humble origins as a watering place for local pastoralists on the west bank of the Nile, and a mere hamlet and waystation for travelers by the early 19th century, it grew rapidly in the 1880s into a crowded market center, an administrative capital, and even a holy city: all due to the tumultuous events of the Sudanese Mahdist movement (or Mahdiyyah) of 1881–1898. And while it was not the intention of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi to found anything—he considered Omdurman just another “spot” (buq‘a) among the many he had camped at—the policies of his successor and the devotion of his followers enlarged and ennobled the place, transforming it into the dominant urban center of the Nilotic Sudan.
As a holy city, Omdurman can hardly be compared to such places as Jerusalem, Rome, or Mecca, with their centuries or even millennia of existence; and although it resembles Shaykh ‘Uthman dan Fodio’s city of Sokoto in northern Nigeria as the capital of an expansionist jihadist state, it also differs from it in some important ways. Ultimately, whether one considers its messianic or economic importance, its military or administrative functions, its planned or spontaneous origins, Omdurman is remarkable for becoming, in just over a decade’s time, one of the most important cities across Sudanic Africa. Moreover, the experience of the Sudanese people in so tribally and ethnically diverse an urban environment, under such concentrated and extreme conditions, both impelled by the policies of the state and inspired by fervent Mahdist belief, helped to accelerate ongoing social changes, which ultimately led to the formation of a more coherent national identity.
The Creation of the City
Omdurman’s early history, as well as the meaning of its name (“Mother of Durman”), remains obscure.1 The first settlement there for which we have written evidence was associated with the Qur’an school (khalwah) of a local holy man, Shaykh Hamad wad Umm Maryam (c. 1646–1730), who in any event did not remain there long. European travel accounts and Sudanese sources indicate that by the early 19th century, Omdurman had become a lightly inhabited village favored by local merchants for its access to the Nile confluence and important trade routes to the west (e.g., Darfur) and north (e.g., Dongola and Egypt). After 1820, officials of the Turco-Egyptian regime traveling upriver often conducted government business there before crossing over to Khartoum on the east bank, suggesting that Omdurman had acquired at least rudimentary facilities and resources by that time (Figure 1).
However, the official recognition of Khartoum as the government capital in 1824 removed the possibility of any further planned development of the site.
With the spread of the Mahdist movement after 1881, Omdurman became more important to the Turco-Egyptian regime: first as a staging area for the ill-advised military expedition of General William Hicks Pasha, which set out in September 1883 to put down the revolt and was annihilated one month later in Kordofan Province; and after the arrival of General Charles Gordon at Khartoum in 1884, as the location of a Turco-Egyptian fortress guarding the capital’s western flank. Gordon mentions in a journal entry that 240 men were stationed there, and it seems likely that the local Sudanese population also grew to serve the various needs of the garrison. In October 1884, the Mahdi encamped just south of Omdurman in support of his army’s siege of Khartoum, and he invited the commandant of the Omdurman fortress, Farajallah Raghib Pasha, to surrender. Having little choice, surrounded as he was by a far larger force and cut off from the capital, Farajallah eventually surrendered on January 5, 1885. The fall of the Omdurman fortress struck a grave blow against the morale of Khartoum’s inhabitants, and desertions to the Mahdi increased. A mere three weeks later, on January 26, 1885, the Mahdists captured Khartoum in an early morning attack. The fall of the city, along with the deaths of Gordon and many of his staff, spelled the end of Turco-Egyptian rule in most of the Sudan and signaled the rise of a new Mahdist state, whose capital was to become Omdurman.
Given that the Mahdi’s stated mission was one of universal religious reform, buttressed by his messianic claim to be “the divinely guided one” expected at the End of Time, it is clear that he had no interest in Omdurman per se, and certainly he had no intention of governing a territorial state. Rather, his sights were set on Mecca, Jerusalem, and Istanbul: in short, world domination and the culmination of God’s plan for humankind.2 Accordingly, the Mahdi initially remained south of Omdurman while many of his followers took up homes in the captured Turco-Egyptian capital. Later, he joined his troops in the burgeoning campsite that was Omdurman, settling in a spot close to the river. Khartoum held no attraction for him: like El Obeid before it, it was regarded as spiritually contaminated by the unbelievers, and although he occasionally crossed over to Khartoum to pray in its mosque and deliver a sermon, he chided those of his followers—including his kinsmen—who had settled there.
A mere five months after his greatest success, the Mahdi died on June 22 after a brief illness, possibly typhus. Buried in his home, as was customary for a holy man, leadership of the movement now passed to his most powerful and trusted lieutenant, ‘Abdallahi al-Ta‘ayshi, known popularly as “the Khalifah.”3 For his followers, the Mahdi’s death presented a moment of cognitive dissonance, and many grappled to understand this shocking divergence from the divine plan. For the Khalifah, the concern was more immediate: how to govern an extremely diverse (and not altogether cohesive) collection of Sudanese tribes and ethnic groups, whose unquestioned leader and spiritual guide was now, inexplicably, gone. Sheer necessity, the need for established order, led the Khalifah to oversee the rise of a fixed state; and its capital, for a host of reasons both symbolic and practical, had to be Omdurman, known already as Buq‘at al-Mahdi (“the Mahdi’s place”).
The Policy of Hijrah
Emptying Khartoum of its inhabitants, in the interests of both centralizing important government personnel and exercising greater control over the Mahdi’s followers, proved difficult. On July 27, one month after the Mahdi’s death, the Khalifah issued a summons under his formal title of Khalifat al-Siddiq (“Successor of the Caliph Abu Bakr”) ordering everyone to abandon Khartoum and resettle in Omdurman. Although presented not only as official policy but as a matter of Mahdist faith, the summons was largely ignored by the Ashraf, the Mahdi’s kinsmen, and the Khalifah was forced to relent.4 For the next year Khartoum remained occupied by a variety of people, while the Khalifah sought to supervise conditions there as best he could. By late 1886, however, he was in a better position politically to assert his will, and in September he again ordered the evacuation of the former capital; this time it was carried out, allegedly within 10 days. Henceforth, Omdurman was indisputably the Mahdist capital, while Khartoum, picked over for its building materials, lay virtually in ruins.
By this time, the Khalifah had already begun a policy of inviting (and often, requiring) Sudanese from throughout the territory under Mahdist control to come to Omdurman to swear an oath of loyalty (bay‘a). Oral as well as written summons, addressed to both important individuals and entire tribes, were widely disseminated, indicating that all should be present in “the Mahdi’s city” by the feast of ‘Id al-Adha (i.e., September 20, 1885). Subsequently, many thousands of Sudanese poured into Omdurman and remained there, so that by mid-1886 the city apparently stretched for almost four miles along the Nile.
The basis for this policy was the Mahdi’s concept of hijrah (“flight” or “emigration”), which, from his manifestation in 1881 until his death, urged Sudanese to renounce the world, embrace an ascetic life, and join him in his jihad against the unbelievers.5 Evoking the experience of the original Muslim community under the Prophet Muhammad, and consistent with the Sudanic African practice of seeking refuge with a holy man in the face of oppression, the Mahdi’s use of hijrah recast the Sudanese as Ansar (“Helpers,” following the precedent of the Prophet) as well as muhajirun (emigrants) and mujahidun (soldiers on behalf of the faith): in essence, implying privilege and conferring protection with the fulfillment of a religious obligation.
As applied by the Khalifah, the concept of hijrah was evoked on behalf of a broad and detailed program to mobilize and relocate many Sudanese. This in turn was linked to his goals of promoting the spiritual and economic primacy of Omdurman, encouraging the notion of Mahdist exclusivity and the avoidance of unbelievers, and deemphasizing the religious duty of pilgrimage to Mecca. Not incidentally, it also bolstered the Khalifah’s authority in times of political stress, most especially when facing the resistance of the Mahdi’s kinsmen who opposed his leadership.
The policy of hijrah was not all encompassing, since practicality required that the policy be tempered to fit the circumstances. For instance, the Khalifah’s own Ta‘aysha tribe and other western Sudanese pastoralists (the so-called Baqqara) were expected to relocate to Omdurman, with their cattle and possessions, on behalf of waging the jihad: this gave the Khalifah greater supervision over a potentially unreliable population, while also strengthening his hand against his rivals. Meanwhile, farmers from the fertile Jazirah region and Kordofan were often released from military campaigns at the start of the cultivation season, while some villagers along the Nile were exempt from the jihad entirely after the capture of Khartoum.6 Merchants were likewise able to minimize (or escape altogether) the obligation to fight, while at least some Sudanese were entitled to pay an indemnity to the Mahdist treasury to avoid the obligation of hijrah.
A variety of circumstances seem to have determined who was required to make the hijrah and who was not. Some important religious figures were left to their pious pursuits in the provinces, while others (e.g., the holy men of El Obeid in 1886) were called to Omdurman to teach in its schools. Former employees of the Turco-Egyptian regime were always in demand for their skills and so were relocated to the capital. Some pastoralist tribes of the Jazirah were initially required to make the hijrah, although after convincing the Khalifah of their loyalty, they were allowed to return home. Criminals and offenders of various sorts were often brought from the provinces to the capital for punishment or rehabilitation. Likewise, unmarried women and widows from the provinces were usually brought to Omdurman to be settled among members of their ethnic or tribal community: a measure intended to protect vulnerable members of society and uphold the moral order. Alternatively, women captured during the jihad, whether within or without Sudan, could be classified as “spoils of war” and distributed to the Khalifah’s followers as wives or concubines, or else sold as property of the state. All these and more played a role in the peopling of Omdurman, although the population of the city was primarily the result of emigration for the purpose of jihad.
The Khalifah’s first call for hijrah in 1885 was answered by thousands of loyal Ansar in the belief that refusal constituted disobedience to God. Others, however, were more reluctant. A few recalcitrant tribal leaders were punished with imprisonment and seizure of their cattle as an object lesson, but such measures ultimately proved ineffective. As with the evacuation of Khartoum, the Khalifah was forced to relent. A second series of letters summoning people to Omdurman was issued from late 1886–1887, directed mainly at the pastoralist Arab tribes of Darfur and Kordofan. These letters outlined in greater detail the penalties for disobedience and made an individual, usually a tribal shaykh, responsible for bringing in the group. Simultaneously, the chief judge at Omdurman ruled that the goods of all tribes resisting emigration were liable to seizure and sale by the government, with the proceeds left in trust for the tribe in the state treasury. This had the desired effect, and by late 1887 the bulk of the Kordofan tribes had settled in Omdurman, although a section of each was allowed to remain under the supervision of a local Mahdist official (amir) to watch over a portion of the tribal herds.
The years 1888–1890 saw the completion of the great period of emigration to Omdurman, including most notably the Ta‘aysha and other pastoralist tribes of Darfur. These were met at the Nile by Mahdist officials and transported by government steamers to the capital (their cattle being brought separately), where they were settled on vacant land in the southern sector of the city. Throughout the period of the Mahdiyyah, however, Sudanese continued to migrate to Omdurman for the jihad, as numerous letters addressed to the Khalifah indicate: for example, “1,819 mujahidun” in 1892, “1,101 mujahidun from the deserts” in 1893. With the approach of the invading Anglo-Egyptian army in 1897, the Khalifah issued a final and urgent summons for all Ansar to relocate to the capital, although in the final two years of his reign this call went largely unanswered.
Omdurman in Mahdist Belief
Apart from waging jihad, other considerations led people to migrate to Omdurman during the Mahdiyyah. Given the unsettled conditions of the time, it is not surprising that the annual pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca was disrupted, though not entirely stopped. The Mahdi had earlier declared that hijrah and jihad are more important than pilgrimage, and according to Sudanese popular belief, emigration to Omdurman was equal to 70 pilgrimages. Those Sudanese who made the hijrah in fulfillment of their hajj commitment were joined by a stream of pilgrims from western and central Sudanic Africa, who reached Omdurman following the centuries-old pilgrimage route. Some of these pilgrims continued on to Mecca, although a great many remained in Omdurman as Ansar, settled in a distinct West African (“Fellata”) quarter of the city.7
Untold numbers flocked to the city, often traveling great distances, to visit family members and partake of the tangible holiness (barakah) emanating from the Mahdi’s tomb, the central mosque, and the homes of the Mahdi’s and Khalifah’s families.
