Sudan in the Ottoman Archives

Mon, 16 Apr 2018


Dr. al NaÌ'm Mohammed Uthmān al Kabbāshi



The Ottoman archives office, which is affiliated to the Cabinet Premiere in Istanbul, is considered one of the most important record offices worldwide, due to the most important records contained therein. It is observed that such records cover various aspects, such as the political, economic, military, social, religious and cultural aspects. Whereas with respect to the time period of such records, the oldest records contained therein go back to the fifteenth Gregorian century, whereas the most recent records were dated in the first quarter of the twentieth century. It is worth mentioning that the number of records in the Ottoman Archives amount to about 150 million records.

Based on all such data, it is possible to say that such an archives office is akin to a warehouse of the inheritance and heritage of a large number of world countries: i.e., the countries which were subject to the Ottoman dominion for periods of time. It is observed that such countries are located in the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. Based on such, these countries will be in dire need for the Ottoman Archives in order to dig for their history, and monitor its various periods. Such countries may be enabled to resolve a lot of problems through records existing in the archives. It is observed that a number of Arab countries have recently started, to take interest in their historical heritage existing in the Ottoman Archives. Such is an attempt to position their history in the proper structure, for the Ottoman archives can cover the unfilled gaps in such history, or make solutions for the points of disagreement among the historians. In addition to that, the Ottoman archives represent a big treasure for many countries, which were not subject to the Ottoman domination. Among such countries are: the U.S.A., Britain, France, Russia, Japan, China and other countries. It is possible to say candidly and with confidence that the Ottoman Archives represent a significant part of the history of theses countries. Hence, it is impossible for the aforementioned countries to do without such archives, whatever the case.

Sudan and the Ottomans:

Sudan and the Ottoman Archives:






Sudan and the Ottomans:

  1. North of Sudan:

Sudan is considered one of the countries which were subjected to the Ottoman domination. Like many of the African and Arab countries, the history of the Sudan-Ottoman relationship goes back to the first quarter of the sixteenth century, for at that time, specifically in the year 1517, the Ottomans were able, under the leadership of Sultan Saleem the first, to seize and subject Egypt to the power of the Ottoman state. As is well known, the subjugation of Egypt and joining it to the Ottoman state was effected pursuant to the great victory achieved by the Ottomans over the Mamelukes in the battle of Raidaniya, near Cairo, in 1517. Pursuant to the defeat incurred by the Mamelukes, a batch of them escaped southwards to the northern borders of the Sudan. For that reason, the Ottomans sent a military detachment, whose mission was to pursue the escaping Mamelukes and establish ottoman military outposts in northern areas in the Sudan to be like castles and fortifications to repulse the Mamelukes in case they recomposed their strength and decided to move north, again, to fight the Ottomans. Such was how the Ottomans relationship with the Sudan, and its territories, started. Those castles and fortifications, located in the North of Sudan, were of the first Ottoman military activities in the Sudan. The Ottoman detachment sent to the northern borders of the Sudan was enabled to confirm its control over the areas and locations extending to Wādi Ḥalfa[1].


  1. East of Sudan (Sawākin and the Red Sea):  

Sawākin port, which overlooks the Red Sea, was considered the second region seized by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century. The reason behind the Ottomans' endeavor to strengthen their control over Sawākin port, was the emergence of the European power, represented in Portugal, for the navy thereof was enabled to enter the Red Sea in the first years of the sixteenth century, directly threatening the most important region for the Muslims, which was the region of the two Holy Sanctities: Makkah al Mukarrama and al Madina al Munawarra. We have to say here that the direct reason for the Ottomans intervention was the extreme weakness of the Mameluke state, for the latter was unable to defend the Muslim territories, particularly the Two Holy Sanctities. Based on such a situation, the Ottoman state had to expedite intervention to prevent Muslim territories from falling to the European colonization, especially that of Portugal.

