Khartoum History – A Tale of Twin Histories

Khartoum or Khartum is the capital of Sudan. With a population of 5,274,321, its metropolitan area is the largest in Sudan. Khartoum is located at the confluence of the White Nile, flowing north from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, flowing west from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The location where the two Niles meet is known as al-Mogran or al-Muqran. From there, the Nile continues to flow north towards Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

Origin of the Word Khartoum

The origin of the word Khartoum is uncertain. One theory argues that it is derived from Arabic khurṭūm, probably referring to the narrow strip of land extending between the Blue and White Niles. Dinka scholars argue that the name derives from the Dinka words khar-tuom (Dinka-Bor dialect) or khier-tuom (as is the pronunciation in various Dinka Dialects), translating to “place where rivers meet”. This is supported by historical accounts which place the Dinka homeland in central Sudan (around present-day Khartoum) as recently as the 13th-17th centuries A.D. Captain J.A. Grant, who reached Khartoum in 1863 with Captain Speke’s expedition, thought the name was most probably from the Arabic qurtum, which was cultivated extensively in Egypt for its oil to be used as fuel.

Some scholars speculate that the word derives from the Nubian word Agartum (“the abode of Atum”), the Nubian and Egyptian god of creation. Other Beja scholars suggest Khartoum is derived from the Beja word hartoom, “meeting”. Sociologist Vincent J. Donovan notes that in the Nilotic Maa language of the Maasai people, khartoum means “we have acquired” and that the geographical location of Khartoum is where Maasai oral tradition claims that the ancestors of the Maasai first acquired cattle.

History of Khartoum

19th century

In 1821, Khartoum was established 24 kilometres (15 mi) north of the ancient city of Soba, by Ismail Pasha, the third son of Egypt’s ruler, Muhammad Ali Pasha, who had just incorporated Sudan into his realm. Originally, Khartoum served as an outpost for the Egyptian Army, but the settlement quickly grew into a regional centre of trade. It also became a focal point for the slave trade.

Later, it became the administrative center and official capital of Sudan.

On 13 March 1884, troops loyal to the Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad started a siege of Khartoum, against defenders led by British General Charles George Gordon. The siege ended in a massacre of the Anglo-Egyptian garrison when on 26 January 1885 the heavily damaged city fell to the Mahdists.

On 2 September 1898, Omdurman was the scene of the bloody Battle of Omdurman, during which British forces under Herbert Kitchener defeated the Mahdist forces defending the city

20th century

The Arab League summit of 29 August 1967 was held in Khartoum as the fourth Arab League Summit.

In 1973, the city was the site of an anomalous hostage crisis in which members of Black September held 10 hostages at the Saudi Arabian embassy, five of them diplomats. The US ambassador, the US deputy ambassador, and the Belgian chargé d’affaires were murdered. The remaining hostages were released. A 1973 United States Department of State document, declassified in 2006, concluded: “The Khartoum operation was planned and carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval of Yasser Arafat.”

In 1977, the first oil pipeline between Khartoum and the Port of Sudan was completed.

The Organisation of African Unity summit of 18–22 July 1978 was held in Khartoum, during which Sudan was awarded the OAU presidency.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Khartoum was the destination for hundreds of thousands refugees fleeing conflicts in neighboring nations such as Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Many Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees assimilated into society, while others settled in large slums at the outskirts of the city. Since the mid-1980s, large numbers of refugees from South Sudan and Darfur fleeing the violence of the Second Sudanese Civil War and Darfur conflict have settled around Khartoum.

In 1991, Osama bin Laden purchased a house in the affluent al-Riyadh neighborhood of the city and another in Soba. He lived there until 1996, when he was banished from the country. Following the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, the United States accused bin Laden’s al-Qaeda group and, on 20 August, launched cruise missile attacks on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum North. The destruction of the factory produced diplomatic tension between the U.S. and Sudan. The factory ruins are now a tourist attraction.

In November 1991, the government of President Omar al-Bashir sought to remove half the population from the city. The residents, deemed squatters, were mostly southern Sudanese who the government feared could be potential rebel sympathizers. Around 425,000 people were placed in five “Peace Camps” in the desert an hour’s drive from Khartoum. The camps were watched over by heavily armed security guards, many relief agencies were banned from assisting, and “the nearest food was at a market four miles away, a vast journey in the desert heat.” Many residents were reduced to having only burlap sacks as housing. The intentional displacement was part of a large urban renewal plan backed by the housing minister, Sharaf Bannaga.

21st century

The sudden death of SPLA head and vice-president of Sudan, John Garang, at the end of July 2005, was followed by three days of violent riots in the capital. The riots finally died down after Southern Sudanese politicians and tribal leaders sent strong messages to the rioters. The situation could have been much more dire; even so, the death toll was at least 24, as youths from southern Sudan attacked northern Sudanese and clashed with security forces.

The African Union summit of 16–24 January 2006 was held in Khartoum. The Arab League summit of 28–29 March 2006 was held in Khartoum, during which the Arab League awarded Sudan the Arab League presidency.

On 10 May 2008, the Darfur rebel group, Justice and Equality Movement, moved into the city, where they engaged in heavy fighting with Sudanese government forces. Their soldiers included minors, and their goal was to topple Omar al-Bashir’s government, though the Sudanese government succeeded in beating back the assault.

On 23 October 2012, an explosion at the Yarmouk munitions factory killed two people and injured another person. The Sudanese government has claimed that the explosion was the result of an Israeli airstrike.

On 3 June 2019, Khartoum was the site of the Khartoum massacre, where over 100 dissidents were murdered (the government said 61 were killed), hundreds more injured and 70 women raped by Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in order to forcefully disperse the peaceful protests calling for civilian government.

On 1 July 2020, activists demanded that al-Zibar Basha street in Khartoum be renamed. Al-Zubayr Rahma Mansur was a slave trader and the al-Zibar Basha street leads to the military base where the 2019 Khartoum massacre took place.

On 26 October 2021, the city was locked down following a military coup that left at least 7 dead, triggering protests and calls for a general strike. Prime minister Abdalla Hamdok was arrested during the coup, and held along with other cabinet members in an unknown location.

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