Usually, visits to the city coincided with two annual events, the Rajabiyyah festival (27 Rajab) and the feast of ‘Id al-Adha (10 Dhu’l-Hijjah), although such occasions as the Prophet’s birthday (5 Rabi‘ al-Awwal) and ‘Id al-Fitr (at the end of Ramadan) might also draw visitors. For the most part, this was a transient population, though not always. Their letters to the Khalifah and his brother Ya‘qub requesting permission to travel are noteworthy in that they cross ethnic, tribal and regional lines and reveal a profound reverence for the city.
Rarely was the name “Omdurman” used by Sudanese at this time. Rather, a variety of honorifics were employed, such as al-Buq‘a al-Tahirah (“The Pure Place”), al-Buq‘a al-Mubarakah (“The Blessed Place”), and Markaz al-Falah (“The Center of Prosperity”). Three names in particular stand out: al-Buq‘a al-Musharrafah (“The Noble Place,” a designation typically associated with the Ka‘bah in Mecca); al-Madinah al-Munawwarah (“The Radiant City,” a name usually applied to Medina); and al-Haram al-Sharif (“The Noble Sanctuary,” used here in reference to the Mahdi’s tomb but most commonly applied to either the mosque of the Ka‘bah or the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). Such designations were not, and could not, have been imposed upon the Ansar by the Khalifah, and they indicate the central and unrivaled spiritual importance of Omdurman during this messianic era.
Also reflecting the spiritual importance of Omdurman was the manner in which emigrants prepared to enter the city. Mahdist officials attached great importance to the condition of emigrants, who were instructed to clean themselves and don fresh clothing before treading upon the soil of the Mahdi’s city. When necessary, the state supplied emigrants with clean clothing. In at least one instance, a visiting Ansari removed his shoes before entering the city, out of respect for the Mahdi’s remains.
The spiritual center of Omdurman—and by extension, the Mahdist Sudan—was the Mahdi’s tomb in the middle of town (Figure 4). Popularly known as the “Qubbah,” it was the repository of his barakah and occupied an important place in the hearts and minds of the Sudanese, as well as figured largely in their poetry. Located just east of the prayer niche of the central mosque, it was directly before the Ansar as they prayed. Looming over the city with its whitewashed dome, it was Omdurman’s most visible feature from a distance and hence served as a beacon to approaching travelers.
In the tradition of a visitation (ziyarah) to a saint’s tomb, visitors approached the Qubbah with a mixture of awe and reverence, often seeking the Mahdi’s blessing for improved fortunes, restored health, or protection from calamity (Figure 5).8
The central mosque, popularly known as “the Khalifah’s mosque,” was also an object of considerable devotion. The Ansar named it “the Fourth Mosque,” after those in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, and as with the Mahdi’s tomb, poetry was composed and recited in praise of it throughout the period. An additional source of barakah for many of the Ansar was the family of the Mahdi—his wives and children especially—as well as the family of the Khalifah. Visits to Omdurman generally included stops at their homes, and if this was impossible, the central quarter of town where their homes were located and the barakah was concentrated. The Khalifah was believed by many Ansar to have the power to intercede with God and direct their prayers to success: a belief with clear precedent in both Sufi and Sudanic African tradition.
The Functioning of the City
The Omdurman Economy
Omdurman thus came to fulfill the functions of both military command center and embarkation point for the jihad, as well as a place of pilgrimage for those Sudanese who believed in the mission of the Mahdi and understood themselves to be living in a messianic age. As the capital of a sprawling territorial state, it also assumed the role of both administrative and market center. In this respect, it followed more closely the precedent of Khartoum, capital of the “unbeliever” Turks, than the earlier Sudanic states of Sinnar and Darfur, whose administrative and economic facilities had been separately situated.
If the spiritual hub of Omdurman was the central district where the Qubbah, main mosque, and homes of the Mahdi’s and Khalifah’s families were located, the economic center and nexus of daily activity was unquestionably the marketplace (suq). Located in the northwest corner of town, on the fringe of the settled area, the suq was reorganized by order of the Khalifah in 1888 to concentrate each type of merchant in a specific area and increase competition. This arrangement had the benefit of not only driving down prices for consumers, but also allowing the state’s treasury greater control over the marketplace and increasing its revenues from rental plots. State control was further assured by the presence of market inspectors, whose duties combined the conventional functions of police (providing security and apprehending criminals) with the classical Islamic office of muhtasib (upholding public morality, ensuring correct weights and measures, and punishing users of alcohol and tobacco). A market court functioned throughout the period, its authority emphasized by a nearby gallows.
By design, Omdurman was the chief marketplace of the Mahdist Sudan. Early in his reign, the Khalifah suspended all trade with Egypt, seemingly to ward off spiritual contamination and dangerous influences, but also to prevent the outflow of capital. Although this policy was eventually relaxed in 1890 in an attempt to resuscitate the economy, other policies were enacted to weaken the power of the provincial markets as well as compel foreign merchants to bring their goods directly to Omdurman. Such policies were only partially successful: some Sudanese merchants continued to trade intermittently in the markets of the Jazirah and to the north in Dongola, as well as beyond the state’s borders in British-controlled Suakin on the Red Sea coast. Despite the state’s limited control and its porous borders, Mahdist policy induced most merchants to converge on the capital, where regional produce and imported goods were bartered for items monopolized by the state and purchased by local retailers.
The economic activities within the Omdurman suq were quite diverse. As befit a state motivated by jihad, most industries were devoted to items of warfare and transport: spears, swords, knives and sheaths, stirrup irons, saddles, reins, horse and donkey bits; but also agricultural implements, bed frames, doors and window fittings, boxes and clay pots, shoes and clothing, and so on (Figure 6).