According to this information, the Ottoman state decided to move towards the Red Sea waters and seize the three important ports overlooking that sea, which were Sawākin, Jidda and Musawa'. Consequently, the Ottomans were able to completely halt the   Portuguese advance into the region. It is worth mentioning that Portugal had multiple political, military, economic and religious objectives. The political objective was to occupy and                                                                                                                                         subjugate the Muslim territories to the Portuguese state. The military objective was to establish garrisons in the region. With respect to the economic objective, Portugal was strongly seeking to benefit from the economic resources of the region, and exploit such solely for its national interest. In addition to all that, the Portuguese colonial project included an intensive missionary activity to convert the natives to Christianity. However, the Ottomans' conquests of the aforementioned coastal cities led to the failure of the Portuguese colonization project[2].

Hence, the 16th century period represented a real Ottoman control period of the Sudan, particularly the northern parts and Sawākin in the east. Whereas with respect to Mohammed Ali Pasha's reign, we should regard it  as a separate period; and such does not mean, anyhow, the domination of the Ottoman Turkish regime was nominal, with no basis on the ground. The real domination was to Mohammed Ali Pasha and his sons after him.This topic will is a study and investigation through the records of the Ottoman archives.  


Sudan and the Ottoman Archives:

Based on the process of thorough research in the records of the Ottoman archives, it became evident that the oldest Ottoman records pertaining to the Sudan, and the history thereof, go back to the sixteenth century. On the other hand, the most recent records in the same archives go back to the first quarter of the twentieth century. Despite such a finding, it is extremely difficult to pin-point a specific record as the oldest, or the most recent, one. Consequently, we must generalize when speaking about that issue, and this will remain the case until research confirms conclusively whether the specific record is the oldest or most recent. Until that date, we will chronicle in generalizations, i.e., the old record is chronicled in the sixteenth century, whereas the most recent one in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

We can here deal with some Ottoman records pertaining to the Sudan and these represent a mere examples of a large number of the Ottoman records about the Sudan. For example, one of the records dated 1301H (1883), dealt with the situations of the Sudan. It indicated that the government of England had not issued, up to that date, any decision related to the Sudan, but- rather- that government concealed its intentions regarding the Sudan. The same record indicated that the Mahdi is incapable of progressing more than that. We observe, through the text of that record, that England aimed to open Sawākin-Berber road in order to deliver her soldiers to Khartoum. With respect to the London newspapers, a part thereof was calling to preserve the dignity and prestige of England by confronting the turmoil occurring in the Sudan. However, such newspaper proposed sending soldiers from India to the Sudan, so as to affiliate the Sudan to England with no loss of English soldiers. One of the points that call for contemplation in the track of the English newspapers, was the proposal submitted by 'The Times' correspondent in Alexandria, which pertained to separating the Sudan from Egypt, and the establishment of an independent Ottoman state therein, in case the Mahdi achieved victories that culminate in his conquering Khartoum[3].

Some Ottoman records mention that it has been reported in the newspapers that the Mahdi's military manpower amounted to 300,000 soldiers. As a result of this information, The Honor Izzat Effendi, Director of the Telegraph service, was queried whether, or not, he had received a telegram in this meaning. The response of the mentioned director indicated that he had actually received a telegram indicating that the Mahdi had gathered around him 300,000 men. However, according to the observed rules in such cases, the telegram was not disseminated. Despite all such, the order and decree of His majesty the Sultan stipulates the necessity of expressly notifying of this matter. There was, in a paragraph of this record, an official's indication that he had seen about 1,000men around the Mahdi. However, the self-same person stated that he had found a telegram indicating the existence of 30,000 men with the Mahdi. Based on this, he did not believe that the Mahdi had gathered 30,000 men around him. The record continued indicating that the propagation of such fake news would lead to confusion. This, no doubt, was a false news, for it relied on incredible exaggerations, which could not be believed whatever the case. At the same time, it was impossible for an outlaw (meaning the Mahdi) to gather this large number of people, which amounted to 30,000 persons, for such a number was beyond his capabilities.

