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Reviews of Holy City on the Nile: Omdurman During the Mahdiyya, 1885–1898

“‘O beloved ones … for the interests of the faith and your guidance and [for] the betterment of your religion, we have thought fit that you should move from Khartoum and come to the City of the Mahdi (peace be upon him!), dwelling among us with your children and all that belongs to you.’ So declared the Khalifa Abdullahi in July 1885, just one month after succeeding Muhammad Ahmad (‘the Mahdi’) as leader of the Sudanese Mahdist state. The Khalifa continued by warning that, ‘Anyone found lagging behind will certainly be punished as a deterrent [to others] … and will be forcibly uprooted’ (pp. 26-27).

“Thus began what Robert S. Kramer calls ‘the Omdurman experience,’ the product of an ambitious and aggressive state-building effort in the late 1880s and 1890s to develop a new city at the junction of the Blue and White Niles, adjacent to what had been the Turco-Egyptian capital of Khartoum. Salient aspects of the Omdurman experience included ‘rapid urbanization, the centralization of resources, an emphatic Islamic religious indoctrination, and a more pervasive Arab identity, as the religion and culture of the riverain peoples came to be regarded as normative’ (p. ix). Faithful supporters of the Mahdist revolution regarded Omdurman as a ‘holy city’: both a pilgrimage site to the Mahdi’s tomb, and a place where believers were putting a reformed Islam into practice.

“In one of the most fascinating portions of the book, Kramer examines the Khalifa’s policy of ‘tahjir.’ Deriving from the Arabic term for hijra, evoking the early seventh-century emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslims from Mecca to Medina in the face of persecution, Mahdist authorities intended the term to convey a religious and existential imperative for the movement of the faithful. Yet, tahjir amounted to forced migration, as the Khalifa, backed up by the coercive threat of his soldiers and deputies, demanded sections of Arab Muslim tribes, from throughout northern Sudan, to come and settle in Omdurman. He did so to suppress dissent, facilitate surveillance, and guarantee loyalty among those who remained behind (in the last case by using Omdurman immigrants as de facto hostages).

“Omdurman’s population burgeoned. As Kramer points out, women and children ‘constituted the largest portion of Omdurman’s population at any one time. The German prisoner Neufeld [one of several European prisoners retained by the Mahdists] even claimed that by November 1888 Omdurman had been almost depleted of its male population due to military needs.’ As a result, women outnumbered men in Omdurman by an estimated three to one (p. 51). The Khalifa’s harsh prescriptions for Shari’a-based law, which prescribed floggings and death sentences for crimes of sexual transgression, may have reflected the perceived difficulty of maintaining social order in an overwhelmingly female community.

“Kramer suggests that the Khalifa Abdullahi was not the all-powerful ‘malevolent dictator’ that European sources made him out to be. ‘Like all rulers, he was at the mercy of his advisors and staff’; he was also subject to family pressures (prevented by relatives, for example, from divorcing his first wife) (p. 56). At the same time, the Khalifa’s regime inherited much of its staff and infrastructure from the Turco-Egyptian regime. For these reasons, Kramer argues, the Mahdist state proved to be less revolutionary than its origins may have suggested, while there was more continuity in government between the pre- and post-1885 periods than historians formerly acknowledged.

“In Kramer’s own words, Holy City on the Nile ‘had an unusually long gestation,’ arising from a 1991 Ph.D. dissertation. But because Kramer’s dissertation drew upon such a strong base of hard-to-reach archival sources and oral sources, his research has retained its value. For example, when Kramer conducted interviews in the mid-1980s, one of his chief sources was a 100-year-old man who had grown up in Omdurman and who vividly recalled the Mahdist city of his youth.

“Kramer is a skilled writer, appreciates colorful and telling details, and has a sense of humor. In this regard, his book is more readable than P.M. Holt’s important but dry classic, The Mahdist State in the Sudan (1958/1970). Moreover, whereas Holt concentrated on the political, economic, and intellectual history of the Mahdist state, Kramer examines social history. Kramer lavishes attention on Omdurman neither for the sake of its built landscape nor for its state apparatus, but rather for its role in bringing together ‘diverse inhabitants’ and fostering ‘an interconnected group of families and communities’ (pp. ix-x). Above all, Holy City on the Nile approaches Omdurman’s urban history as one in which disparate people came together, mixed, and became ‘Sudanese’ in a proto-nationalist sense of the term.”
— Heather J. Sharkey, International Journal of African Historical Studies, vol. 44, no. 1

“This book is a milestone in the study of the Sudanese Mahdiyya. By focusing on the Mahdist capital, Robert Kramer is able to describe and analyze the functions of the central state institutions and the relationship between the authorities and the people. He paints vivid pictures of the imprint of the Mahdiyya on the city’s structure and on the population and gives us an idea of how people experienced life under this new regime. We also get to understand the problems facing the authorities in their efforts to impose Mahdist laws and regulations on a multiethnic population, most of whom had perhaps never lived in a town before.

