In 1881 he declared himself the Mahdi or “rightly guided one”; according to Islamic tradition, the Mahdi was to appear to foreshadow the end of an age. The Mahdi was sent to establish the faith and custom of the prophet. The Mahdist movement in the Sudan was a combination of nationalist and religious belief and was seen by many as the beginning of Sudanese nationalism.
The Mahdi established his state in a power vacuum when the Ottoman Empire, the ostensible governing authority, and Egypt, in the midst of the Urabi revolt, were weak and torn by revolts and local problems. In addition to his undoubted religious appeal and charisma, the Mahdi’s refusal to pay Ottoman or Egyptian taxes attracted further support among the Sudanese.
The taxes levied by the Mahdi were generally lower than those of the Ottomans. He garnered tribal support and crushed internal uprisings. In 1882 the Mahdi took el Obeid, the capital of western Sudan.
He struck money in the name of the new Mahdist government, pacified most of the country, and ousted the remaining Turkish garrisons. He established a theocratic state based on religious law. The Mahdist movement was another of the 19th-century Islamic revival movements such as the Sanusiya in Libya and the Wahhabis in Arabia.
Alarmed by the rising new power in the south, the British who had occupied Egypt in 1882, sent a military expedition led by William Hicks to defeat the Mahdi. Without proper supply routes or knowledge of the local terrain, Hicks, with a force of Egyptian soldiers, moved deep into Sudanese territory where his expedition was cut to pieces by the Mahdi’s army in 1883. Cut off from Egypt and outside supplies, foreign missionaries and adventurers in the Sudan were taken prisoner by the Mahdi; some remained under virtual house arrest for years.
As the Mahdi moved closer to the capital of Khartoum, Charles “Chinese” Gordon, so named for his role in defeating the Boxer Rebellion, was sent to evacuate the remaining British forces. A Christian zealot, Gordon believed it was his mission to stop slavery in the Sudan and to secure the territory.
Ignoring orders to withdraw, he was trapped in Khartoum as the Mahdi’s army lay siege to the city. The siege lasted from 1884 until late January 1885. A British relief expedition was sent to rescue Gordon, but before it arrived the Mahdi’s forces, known as dervishes in the West, took the city.
Against the Mahdi’s orders, Gordon was killed and beheaded. His head was then presented to the Mahdi as a sign of the victory. The British relief forces arrived on the outskirts of Khartoum two days too late and, recognizing their untenable position, promptly retreated back to Egypt.
Gordon became a martyr to the cause of British imperialism. Although the British prime minister William Gladstone favored withdrawal from the Sudan, the British public, including Queen Victoria, were outraged and demanded that Gordon’s death be avenged and the Mahdi destroyed.
The Mahdi died shortly after the taking of Khartoum in 1885. He was succeeded by Abdallahi, as the khalifa, or companion. Abdallahi struck money with an Omdurman mint mark and legislated proclamations and decisions on points of law.
He defeated the Abyssinians (in present-day Ethiopia) in 1889, but shortly thereafter the Mahdist state faced internal uprisings, a plague of locusts (a recurring ecological problem in much of Africa), and a resulting famine.
Meanwhile, the British remained determined to defeat the Mahdist state. The British military hero Herbert Kitchener was appointed commander in chief of Egyptian forces to take the Sudan. Avoiding the mistakes of previous expeditions, Kitchener extended the railway system deep into southern Egypt to ensure efficient movement of supplies and men.
In 1898, Kitchener met the Mahdist army at the Battle of Omdurman, where with superior armaments his army easily defeated the larger but poorly armed dervishes. Kitchener then moved to eradicate any traces of the Mahdist state, even destroying the Mahdi’s tomb. However, the movement remained a latent force in the Sudan, and the Mahdi’s heirs emerged as political leaders when the Sudan became independent in the second half of the 20th century.