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I really enjoyed this book. This is a book about British involvement in Egypt and Sudan between 1869 and 1899. Much of the policies undertaken then by the British parliament echo present day policies in the Middle East. If you are interested in the history of the Middle East, read this book!
I most enjoyed the chapters on the Mahdi. According to Islamic traditions, the Mahdi will come to save Muslims from their imminent collapse in society and deliver them from the hands of the unbelievers (the non-Muslims). His name will be Mohammad, like the prophet be peace upon him, and his father will likewise be named Abdullah, like the prophet's father. His appearance will signal the end of days, or the coming of the Day of Judgment. During the Mahdi's lifetime, Jesus Christ will also return to rule the world, according to Islam.
It is quite clear that the self-proclaimed Sudanese Mahdi was not the awaited Mahdi Moslems all over the world are waiting for. Yet he was able to save his people from British rule, and successfully retook Khartoum and killed General Gordon after a 300 days siege. Gordon's body was mutilated, and his head severed and taken to the Mahdi. Yet in the process hundreds of thousands of Sudanese died. Was the price worth the freedom from British rule? Interestingly, the Mahdi at first refused to use guns and rifles to fight the British armies, believing that since God was on his side, guns and rifles would be unnecessary. He soon realized though that this was foolishness at its best, not to mention suicide.
Another suicidal strategy was to run in masses towards the armed British forces, equipped with rifles and cannons. Thousands of Sudanese died this way, their bodies piled on top of each other. Since any Muslim who dies in Jihad goes straight to Heaven, the Sudanese army was keener of dying in battle and going to Heaven than actually winning the battle. This attitude is clearly shown today in unnecessary terrorist attacks.
The Mahdi died quite young, in his early forties and shortly after defeating the British forces. His dreams were of conquering Egypt and then the Gulf states (Middle East), thus cutting the British forces from their Empire in the East (mainly India) and defeating the Ottoman Empire. But right after his death, chaos erupted between the Sudanese and civil war arose between them. The British forces, seeing an opportunity, re-conquered Sudan. The Mahdi's dream was destroyed.
Interestingly, during the Sudanese Mahdi's time, another self-proclaimed Mahdi appeared in Libya. However, the Libyan Mahdi did not want anything to do with the Sudanese Mahdi. This demonstrates how religion is used for political ambitions. None of them was the true awaited Mahdi, yet both believed they were.
The chapters on General Gordon (Chinese Gordon) and Mr. Gladstone were also very interesting. It is really amazing to read that Gordon was abandoned by the British during the siege of Khartoum. If only the British sent reinforcements to Gordon, the city would never have fallen and the Mahdi would have been defeated. But politicians back in London, mainly Mr. Gladstone, thought that Gordon was not in need of reinforcements, despite his repeated insistence. Politics! Politicians! Being behind a desk thousands of miles away is much different than being under the line of fire, and this is as true today as ever.
It is interesting that some in the British parliament thought that the Sudanese have a right to rule their own country and that the British forces should leave Sudan. Debates actually arose on this point, and this was one of the reasons the British forces were delayed in coming to Gordon's aid. When they finally arrived, it was too late. Gordon was dead and Khartoum had fallen. Another reason for the delay in troop deployment was that Sudan was a burden on the British economy, with more money being invested than actual returns. Sudan was not financially attractive, but rather a financial drain.
The chapters on the ruling Egyptian khedive (viceroy) Ismail Pasha were also interesting. Ismail Pasha was westernized, having been educated in Paris, and he liked living the life of an aristocrat. He spent a lot of money for his self entertainment and on acquiring land. But he also borrowed a lot of money from the British to build his country; money that he couldn't pay back. It was Ismail Pasha, together with a French engineer, who built the Suez Canal, separating the Continent of Africa from the Middle East and turning it into an island!
His administrative policies, notably the accumulation of an enormous foreign debt, were instrumental in leading to British occupation of Egypt in 1882. When he assumed power, the Egyptian national debt stood at £7,000,000; by 1876 this debt had increased to almost £100,000,000. Eventually Ismail was exiled from his country after bankrupting it and left with all his personal belongings and his personal harem (probably his most important asset) aboard a ship headed for Sicily. He never returned, yet his legacy lives on today by the city named after him, Ismailia. He died on March 2, 1895, in Istanbul.
This book reads like a novel, and apart from being informative, is very entertaining. I highly recommend it.