In 1885 when the rebel leader Muhammad El-Mahdi seized control of Sudan from its Turko-Egyptian rulers there were between four and eight Jewish families (the exact number is uncertain due to a lack of written documentation) living in the country. All of these families were forcibly converted to Islam and the men forced to take Muslim wives. Thirteen years later, in September 1898, General Kitchener and 20,000 Anglo-Egyptian troops entered Omdurman and took control of the Sudan from the Khalifa, the Mahdi's successor. The country became an Anglo-Egyptian condominium and with this new political status it began to economically flourish. The railway line built by the British forces connecting Cairo to Khartoum (originally for the military campaign) became particularly important for opening up a previously long and difficult route for traders.
After Anglo-Egyptian rule had been established, two of the documented formerly Jewish families chose to revert back to Judaism. They were quickly joined by many more Jewish families who saw the economic opportunities of the fast developing country. From 1900 Jews from all over the Middle East and North Africa began to arrive in Sudan via Cairo and settle along the Nile in the four towns of Khartoum, Khartoum North, Omdurman and Wad-Medani. Predominantly small time merchants of textiles, silks and gum, their businesses soon began to flourish. By 1926 the small synagogue they had quickly erected had been replaced by a brand new, self-funded building and several of its members owned large, successful business.
Despite the fact that the Jewish community as a whole was split over several towns, it was incredibly tight-knit. The Rabbi was simultaneously the mohel and shochet, and he served the entire community. At the centre of the social scene was the bustling Jewish Recreational Club (sometimes referred to as the Jewish Soc Club).
At its peak, between 1930 and 1950 the Jewish community in Sudan numbered up to 1000 people (at a generous estimate). This is an incredibly small number when compared to other Jewish communities in the Middle-East, and even smaller when compared the 8 million strong population of Sudan at the time. These Jews were allowed to live peacefully alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbours. Tight friendships were made on both community and personal levels and it was a peaceful and harmonious existence.
However, after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 the tide began to turn, and small isolated incidents of harassment began to occur. In 1956 Sudan gained independence and after Israel's involvement in the Suez Crisis later that year, these incidents became more threatening and hostility towards the Jewish Community began to grow. From 1957 many members of the community began to leave Sudan for Israel (via Greece) and other countries - primarily Britain and Switzerland and the USA. In 1967 during the Six Day War anti-Semitic attacks began to appear in Sudanese newspapers, advocating the murder and torture of prominent Jewish Community leaders. Several Jewish young men were imprisoned and interrogated for days at a time on bogus charges or without any reason at all. By 1970 almost all of the Jewish community had left Sudan.
The Jewish cemetery partially remains in Khartoum, although it is currently used as a dumping ground. In 1977 an air-transfer for eleven of the graves was organised by some prominent members of the community and reburial was arranged in Jerusalem. As of 2015 there were 14 Jewish grave stones left in the Jewish Cemetery at Khartoum. However, even since then the condition of these has deteriorated (to read more about recent work on the cemetery click here). The site of the much older Jewish Cemetery in Omdurman is unknown. The Synagogue was sold and demolished in 1986 and a bank now occupies the site. The community's ten Torah scrolls were salvaged before the demolition and are now split between the smaller communities in London, Israel, America and Geneva.
Today, members of the old Jewish community of Sudan live, for the most part, in Israel, America, England and Geneva. On their way to these countries they settled in many different places, building up their businesses and learning their trades. However, they remain a close-knit community - always ready to welcome each other into their homes and offer support in times of need. They remain united by their memories, experiences and identity formed in the Jewish community of Sudan.
Ilan, N. "The Sudan Jewish Community according to the Community Register" in Ehrlich, M.A., Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, Vol. 1. ABC-CLIO: 505-9: 2009.
Kramer, R.S, Lobban Jr., R.A & Fluehr-Lobban, C. (eds), Historical Dictionary of the Sudan, 3rd Edition: Historical Dictionaries of Africa.
Scarecrow Press: 2002.
Malka, E.S., Jacob's Children in the Land of the Mahdi: Jews of the Sudan. Syracuse University Press: 1997.
Warburg, G., "Notes on the Jewish Community in Sudan in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" in Bulletin of the Israeli Academic Centre in Cairo, No. 24: 22-6: 2001.