The record confirms that the basic objective of propagating such lies and disconcerting news was to strengthen the belief of Mohammed Ahmed al Mahdi. For this reason, this matter constituted a great risk, especially if we take into consideration that such outlaws seek to jeopardize the security of the country, and make it live in a state of chaos and turmoil, which was contradictory to the sanctified rights of the Ottoman Caliphate in the Sudan. According to the opinion stated in the record, if a comparison was conducted between the Mahdi movement and U'rābi movement, it would become evident that the Mahdi's was more dangerous. Therefore, publishing such lies in the newspapers must not be allowed. And, at the same time, the necessary measures, pertaining to this subject, must be taken. In this concern, the record indicated that a committee had been formed, for the sake of this subject, which was presided by the Prime Minister. And according to the stipulation of the order and the Sultan's decree, it is necessary to prepare daily reports, and submit such to the Supreme Threshold, His Majesty the Sultan, about the activities of the mentioned outlaw[4].

One of the Ottoman records mentioned that an official correspondence had come from the Ottoman embassy in London inclusive of the article published by the American 'National Republican' about the situation in the Sudan, as well as the impact thereof on the public opinion. All such pursuant was to the defeat inflicted upon Hex Pasha in Shaikān. Such an incidence had a violent reaction on the world public opinion. The newspaper repeated publishing the cables coming from Europe and Egypt about that defeat, as well as the outcome thereof. The above mentioned newspaper conducted an interview with the American officer 'Fulston', one of the two American officers who witnessed that battle. The officer's statements included that the outlaw (Mohammed Ahmed al Mahdi) was capable of repelling the Ottoman military, for he had the ability to do so. Also, England would not accomplish any result whatever the sacrifices.

On its part, the Ottoman Ministry of Foreign Affairs enquired about whether, or not, there was any available information about the subject. The response to that enquiry was that it would be impossible for the Ottoman state to acquire pertinent information, at that time, save from the newspaper articles. Whereas regarding the mentioned American officer, he explained that he had gone up to the site of the battle between al Mahdi and Hex Pasha. The Officer mentioned that he had stayed for three months in Ubayi¼ city, whose inhabitants at the time were 30,000. The battle site, wherein the Hex army suffered the defeat, was at a distance of a few miles from Ubayi¼ city. The officer also described the region and its nature, for he said that the region's long distance from the River Nile, made it basically reliant on wells for water. Such wells were far apart and extremely deep. He affirmed that there were neither a river, nor springs in that region, and, generally, the region was but a desert wherein it was hard for man and animal to live. He also indicated that a number of Egyptian soldiers lived in Ubayi¼ city.

After all such, the American officer offered some geographic information, like the territories located near Ubayi¼ were considered fertile and suitable for cultivation, and that corn was the most important crop cultivated in the region. And according to his information, the cultivation season extended from June to September, which was the period witnessing scanty rainfall. He also mentioned that in case of a dry season, the inevitable result would be the perdition of a major part of the natives. He also mentioned that the natives' animal resources were represented in camels, goats and sheep. Camels were considered the major means of transportation in the region, for there were no other means. In his personal opinion, the enemies coming from outside, would undoubtedly incur defeat if they did not control the widely spread wells. Hence, the natives would not need to fight them, for they would perish due to intense thirst and high temperatures. Based on such, he believed that Hex's army perished in that manner.

After that, the officer moved to describe Khartoum city. He mentioned that the inhabitants thereof were 40,000, that it was located between the Blue Nile and the White Nile. And has a boat-building site. It has an extremely strategic location. He referred to the existence of a number of Prussian Catholic priests in Khartoum city. It is observed that the American officer was extremely convinced that Khartoum would fall in the Mahdi's hands, because both the natives and soldiers residing there, were undoubtedly proponents of the Mahdi. Therefore, he was against sending soldiers from abroad to fight al Mahdi and his army. The officer also stipulated that the English army was required to offer extremely great sacrifices to get the required result, otherwise it would be futile to look for something else, but- rather- the number of the soldiers to be sent from abroad ought not be less than 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers. Notwithstanding, he was convinced that such a number would be annihilated, due to the desert nature of the region. In the same context, it would be utterly impossible to secure the necessary number of camels to transport the army equipment. There was also the problem of water.


