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Sudanís history contains few coins
By Bob Reis
April 17, 2017

I asked myself what I know about Sudan and my earliest memory was the New York World’s Fair in 1964. Sudan had a little pavilion and a snack bar or restaurant. I ate a sandwich tucked into a piece of split flatbread, now we call it pita. It had tahini sauce and was probably a falafel. It was served by a guy in a typical Arab style robe. I would have been 12 years old. It was right before the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.

And then, in recent years, no decades, Sudan has become notorious as a country that is mean to its citizens and sometimes has managed to perpetrate malign activities outside its borders. It does, it seems, have a couple of aces up its sleeve. One is oil. Another is gum arabic, a food ingredient used in lots of things other than chewing gum, of which Sudan is the world’s major supplier, and which product has been consistently excluded from the bans on commerce between Sudan and the USA that have frequently been in place in over the last 20 years.

So I began my crash course of research on Sudan. Everything about the country has “always” been in relation to Egypt to its north and to Ethiopia to its east. Sudan has mostly been the other side of the border for those self-consciously “civilized” countries, with their literate cultures. There were literate cultures in Sudan as well, but they developed, it seems in the influence of their neighbors, while the cores of the various Sudanese cultures have been consistently semi-nomadic herding and/or small scale subsistence agriculture. If we’re going to accept the theory that urban literate culture requires agricultural surplus, the region we now call Sudan mostly did not have that.

And we would do well to keep in mind that the word “Sudan” is an Arabic word meaning “black people.” Bilad Al-Sudan, land of black people, refers both to the country and to the geographic zone of Africa directly to the south of the northern zone, the one filled with Arabs and, in the west, Berbers, ranging from the Red Sea to the Atlantic and extending south to the start of the savannahs and forests. We could get confused, but we won’t. This essay is about the country Sudan, not the region.

Well, what about coins? No indigenous coins until the 19th century it seems. But the neighbors to north and east used money, and some of it drifted into Sudan. We’ll get to that money in due course.

Well, and it turns out that the paleontology of Sudan is kind of sparse in comparison to that of Egypt and Ethiopia. though not compared with its western neighbors, Chad and the Central African Republic. Why the dearth of Sudanese paleoanthropology? Governmental instability, mostly, I imagine.

I’d expect, though, that ancient hominids roamed parts of Sudan as they did in Ethiopia and Kenya. If that’s the case then one would expect to find remains of the early humans and their tools but I see online only a scholarly survey explaining that yes, there is stuff there back to 200,000 B.C.E., but political instability has prevented much serious work from being done.

Never mind that early stuff though. Let’s talk about Egypt. The Nile flows northwards through Sudan before it gets to Egypt. The border between the two could be taken to be more or less where it is now, give or take a few hundred miles. Ethnic distinctions between southerners and northerners, typified by relatively lighter and relatively darker skin color were evident during the earliest Egyptian dynastic period, and can be assumed to have been present in the later pre-dynastic periods as well.

From the Egyptian point of view there was Lower Egypt, the Mediterranean inland a ways, Upper Egypt, a few hundred miles further upstream, and the land beyond, called, among other things, Punt.

Punt was thought of as wild and peopled with barbarians. Egyptians conducted raiding/trading expeditions into Punt, bringing back gold, ivory, exotic animal skins, and so forth, but mostly they went there for slaves, which were the major export item of sub-Saharan Africa for several thousand years, before even the Sahara was a desert.

Over time the natives of Punt began to organize themselves for defense, building fortified villages, supporting standing armies and bureaucratic kingly governments to direct them. They were outmatched by Egypt, of course, and continued to suffer raids until Egypt was overrun by the Hyksos invaders from Palestine, whose big advantage seems to have been iron. That was around 1700 B.C.E. Hyksos domination was rather destructive, in the sense of killing people and destroying infrastructure, and whatever presence dynastic Egypt had in the south disappeared.