“Omdurman was founded in 1884 on the west bank of the White Nile opposite Khartoum. It grew out of the camp where the Mahdist forces organized their siege of Khartoum. After the fall of Khartoum in January 1885, it was out of the question for the Mahdist leadership to leave the buq’a, or place of the Mahdi, in favor of the ‘contaminated’ Turkish capital, Khartoum. Omdurman became therefore the logical capital. The people of Khartoum were forced to move to Omdurman, and Khartoum was looted of all its valuables. After the death of the Mahdi in June 1885, it was left to Khalifa Abdullahi to turn the camp into a proper capital and a holy city.”
— Northeast African Studies

 “The publication of a book-length study of Sudan‘s second largest city is a noteworthy event. What makes the work particularly significant is the way the author illuminates the social and political history of the Mahdiyya through a multi-faceted examination of the origins and early development of the metropolis it created. …This book describes a highly diverse and cosmopolitan urban populace, spatially distributed in an ethnic mosaic, and provides something of a counter-narrative to negative and condescending representations of the city in late nineteenth-century Western writings. …Holy City on the Nile is written in a clear and flowing style and engages a wealth of material regarding economic, social and political life. It would be a useful and accessible monograph for graduate and advanced undergraduate students.”
— Neil McHugh, Sudan Studies Association Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 1

“A specialist on Sudan, Kramer (history, St. Norbert College) describes the creation and rapid growth of what was called the Mahdi’s city as one of the most dramatic and significant events of the messianic movement within Islam. He examines towns in the Sudan, the creation of a city, governing the Mahdi’s city, the Mahdist social order and Omdurman, social relations in the Mahdi’s city, and the Omdurman experience.”
Book News

“As the seat of power of the Sudanese Mahdi and his political successors, Omdurman was a sovereign capital symbolizing anti-imperialist defiance during the decade between the ouster of the Anglo-Egyptian forces led by General Gordon and the imposition of direct British rule under Lord Kitchener. As Kramer traces in this social history of the town, during that brief time it grew from a dusty river crossing over the White Nile to British-held Khartoum and became the focus of millennialist expectations and the spiritual center of northern Sudanese identity. Kitchener’s gratuitous shelling of the Mahdi’s tomb only reinforced northern Sudanese sentiment about what most still see today as their finest moment.”
— Louis Werner, Saudi Aramco World

“This book is a thoroughly revised and impressive version of a doctoral dissertation defended by Robert Kramer at Northwestern University in 1991. It consists of a preface and acknowledgments, a list of abbreviations, maps of Omdurman, six chapters, an appendix of informants to the study, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Kramer examines the creation of Omdurman as a holy city on the Nile and identifies its rapid growth in size and reputation as one of the most dramatic and significant events of the Mahdiyya in the Sudan (1881–1898).

“In the introductory chapter, the author highlights the features of principal Sudanese towns from the perspectives of European travelers who visited the Sudan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and left valuable descriptions. Based on these descriptions, Kramer attributes the fame of the Sudanese pre-colonial towns to certain political, commercial, and religious factors, and classifies Sinnār, al-Halfaya, and al-Fashir as political centers; Shendi, Arbaji, El-Obeid, and Berber as trading hubs; and al-Damar, Abu Ushar, al-Aylafun, and Abu Haraz as ‘places of instruction, mediation and arbitration that attracted students from near and far’ (14). However, this form of classification does not deny that Sinnār in particular was a multiple political, religious, and commercial center that attracted trade caravans from ‘Cairo, Dongola, Nubia, from across the Red Sea, from India, Ethiopia, [Dār] Fur, Borno, the Fezzan, and other kingdoms’ (4). Pre-colonial Sudanese towns were also characterized by the diversity of their inhabitants, who came from ‘western and central Sudanic peoples, Fur as well as riverain Sudanese, peoples of the Upper Blue Nile and Red Sea coast, in additional to smaller numbers of Egyptians, North Africans, Ethiopians, Indians, and Middle Eastern or Mediterranean people’ (15). By contrast, there was not much architectural diversity among the towns, since their appearance, structure, and internal design were largely influenced by environment and cultural preference in the choice of home style and building technique. These aspects of similarity led European travelers to observe that there was no semblance of Western order in Sudan’s towns, in the sense of zoning, street layout, or public facilities.

