Discover Aba Island, spiritual home of the Mahdists.
A 14km-long strip of land in the middle of the White Nile, Aba Island (or Jeziret Aba) is the spiritual home of the Mahdist movement. Prior to his rise to power, Mohammed Ahmed lived on Aba, where he was devoted to his religious studies. His 1881 declaration that he was the Mahdi sent to renew Islam threatened the Egyptian power in Khartoum, who sent a force to Aba to arrest him. Terribly organised, the Egyptian troops fired on each other and the Mahdi’s followers did for the rest. The victory was seen as a divine blessing and it was the spark that lit his rebellion.
Aba was the scene of another showdown between Khartoum and the Mahdists nearly 100 years later. Fresh from seizing power, Nimeiri moved to crush the Ansar in 1970. Following riots in Omdurman, their leader Imam al Hadi (a grandson of the Mahdi), had retreated to his power base on Aba. Nimeiri wanted to move on the island but was prevented by massed Ansar demonstrators who later clashed violently with the army. Nimeiri’s response was to send in the air force. Some estimates put the number killed in the bombardment and subsequent occupation as high as 10,000, and al Hadi fled to exile in Ethiopia and was later killed.
The palatial al Mahdi family house is now used as the Faculty of Law of the Imam al Mahdi University. It’s a collection of buildings next to the radio tower where the minibuses drop you off. The university’s students are eager to practise their English and talk about the history of the area. The headquarters of the Umma Party are around the corner, and Ansar flags (three horizontal bands of black, red and green surmounted by a white spear and crescent) are flown everywhere.
On the west side of the island, a 2km walk straight out of town, is Ghar Al Mahdi where the Mahdi himself taught. It’s a small unassuming square building, whitewashed with blue windows, and carpeted inside with a simple mimbar (pulpit). It looks distinctly modern and one wonders if there is anything left of the original structure – certainly the caretaker seems keen only to point out his latest improvements and knows little of the building’s history. Either way, it’s only mildly diverting and you’ll probably find equal pleasure in watching the fishermen on the river bringing in their catch and sorting their nets. From where the bus drops you off to the old mosque, you can either walk or stop a rickshaw for SDG2–3. The community living on Aba Island can be regarded as orthodox conservative Muslims, so visitors should dress and behave with particular respect.
Aba is known for its fish, fried and sold in paper to be eaten with bread and lemon. There is a small souk in the streets behind the university where you’ll find it being sold.