Modern Sudan is situated on the site of the ancient civilisation of Nubia, which predates Pharaonic Egypt. For centuries sovereignty was shuttled back and forth between the Egyptians, indigenous empires such as Kush and a succession of independent Christian kingdoms.

After the 14th century AD the Mamelukes (Turkish rulers in Egypt) breached the formidable Nubian defences and established the dominance of Islam. By the 16th century the kingdom of Funj had become a powerful Muslim state.

Colonialism & Revolt

In 1821 the viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, conquered northern Sudan and opened the south to trade. Within a few decades British interests were also directed towards Sudan, aiming to control the Nile, contain French expansion from the west and draw the south into a British–East African federation. The European intrusion, and in particular the Christian missionary zeal that accompanied it, was resented by many Muslim Sudanese.

The revolution came in 1881, when one Mohammed Ahmed proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi – the person who, according to Muslim tradition, would rid the world of evil. Four years later he rid Khartoum of General Gordon, the British-appointed governor, and the Mahdists ruled Sudan until 1898, when they were defeated outside Omdurman by Lord Kitchener and his Anglo-Egyptian army. Sudan then effectively became a British colony.

Independence & Revolt

Sudan achieved independence in 1956, but in a forerunner of things to come, General Ibrahim Abboud, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Sudanese army, summarily dismissed the winners of the first post-independence elections and made himself president. Ever since, flirtations with democracy and military coups have been regular features of the Sudanese political landscape. So has war in the mostly non-Muslim south, which revolted after its demands for autonomy were rejected.

In 1969 Colonel Jaafar Nimeiri assumed power and held it for 16 years, surviving several coup attempts and making numerous twists and turns in policy to outflank opponents and keep aid donors happy. Most importantly, by signing the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement to grant the southern provinces a measure of autonomy, he quelled the civil war for more than a decade.

… And More Revolt

In 1983 Nimeiri scrapped the autonomy accord and imposed sharia (Islamic law) over the whole country. Hostilities between north and south recommenced almost immediately. Army commander John Garang deserted to form the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which quickly took control of much of the south.

Nimeiri was deposed in 1985 and replaced first by a Transitional Military Council, then, after elections the next year, Sadiq al-Mahdi became prime minister. In July 1989 power was seized by the current president, Lieutenant General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir; however, Hassan al-Turabi, fundamentalist leader of the National Islamic Front (NIF), was widely seen as the man with real power.

The government's brand of belligerent fundamentalism, border disputes with half of its neighbours and possible complicity in a 1995 assassination attempt on Egypt's president, soon cost Sudan all of its regional friends.

Infighting (& Revolt)

The year 1999 was something of a watershed in Sudanese politics: in December, just when the country's domestic and international situation seemed to be improving, President al-Bashir dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution and imposed a three-month state of emergency, all as part of an internal power struggle with al-Turabi. The subsequent elections in December 2000 were boycotted by opposition parties, giving al-Bashir an easy win, and in 2001 al-Turabi and several members of his party were arrested after signing an agreement with the SPLA.

By 2002 things were looking up again – the economy had stabilised and a ceasefire was called after President al-Bashir and SPLA leader John Garang met in Nairobi – but it seems good news in Sudan is always followed by bad. In February 2003 rebels in the western Darfur region rose up against the government, which they accused of oppression and neglect. The army's heavy-handed response, assisted by pro-government Arab militias (the Janjaweed), escalated to what many have called genocide. The government's scorched-earth campaign is thought to have killed between 200,000 and 400,000 Sudanese and uprooted millions more. The Sudanese government say the real death toll is 10,000.

A New Sudan (& More War)

While Darfur spun out of control, peace crept forward in the south, and in January 2005 a deal was signed ending Africa's longest civil war. It included accords on sharing power and wealth (including equal distribution of oil export revenue), and six years of southern autonomy followed by a referendum on independence. In July 2005 the beloved Garang became the first vice-president in a power-sharing government, and president of Sudan's south, but he was killed less than a month later in a helicopter crash. Garang's number two, Salva Kiir, took his place.

In March 2009, an international arrest warrant was issued for al-Bashir after the International Criminal Court accused him of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. However, both the African Union and the Arab League condemned the arrest warrant. Ironically the warrant was issued just as things were finally starting to calm down in Darfur, but violence was about to flare elsewhere.

In January 2011, the South Sudanese went to the polls and voted overwhelmingly for independence, and in July that year Sudan found itself with a new neighbour, an independent South Sudan. Almost before the new flag was raised in Juba, capital of South Sudan, the new neighbours were at each other's throats over the oil-rich territory of Abyei, which both nations claimed as theirs. In April 2012 they came to the very brink of war over the issue. But the bad news didn't stop there, and rebellions have broken out in the Nuba Mountains and other parts of South Kordofan as well as in Blue Nile state. In 2013, Sudan and South Sudan managed to strike a deal about oil and agreed upon the principle of a demilitarised zone along their borders.