March 13th, 2007 15:00 EST
A Renaissance in Conflict
On March 13, 1884, the forces of Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad – a Muslim religious and political leader - began the siege of Khartoum. Against a handful of British defenders, the Mahdi unleashed 50,000 fanatic warriors ready to sacrifice their lives for Allah and his prophet. Yet, the British flag had kept waving over the city for almost a year until the black banner of the Mahdists eventually replaced it.
The late 19th century was the time of fierce rivalries between major European players. The Great Britain and France duo was joined by the Kaiser's Germany, which appeared on the world stage only in 1871. In addition, older, crumbling empires, such as Portugal or Spain, would not hear of leaving the exclusive club. For, as one hundred years later the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal would measure the strength of a country, in the 1800s it was the number of colonies. Since European blood was too precious to be wasted in some God-forgotten territories, the empires peacefully divided Africa at a conference table in Berlin. Weak and strong, rich and poor gathered in the capital of the Second Reich in 1884, and each sliced up a piece of the black continent for itself. Fledgling but impatient, Germany was generously presented with lands in the south and east of the continent, where the Kaiser could cultivate his insatiable aspirations. Small Belgium managed to seize The Free State of the Congo – a land the size of Western Europe. Great Britain, whose own empire had already been swollen, satisfied herself with such tidbits as Sudan and Egypt.
Sudan with its capital, Khartoum, had always been a troublesome province of the British Empire. While Egypt – another British semi-colony - and its elites willingly accepted the Western customs and fashions, its southern neighbor had the dubious honor of inciting various uprisings, which would later spread through the entire region. The basis for this gruesome behavior were twofold. First, violent clashes between the Muslims and the Gnostic tribes in the south were tearing the country apart, hampering its long-term development. Second, the ruling Arabs owed relative prosperity to the riveting slavery market, which supplied most of the colonies in the Western Hemisphere. However, with the new British administration came new laws. Great Britain banned slavery in all of her colonies by as soon as 1833, and Sudan was to be no exception. This sparked a huge public outcry and led to a national revolt. In the Anglo-Sudan War, which broke out shortly after the Berlin Conference, two men were pulling all the strings: Muhammad Ahmad, also called the Mahdi, and Charles George Gordon, known as Chinese Gordon. Although they would not know of each other's existence until 1880, they shared many similarities. The both of them became their homelands' national heroes, with the Mahdi still being warmly remembered today by Muslims in the region, whereas Gordon has given his name to many modern British schools. The both had a natural gift of leadership, which won them blind support from thousands of soldiers, ready to follow their commanders into fire. Finally, the Mahdi and Charles Gordon honestly loathed each other. Yet, their biographies could not differ more.
Let us start with the Mahdi, since he was the direct cause of the events described in this article. He was born as Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah on August 12, 1845 on Dirar Island. At that time, living on an island restricted your career choices to two occupations: an angler or a boat-builder. The Mahdi's family was renowned of the latter profession, and the newborn son was to follow his brothers who had joined the family business with alacrity. However, the simple life of a boat-builder was not the Mahdi's wish. After learning the Koran texts in Khartoum, capped with accomplishing fiqh (Divine Law) studies under Shaykh Muhammad Khayr, the Mahdi moved to Aba Island. There, he devoted his days to building a mosque and teaching Islamic scriptures to the local population. Soon a growing number of reformers herded around the Mahdi. They found in him the long-awaited leader who would lead the nation against the foreign invaders. It did not take long for the Mahdi to proclaim himself al-Mahdi al-Muntazar (The Expected Saviour) – the title which gave its holder the unquestioned right to lead a national uprising against the Infidel. The culmination of the Mahdi's rebellion was on March 13, 1884 at the doorstep of Khartoum. Charles George Gordon, on the other hand, was predisposed to be a soldier since day one. The son of a major general, he spent his adolescent years at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. It was not long until Gordon could turn the theory into practice in real war conditions. He was quickly promoted to lieutenant and sent to Balaklava (now Ukraine) to help the British Empire win the Crimean War. When five years later, in 1860, Britannia found herself in trouble again – this time in China - Gordon, already a captain, volunteered immediately. He served in the Chinese Imperial army, ruthlessly crushing the peasant revolt, which earned him the title titu – the highest rank in the Chinese army; at the same time Queen Victoria promoted Gordon to lieutenant colonel. The official titles aside, after the Asian adventure, to his soldiers he would be remembered as Chinese Gordon. The fame of an effective officer quickly reached the shores of Africa, and in 1874, the Cairo khedive offered Gordon a post in the Egyptian Army. The British government gave him the green light and, however reluctantly, he took the new challenge. Gordon effortlessly climbed up the career ladder and, in few years' time, could wear the uniform of governor-general of Sudan. During this period, history could have changed its course. While the khedive found Gordon very useful in eliminating the opposition, he could not stand the ambitious officer constantly questioning his orders. One of such heated discussions made Gordon pack his clothes and leave for London, where he stayed until the khedive sent forced apologies. If Gordon had not returned to Africa, he would have saved his life. Instead, Charles George Gordon, Queen Victoria's favorite general, met his ultimate fate in Khartoum, two days before his 52nd birthday.
The two men never met. When the rebels began the siege of Khartoum, so bravely defended by Gordon and his men, the Mahdi was in Omdurman, reveling in the pleasant and obedient affection of his numerous women. Neither was he present when his bloodthirsty hordes broke into the city and started their orgy of looting, raping, and murdering, exposing Khartoum to the scenes of unimaginable carnage. Although Gordon wielded the sword like no one else under this longitude, faced with hundreds of attackers, the general was in a lost position. On the cool night of January 26, 1885, while the Mahdi was sending one of his eunuchs for another woman from his harem, Gordon's life was drawing to a close. He was captured in his chamber, fighting off the intruders. Having killed dozens, fatigue began to take its toll. At one moment, Gordon hesitated a second too long and a crooked, bloodstained sword pierced his body. Being slightly dizzy after the wound, a hard kick from behind forced him to fall on his knees. Just like Khartoum, Gordon was besieged. Minutes later, his head was in a sack, on its way to Omdurman, to announce in front of the Mahdi that the capital had been conquered.
With Khartoum in his hands, the Mahdi along with disciples could establish foundations for God's kingdom in Sudan. However, contrary to what some believers would like to believe in, the prophet was far from immortal. Only few months after the great victory, Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah, passed away not on a battlefield but sleeping in his bed. The Mahdi's successors had nothing to offer to their new subjects – nothing except for new wars and spoils, which would follow them. In 1887, the Mahdi's forces invaded Ethiopia and after a quick offensive, plundered the country. Although the campaign was a military and economic success, it eventually turned out to be the beginning of the end of the newly created theocracy. Great Britain had never forgotten the humiliation at losing Khartoum to an army of untrained savages. However, it was not until 1892 that British newspapers could inform their readers that the empire had finally struck back. The new national hero was Field Marshall Horatio Kitchener who, having gathered over 25,000 men (additionally supported by the modern artillery and the British Navy), fulfilled the desire of millions of revenge-thirsty fellow citizens and attacked Sudan. Inch by inch Kitchener's soldiers reconquered the country, forcing the Mahdists to withdraw further and further until there was no place to flee. On September 2, 1898, the new capital, Omdurman fell and the 50,000-strong Islamic army was wiped out before the dusk. Khartoum was British again.
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