In 1881, the Sudan was a protectorate of Egypt, which was an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire. Citing oppression by “their Turkish overlords”, the Muslim imam Mohammad Ahmad declared himself the “Mahdi” or “Guided One” (The Mahdi is the Islamic term for the messianic herald or redeemer. In Christian terms, he would be John the Baptist. Today, Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq considers himself the Mahdi) and declares Jihad against the Egyptian-Turkish administration of the country. Ahmad’s Mahdism, was a very strict, literal, and fanatical version of Islam that had fallen out of favor in Islamic lands since the height of the Ottoman Empire and the failure to capture Vienna two hundred years before.
As the Mahdists grew in strength, they defeated every army sent by the Egyptians to put down the revolt. With no support from Istanbul, the Egyptians increasingly fell under British influence. Exasperated, the Egyptians decided to let the Mahdists have the Sudan and asked for British assistance extracting their garrisons. The British government sent the popular, competent and aggressive General Charles “Chinese” Gordan (he made a name for himself in the Opium Wars in China). Gordan captured Khartoum in March 1884, but he recognized the danger of Ahmad’s radical version of Islam and determined to force the Mahdists to battle.
Ahmad immediately surrounded Gordan’s 8000 British and Egyptian troops, and besieged Khartoum. Gordan planned to use the relief column as the hammer to his anvil to destroy the Mahdists. However, the British government refused for six months to send a relief column and only did so at Queen Victoria’s insistence. In January of 1885, Sir Herbert Stewart’s Desert Column of mostly camel bound troops, entered the Sudan.
The Mahdi sent his own column to intercept and on 16 January 1885 they met at the oasis at Abu Klea. Stewart’s 1400 soldiers, eight cannon and one machine gun formed a square, and the Ahmad’s 13,000 warriors attacked. With the development of the rifle and horse artillery, most Western armies had abandoned the square formation, but Britain continued to use it because of its effectiveness against indigenous armies. (Six years before, the Zulus, easily the best indigenous army in Africa, accomplished the rare feat of breaking a British square at Isandlwana, but they had 4000 killed in the process, and did so only after the British ran out of ammunition.)
The “dervishes” as the British mistakenly called them, couldn’t withstand the massed firepower of the square, even after the machine gun jammed due to sand. The Mahdists took over a thousand killed and wounded, and the Battle of Abu Klea was over in fifteen minutes. Stewart had less than 200 casualties.
Unfortunately, Stewart was too late to relieve Khartoum. On 25 January, the Mahdists stormed the city, and Gordan’s troops, weakened by disease and starvation were overrun. Gordan and all 8000 of his British and Egyptian soldiers were massacred, along with 4000 residents of the city. Many thousands more were sold into slavery. Stewart’s Desert Column arrived just two days later on 27 January, and seeing that the city fell, quickly returned to Egypt.
Ahmad ruled Sudan as a fundamentalist Islamic state for the next 13 years. Although the Mahdists only ruled Sudan for a short time, it proved an incubator for radical Islam, particularly the aggressive and expansionist Wahhabist sect. The Mahdists would provide inspiration to a young Wahhabi, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1902.