“Such features of modernity came later during the Turco-Egyptian period (1821–1885), when Khartoum grew rapidly as a colonial capital, combining the functions of administrative and market center, and relying upon Egyptians and other Ottoman subjects to administer the center and periphery. When James Grant visited Khartoum in 1863 he was ‘astonished at the quantity and quality’ of goods at Khartoum’s market, including ‘cigars, wine and foaming Bass Ale’ (19). A decade before Grant’s visit, Fr. Giovanni Beltrame had observed that ‘there are many amusements, dances and songs in Khartoum by day and night. It must be said that such amusements give spontaneous joy to all classes, but despite this the common feeling of citizenship is missing’ (166–67). By producing chapter 1 in a very fine academic fashion, Kramer has succeeded in presenting a vivid picture of the features of the Sudanese towns before the emergence of the Mahdiyya in the late nineteenth century, when sub-Saharan African Muslims began to talk about the arrival of the Expected Mahdi who would fill the earth with justice and equity as it had been filled with oppression and tyranny, and defeat the enemies of Islam. This chapter is an important point of departure that supports the author’s thorough discussion of aspects of continuity and change in the creation and rapid growth of Omdurman.

“In chapter 2, Kramer systematically portrays the physical structure of the city, its diverse population, and its administrative, religio-political, and economic centrality. In chapters 3 and 4, he pays special attention to the development of state institutions and social orders that governed the internal mechanisms of the Mahdist society. Chapter 5 is devoted to social relations in the Mahdi’s city, where the author maps the Mahdist social networks, and examines the polygamy system that contributed to the integration of the diverse ethnic groups of the city at the highest social strata of the Mahdist society. Kramer wraps up his study by a short chapter entitled ‘The Omdurman Experience,’ where he discusses the aspects of similarity and difference between the Holy City on the Nile and its pre-colonial Sudanese towns, and highlights the consequences of the collapse of the Mahdist state with emphasis on the bombardment of the Mahdi’s tomb — the religious and political symbol of the Mahdist state — and the exhumation of his body from its grave. The action was condemned by Ernest Bennett, the correspondent for the Westminster Gazette, as ‘nothing more or less than a return to the barbarism of the Middle Age’ (164).

“Holy City on the Nile: Omdurman During the Mahdiyya (1885–1898) draws its excellence and significance from three assets. First, it can be classified as a leading and comprehensive published study on the creation and rapid growth of Omdurman in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Second, its use of a wide range of primary and secondary sources makes possible comprehensive discussions in each of the six chapters. Third, the author’s integral approach that combines examination of the Mahdist slogans and their translation into action has enriched his discussion and analysis throughout the study. The author argues that Omdurman was not created to be a city or a political capital of the Mahdist movement since the Mahdi had assured followers that he would pray in Egypt, Damascus, Constantinople, and Mecca. After the liberation of Mecca ‘the world would enter a Mahdist era of complete justice and peaceful harmony, when wolves would play with sheep and children would play with scorpions.’ Mecca seems to have been politically considered as the Mahdi’s last destination, where he would lay out the foundation of his Islamic state and Mahdist society. Accordingly, warning letters were dispatched to the Khedive Tuafiq of Egypt, Queen Victoria of Great Britain, and King Yohannes IV of Ethiopia, advising them to show their submission to the leadership of the Mahdist movement. However, after the Mahdi’s sudden death in June 1885 the Khalifa Abdullahi departed from these political slogans and embarked on the development of Omdurman as the permanent capital of the Mahdist state. This political shift leads Kramer to argue that Omdurman, as a town, ‘owed much to its precolonial predecessors’ in the sense of its ‘distinct settlement patterns and market organization, the enclosed royal quarter with adjoining administrative district and elite slave guard, the office of sir al-tujjar and the titles of amin and muqaddam’ (165). It also borrowed some of its administrative features from Khartoum, by combining the functions of the administrative and market center and relying upon the personnel and administrative techniques of the colonial regime, although ideologically the Mahdiyya defined itself in opposition to ‘the city of the Turks’ (166).

“In sum, Holy City on the Nile provides a balanced account of the creation and growth of Omdurman and is to be recommended for its multidisciplinary perspective, the selection and organization of materials, clarity of presentation, and the author’s analysis of the literature. Due to these academic merits this book will be of great interest to history and social science students who want to study the sociopolitical and economic structure of the Mahdist state, and examine the family and tribal relations that wove the sociopolitical fabric of Omdurman society in the nineteenth century.”
— Ahmed Ibrahim Abushouk, International Islamic University, Malaysia, Islamic Africa