In the absence of the Egyptians a native kingdom emerged, called Kush. It was Egyptian in style but rougher and not as much, with some native characteristics. The Egyptians returned after a couple of centuries and reestablished political and economic control. A stratified economic scene developed, the richer they were the more Egyptian they acted.

Egypt weakened politically until it broke apart into northern and southern sectors in the 11th century B.C.E., upon which the kingdom of Kush re-emerged as an independent power that at one point Kush conquered Upper Egypt and ruled there for about a century starting around 800 B.C.E.. Egypt never really recovered its power after that, being conquered successively by the Assyrians, the Persians, the Macedonians and the Romans. And, why not continue, the Arabs. And the Turks.

What about Sudan during all of those centuries? The events in Egypt affected Sudan like ripples in a pond when a stone is thrown in. Egypt preoccupied with foreign invaders, the kings of Kush were somewhat secure. Around 590 B.C.E. a temporarily recovered Egypt sacked the Kushite capital at Napata and Kush moved its seat to Meroe, further south. The Kushite state was fairly secure in the new location and flourished for several centuries, until it was conquered by king Ezana of Axum in Ethiopia around 350 C.E. It was an Egyptoid culture, with pyramids and that pantheon of picturesque gods, and divine pharaohs and so forth.

All of that took place in northern Sudan and southern Upper Egypt. Southern Sudan, which is modern South Sudan, was jungly back then, with a mix of herding nomads and small village agriculturalists. Those people had no writing and they were far away from the people who did have writing, so we don’t really know what went on there in any detail.

Christianity came to northern Sudan in the mid-7th century C.E., just a bit before Islam came to Egypt. Several Christian kingdoms developed over about 300 years. It seems to have always been that something happens in Egypt and then one or a few centuries later it starts to happen in Sudan. Islam drifted south until northern Sudan was substantially Muslim by the 16th century. There got to be four Islamic kingdoms in northern Sudan: Funj at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, Shilluk to the south, Tegali a bit west, and Fur (now called Darfur) in the west. That was how things were at the start of the 19th century.

For all of these millennia there is not the slightest indication that anyone used coins anywhere in Sudan. We’d expect that coinage would have figured in trade after it came into general use in Egypt, but apparently not so. Egyptian coinage began in earnest with Alexander the Great and continued essentially uninterrupted until now, but for the first 1,000 years or so it was used in commerce mainly in the Nile delta and the further up the Nile one went the less was it found in use. Nomads famously have no use for gold and silver, the wealth is in the animals. In the south maybe there was some circulation of gold dust, or maybe not. The primitive money collectors don’t really have anything to say about Sudan one way or another.

Even in the 19th century there are no known coins until almost the end, when imitations of Turkish coins were made. Here’s the story in brief.

The Turkish Ottoman empire defeated the Mamluk rulers of Egypt and became rulers of that country in 1517. The same fading of control to the south that had always obtained continued until 1820, when northern Sudan was successfully invaded. The attraction was economic; there was gold to be mined, among other commodities to be exploited. That region was administratively attached to Egypt. Formal claims were made to lands stretching into what is now South Sudan but there were no efforts at effective control. Meanwhile, Egypt became more and more of an independent actor in international politics as the 19th century went on, while maintaining a formal feudal tie to the Ottoman sultan.

A feature of Islamic culture has always been the rise of local militant religious reform movements led by a charismatic leader. One of these arose in western and central Sudan, inspired by a guy who called himself, as had many religious leaders before, the “Mahdi,” a figure of Islamic eschatological tradition who will be, it was written, ruler of the world immediately preceding the end time.

The Sudanese Mahdi embarked on a war to unify the tribes and proceeded to tangle with Ottoman-Egyptian troops and even the British, who had become involved in Egyptian affairs in relation to their takeover from the French of the attempt to build the Suez canal. In January 1885 Mahdist forces took Khartoum, killing the temporary British governor-general, Major General Charles Gordon.