The wholesale and retail sections of the suq were vast, consisting of separate markets offering the above manufactures as well as various food items (e.g., meat, fish, dairy, grains, produce, spices, cooking oils), textiles, leather goods, baskets and mats, building materials, livestock, feed and forage, pharmaceuticals, jewelry, and perfume. A separate women’s market existed to serve the needs of widowed or elderly women, while a services area included stalls for barbers, tailors, cooked food vendors, coffee houses, and a common laundry area. The layout of the suq conformed to a pattern familiar in Sudanic Africa, with warehouses, wholesalers, and craftsmen on the peripheries, and retailers and services in the interior. A large open area in the center was reserved for the selling of livestock, with individual markets grouped around it. The market court with its prison and gallows was prominently situated adjacent to the open area, facing into the major portion of the suq, while the women’s market was placed on the far northwest corner, allowing women some measure of privacy while entering and exiting the public area.
Apart from the activities confined to the suq, an informal economy flourished in Omdurman based on household production and barter. Many free women spent their time sewing and weaving items, or else raising animals for slaughter, to be exchanged in their neighborhoods at informal markets for other goods. In a reversion to the earlier practice of Sinnar and Darfur, this exchange was often practiced with strips of cloth (dammur) rather than currency, especially since Mahdist coinage was often in short supply or in danger of depreciation. Otherwise, women were also represented in the formal economy, whether as slave women selling handicrafts in the suq on behalf of their mistresses or as widowed and elderly women buying and selling goods in the women’s market.
Another aspect of Omdurman’s informal economy involved the varied services provided to the households of the Mahdi and Khalifah by devoted Ansar. It was not uncommon for Sudanese to attach themselves to these households in the hope of sharing in the Mahdi’s barakah. Some were daughters of the Ansar, known as Ansariyyat, brought by their fathers to work in Omdurman. Although they neither received nor expected remuneration for their labor, they lived within the Mahdi’s and Khalifah’s families’ compounds and received food and other necessities, including instruction in the Qur’an. Allegedly, these Ansariyyat were virtually unique among the servants of Omdurman in their literacy. In similar fashion, some Sudanese offered their daughters to the Mahdi and Khalifah as “gifts,” hoping that they would be taken as concubines (or preferably, wives). This offer accorded with an older Sudanic practice of honoring holy men and endowing their settlements with land, slaves, livestock, shares of produce, and voluntary labor. Moreover, people often requested that holy men marry their daughters so that they might benefit from the barakah of any offspring. In Mahdist Omdurman, such marriages (or relations of concubinage) conferred not only spiritual benefits, but also obvious social advancement; and in some cases, it may be assumed, they brought financial gain through preferential trade opportunities, access to information, and the like.
Much of the affluence (and perhaps some of the influence) of the Mahdist elite was dependent on the labor of their slaves; indeed, most of the labor performed within Omdurman (and the Mahdist state as a whole) was slave labor. Identified by the Ansar as “blacks,” these slaves were drawn from the non-Arabic speaking and non-Muslim peoples of the Nuba Mountains, upper White Nile or upper Blue Nile, Bahr al-Ghazal, and Equatorial regions. Consistent with Sudanic tradition, their labor, often taken by force, formed the productive base of society. While written evidence is scant, it seems likely that Omdurman’s population was at least half slave, including both the poorer households with perhaps a solitary female slave and the larger households with several specialized slaves. Families of the Mahdist elite could possess upward of 100 slaves, whether employed in agriculture outside the city or providing services within.9
A specialized category of slave within Omdurman was the jihadiyya: slave soldiers who were recent converts to Islam, taken over from the Turco-Egyptian regime and charged with both military and nonmilitary responsibilities. Housed in a distinct quarter of the city, these soldiers performed a wide variety of functions. Jihadiyya were utilized by the state as guards and laborers at the Khalifah’s house, the soap factory, market court, central prison, the ports and boatyards, the arsenal, the treasury, and the state storehouses. They could also be pressed into service as herders of livestock, gatherers of straw and wood, builders of fortifications, tax collectors, and even military tailors. Trained in the use of gunpowder weapons, they served as an essential fighting unit outside the city and an elite bodyguard (mulazimin) to the Khalifah within the city. While their numbers tended to vary, at any one time there were usually 3,000 garrisoned in their quarter of Omdurman, although others were settled adjacent to the Khalifah’s home. Taken as a distinct social group—and certainly they were viewed this way by the other Ansar—the jihadiyya constituted the largest single category within the public labor force. While the actual legal status of the jihadiyya was uncertain, as was often the case historically with “slaves of the state,” their diminished social status within Omdurman was not. Perhaps not surprisingly, their military professionalism outlasted, and sometimes transcended, their Mahdist loyalty.10
Issues of Governance
The political and social conditions faced by the Khalifah and his Ansar were hardly conducive to stable governance. Moreover, in a messianic environment charged with the anticipation of an imminent Judgment Day, it was unclear exactly what degree of governance was desired. The closest model of urban administration was Khartoum across the Nile, but the spiritually contaminated “City of the Turks” was not supposed to be an example to be emulated. Ultimately, in the absence of any specific municipal offices or officials, Omdurman’s governance depended on a variety of institutions and practices, whether formal or informal, obligatory or voluntary, individual or collective.
At the top of Mahdist administration, and hence ultimately responsible for conditions within “the Mahdi’s city,” was of course the Khalifah. Of necessity, he often delegated authority to his brother, known as “Amir Ya‘qub,” who also commanded the largest division within the Mahdist army, the Black Standard. Since Omdurman was designed to be the mobilization site and command center of a state defined by jihad, and since all men of Omdurman who were not members of the jihadiyya or Khalifah’s bodyguard were attached to the Black Standard, Amir Ya‘qub was not only their military commander but essentially the city’s chief executive. Put differently, the military organization of the Mahdiyyah assumed the role of civic organization: each of the four divisions of the Black Standard was led by a chief officer (amir), who in turn, oversaw a number of smaller units organized by tribal, clan, ethnic, or other affiliation. These units were then divided into groups of 100, which were further divided into groups of 25.
