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The Funj - 1504-1761

At the same time that the Ottomans brought northern Nubia into their orbit, a new power, the Funj, had risen in southern Nubia and had supplanted the remnants of the old Christian kingdom of Alwa. In 1504 a Funj leader, Amara Dunqas, founded the Black Sultanate (As Saltana az Zarqa) at Sannar, the capital. The rise of Sinnar kingdom by Funj in 1505 AD opened the way before the establishment of Islamic kingdoms in Sudan, the Fur sultanate was establishment in 1637 AD with Al-Fashir as its capital in western of Sudan.

The Black Sultanate eventually became the keystone of the Funj Empire. By the mid-sixteenth century, Sannar controlled Al Jazirah and commanded the allegiance of vassal states and tribal districts north to the third cataract and south to the swampy grasslands along the Nile. The Tagali kingdom emerged in the Nuba mountains [south central Sudan ] in 1530 AD. It managed to maintain its independence till early seventeenth century. The Fur sultanate continued up to 1916 - the latest ruler was sultan Ali Dinar.

The rise of the kingdom of Sennar began in 1493. In that year Amara Dunkas (= Amru of Bruce?), the Sheikh of a sub-section of the Fung, either through the fortune of war or his superior capacity, succeeded in getting himself declared king of all the Fung tribes. These districts were inhabited by Nuba tribes, some of whom after the conquest remained in the country, while others emigrated into the mountains of Fazogli and Kordofan. Those who remained, embraced Islamism, intermarried with their conquerors, and, losing their language and nationality, were soon lost in the tribes known collectively under the name of Fung. The most common form of the name is Funj or Fonj, and Fung. Funj is in phonetic writing probably Foii, ending in a palatal n, and Fung = Fun, ending in a velar "n".

Their religion was Islam, but the older records arc unique in stating that at the end of the 15 th century they were heathens, and even when Bruce was in the country, many pagan practices had survived; it almost seems that at that time the people still were in their hearts rather pagans than true followers of Islam, though the latter had long before become the official religion.

The Funj country, Dar Fung, stretches on both sides of the Blue Nile. Its present boundaries are: on the north, Jebels Gereiwa and Rera; on the east, Jebel Agadi and the Fazogli district. Southwards, it extends to the Abyssinian frontier, and including the district of Keili and the northern Burun country, extends westwards towards the Dinkas of the White Nile. In the days when the Fung were a great power of the Sudan, their country included parts of Abyssinia, and large districts west of the White Nile.

The Funj state included a loose confederation of sultanates and dependent tribal chieftaincies drawn together under the suzerainty of Sannar's mek (sultan). As overlord, the mek received tribute, levied taxes, and called on his vassals to supply troops in time of war. Vassal states in turn relied on the mek to settle local disorders and to resolve internal disputes. The Funj stabilized the region and interposed a military bloc between the Arabs in the north, the Abyssinians in the east, and the non-Muslim blacks in the south.

The roots of decentralization in Sudan date back to the era of the Nubian Christian kingdoms in Northern Sudan, the Funj State in Central Sudan, and the Fur Sultanate in Darfur in Western Sudan, where tribal chiefs were in full charge of ruling the regions of their tribes. Being aware of the diversity of their regions and the necessity of its accommodation and willing to respect the right of all to participate in administering their affairs, the leaders of the old Sudanese kingdoms were wise enough to rule in a way that we today call decentralization or federalism.

An example of historical mud building, the gibab or gubbas (domes) which were built in the 17th century. They spread mostly during the first Islamic state in Sudan the “Funj Sultanate or Kingdom of Sinnar” that ruled a substantial area of northeast Africa between 1504 and 1821. The capital of the Sultanate was prosperous as trade center hosting representatives from all over the Middle East and Africa. Sinnar expanded rapidly at the expense of neighboring states, a matter that made Ethiopia and Ottoman Egypt regarding it a threat until the latter invaded its land and led to its demise.

The Kings of Sinnar were known for introducing religious revival through immigration of Muslim scholars from other countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Morocco and dispatching of students to study at al Azahar. Both Islamic Sufi sects (order) and ulema (scholars) schools of thought contributed to this revival. When the senior religious figure of the Sufi sects dies his followers built the domes to bury him inside and visit the site occasionally. The conical shape-gibab remains to date reminding of the Funj Sultanate architecture and role in Sudan history. Contemporary engineers were thinking to resort to this old method of gibab building.

The establishment of the Funj Sultanate opened doors for the flow of Sufi (mystic) theology and preachers together with the flow of Moslem Sharia’a (law) scholars. That period also saw the immigration of Sudanese students to study Islamic sharia’a at al-Azhar University in Cairo. At this phase Sudanese colloquial Arabic spread throughout many parts of Sudan. Poets used a combination of colloquial and classical Arabic in their verse.

Arabization and Islamization followed quickly after the fall of the Nubian Christian kingdom, but a distinctive Nubian culture and language was retained. Islam spread southward along the Nile while a separate migration of Muslims followed hajj and caravan routes from West Africa into Kordofan and Darfur. The Funj, also known as the “Black Sultanate,” attracted holy men from the Hejaz and from Egypt who introduced Islamic theology and shari?ah and established the first religious courts. Pilgrimage routes to Mecca, following the vast system of trans-Saharan routes, were an important source of continuous contact and influence of West African Islam on Sudan.

