The city of Khartoum is situated at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, where the two rivers coalesce and flow north towards Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea as the Great Nile. The contemporary metropolitan area of Khartoum (also known as Greater Khartoum) is the agglomeration of the three historic Sudanic urban entities of Al Khartoum Town, Omdurman, and Al Khartoum-Bahri (Khartoum North). Khartoum is also the political and economic capital of the Republic of Sudan, the largest country in Africa, comprising 1 million square miles and an ecological spectrum from sandy deserts in the north to tropical rain forests in the south.
Within the Greater Khartoum metropolitan area, Khartoum Town and Khartoum North are situated respectively on the left and right bank of the Blue Nile, and Omdurman is located on the left bank of the main Nile just below the junction of the two rivers. The overall urban development of the Khartoum region has been limited throughout history by the unpredictable seasonal volumes and flows of the Nile Rivers. The natural ecology of the area is in continuous flux due to summer flooding caused mainly by the Blue Nile. Unlike the White Nile, which flows at a considerably steadier rate, the Blue Nile flows at a much greater velocity year-round and holds the greater volume of the Nile's water and fertile soil. Of the two rivers, the White Nile flows considerably farther before the two rivers coalesce into the Great Nile near Khartoum. Perennial flooding occurs along the right bank of the Great Nile, west of Khartoum, and this seasonal flux prevents the expansion of the city in this general direction.
Khartoum settlements date back to 4000 - 3500 BCE, the era of the Khartoum Mesolithic culture of hunter-gatherers. In sites near modern-day Khartoum, Nubian and early Khartoum cultures crafted and utilized distinctive pottery, and these artifacts have been classified as among the oldest known in Africa. Recent archaeological research has unearthed evidence of the Nubian culture's domestication of animals at the historic site of Shaheinab, near modern Khartoum.
Christian influence in Khartoum settlement and culture lasted from 540-1504 CE. This era saw the establishment of Soba as the capital city and as the center of the ecclesiastical polity of the Kingdom of Alwa, situated 20 km southeast of present day Khartoum. During the Fung period (1504-1821 CE), a transfer of power from Soba to the city of Sennar occurred. Sennar is located approximately 290 km south of Khartoum on the west bank of the Blue Nile. It was during this period of political transformation that Soba fell as a capital and as a political entity.
In the late 17th and the 18th centuries, Sudanese settlements were re-established at Tuti island, situated at the junction of the two Niles. These developed into the neighboring sites of Khartoum Town, Khartoum North and Omdurman. These settlement groups included the Mahas of the surrounding villages of Burri and Soba West on the Blue Nile, the Kalaklas and Lamabs on the White Nile, and inhabitants of the Tuti island at the start of the Great Nile. These populations cultivated opposite sides of the Nile, and a three-month flooding season along the river's northwestern section made it possible for them to develop and use water wheels for irrigation. Due to this seasonal phenomenon, perennial farming became established in the area and likely explains the existence of these semi-permanent settlements in the Blue Nile area.
Scholars believe that during the period of early eighteenth century settlement, the influence of Islamic faith and culture on indigenous Sudanic populations had already begun. These settlements were influenced by an early religious school, the Khalwa, founded in the Khartoum area by Shaykh Hamad wad Umm Marymum (ca. 1646-1730), a prolific faqih
of the Sudanese Sufi tradition who was believed to have crossed the Nile from Tuti island to settle in Omdurman.
Turco-Egyptian Period (1821-1885 CE)
The history of Khartoum continued to be heavily influenced by its geography; seeking an entry point into the sub-Saharan states, the Turks invaded in 1821 under Mohammed 'Ali Pasha, the Wali (Turkish governor) of Egypt. The invading force was comprised of Turkish, Circassian and Albanian officers. A long narrow strip of land along the silt bank of the opposite island provided a suitable crossing point during the flood season to the muddy swampy areas of the confluence, and this type of access to the sub-Saharan interior was motivation enough, both politically and economically, for the Turks to invade. Recognizing the significance of this opportunity, the Turks then established a temporary military presence, constructing a muddy fort controlling the crossing. (This fort remained intact until the 1920's, when an amusement park was built in its place.) This temporary presence became an outpost for the Egyptian army, and Khartoum subsequently developed as an outpost for trade, including becoming a center for the slave trade in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Turco-Egyptian period of Sudan was marked by violence and exploitation. Slaves were captured in the west, the south, and the Nuba mountains, and then transported to Khartoum to be sold. The exploitation of gold mining rights and mineral exports from the Sudanic region also ranked high on the agenda of the new rulers. Gold prospecting, elephant hunting for ivory, and slave trading were controlled by a state monopoly until 1840. Despite its appallling provenance, many scholars contend that the wealth developed through these activities did provide for a more stable urban environment in the new city-state.
Khartoum continued as the centre of Turco-Egyptian activities, despite attempts to change this base; given the great distances between Cairo and the newfound territories, the more strategic choice of a political capital for the Turco-Egyptian regime was Sinnar. However, plans to move the capital to a new site were all dropped: both Sinnar (abandoned in 1822) and Wad Medani (abandoned in 1824) were relinquished after malaria and dystentery began spreading rapidly among the soldiers and officers there. Ultimately a new capital was established in Al Khartoum after the rejection of several other serious candidates (Dongola, Berber, and Shendi, among others), all considered on account of their closer proximity to Cairo.