At every level of command (with some few exceptions), authority derived from the preexisting social hierarchies: tribal, clan, or family leaders who understood the needs and ability of their followers, and who lived with them in their particular part of town. Every military unit thus acquired a spatial dimension within the settlement pattern of Omdurman, while every military leader was also a neighborhood leader, directly accountable to Ya‘qub for the well-being of his soldiers. Moreover, the responsibilities of these leaders extended beyond the material needs of their people to other, particularly civic, matters: mediating disputes that did not require the involvement of the courts; overseeing matters of public health and sanitation; mobilizing the Ansar for communal labor projects, such as building the Qubba or city walls; and explaining (and enforcing) the directives of the Khalifah contained in his published proclamations or expressed in his Friday sermons.
To a certain degree, the governance of Omdurman also relied on the Sudanese people’s pervasive ties to various Sufi organizations. Early in his uprising, the Mahdi had officially abolished the Sufi brotherhoods and prohibited their devotional activities, along with use of the term “dervishes” (darawish). At the same time, much of the ideology and organizational strength of the Mahdiyyah had its origins in Sufism.11 Thus, while public practices such as collective chanting (dhikr) ceased, the Khalifah was compelled to recognize, at least tacitly, the practical benefits of Sufi affiliation and authority. This was especially the case with regard to conflict resolution among the rapidly urbanizing population.
The two chief institutions of the Mahdist state, the public treasury and the main court, played important roles in governing the city. The public treasury (Bayt al-Mal) was the state’s most important institution and employed a considerable number of people in Omdurman. Ultimately responsible for directing the economy of the Mahdist state and maintaining the material well-being of the Ansar, its staff comprised the largest overall number of employees in the Mahdist government. Under its chief officer, the Amin Bayt al-Mal, were administrative clerks, camel post workers, artisans and weapons manufacturers, as well as the actual treasury employees. Additionally, the Bayt al-Mal supervised the city’s soap factory, pharmacy, hospital, telegraph stations, armory, mint, and lithograph press, as well as conducting the only slave market in Omdurman. In a purely economic sense, it was responsible for revenues and expenditures; policies of land ownership, manufacturing, foreign trade, agriculture and taxes; the city’s food supply; and supervision of the state’s economic policies. By the end of the Mahdiyyah, the Bayt al-Mal had split into several specialized treasuries, each concerned with a particular function within the city (e.g., treasuries for the Khalifah’s bodyguard, the military workshop and dockyard, and the market inspectors.) Many, if not most, of its administrative and clerical staffs were skilled workers who had previously served the Turco-Egyptian regime, including Egyptian Coptic Christians (who were captives of the Mahdiyyah) and northern riverain Sudanese Muslims (who were loyal Ansar.)
The Mahdist courts exhibited a similar degree of specialization. The main court (Mahkamat al-Islam), located at the mosque in the center of town, heard all serious criminal cases and served as the court of appeal for cases heard in the provinces. Headed by a chief judge (Qadi al-Islam), it consisted of approximately 20 judges whose judgments were based on the Qur’an, Sunna (the example of the Prophet), and the proclamations (Manshurat) of the Mahdi. When these sources were deemed insufficient, judges referred to the practices of Sudan’s dominant legal school, the Maliki rite. Additionally, a number of smaller courts existed to treat particular matters: a court at the Bayt al-Mal heard cases involving inheritance, taxation, the spoils of war, and slave ownership; two other courts mediated disputes involving the Khalifah’s bodyguard and the jihadiyya soldiers; another court heard cases related to the operations of the port involving boat owners, port officials, and merchants. At all times, however, the Ansar could take these and other legal matters directly to the Khalifah or Amir Ya‘qub, whose authority was paramount.
The court at the marketplace (Mahkamat al-Suq) represents the most deliberate attempt at urban governance by the Mahdist administration. Operating in conjunction with the aforementioned market inspectors, it helped maintain order in the city’s only truly “public” space. For most of the Mahdist period, responsibility for this court—and indeed, for the market as a whole—was vested in a former police official of the Turco-Egyptian regime, a Sudanese named Muhammad Wahbi Husayn. The breadth of Muhammad Wahbi’s authority reveals how closely the Mahdist ideal of urban governance approximated the classical Islamic office of muhtasib: his titles speak to his duties as police chief, market supervisor, tax collector, and judge. Accompanied by a force of approximately 25 inspectors, he patrolled the market inspecting the quality of food; supervised the regularity of weights, measures, and prices; guarded against the use of counterfeit currency and the smuggling of goods; enforced the separation of the sexes and safeguarded public morality; attended to problems of traffic, antisocial behavior, and public sanitation; enacted the judgments of the Qadi al-Islam; and urged regular attendance at prayer.
Some distinction between the duties of the market court and the market inspectors apparently did exist, although it was an unclear one. Ideally, the market inspectors acted to supervise “correct” behavior and uphold the law in the marketplace, while the market court passed judgment upon offenders. And while their personnel did not overlap, the broad authority of Muhammad Wahbi, as judge and police chief, certainly did.
Outside the market area, that is, in the residential quarters of the city, matters of public health and safety were the immediate responsibility of the local inhabitants. While the government provided some medical services at the Bayt al-Mal (most especially, inoculation against smallpox) and treated the indigent population for free, traditional medical practitioners were to be found in most of the districts. These physicians provided herbal remedies, set broken bones, delivered babies, and so on, although serious wounds required the attention of the government’s physician, Dr. Hasan Zaki, an Egyptian taken captive in Khartoum. Public sanitation meanwhile was a matter of communal responsibility: by the Khalifah’s order, every district was made responsible for its own proper sanitary arrangements, an order that was enforced through the military command structure. In similar fashion, each district was responsible for its own local security. The Mahdi had ruled that anyone who failed to expose a crime was deserving of the same punishment as the criminal, and this ruling was strenuously upheld. As conditions warranted, jihadiyya might patrol the city districts at night, sometimes accompanied by the market inspectors; but as a matter of Mahdist belief as well as legal practice, all of the Ansar were essentially deemed “police.”
