On this page you’ll find some historical background about the Jewish community in Sudan. You can find first hand accounts of life in Sudan here.
The Early Community
In 1820 the Ottoman Empire conquered most of Sudan from its base in Egypt. The rule was characterised by harsh taxes and numerous attempts to supress the slave trade in the region. By 1881 the country was ready for change. Muhammad Ahmed emerged as rebel leader and self-styled el-Mahdi (Guided One) and in 1885 his forces famously defeated the British Governor-General Charles Gordon at Khartoum. As part of their reforms for the country the Mahdi, and his successor the Khalifa, demanded that all Christians and the few Jews living in the country convert to Islam. These converts later became known as the Masalma.
In 1898, thirteen years after the Masalma laws were passed, British forces entered Sudan and the country became an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. The laws enforcing Islam were revoked and most of the Masalma returned to their previous faiths. It is unknown how many Jewish families were amongst the Masalma, but the descendants of those who decided to remain Muslim, and of others who continued to practice a form of secret Judaism, are still living in Sudan today.
As the invading British Army advanced it built a railway and once the country was under colonial rule this railway became key for trade and travel into and out of Khartoum. Whilst the journey to Egypt had previously been long and arduous, it could now be made in less than two days and Sudan became an attractive prospect for merchants wishing to make their fortune. From 1900 Jews from all over the Middle East and North Africa began to arrive in Sudan via Cairo and settle along the Nile in the four towns of Khartoum, Khartoum North, Omdurman and Wad Medani. Predominantly small time merchants of textiles, silks and gum, their businesses soon began to flourish.
Life in Sudan
In 1926 the community opened a brand new purpose-built synagogue on what was then called Victoria Street, one of the most central boulevards in Khartoum. The community remained under the auspices of the Egyptian Beth-Din and Rabbi Malka, who had arrived in Sudan several years earlier, additionally served as the mohel and shochet. In 1946 the Jewish Recreational Club opened, quickly becoming the centre of a active social scene.
The Jewish community in Sudan reached its numerical peak between 1930 and 1950. At a very generous estimate, there were no more than one thousand Jews living in Sudan. Business partnerships were made, friendships formed and the Jewish community lived a peaceful, integrated, cosmopolitan life.
In 1948 the State of Israel was established a very small number of the poorest members of the community went to seek their fortune in this new country. In 1956 Sudan gained independence, but it was not until the Suez Crisis later that year that antisemitic incidents began to rise. Jews were framed for serious crimes and later proved innocent, newspapers began to falsely accuse prominent Jewish people of being spies rhetoric on the streets began to change. This cause the first wave of the Jewish community to leave Sudan. However, those with businesses, for the most part, remained.
From 1958 Sudan had been under the military dictatorship of General Abboud, but in 1964 after a series of protests a civilian government was formed. This new government quickly allied itself with General Nasser in Egypt and began to regard Jews in a increasingly hostile light. It became difficult for Jewish people to obtain exit visas or travel freely.
In 1967 the Arab League convened in Khartoum and the Six-Day War broke out. Sudanese newspapers advocated the murder and torture of prominent Jewish people and all the young Jewish young men left in the country were imprisoned and interrogated for days at a time on bogus charges, or without any reason at all. By the end of 1967 only a small handful of Jews were left in Sudan.
Colonel Nimeiri led a successful military coup in 1969 and in 1970 all banks and businesses were nationalised. However, it was not until 1973 that the last Jews left Sudan, following the murder of foreign diplomats in Khartoum by Palestinian gunmen. The synagogue was sold and converted into a bank, the building was demolished just over a decade later. The Jewish cemetery in Khartoum was abandoned.
The Community Today
In 1977 seventeen of the graves in the Jewish cemetery at Khartoum were airlifted and reburied in Jerusalem. Many more graves remain in Sudan, but only fourteen have whole or partial remaining headstones. The community's ten Torah scrolls were salvaged and are now homed in synagogues frequented by the former Jews of Sudan.
Today, the majority of Sudanese Jews live in Israel, America, England and Geneva. On their way to these countries they settled in many different places, building up their businesses and learning their trades. However, they remain a close-knit community - always ready to welcome each other into their homes and offer support in times of need. They remain united by their memories, experiences and identity formed in Sudan.