After active petitioning by the governor, Osman Bey Al Biringi (1825-1826) for Al Khartoum to have formal recognition as the capital of "Bilad As-Sudan," in 1830 the city was officially recognized as having a centralized city government distinct from Cairo. Osman Bey Al Biringi and Ali Khurshid Agha Pasha of Egypt (Governor 1826-1839), as co-founders of Al Khartoum, enacted multiple strategies to improve the modest urban fabric and the social problems facing Khartoum at the time. The governors' agenda to modernize the city was confronted with what they believed to be a lack of creativity, effort and investment in the city by its inhabitants. Scholars opine that in early nineteenth century Khartoum, an apathetic civic attitude towards modernizing was evidenced by the more ephemeral nomadic structures that the inhabitants were inclined to construct.
Building structures consisted of one storey adobe or mud brick houses with compounds containing thatch and bamboo structures. Even wealthier inhabitants preferred these temporary building materials like animals skins and reeds over more permanent red-brick dwellings, and despite the governor's request for more enduring building types and materials, local people continued to construct more temporary structures. It is unclear whether this planning strategy of permanence on the part of the governors took into account the local environment and the challenges faced by early settlers, whose nomadic lifestyles called for more temporary modes of habitation. In addition to the rustic appearance of the city, basic infrastructure was lacking: sanitation needs were not adequately provided for, and diseases were rife within the city. Under Governor Ali Khurshid Agha Pasha, habitation models in Khartoum did shift to more permanent building materials and infrastructure. Succeeding governors over the next few years would make improvements on the previous city scheme, developments which reinforced the legitimacy and power of the Turco-Egyptian government in Khartoum. By 1860, the most important buildings in the town were the Governor's palace, the governmental buildings, two large barracks, a hospital, a school, a mosque, two churches, and the dockyards.
As the capital of the new Turkish administration, Al Khartoum served as the epicenter of most urban infrastructure of the time: donkeys and carriages over land, and boats and canoes by water. As a clearinghouse for major local and foreign trade through road and river transportation into the sub-Saharan interior, Khartoum's location proved essential to its growth. By 1860, Al Khartoum was a compact urban cluster covering about one-third of the current (2008) city. The areas to its east, north and west were cultivated agricultural land. By the 1850s, the town counted three major quarters: the Hakim-dariya (the official government quarters), the market, and the Deims (native settlement areas).
The market precinct was surrounded by expatriate residential neighborhoods, covered an area of about one square kilometer area and was located on the southern edge of town, adjacent to the present-day Al Khartoum Grand Mosque. Initial town settlements faced away from the rivers, and the urban waterfront of the nineteenth-century town consisted of government buildings and the residences of senior officials. The waterfront area was dominated by the Hakim-dariya, the Palace, the cathedral, and the Austrian mission compound. The Europeans, Turks, Egyptians, Greeks and Syrians, as well as a few affluent native Sudanese families, lived in smaller plots nearby. The class dynamics of the time resulted in the scattering of poorer merchants and destitute consuls across the rest of the town. The local population lived in the Deims, cantonments situated at the desert edge of the city. As in many colonial cities, the distribution of local inhabitants in relation to the urban core was such that the locals lived in the surrounding villages and commuted to work daily in the service industries of the central business district, in government offices, market-places, and town gardens.
The Turco-Egyptian period of Khartoum would end after sixty-six years, with a radical shift from the more temporary settlement patterns (begun under the influence of the Khalwa school) to the permanent structures built under the modernizing influence of the Turkic leaders. In the late 19th century, political Khartoum was plagued with corruption and the lack of a centralized, far-reaching vision for its urban development. The religious leaders, notables and pro-government merchants were all responsible for the corruption of the government and the misery of the poor, at whose expense wealth was accumulated. In 1881, the self-proclaimed Mahdi
(redeemer) of Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad, rebelled against the dominant Turkic culture, and declared a jihad based on a fundamentalist ideology, one which he believed would create a global Islamic state. It was during this transformative political and religious period that Khartoum would shift from the religious orthodoxy favored by the Ottoman empire to the fundamentalist Mahdist praxis.
Mahdist Conquest / Mahdiyah (1881- 1898 CE)
Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi's proclamation of Sudanese Islamic reform catalyzed the events leading up to the Mahdist conquest of Sudan in 1881. The Mahdi's vision for conquest was brief, yet critical to the history of Sudan. In 1885 the Turco-Egyptian regime fell, and Mahdist forces conquered Khartoum after a year-long siege. Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi died shortly after the fall of Khartoum. His successor, Khalifa Abdullahi Ibn Mohammed (El-Ta'aishi), charted an alternative plan for the urban development of the newly conquered territories. He ordered the complete evacuation and destruction of Khartoum in August of 1886. Throughout the Khalifa's reign (1885-1898), the city would remain desolate and bare save for the dockyards, some gardens, and tombs. Meanwhile, the Khalifa shifted his administrative seat from Al Khartoum to Omdurman. Throughout this political transformation, urban developments in Omdurman exerted a sphere of influence that would affect Al Khartoum for the next fifteen years.
