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Mahdist Revolution (1881-1898)

The Mahdist Revolution was an Islamic revolt against the Egyptian government in the Sudan.  An apocalyptic branch of Islam, Mahdism incorporated the idea of a golden age in which the Mahdi, translated as “the guided one,” would restore the glory of Islam to the earth.

Attempting to overhaul Egypt through an aggressive westernization campaign, Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali, who was himself a provincial governor of the Ottoman Empire, invaded the Sudan in 1820.  Within a year his armies had subdued the Sudan and he began conscripting local Sudanese men into the Egyptian military.  In 1822 Khartoum became the capital of Egyptian-occupied Sudan and a distant outpost in the Ottoman Empire.

Egyptian rule over the Sudan involved the imposition of high rates of taxation, the taking of slaves from the local population at will, and the absolute control over all Sudanese trade which destroyed livelihoods and indigenous practices.  During the process of military conscription, tens of thousands of Sudanese men and boys died on their long march from the Sudanese hinterlands to Aswan, Egypt.

Ali’s tenure as Egyptian governor ended in 1848, but the suffering of the Sudanese people under Ottoman rule did not.  When the anti-slavery campaign of the new Egyptian governor, Ismail, began in 1863, Sudanese unrest intensified since human bondage was now an integral part of the local economy.  Matters were complicated by the arrival of the British in 1873 who assumed responsibility over Egypt in order to protect their interests in the Suez Canal and ensure repayment of loans to that government.  General Charles Gordon was appointed governor of Sudan and he immediately intensified the anti-slavery campaign initiated a decade earlier.  Sudanese Arab leaders, however, saw British efforts as a European Christian attempt to undermine Muslim Arab dominance in the region.

On June 29, 1881, a Sudanese Islamic cleric, Muhammad Ahmad, proclaimed himself the Mahdi.  Playing into decades of disenchantment over Egyptian rule and new resentment

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