The Population of Omdurman
For a 19th-century Sudanic African town, Omdurman was an extraordinarily huge and diverse place. While there are insufficient data from Mahdist and Anglo-Egyptian sources to establish the city’s exact population at any one time, it is possible to estimate its average minimum population, as well as its sustained core population, from 1885 to 1898.12
At the time of Khartoum’s capture in 1885, there were approximately 30,000 people in the city. The Mahdists made no official count of the casualties suffered by their enemy, although Egyptian Military Intelligence estimated it to be at least 4,000 soldiers and civilians. As already mentioned, the survivors were relocated to Omdurman. Soon thereafter, the Khalifah’s call to hijrah went out and many thousands of Sudanese poured into the new city, joining those Ansar already present. Just how many thousands arrived and then remained, however, is unclear. Many of these were soldiers, mujahidun, and they were called to join the jihad soon after their arrival; thus, their family members either remained at home in the provinces or settled in a city district specific to their clan or tribe. Estimates of Omdurman’s population for the late 1880s and early 1890s vary widely—from 120,000 to half a million—although these estimates were at best guesses, and the higher numbers reflect times of major military mobilization.
It is clear that Omdurman’s population fluctuated wildly, responding to a variety of factors: the Khalifah’s periodic summons to hijrah; Sudanese traveling to the city annually for the Rajabiyyah festival, ‘Id al-Adha, or the Prophet’s birthday; others coming to the city in fulfillment of the pilgrimage obligation or to partake of the Mahdi’s and Khalifah’s barakah; and merchants bringing their goods from the provinces or abroad to trade in the country’s chief marketplace. Against these population shifts must be figured the constant outflow of Ansar embarking on jihad to the north, the Red Sea coast, and the Ethiopian borderlands; others who were allowed to return to their farmlands in the Jazirah or Kordofan to cultivate each winter; as well as the steady population losses due to natural or battle-related mortality. Certainly, a major influence on Omdurman’s population was the devastating famine of 1306/1888–1889: Many thousands of Sudanese converged on the capital in search of food at this time, while the government simultaneously transported thousands of newly arrived western pastoralists upriver to Fashoda to relieve the burden of feeding them. While the precise effect of the famine on the city’s population is unknown, it is clear that many thousands died. Most of these, however, were the new arrivals from the countryside rather than the city’s settled population, who had managed to store grain and who assisted one another until the famine passed.
Women and children appear to have constituted the largest portion of Omdurman’s population at any one time. Moreover, evidence suggests that women outnumbered men by a ratio of about three to one. Added to these would be the slave population—separate from the “family members” enumerated in Mahdist documents—who, as stated earlier, may have accounted for as much as half of the city’s population. Others who could be considered core residents—that is, those who were generally not required to leave the city for jihad—represented a reserve of the jihadiyya soldiers garrisoned in Omdurman, who typically numbered 3,000 but at times reached 8,000; a Muslim-convert community of Syrians, Armenians, Italians, Cypriots, and Greek Orthodox Christians, as well as Egyptian Copts and Jews, who originally numbered in the several hundreds but diminished considerably by the end of the period; former Turco-Egyptian officials and soldiers (some of whom were Copts), as well as their dependents, who in 1898 numbered some 8,676 persons; the administrators and officials of the treasuries, courts, and other offices, who at the end of the Mahdiyyah numbered almost 250; and the households of the Mahdist elite. This last category included the spouses and children of the Mahdi and his brothers and the Khalifah and his brothers; the families of the Mahdi’s and Khalifah’s relatives; and the families of the two junior khalifas, Muhammad Sharif and ‘Ali al-Hilu. Available data suggest that these totaled—at an absolute minimum and exclusive of slaves and concubines—somewhere in the vicinity of 500 individuals.
Based on Mahdist records of troop strengths and mortality rates, as well as surviving treasury documents and government memoranda, together with the reports of Omdurman residents and informants to the Egyptian Military Intelligence, it seems likely that Omdurman’s average minimum population was approximately 240,000. This figure, whether or not it is inclusive of slaves, represents an extremely large average urban population for its time and place, and indeed it was unprecedented in Sudanic history. Moreover, the broad diversity of Omdurman’s inhabitants, in terms of tribal identity, geographic origin, and ethnicity, sets it apart from earlier Sudanic towns and helps explain Omdurman’s significance as the crucible of a broader Sudanese national identity.
Omdurman and Sudanese History
The history of Mahdist Omdurman, and particularly its social history, suggests the continuation of several earlier practices as well as some interesting new developments. The settlement of the city, for example, follows the earlier Sudanic pattern of spatially distinct tribal and ethnic quarters with a centrally located, enclosed “royal quarter.” At the same time, across the southern, central, and northern zones of the city appear multiple examples of a more dynamic settlement mixture that quickly created new affiliations. Likewise, the economic activities in Omdurman confirm the historical dominance of Sudan’s northern riverain and Red Sea populations, especially in long-distance trade; and yet a variety of other peoples—central Sudanic, Fur, and, most surprisingly, the western pastoralist “Baqqara”—became involved in the activities of the suq, with the Baqqara gaining a particular reputation for their proficiency in retail business.
The marriage alliances made in Omdurman reveal the formation of a multitribal, multiethnic ruling class. To some degree, this followed precedent: the distribution of daughters between family groups to form strategic alliances was well established among the earlier states of Sinnar and Darfur. At the same time, the conditions of the Mahdiyyah, with political authority in the hands of the Khalifah and his Ta‘aysha relations, and spiritual authority emanating from the family of the Mahdi, favored new marriage alliances between the otherwise-estranged northern and western Sudanese communities. Added to these were the marriages conducted between the above two families and the family of the junior khalifah ‘Ali al-Hilu, whose White Nile relations from the Kinana and Dighaym Arabs became part of a broader Sudanese elite.
There is little evidence that such an admixture was a common practice among the rest of the Ansar, and yet a more subtle socialization process was underway in the culture of Omdurman. One indication of this process is the above-mentioned incorporation of the western pastoralists into the northern riverain mercantile economy. Another indication is linguistic. Many of the Baqqara, as a result of their settlement, began to adopt the riverain dialect of Arabic that was prevalent in Omdurman. The Khalifah’s son and heir apparent, ‘Uthman Shaykh al-Din, spoke this form of Arabic exclusively and was hence dubbed “Ibn al-Madina” (“son of the city”). To further Shaykh al-Din’s education, the Khalifah assigned his secretary (al-Tayyib Hashim, from a prominent riverain family) to teach him classical Arabic. Additionally, the poetry of the Mahdiyyah—an important instrument of Mahdist indoctrination as well as an expression of popular culture—was recited mainly in the riverain Arabic vernacular. Even outside the city, Arabic was replacing other languages (e.g., Nubian Kenzi) as a consequence of the Mahdiyyah, while polygamous marriages encouraged by the Mahdi and Khalifah were replacing monogamy among Nubian Sudanese communities.
In short, the experience of Mahdist Omdurman, with its ideological rigor and processes of acculturation and urbanization, accelerated many of the changes introduced in the earlier Funj and Turco-Egyptian periods, while contributing to the growth of a new type of Sudanese Arab-Muslim culture. And while never the intention of the Mahdi and Khalifah, this eventually led to the rise of a more particular Sudanese, and especially northern Sudanese, identity in the context of the 20th century.
The Literature on Omdurman
The present author’s study of Omdurman during the Mahdiyyah is the only scholarly work on the subject: Holy City on the Nile, Omdurman During the Mahdiyya.13. Otherwise, there is some historical literature on the Sudan that treats Mahdist Omdurman in a tangential way. All serious consideration of the Mahdiyyah begins with the authoritative work of P. M. Holt, The Mahdist State in the Sudan.14 Holt’s book was the first historical study of the period based on the voluminous archives of the Mahdist state, and it remains unsurpassed. Among the scholarship produced by Sudanese scholars, the contributions of Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Salim stand out prominently. Three of Abu Salim’s books in particular contribute to our understanding of Omdurman: Al-‘Arḍ fī’l-Mahdiyyah Ta’rīkh al-Kharṭūm; and Al-Ḥarakah al-Fikriyyah fī’l-Mahdiyyah.15 Specialized works on the Mahdiyyah that refer to Omdurman in important ways include Husayn Sid Ahmad al-Mufti, Taṭawwur Niẓām al-Qaḍā’ fī’l-Mahdiyyah; ‘Ismat Hasan Zulfo, Kararī; and Al-Siyāsah al-Iqtiṣādiyyah li’l-Dawlah al-Mahdiyyah.16
Omdurman and the period of the Mahdiyyah cannot be fully understood without reference to the prior history of state formation and urbanization in the Sudan. The starting point is the coauthored volume by R. S. O’Fahey and Jay Spaulding, Kingdoms of the Sudan.17 In addition, one should refer to their individual works: R. S. O’Fahey, State and Society in Dar Fur (London: 1980); and Jay Spaulding The Heroic Age in Sinnar.18 For the period of Turco-Egyptian rule in the Sudan, Richard Hill’s Egypt in the Sudan (London: 1959) remains the most important work, complemented by Anders Bjorkelo, Prelude to the Mahdiyya: Peasants and Traders in the Shendi Region.19 To these may be added two scholarly articles on urbanization: F. Rehfisch, “A Sketch of the Early History of Omdurman,” and R. C. Stevenson, “Old Khartoum, 1821–1885,” 20
The archive of the Mahdist state is preserved in the National Records Office in Khartoum, and contains most of the surviving records and documents produced by the government of the Khalifah, as well as other materials gathered in Omdurman by Egyptian Military Intelligence after the Anglo-Egyptian conquest in September 1898. Of direct importance to the study of Omdurman is its complete collection of Egyptian Military Intelligence reports from 1885 to 1898. The collection is not digitized and cannot be accessed remotely. Otherwise, a considerable amount of material relating to the Mahdiyyah and some material relating to conditions in Omdurman may be found in the Sudan Archive at the University of Durham (U.K.). Durham’s extensive and wide-ranging collection was built upon the papers of former British officials who served in the Sudan Political Service during Anglo-Egyptian rule (1899–1955). The collection is well catalogued, and much of it is searchable online.
Some primary source material from the Mahdiyyah has been published. The collected proclamations and pronouncements of the Mahdi are available in seven volumes edited by Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Salim: Al-Āthār al-Kāmilah li’l-Imām al-Mahdī.21 Additionally, Abu Salim collected a great deal of polemical material, both pro- and anti-Mahdi, that sheds interesting light on the intellectual debates of the period: Al-Khuṣūmah fī Mahdiyyat al-Sūdān.22 For an understanding of conditions in Omdurman, the memoir of Babikr Bedri, a former Ansari, is invaluable: Memoirs.23 Likewise, the account of an Egyptian military officer who spent the Mahdiyyah as a captive in Omdurman sheds much interesting light on the period: Ibrahim Fawzi, Al-Sūdān Bayna Yadāy Ghurdūn wa Kitshanir.24 A history of the Sudan written by a former officer of the Egyptian Military Intelligence, Na‘um Shuqayr, contains some important information about Omdurman and may be considered authoritative, given Shuqayr’s access to and familiarity with intelligence data; Shuqayr was also charged with discovering and collecting all written materials in Omdurman after the conquest: Tarīkh al-Sūdān al-Qadīm wa’l-Ḥadīth wa Jughrāfīyatuhu.25
Finally, the published accounts of the European prisoners of the Mahdi and Khalifah, who spent long, unhappy years of captivity in Omdurman, are important sources. These works, however, must be read carefully (see P. M. Holt, “The Source Materials of the Sudanese Mahdiya.”26 Among these memoirs, the most informative on conditions in the city is the account of Father Paolo Rosignoli: “Omdurman during the Mahdiya.”27 The self-serving account of the German prisoner Charles Neufeld has some useful information: A Prisoner of the Khaleefa.28 The two most frequently cited accounts, those of Rudolf Slatin and Father Joseph Ohrwalder, were both coauthored and “edited” by Colonel F. R. Wingate, the director of Egyptian Military Intelligence. (The latter was in fact published under Wingate’s name.) These works served the important propaganda purpose of keeping the matter of Sudan alive in British public attention. Nonetheless, their observations of conditions in the city are relevant: see Rudolf C. Slatin and F. R. Wingate, Fire and Sword in the Sudan, and F. R. Wingate, Ten Years’ Captivity in the Mahdi’s Camp.29
Abu Salim, Muhammad Ibrahim. Ta’rīkh al-Kharṭūm. Beirut: 1979.Find this resource:
Holt, P. M. The Mahdist State in the Sudan. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.Find this resource:
Kramer, Robert S. Holy City on the Nile: Omdurman during the Mahdiyya, 1885–1898. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.Find this resource:
(1.) “Durman” may be a proper name, or it may refer to an earlier word for “hill.” An equally inscrutable name for the site, “Washal,” survived into the Mahdiyyah: Robert S. Kramer, Holy City on the Nile: Omdurman during the Mahdiyya, 1885–1898 (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2010), 21–22.