The Mahdist regime of this early nineteenth century period is widely considered to have been the first Sudanese nationalist government, with the goal of the independence and autonomy of the Sudan from both Egyptian and British forces. The state laws imposed by the Mahdist regime under the Khalifa were traditionalist and Islamic, and the regime itself combined military with Sharia law. Under the Khalifa, regional political relations became increasingly strained, leading to continued attempts by the British to oust the Mahdist regime from the Sudan.
Co-dominium, British Occupation, and Colonial Influence (1899-1956)
The most critical phase of colonial occupation in Sudan arrived with the British invasion led by Lord Kitchener in 1898. After a military victory over the Mahdist forces at Kereri, the British began a new era in Sudanese urban life and politics. Despite the British political focus on Al Khartoum, Omdurman remained the military government seat for the next few years and continued to house other state functions. Meanwhile, Al Khartoum was declared the colonial capital of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and the Royal Engineers (under Major-General Sir George Frederick Gorringe) were commissioned to rebuild the city. Using plans from Lord Kitchener himself and labor from Mahdist prisoners of war, the British created Khartoum's new urban infrastructure. The old town plan was completely ignored; this monumental change in the urban fabric of the city marked what is critically known as the beginning of the Co-dominium/British colonial period in Sudan.
This period was defined by the Anglo-Egyptian agreement of 1898, an agreement that would last until Sudanese independence in 1956. As is typical of colonial regimes, roles were clearly stratified: the British were the administrative elite, the Egyptians filled the roles of economic and political intermediaries, and the Sudanese occupied lower-level positions.
In 1924, Sudanese military forces known as the White Flag League, led by General Ali Abd al-Latif, led a revolt against the British colonial government. The White Flag League advocated for the independence of the Sudan from Britain, and proposed the unification of the Nile region. This league, which operated underground military camps, assassinated the colonial governor-general of Sudan, Sir Lee Stack. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the White Flag League foreshadowed the events of Sudanese independence.
In 1925, the colonial government passed the Land Regulation Act. This legislation established a strict process for the acquisition of land and prevented subsequent land speculation. By the 1930s Khartoum was the third city on the African continent, with a population of 40,000. In contrast to Omdurman, British colonial Khartoum appears in period photographs, pictures, and plans as a model colonial town with two steel bridges spanning the two Niles, a railway station, an airdome, steamers and planes, a tramway, an electric power plant and a modern water supply.
After Sudan's colonial independence on January 1st, 1956, authority for land issues was handed over from the central to the local government. Problems included housing shortages and the unequal distribution of wealth, problems exacerbated by unprecedented rates of rural-urban migration into newly independent Khartoum. The rise of the nationalist movement would change the delicate colonial balance established under the Land Regulation Act.
Independence and Contemporary Khartoum (1956 CE - )
In 1952, the Egyptian Revolution and the fall of the Egyptian monarchy marked a turning point in Sudanese political history. A movement led by revolutionary forces under Gamal Abdel Nasser (then an army officer of the Egyptian Army in Sudan and later president of Egypt 1956-70 CE) forced Egypt, and subsequently Britain, to concede political power and sign a treaty declaring the independence of Sudan. Egyptian nationalist leaders struggled to make Britain recognize the legitimacy of the political union between Egypt and Sudan, succeeding in 1954, when the first independent parliament was convened. By 1956, Sudan had a provisional constitution in place, and Ismail al-Azhari was elected prime minister of Sudan. Sudanese partners in the indepedence movement included Abdallah Khalil's coalition party, the People's Democratic Party-Umma(PDP-Umma), and members of the National Unionist Party (NUP) led by Ismail al-Azhari. The PDP-Umma garnered its support from Mahdist supporters while the NUP favored the union of an Egyptian-Sudanese political economy.
From 1960-1990 CE, the population in the Khartoum metropolitan area expanded from under 100,000 to over 1 million residents. Under this intense growth, urban infrastructure has rapidly deteriorated. The model colonial green town has become a city with endemic traffic congestion, constant infrastructural failures and ineffective developmental strategies. Since independence, Khartoum has had two master-plans and one structural plan designed, but none seriously implemented.
The 1970s were tumultuous in Khartoum: in 1973, members of the Palestinian militant Black September Organization took hostages in the Saudi embassy, resulting in the deaths of 3 Western diplomats. Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, Khartoum's infrastructure has been increasingly strained as its population grows, in part from the influx of war refugees from neighboring countries. More recently, the slums of the city have grown as those displaced from Sudan's ongoing Darfur conflict come to the city; over 2 million people in Sudan have been displaced since 2003.
Khartoum remains in a precarious position due to the effects of poverty and infrastructural strains, strains continually growing under wartime and economic pressures. The Sudanese government has undertaken new development in Khartoum via several new projects, including the Al-Mogran Development Project, two five-star hotels, a new international airport in Omdurman, the McNimir Bridge, and the Toti Bridge.
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