Information on the eastern Sudanic region is found in ancient Egyptian writings. The Egyptians traded with Nubia, the Sudanic area just to their south, and gained control of it for a while. Later Nubia regained its independence and developed a strong, culturally advanced kingdom. It was overthrown in the fourth century A.D. by the neighboring country of Axum. In the fifth or sixth century, smaller, Christian kingdoms developed. They were conquered in the 14th century by Muslims.
The central and western Sudan is mentioned in the writings of Persians and Arabs as early as the eighth century. Extensive and powerful kingdoms, based largely on trans-Saharan trade with North Africa, grew up from just east of Lake Chad to the Atlantic coast. Some of these kingdoms lasted far beyond the 15th century.
In the first decade of the 16th century, the Funj, a Muslim group of obscure origin, pushed into southern Nubia and established the Islamic kingdom of Sennar. It was overthrown in 1821 by Turko-Egyptian forces and Khartoum was established as an army post and trade center. In 1885 the Mahdi, a Muslim religious leader, took Khartoum. He was defeated in 1898 by Anglo-Egyptian forces. Great Britain and Egypt ruled the eastern Sudan jointly until 1953. In 1956 the region became part of independent Sudan. Included in the republic was the old kingdom of Darfur, between the Nile and Lake Chad, which had been an intermediary in the trade between the eastern and western Sudan.
The empire of Songhai, which had developed in the early 15th century, reached its greatest expansion late in that century and early in the 16th. It covered most of the western Sudan and part of the southern Sahara. The empire began to decline later in the 16th century, largely because its trading cities were by-passed when European traders began to make direct contact with the Guinea coast. Trans-Saharan trade was also damaged by wars between Morocco and Spain.
In 1591 Moroccan armies invaded Songhai and captured its leading trade and cultural centers: Timbuktu, Gao, and Jenné. After the Moroccans left, Tuareg raiders took over these cities. As the empire disintegrated, rural, non-Islamic peoples rose to power. Chief among them were the Bambara people, who—in the 17th century—founded the states of Segu and Kaarta, which dominated the middle Niger region until well into the 19th century.
The central Sudan was not at first affected by the direct European sea trade. The old kingdom of Kanem, northeast of Lake Chad, regained its strength and—linked with the kingdom of Bornu southwest of the lake—emerged as a powerful empire. At its peak in the late 16th century an arm of the Kanem-Bornu empire extended north to present Libya and another arm reached east to the present Republic of Sudan. In the late 17th century, Tuaregs from the north and other enemies from the south raided Kanem-Bornu, and there were insurrections by subject peoples. The empire continued to decline in the 18th century, affected by further internal dissension and by the rising power of the kingdom of Wadai in the east and of the pastoral Fulani people in the west. Wadai gained supremacy over Kanem in the mid-19th century; Bornu was conquered in 1893 by Mahdist forces.
The Fulani, many of them Muslims, gained influence in the 18th century. In the first decade of the 19th century they led a successful revolt against the Hausa kings, who they claimed did not practice the true Islamic faith. The Fulani then established the sultanate of Sokoto, which held power until it came under British rule in 1903.
Meanwhile, the effects of outside interest in Africa became felt in the central and western Sudan. In the 17th century the economy and social and political order were disrupted as the area became a major source of slaves for the New World. Explorers in the late 18th and early 19th century paved the way for European colonization. By 1900 most of the western and central Sudan was under French colonial domination, with smaller areas held by Britain, Germany, Belgium, and Portugal. A revived spirit of independence swept Africa in the middle 20th century, and by the early 1960's all of the Sudan was included in new, independent African nations.