The Ottoman record concluded the American officer's statements by saying that Mohammed Ahmed al Mahdi had sent some emissaries to Tunisia and Algeria, which had a good impact on the Muslim natives of these two countries. However, with respect to the soldiers who ought to be sent to the Sudan, the American officer mentioned three options. The first option was represented in sending soldiers from India, but he expressed his reservations, because India was one of the English colonies, and had about 45 million Muslims, hence such an option might lead to chaos and turmoil in India. The second option was for England to send 30,000 English soldiers, which was considered a great sacrifice. Such was considered as having a considerable sacrifice for England, regarding the number of soldiers, as well as the necessary costs for that large number. Hence, the optimal opinion was for the Ottoman state to send 20,000 Ottoman soldiers, but the problem would be: such soldiers would also be Muslims[5]. Hence, we observe that there was confusion in the issue of fighting the Mahdi, and such through what has been reflected to us by the Ottoman records.

One of the Ottoman records dealt with the situations in the Sudan during the Mahdi period. This record indicated that Egypt would not acquire any assistance from the government of England pertaining to the issue of the Sudan, meaning that Egypt had to confront the issue by itself, and without any assistance. However, the record confirmed that it would offer assistance only in case Egypt was attacked from abroad. Perhaps the intended here was an attack from the Sudan, specifically from the Mahdi Army[6].

In the same context, an Ottoman record dealt with the Sudan, and such by saying that security was restored in the reign of the former viceroy, Ismail Pasha, and was enjoying full security and peace. Whereas Gordon Pasha has served in the Sudan for three years, and his performance was good. The mission assigned to him was to befriend the Arab tribes, which supported him in the past, so as to execute the policy of evacuating the Sudan in the required manner.  The record affirmed that clear directives were issued to Gordon Pasha not to attempt to accomplish any personal gains in the Sudan, and to work for the public interest[7].

An Ottoman record in the Ottoman archives, affiliated to the Council of Ministers in Istanbul, speaks about Italy's intentions to commit some transgressions in the Red Sea. For that reason, the viceroy of Egypt was addressed in order to conduct the necessary measures, which would prevent Italy from committing such transgressions. In addition to that, the record indicated the falling of Khartoum to the control of the Sudanese, meaning under the control of the Mahdi army. Also, the Ottoman state should take the actions necessary for confronting such outlaws. In case the Ottoman state abstained from taking such actions, the government of England would intervene [8].

In the same manner, an Ottoman record indicated that no talks were basically conducted between the governments of England and Italy about the Sudan issue, and that there was no proposal pertaining to the Italian government's participation in the military battles conducted on the Sudanese territories[9]. This matter reflects to us the extent to which the Sudanese issue gained an international interest, particularly a European interest among the European countries.

There is an Ottoman record indicating that the Sudan was a part affiliated to the Egyptian viceroy[10]. This meant that looking to the Sudan was not done, save with looking to Egypt, as well as the necessity of linking the situations in Egypt with what occurred in the Sudan, and also linking events in the Sudan with what occurred in Egypt. This meant that it was impossible to deal with the Egyptian issue separately from the Sudan. It was also impossible to deal with the Sudanese issue separately from Egypt.

Regarding the last record this study deals with, it spoke about conducting talks between the viceroy of Egypt and the English High Consul, about reinstating security in the Sudan[11]. It is observed that this record was issued pursuant to al Mahdi's conquest of Khartoum. It, consequently, indicated that the situations in the Sudan were in turmoil, due to the fall of Khartoum in the hands of al Mahdi and his supporters. It also reflects the extent of significance gained by the Mahdi during that period, as well as his playing a significant political role, which made the colonizing European countries, as well as the Ottoman state, exert their utmost effort to halt his freedom of movement.