Attempts have been made to place the Meroitic State in a Sahelian context in recent years. They draw upon the Southall’s ethnographic model of segmentary lineage societies and upon studies of the sultanates of the Funj (based at Sennar along the Blue Nile from the sixteenth to early nineteenth centuries AD) and Keira (Darfur, seventeenth century AD). In such segmentary systems, ritual and political influence have contrasting spheres of control: Ritual activities in the peripheral areas are in constant flux, while the seat of political authority is centered on the core domains of the territory held in place by checks and balances of ritual sanction and institutionalised interdependence. Lower Nubia did not support a large continuous population, and the economic basis was subsistence farming with little scope for long-term surplus.

Some hypothesised that Sennar was abandoned during the late second century AD, the reasoning being that this is when the perimeter of the Meroitic Empire was beginning to break up and decrease in geographical size. This dating can be questioned on the basis of new archaeological knowledge which dates the break-up of the Meroitic State to the late third and early fourth centuries AD.

The sultanate's economy depended on the role played by the Funj in the slave trade. Farming and herding also thrived in Al Jazirah and in the southern rainforests. Sannar apportioned tributary areas into tribal homelands (each one termed a dar; pl., dur), where the mek granted the local population the right to use arable land. The diverse groups that inhabitated each dar eventually regarded themselves as units of tribes. Movement from one dar to another entailed a change in tribal identification. (Tribal distinctions in these areas in modern Sudan can be traced to this period.) The mek appointed a chieftain (nazir; pl., nawazir) to govern each dar. Nawazir administered dur according to customary law, paid tribute to the mek, and collected taxes. The mek also derived income from crown lands set aside for his use in each dar.

In early sixteenth century AD, an alliance was concluded between the Funj under Amara Dongla, and the Abdallab led by Abdallab Gamaa, whose orgin was the Quasma Tribes. The alliance led to establishment of the first Arab Islamic state in Sudan, known as the “black sultanate“, or the “Funj sultanate“ with Sinnar as its capital. The northern part of the sultanate made their capital in Garri some 45 Km north of Khartoum.

At the peak of its power in the mid-seventeenth century, Sannar repulsed the northward advance of the Nilotic Shilluk people up the White Nile and compelled many of them to submit to Funj authority. King Baadi Abu Dign, who reigned from 1635 —1671, attacked the Shilluk negroes and took a large number of slaces. The Shilluks at that time inhabited the country on both sides of the White Nile south of Kawa. Thence he invaded the mountains of Tagale and destroyed Kordofan, where he again took a large number of slaves. On his return to Sennar he built a number of villages in that district for his prisoners. The prisoners named these villages after those they had left, hence the number of villages now near Sennar with names similar tho those in Jebel Nuba, Tagale, and other districts about Kordofan. In time these slaves supplied the kings of Fung with recruits for their armies.

After this victory, the mek Badi II Abu Duqn (1642-81) sought to centralize the government of the confederacy at Sannar. To implement this policy, Badi introduced a standing army of slave soldiers that would free Sannar from dependence on vassal sultans for military assistance and would provide the mek with the means to enforce his will. The move alienated the dynasty from the Funj warrior aristocracy, which in 1718 deposed the reigning mek and placed one of their own ranks on the throne of Sannar.

In 1719 a king whose name was Gaadi Abu Shilluk ascended the throne. In the first half of the 18th century the Fungs drove the Darfurians back, which had at that time dominion over the country cast of the White Nile as far as the Atbara; the Fungs then again established their own authority on the banks of the White Nile. The mid-eighteenth century witnessed another brief period of expansion when the Funj turned back an Abyssinian invasion, defeated the Fur, and took control of much of Kurdufan. In 1770 they even wrested the province of Kordofan from the Darfur kings, but it was retaken by the latter live years later. This was about the time when the Dinkas emigrated from the Bahr el Ghazal and took possession of the right bank of the White Nile, under their great chief Akwai Chakab; by them the Fungs were expelled from the eastern shores of the White Nile into the Blue Nile region. But civil war and the demands of defending the sultanate had overextended the warrior society's resources and sapped its strength.

The chief office of the executioner of the royal court was to put the king to death, as soon as in the opinion of the state ministers he was, from old age or on account of his misdoings, no more apt to govern the country. This same practice had been in use with the Shilluks up to the nearest past, with the sole difference that the Shilluk kings were strangled by their chief wife, not by an official.

Another reason for Sannar's decline may have been the growing influence of its hereditary viziers (chancellors), chiefs of a non-Funj tributary tribe who managed court affairs. In 1761 the vizier Muhammad Abu al Kaylak, who had led the Funj army in wars, carried out a palace coup, relegating the sultan to a figurehead role. Sannar's hold over its vassals diminished, and by the early nineteenth century more remote areas ceased to recognize even the nominal authority of the mek.

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Page last modified: 02-03-2017 19:54:04 ZULU