This book is about that brief period, less than a hundred years ago, when the Sudan was aflame with such violence that Europe watched it with astonishment and alarm. It is called the Mahdiya.
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Summary: Prisoners of the Mahdi tells two stories set in late 19th century Sudan. The dramatic rise to religious and temporal power of the Mahdi, a Sudanese man claiming to be the redeemer of Islam, provides the first tale and sets the background for the second, the stories of three European captives each held for at least ten years under often brutal conditions. The Mahdi expels the Egyptian/Ottoman/British powers from the Sudan in 1884, a victory that includes the martyring death at Khartoum of General `Chinese' Gordon. The British return under Kitchener to avenge Gordon and retake control of the Nile form source to sea. A fascinating read about a now obscure, but previously hugely popular part of the history of the British Empire. Full Review: Prisoners of the Mahdi first traces the meteoric rise of an ordinary Sudanese Muslim. On June 29, 1881, this fellow, Muhammad Ahmed, proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi, the messianic redeemer of Islam, the second coming of the prophet in 1881. With his extreme religious fervor he managed to build an army of followers and begins to take control of the Sudan. At the time, the Sudan was nominally under control of the Ottoman Empire through the Khedive of Egypt. In reality, although the lines of authority were intentionally muddied, the British Empire had the final say through its consul in Cairo, the aptly titled `controller-general' Evelyn Baring. The Khedive, exercising a modicum of independence had extended Egyptian (`Turco') authority into the Sudan and it was his fight against this authority that helped the Mahdi gain traction. The Mahdi's army of ansars (followers) has won some small skirmishes and then took control of Darfur after annihilating a British-led Egyptian army. Baring sensibly recommended that Egypt simply withdraw from the Sudan. The British didn't want it and there was little enough there for anyone. Prime Minister Gladstone agreed, but the war party within his own government managed to push the through the appointment of General `Chinese' Gordon to just go have a look around and oversee the Egyptian pullback. Baring twice refused to accept the appointment, but finally gave in - to the regret of many. A less suitable candidate for such a role than Gordon is difficult to imagine (George Patton?). Once on the scene Gordon inevitably decided that Khartoum must be held at all costs. The Mahdi soon laid siege to the city. Gladstone dithered before sending a relief force that managed to arrive two days too late. Khartoum was sacked. Gordon was killed and attained a heroic martyr status that lasted in England for decades. (As Farwell tells it, Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians did for Gordon's reputation - deservedly so in my opinion). The sacking of Khartoum led to the sacking of Gladstone. The Sudan was now entirely in the hands of the Mahdi and became the Madihya. At this point, Farwell turns to the second part of his story, the tales of three European captives of the Mahdi: Austrian soldier/adventurer Rudolph Slatin, Catholic priest Father Joseph Ohrwalder, and German merchant trader Charles Neufeld. (Farwell is also a captive of sorts because of source limitations; these three subjects provide very nearly everything that was known about their own captivity.) Each was held captive for 10 years. Farwell gives Slatin an extended treatment and deservedly so because Slatin's story holds the most interest by far. Slatin, who had quickly become a leading official in Egyptian-held Sudan, also quickly decided that the best course in captivity was total submissiveness (For example, he professed a conversion to Islam, possibly sincerely). It worked - more or less - and he held a seat close to the center of power especially under the Mahdi's successor or The Khalifa. He could observe, but was never really trusted by the Khalifa and lived in fear of his life. Ohrwalder's and Neufeld's stories are told more briefly and hold interest primarily by demonstrating the depths of cruelty