Sudan’s earliest civilisations sprung up along the Nile. Ancient Egypt knew it as Kush (ancient Nubia), and over the centuries either traded or invaded the region. During the 8th century BC, Kush grew as an independent power, conquered Egypt itself and adopted many facets of Egyptian culture – a tradition that it carried on as it evolved into the kingdom of Meroe, which fought the Romans, and still buried its kings in pyramids.
Nubia converted to Christianity – the Egyptian-based Coptic version - in the sixth century AD, and then to Islam in the 14th century. The Nile was dominated by Egypt, but the independent Funj Kingdom sprang up at Sennar on the Blue Nile, with the Sultanate of Fur ruled over Darfur and Kordofan.
Egypt conquered the rest of Sudan in the 1820s, turning the country into a slave market, but within 60 years jointly administered it with the British, who were keen to control the region around the new Suez Canal. Sudanese resistance against foreign rule was led by the Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed, a figure revered as both a mystic and a holy warrior. The Mahdist armies kicked both the Egyptians and British out, holding Khartoum until the British re-conquered the territory in 1898. An Anglo-Egyptian condominium was established with Sudan later taken under full British rule.
The British expanded agriculture and the railways, but kept the southern half of the country deliberately isolated from the Muslim north. By the mid-20th century, the Sudanese were clamouring for independence, which was granted in 1956.
Resenting the political domination of the north, the mostly Christian and animist southerners launched an insurrection against the Khartoum government. This was the trigger for a conflict that raged on and off for five decades and claimed an estimated 2 million lives.
President Nimeiri ended the first civil war in 1972 with the Addis Ababa Accords, granting the south considerable autonomy. He set about giant infrastructure projects aiming to turn Sudan into Africa’s breadbasket, but ended up driving the economy into the buffers. Further pressure from northern political parties also meant the rescinding of Southern autonomy, the return of civil war, and an army coup.
The cycle of elections and coups has shaped much of Sudan’s post-independence history. In 1989, General Omar al-Bashir, backed by Islamists seized power. Islamist Sudan escalated the civil war, supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War and gave shelter to Osama Bin Laden.
It wasn’t until the change of geopolitical weather brought on by 9/11 that Sudan started to shift its position. Flush with money from its new oilfields, it sought peace with the south, culminating with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement promising a referendum on independence for the south (who promptly voted overwhelmingly for independence, which came in July 2011). Yet at the same time, a struggle for resources in Darfur sprang into full rebellion and refugee crisis, with repression from Khartoum and its ‘janjaweed’ militias on such a scale that led many to accuse the government of genocide. While the crisis in Darfur still limps along at low intensity, President Bashir remains the only head of state indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.