The Ottoman Jewish Community of Sudan
By Ibrahim M. Omer
This is a summary for a research work that I conducted on the history of the 19th century Ottoman Jewish community of Sudan, who were trapped in harsh conditions of the Islamic fundamentalism of El-Mahdiya during 1881-1898. The purpose here is to call for research and scholarly attention to a source of primary information that may be soon lost and for ever.
Unfortunately, information on the Ottoman Jewish Community of Sudan is of extreme scarcity; the only known works that are focused on the topic are Jacob's Children in the Land of the Mahdi: Jews of the Sudan by Eli Malka (1997) and the more expanded work The Jews in Sudan: Readings on the book of Eli Solomon Malka "Jacob's Children in the Land of the Mahdi" (in Arabic) by Sudanese author Maki Abu-Garja (2004). Although both works are the outcome of extensive and painstaking research, they still remain short of documenting such an important topic with all its vital consequences to a fair extent.
Eli Malka's father, Rabbi Solomon Malka visited Sudan in 1906; after the end of the Mahadiya. Upon arriving to Sudan, Rabbi Solomon furnished a Hebrew document in which he recorded information about the old and new-- by then-- Sudanese Jewish community. Sadly enough, the document was lost. The valuable information provided by Eli Malka, to whom we owe much of our knowledge of the Sudan's Jewish community, is derived from information he gathered from members of the once Sudanese Jewish community, as well as from his own memories (Warburg, 2001).
Abu Garga's book, on the other hand, is a remarkable work of documentation in which a large number of contemporary Sudanese families that have well known Jewish descent are listed. He provides elaborate reports on some of these families who now play leading roles in the country. Unfortunately, the bulk of the individuals he named are descendants of Jewish immigrants who came only after the Mahadiya period and thus, never had to hide their Jewish identity.
Sudan was a colony for the Ottoman Empire since 1583; Sudanese towns like El-Khandaq, and Suakin,were once major bustling Turkish centers. In1820, under Mohammed Ali Pasha, Sudan was incorporated as part of a new Turkish rule centered in Egypt, also known as the Turko-Egyptian conquest. A dual colonization by the Turks together with the British was put in order in the late1870s.
In 1881, Mohammed Ahmed El-Mahdi, a Sudanese religious figure, declared him self the Mahadi meaning "the expected one" or the Messiah as percieved in Islamic traditions. Motivated by resisting the foreign conquest of Sudan and inspired by the principles of Jihad, he led a war against the Turko-Egyptian conquest. In 1881, El-Mahdi succeeded in ending the Turkish colonization. In less than 17 years, however, the British returned to Sudan and reinstated their rule and again in cooperation with the Turkish rule that was regionally centered in Egypt by then.
Under the Mahadiya, Sudan came under an Islamic conservative violent rule. The horrors of the Mahadiya are still recognized by the older Sudanese generations. Executions were rampant as the former colonists and those accused of being their collaborators were punished as "infidels". The non-Muslim communities that settled in Sudan since the Ottoman conquest of Sudan in the late sixteenth century (which included Copts, Syrian Christians, Armenians, and Jews), were forced to convert to the "Mahdi Islam" under the threat of death. .
All the converts were forced to change their names to Arabic-Muslim names and many women were taken as concubines by Mahadists. The descendants of these marriages, however, were cautious to keep their Jewish origins a secret and their number is not a small one. Due to the peculiar social structure and the inherited perception towards the Jewish faith, the majority of these families remained with fates unknown, untraceable, and not enlisted anywhere.
Unfortunately, we have the names of only eight Jewish families who document that state in the Mahadiya. The names are found in a poor record prepared by the Sirdar of the Egyptian military for the ministry of war in which information on the subjects of the former colonial Turkish rule that stayed in Sudan were recorded. Seven of the eight names belonged to a group of Sephardic families and only the single Ashkenazi family of Mendel (Arabized Mandeel) was documented. The document may have been drawn even without the knowledge of the Jewish families.
In a private unpublished research, I made an attempt to investigate the history ofSudanese families with a Jewish descent that goes back to intermarriages during the Mahadiya period; one of these happened to be my own. Of course the mentioning of my family here is merely one example of many Sudanese families that have Jewish routes and not listed among the eight families founded in the Egyptian report. The elders of such families trace their maternal roots to Jewish women who were taken as wives (or perhaps concubines).
One powerful memory for the Jewish community of Sudan is the Jewish cemetery in downtown Khartoum. Fearing incidents of vandalism on the Khartoum Jewish cemetery, former members of the Sudanese Jewish families, including that of Eli Malka, made transfer of burials to the Givaat Shaol Cemetery in Jerusalem in 1975. Yet, a considerably sizable cemetery is still known and recognized in the middle of the city.
The Khartoum Jewish cemetery dates to the 19th Century, and has been abandoned since the migration of the Jews out of Sudan in the 1970s, if not earlier. The tombstones of many of the graves may remain underground and the surviving tombstones are gradually breaking and disintegrating.
Combined with the wealth of information that may be unraveled from the existing Ottoman cemeteries in Sudan, the abundance of existing Sudanese families that trace their roots to Sudan's Ottoman Jewish community, a rich informative source on the history of Sudan's Ottoman Jewish community may be compiled. Without the conduct of such effort, the history of this unique Jewish community in Sudan can easily be out of history.
Abu-Garja, Maki. 2004. The Jews in Sudan: Readings on the book of Eli Solomon Malka "Jacob's Children in the Land of the Mahdi" (in Arabic). Abu Dhabi: Al Zafra for printing and publishing.
Malka, Eli S. 1997. Jacob's Children in the Land of the Mahdi: Jews of the Sudan. Syracuse UP.
Warburg, Gabriel R. 2001. "Notes on the Jewish community in Sudan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." Bulletin of the Academic Center in Cairo 24, 22-6.
The author is a graduate student at San Jose State University and formerly a researcher at California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB). His academic experience is on the field of Middle Eastern history (see his website: www.ancientsudan.org).
from the October-November 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine