Three Empires on the Nile: The Victorian Jihad 1869-1899
By Dominic Green
Free Press, 2007, 352 pp.
Clash-of-civilizations buffs will relish the historical parallels Green draws between the late British Empire's conflict with fundamentalist Islam in Sudan in the nineteenth century and the West's similar conflict today. Other readers will appreciate Green's tale of political intrigue and colonial warfare in a different era. The three empires of the title refer to the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the brief Mahdist attempt to establish a caliphate in Sudan during the 1880s. With snappy writing and many telling anecdotes, Green chronicles the decline of Ottoman control over Egypt and the rising British influence in Cairo. The United Kingdom initially had little interest in Sudan but was drawn south militarily on behalf of Egypt (and nominally to oppose slavery). The emergence of the religious mystic al-Mahdi and his army of followers led inevitably to conflict. When the charismatic General Charles Gordon was killed defending Khartoum at the end of a long and almost entirely unnecessary siege, the resulting uproar ended with the military annihilation of al-Mahdi at the hands of another Victorian hero, Sir Horatio Herbert Kitchener, and the expansion of British colonial ambitions into Sudan. No doubt partly for marketing reasons, Green exaggerates the extent to which his story has implications for the current relations between the West and the Muslim world. Still, the strategic miscalculations, ignorant decision-making, callous violence, and sway of highly misguided individuals that he documents are all evocative.