The Mahdi died in June 1885, succeeded by one of his followers, known as the Khalifa. “Khalifa” is “caliph,” meaning “vice regent” (of God), the traditional religious/political head, technically speaking, of Muslims in general. The title had been acquired by the Ottoman sultans, the Sudanese Khalifa was challenging the Ottoman title.

The Khalifa consolidated his personal rule in the Mahdist territories and attempted to set up a normalizing administration. He also, oxymoronically, launched a successful invasion of western Ethiopia and an unsuccessful attempt on southern Egypt. European powers, primarily British, intervened. The Mahdists were steadily forced southward and finally defeated and the Khalifa killed in 1899.

The first Sudanese coins were issued by the Mahdi. The issuing of coins was considered the prerogative of a lawful Islamic ruler, so when someone made coins it was a literal declaration of independence. The Mahdi’s coins were issued in Khartoum in 1885. They were silver Ottoman style coins based on the Turkish designs rather than the Egyptian, with a reference to Muhammad’s flight from Mecca where the mint city would have been. They are very rare. The Standard Catalog also mentions a crude imitation of an Egyptian gold 100 piastres (kurus, girsh, qirsh) dated 1840 but struck around 1885, even rarer.

Coinage of the Khalifa was issued in a range of denominations from 5 para to 20 piastres. All have the Ottoman style toughra as the obverse design feature, with various decorations based on Turkish and Egyptian styles. The metal started out as silvery color billon and debased to practically pure copper. Most of the coins have the mint name Omdurman. Most of them are a bit scarce to very rare except for the 20 piastre denomination, some of the varieties of which are fairly easy to find and relatively cheap.

Then there is Darfur. The people of Sudan are divided into a number of ethnic groups speaking different languages and practicing different customs. In some ways all of them have been set against each other because of competition for resources in a dry land and the habit of all of them was to raid each other for slaves. The territory that is now Sudan contained several ethnically based kingdoms before the advent of the Mahdi, the largest of which, geographically speaking, was Darfur, home of the Fur people.

Circumstances weakened the Fur kingdom, and it was conquered in 1875 by the Egyptian governor of Khartoum. The Egyptians were thrown out by the Mahdi in 1882. The Darfuris had not liked the Egyptians and they didn’t like the Mahdists either. Revolt ensued. When the Mahdidsts were defeated in 1899 by an Anglo-Egyptian force the leader of the revolt, Ali Dinar, was recognized as sultan of Darfur, to be a tributary of the government in Khartoum.

This is a bit hard to explain. Egypt was formally part of the Ottoman empire at the end of the 19th century, but had been essentially independent for most of the 19th century. As an independent actor pretending to be a vassal it got itself into its own financial trouble and was financially captured by European banks, first French, then British. The British government had a tendency to protect the foreign interests of its country’s banks, and that’s a lot of how its colonial empire happened. By the end of the 19th century Britain was substantially in control of Egypt, and, by extension Sudan.

So the sultan of Darfur was a formal tributary of the informal colonial British regime in Egypt, which was operating through an Egyptian government that was a formal tributary of the Ottoman sultan, though the British were calling the shots.

Ali Dinar, sultan of Darfur, did a little bit of coin making. The only coin likely to be turned up would be the billon or copper piastre of 1327 A.H. (1909 A.D.). The coins are extremely crude, various meaningless regnal years are known. I’ve been in the coin business since 1978. Scott Semans had a small batch of wretched specimens some decades ago. I haven’t seen them since. In the Standard Catalog are drawings of some other coins that I’ve never met in real life.

In 1916 the British got antsy about the technical vassalage of the Egyptian government to the Ottoman throne. There was, after all, a war on since 1915 when the Ottomans sided with the Germans in World War I.

The British then overthrew the Egyptian government and set up their own military occupation regime with their own puppet sultan. As part of that action they changed the status of Sudan to a new administrative format that they called Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, including a newly occupied Darfur. That’s where we’ll start next time.

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