Generally speaking, it can be said that the Ottoman archives undoubtedly represent a big treasure and a valuable wealth about the history of the Sudan, and such due to the large number of records contained therein, and pertaining to that history. Therefore, necessity requires paying attention to such archives for thorough searching for the history of Sudan, which may remain unknown in one aspect, due to the absence of correct historical material. It is possible that such records reveal a lot of, and exciting, material about the Sudan history periods extending from the sixteenth century to the first quarter of the twentieth century.


Y. A. HUS 176/79

The Sublime Porte

Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Translation chamber

No.Translation of the Official letter dated 15 December '83, sent from the embassy of Ottoman state in Washington to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs


The well-known outlaw was capable of defeating the military detachment led by Hex Pasha in the Sudan. This defeat led to a violent reaction from the public opinion, to the extent that the newspaper columns were replete with what was included in the cables from Europe and Egypt about this subject. Also, the newspapers' reporters enquired, from the American officers working with the Egyptian soldiers, about the consequences resulting from the Egyptian soldiers defeat. On his part, the reporter of the newspaper called 'National Republican,' conducted an interview with Colonel Golston. His article, which included this interview, is considered a very accurate article. In fact, Colonel Golston was considered one of the two American officers who had seen the battle site. Based on the aforementioned belief, the well-known outlaw would be able to repel the Ottoman state soldiers. Whatsoever the scale of sacrifices presented by the state of England, all such effort would be to no avail. On the other hand, this article had a very considerable impact on the political lodges.

Next day, the advisor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recalled 'Rustum Effendi', head secretary of the Ottoman state embassy, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for enquiring about the embassy's ideas and points of view pertaining to the mentioned article, and whether, or not, new information about Egypt was obtained. Based on the fact that the mentioned had not gone to Egypt, in compliance with my notification pertaining to his speaking in a little cautious language, as well as his non-possession of any pertinent information about those localities, he will not be able to give any opinion on this subject. Therefore, he stated that it was impossible for the Ottoman state embassy to know about the events pertaining to Egypt, except only through the press. The order and decree were the domain of whoever was in charge.


 Translation of the summary of the article included in the' National Republic' issue dated on 4 December '83  

General 'Golston' who is now in our city, and who had formerly worked as a colonel in the Egyptian Army's Military Staff for about six years, had given to our correspondent information pertaining to the situations of the Sudan:

" I know well the place wherein the well-known outlaw was enabled to destroy Hex Pasha's army, for I have been to the battle site. The government of Egypt had sent a number of soldiers to the mentioned area to obtain information about Kurdufān's camel tribes, and conduct a census of the population. I had stayed in Ubayi¼ city for three months. The number of the city inhabitants was 30,000. Regarding the site wherein Hex Pasha's army was defeated, it was located at a distance of a few miles. On the other hand, a very small number of natives lived there. Due to the long distance from the Nile, there were wells distinguished with their being far apart and of extreme depth. The water of such wells, if any, was scanty. There were neither streams, nor springs. With the exception of some areas where there was water, the rest of the entire region was but a desert, where it was impossible for neither man, nor animal to live. It was also observed that there were no natives, except some warrior nomad clans, which lived on the move in the region. If those were apparently subjects of the government of Egypt, they were accustomed to stage raids and steal. As was well known, the Egyptian government was able to conquer Kurdufān in 1820. Ever since, there were groups of soldiers stationed in Ubayi¼ city, as well as some other outposts.

  The lands located near Ubayi¼ city were distinguished as having a fertile soil, viable for cultivation and productive. With respect to crops, one of such was corn. The cultivation season extends from June to September, where there was scanty rainfall. Whereas if the major feature of the season was draught, the result would be the perdition of a large part of the natives due to aridity. In fact, the wealth of natives was represented in raising camels, sheep and goats. The great majority of the mentioned animals died due to draught and aridity, which were incurred by the region for a few years. In another context, we find that the Muslim natives were semi-nomads, had settled in expansive areas of Kurdufān desert and they were permanently rebellious.

It was observed that there were no roads for automobiles, and camels were the transportation means. It was impossible to find any ammunition in the region for repelling an enemy coming from abroad. Also necessity required that the army supplies and water be transported by camels, and such was due to sending the locally raised animals to the interior. In case the enemy army did not come closer to the wells, there would be no need to fire and use fire-arms. The reason behind such was that the army would be fully perished due to extreme temperature. There was absolutely no doubt that Hex Pasha' army perished in such a manner. Even if some escaping enemies survived, they would undoubtedly perish because of heat, as well as non-availability of water. However, if we come to the results of the defeat experienced by Hex Pasha, it was extremely difficult to affirm such results.

On the other hand, we found that the Khartoum city inhabitants amounted to 40,000. Being located between the White Nile and the Blue Nile, it was considered a significant point the in time of war. It embraced a boat-making site, soldiers and Prussian Catholic priests. It was certain that the city would fall in the hands of the well-known outlaw, because both the natives and soldiers inside the city had shown inclination to him, and were ready to join him. It would be futile to send Egyptian soldiers to destroy that insubordinate/insurgent. It would be certain that such soldiers either deserted, or joined him. And in case the English army did not render extremely considerable military sacrifices, it would not be able to do anything. It would be necessary to secure not less than 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers, and it would be anticipated to destroy all these soldiers, because the region was but an arid desert. On the other hand, it was absolutely impossible to secure the necessary camels for transporting the equipment of that number of soldiers. Also, the largest wells had not sufficient water for such soldiers. The largest part of the soldiers accompanying the mentioned insurgent, were from semi-nomadic tribes. And the successes they had accomplished led to encouraging and motivating them, not to mention that they were warriors more courageous than the farmers and villagers constituting the army of Egypt. Also, the victories achieved by the aforementioned made a considerable impact on the Islamic World.

Based on the obtained information, the mentioned insurgent had sent some emissaries to Tunisia and Algeria, which made a considerable effect on the Muslim natives of these two countries. If preserving Egypt was utterly entrusted to England, it would be problematic to accomplish such a mission. Also, leaving the territories up to the first cataract to the mentioned insurgent, would lead to enhance his influence, as well as the growth of his power. With respect to sending the Indian soldiers, whose majority were Muslims, it would be extremely risky. In addition, there was concern that this matter would lead to the emergence of turmoil and chaos in India, which was considered one of England's possessions. Also, there were 45 million Indian Muslims. At the same time, sending 30,000 English soldiers would be an extremely considerable sacrifice, with respect to cost and life. Perhaps the optimal solution to this problem would be sending 20,000 Ottoman soldiers. The fact that such soldiers were also Muslims, ought to be taken into consideration. It is observed that all Muslims believe in the emergence of a new Messiah. With respect to the Mahdi, he was considered as pooling the required traits pertaining to the Messiah. Based on such, he was enabled to skillfully deceive his followers. In case al Mahdi accomplished subsequent victories, the Muslim soldiers, who would be sent to destroy him, would, beyond any doubt, join him.







Y.A.HUS 175,40





Y.A.HUS 175,58 Y.A.HUS 175,58













Y.A.HUS 176,79












[2]  For more details on the subject, see: al NaÌ'm Mohammed U'thmān  al Kabāshi: "Establishment of Sawākin Brigade, Ad-Darah, magazine of Darat King Abdulaziz, issue 4, year 38, Shawal 1433H. pp. 195-211.

[3]  BOA, Y. A. HUS 175/58.

[4]  BOA, Y. A.HUS !&%/40.

[5]  BOA, y. A. HUS 176/79.

[6]  BOA. Y. A. HUS 175/119.   

[7]  BOA. Y. A. HUS 176/36.

[8] BOA, MV 1/30

[9]  BOA, Y. A. HUS 27/10.

[10]  BOA. Y. EE 118/23.

[11]  BOA. Y. EE 118/16.

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