From the blurb-
A secular regime is toppled by Western intervention, but an Islamic backlash turns the liberators into occupiers. Caught between interventionists at home and fundamentalists abroad, a prime minister flounders as his ministers betray him, alliances fall apart, and a runaway general makes policy in the field. As the media accuse Western soldiers of barbarity and a region slides into chaos, the armies of God clash on an ancient river and an accidental empire arises.That's a somewhat adequate description but not quite complete.
This is not the Middle East of the early twenty-first century. It is Africa in the late nineteenth century, when the river Nile became the setting for an extraordinary collision between Europeans, Arabs, and Africans. A human and religious drama, the conflict defined the modern relationship between the West and the Islamic world. The story is not only essential for understanding the modern clash of civilizations but is also a gripping, epic, tragic adventure.
Three Empires on the Nile tells of the rise of the first modern Islamic state and its fateful encounter with the British Empire of Queen Victoria. Ever since the self-proclaimed Islamic messiah known as the Mahdi gathered an army in the Sudan and besieged and captured Khartoum under its British overlord Charles Gordon, the dream of a new caliphate has haunted modern Islamists. Today, Shiite insurgents call themselves the Mahdi Army, and Sudan remains one of the great fault lines of battle between Muslims and Christians, blacks and Arabs. The nineteenth-century origins of it all were even more dramatic and strange than today's headlines.
In the hands of Dominic Green, the story of the Nile's three empires is an epic in the tradition of Kipling, the bard of empire, and Winston Churchill, who fought in the final destruction of the Mahdi's army. It is a sweeping and very modern tale of God and globalization, slavers and strategists, missionaries and messianists. A pro-Western regime collapses from its own corruption, a jihad threatens the global economy, a liberation movement degenerates into a tyrannical cult, military intervention goes wrong, and a temporary occupation lasts for decades. In the rise and fall of empires, we see a parable for our own times and a reminder that, while American military involvement in the Islamic world is the beginning of a new era for America, it is only the latest chapter in an older story for the people of the region.
There were actually four empires involved - There was the Egyptian Empire consisting of Egypt and its conquests in what are today Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. There was the Ottoman Empire to which Egypt was bound. There was the British Empire, most of whose leaders desperately wished to remain disentangled from Egypt on principled grounds (Prime Minister Gladstone) and/or pragmatic grounds (Prime Minister Salisbury) but who, despite their best efforts, ended up with Egypt as a colony. And then there was the putative empire of the new Caliphate sought by the Mahdi which was intended to encompass the whole world.
There is tragedy all around, missed opportunities, fecklessness, maniacal altruism, determined pursuit of self-interest, ignorance, and naive optimism. There are Turks in Constantinople, the Turkish aristocracy and landholders in Egypt, the local Egyptian landed gentry, the emerging Egyptian reformers of the middle class, the British adventurers, chancers, anti-slavers, mercantilists, Imperial strategists, the Egyptian fellahin, the secularists, the moderate Islamic practitioners, the Dervishes, the millennialists, the Christian do-gooders, the urbanists, the militant Islamists, the innumerable African tribes with ancestral enmities, the slavers, military reformers, etc.
Everyone had an interest, some were well intended, some felt like they were pragmatic realists, and almost nothing went the way anybody hoped.
Reading this is like seeing some of the restored Renaissance paintings after the grime of centuries has been removed. After becoming accustomed to the dark filtering of accumulated crud, you are suddenly seeing a picture as it was once seen in all its depth and vividness. We have become accustomed to two-dimensional cardboard representations of complex history in which bad Europeans do evil things to innocent natives; Men suppress women; Modern economies undermine wonderful traditions; Slavery was a European institution; Technology conquers all; Outcomes were always obvious; etc. But it was never so. Some parts of that are true, many parts not true, and by far the biggest problem is that most of what was happening is left out completely.
It is interesting to contrast this book to the only two other accounts that any in the mainstream reading public are likely to have read regarding the tragedy of Sudan in the 19th century - Winston Churchill's My Early Life and his The River War. Neither of these are inaccurate per se but they are both accounts rendered from a particular perspective. That perspective, vivid and exciting, has a lot more in common with H.G. Henty than a deeply methodical academic study.
Green manages to retain much of the adventure and sense of wonder while rounding out the perspective. He has done an astonishing job of uncovering contemporary accounts by and about the Mahdi, the Egyptian nationalists, the reformers, The Ottomans, the Turkish aristocracy, etc. It is amazing to me because the whole Mahdi movement was essentially a preliterate society, and the nationalists and reformers were often outlawed and spied upon, making written testimonials extremely dangerous and therefore rare.
Likely, Three Empires On the Nile is revelatory to most who have been fed only the modern monocular pablum informed by trends in academia. But for the rest of us, it is a gripping, vivid, well-rounded story of great complexity and tragedy. For all that, it is also incredibly topical. ISIS, Boko Haram, Arab Spring, the Rotherham tragedy, they are all present in Three Empires - different names but the same actions and the same forces. This is a story with roots that are 150 years old and yet is still roiling on with no diminishment and with no clear outcome.