(2.) For the history of the Mahdist period as well as the religious claims of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi, see P. M. Holt, The Mahdist State in the Sudan, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).
(3.) Each of the Mahdi’s three chief followers was given the title of “Khalifah,” in the sense that they had inherited the authority of the Prophet Muhammad’s first three successors. All initially assumed positions of military leadership: ‘Abdallahi al-Ta‘ayshi over the western pastoralist tribes, ‘Ali al-Hilu over the White Nile Arabs, and Muhammad Sharif (the Mahdi’s kinsman) over the northern riverain Sudanese. All retained some measure of moral authority throughout the Mahdiyyah, although ‘Abdallahi, known simply as “the Khalifah,” wielded supreme authority in all matters.
(4.) The title “Ashraf” (sing: Sharif) implies noble descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s clan, the Hashimites. The Mahdi’s extended family, known as the “Dongola Ashraf” for their place of origin, was one of several families in the Sudan to make such a claim in the 19th century. Resentful of the Khalifah’s authority, they were frequent adversaries during the period.
(5.) See John O. Voll, “The Mahdi’s Concept and Use of Hijra,” Islamic Studies 26.1(1987): 31–42.
(6.) The Jazirah is the expanse of fertile land between the White and Blue Niles, and as with portions of the Kordofan region, it was crucial to the Sudan’s food supply.
(7.) The term “Fellata” was usually pejorative and referred to emigrants of Fulani origin (in particular) and West African origin (in general). For Sudan’s importance to the pilgrimage route, see ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Raziq al-Naqar, The Pilgrimage Tradition in West Africa (Khartoum: Khartoum University Press, 1972).
(8.) For the Sufi tradition in Sudanese Islam, see Ali Salih Karrar, The Sufi Brotherhoods in the Sudan (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1992); and Neil McHugh, Holymen of the Blue Nile (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1994).
(9.) Two important works on slavery in the Sudan are Jay Spaulding, “Slavery, Land Tenure and Social Class in the Northern Turkish Sudan,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 15.1(1982): 1–20; and Gabriel Warburg, “Ideological and Practical Considerations Regarding Slavery in the Mahdist State and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” in The Ideology of Slavery, ed. Paul Lovejoy (Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1981), 245–69.
(10.) See Douglas Johnson, “Sudanese Military Slavery from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century,” in Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labour, ed. Leonie Archer (London: Routledge, 1988), 142–56.
(11.) Lidwien Kapteijns, “The Religious Background of the Mahdi,” African Perspectives 2 (1976): 61–79.
(12.) A good survey of Sudanese urbanization prior to the Mahdiyyah is El-Sayed al-Bushra, “Towns in the Sudan in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” Sudan Notes and Records 52(1971): 63–70.
(13.) Robert S. Kramer, Holy City on the Nile, Omdurman During the Mahdiyya, 2010.
(14.) P. M. Holt, The Mahdist State in the Sudan, 1970.
(15.) Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Salim, Al-‘Arḍ fī’l-Mahdiyyah (Khartoum: 1970); Ta’rīkh al-Kharṭūm (Beirut: 1979); and Al-Ḥarakah al-Fikriyyah fī’l-Mahdiyyah (Khartoum: 1989).
(16.) Husayn Sid Ahmad al-Mufti, Taṭawwur Niẓām al-Qaḍā’ fī’l-Mahdiyyah (Khartoum: 1959); ‘Ismat Hasan Zulfo, Kararī (Khartoum: 1973); and Muhammad Sa‘id al-Qaddal, Al-Siyāsah al-Iqtiṣādiyyah li’l-Dawlah al-Mahdiyyah (Khartoum: 1986).
(17.) R. S. O’Fahey and Jay Spaulding, Kingdoms of the Sudan (London: 1974).
(18.) R. S. O’Fahey, State and Society in Dar Fur (London: 1980); and Jay Spaulding The Heroic Age in Sinnar (East Lansing, MI: 1985).
(19.) Anders Bjorkelo, Prelude to the Mahdiyya: Peasants and Traders in the Shendi Region (Cambridge, U.K.: 1989).
(20.) F. Rehfisch, “A Sketch of the Early History of Omdurman,” Sudan Notes and Records 45(1964): 35–47; and R. C. Stevenson, “Old Khartoum, 1821–1885,” Sudan Notes and Records 47(1966): 1–38.
(21.) Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Salim (ed.), Al-Āthār al-Kāmilah li’l-Imām al-Mahdī, 7 vols. (Khartoum: 1990–1994).
(22.) Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Salim Al-Khuṣūmah fī Mahdiyyat al-Sūdān (Khartoum: 2004).
(23.) Babikr Bedri, Memoirs, trans. Y. Bedri and G. Scott (London: 1969).
(24.) Ibrahim Fawzi, Al-Sūdān Bayna Yadāy Ghurdūn wa Kitshanir, 2 vols. (Cairo: 1901).
(25.) Na‘um Shuqayr, Tarīkh al-Sūdān al-Qadīm wa’l-Ḥadīth wa Jughrāfīyatuhu, 3 vols. (Cairo: 1903).
(26.) P. M. Holt, “The Source Materials of the Sudanese Mahdiya,”Middle Eastern Affairs 1(1958).
(27.) Father Paolo Rosignoli: “Omdurman during the Mahdiya,” ed. and trans. F. Rehfisch, Sudan Notes and Records 48(1967): 33–61.
(28.) Charles Neufeld, A Prisoner of the Khaleefa (London: 1899).
(29.) Rudolf C. Slatin and F. R. Wingate, Fire and Sword in the Sudan (London: 1896) and F. R. Wingate, Ten Years’ Captivity in the Mahdi’s Camp (London: 1892).