The secret story of the Jews of Sudan

The Jewish community in Sudan may have been small. But it was also unique. And, save for a very small number of sources, it is completely undocumented. I have been collecting the stories of this fascinating community to preserve its history for its now numerous descendants, including myself.


The history of Sudanese Jewry can be traced back to 1885 when the populist rebel leader Muhammad Ahmad Ibn Abdullah, self-appointed Mahdi (Guided One), seized control of Khartoum (the Sudanese capital), bringing to an end his two-and-a-half-year rebellion.

The fall of Khartoum signalled not only the end of the rebellion but also 65 years of Turkish rule of Sudan under the Viceroy of Egypt. The Mahdi was not, however, just a political rebel. He was also a devout religious reformer and quickly passed a law demanding that all non-Muslims convert or face death.

Among these new converts, known as Masalma, were between four and eight Jewish families (the exact number is uncertain). All Masalma were encouraged to take Muslim brides and the Jewish men, some of whom held prominent public positions, were no exception. They duly married Muslim wives and began to practice Islam publicly, while retaining some of their Jewish traditions behind closed doors.

Thirteen years later, in 1898, the Mahdi was himself overthrown by an Anglo-Egyptian force led by General Kitchener.

A new Anglo-Egyptian Condominium was established — in essence English rule with a predominantly Egyptian army. Of the Jewish Masalma, only two documented families chose to return to Judaism, the most prominent of which was that of Moshe Ben Zion Coshti, who chose to keep his new Arabised name, Musa Bassiouni.

Bassiouni was soon joined by more Jewish families who saw the economic opportunities of the fast-developing country.

From 1900 onwards, Jews from all over the Middle East and North Africa began to arrive in Sudan via Cairo, settling along the Nile in the four towns of Khartoum, Khartoum North, Omdurman and Wad-Medani.

As a result of this immigration, the community was a unique melting pot of Middle-Eastern Jewry.

In 1906 a forward-thinking Rabbi, Shlomo Malka, arrived from Palestine. One of his first acts was to convert Musa Bassiouni’s wife Manna to Judaism under the auspices of the Egyptian Beth Din. She remained a devout Jew until her death.

Predominantly merchants of textiles, silks and gum arabic, the businesses created by the new Jewish arrivals soon began to flourish and by 1926 the community had grown large and prosperous enough to move its centre across the river from Omdurman to the more fashionable Khartoum. A new synagogue was built on Victoria Street, Khartoum’s central boulevard and a bustling Jewish Recreational Club was established.

As a whole, the community was not particularly religiously observant — it was not uncommon to go to synagogue and then open your shop on the Sabbath. However, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach were all properly observed.

Rabbi Malka also fulfilled the roles of the community’s mohel and shochet, while his wife Hanna ran a mikveh from their home until her death in 1952 when it was moved onto the synagogue premises. Rabbi Malka passed away in 1949 and was replaced in 1956 by the equally popular Rabbi Elbaz, who arrived from Egypt.

Yom Kippur was a particularly unpleasant experience, thanks to the oppressively hot Sudanese weather. Rachel (daughter of Rabbi Elbaz) who now lives in Israel, recalls: “Everybody was in the synagogue and everybody who lived far away brought their mattresses and slept outside in the garden because that was the only day they didn’t drive, on Yom Kippur.

“It was very miserable. It was very, very, hot. People would be sick and so on — it was hard. And Dr Bassyouni [son of Musa] had to go around looking at everybody and checking they were OK.”

Purim was another important date in the calendar, although for less religious reasons. Each year the community would hold a large Purim party — an opportunity for all the women to show off their cooking, needlework and creativity via their children’s elaborate costumes and elaborate baked Mishloach Manot.

Even at its peak, from 1930 to 1950, the community numbered at most 1,000 members, meaning it was extraordinarily close-knit. Central to social life was the Jewish Recreational Club which featured an enormous yard.

Lina Tamman, who was a member of the community and now lives in Geneva, remembers: “Every night we went to the club. The men used to play backgammon together but sometimes they also played cards with the women. We, the children, could play ping-pong or basketball and we used to play a lot of hide and seek.

“There was a little kiosk and a man called Ali — he used to make sandwiches and sell drinks: Coca Cola, ginger ale, and Camel Beer, and also cigarettes.”

The club truly came to its own at the highlight of each year’s social calendar – the annual series of Winter Balls. Aside from the Jewish community, Sudan was home to much larger Syrian, Greek, Italian, Armenian and, of course, British communities. Each of these also had a club and from December to January they would take it in turns to host exceptionally glamorous dances.

The Jewish population had deep, close personal and professional relations with their Christian and Muslim neighbours. It is these carefree days of security, trust and sleeping under the stars in their large courtyards that most remember with great fondness.

As my late grandfather Eliaho Abboudi put it: “Sudan was a great country. For the Jews, for the Christians, for everyone. It was a nice country to live in and the Sudanese people are very good.”

Those carefree days were not to last. 1956 saw Sudanese independence and the Suez Crisis. Resentment against the Jewish community, which had simmered just below the surface since Israel’s foundation in 1948, began to boil over. Sudan joined Nasser’s Egypt in the Arab League and the atmosphere started to turn. Many Jewish families left, as local Sudanese newspapers began printing stories suggesting that the Jewish community were spies for Israel or the United States.

But most business owners decided to stay, not wishing to sacrifice the lives they had built for themselves.

The end was in sight, however, and when in 1965 Rabbi Elbaz left Sudan, having worked for two years without pay, formal Jewish life in Sudan ceased.

It was not until 1967 and the outbreak of the Six Day War, that the last Jewish families finally left Khartoum for good. One member of the community recalls: “Sudan became bad just before the Six Day War. All you heard on the radio was Nasser whipping and riling everybody up against the Jews. You heard horrible things.

“And there was graffiti… really bad — all sorts of things I don’t want to say. Towards the end, even the Jewish families did not tells the others that they were leaving because they were afraid that there would be a mass exodus at the airport and the authorities would start realising we are all leaving.

“When our family left, we abandoned everything. We walked out of the house; food in the refrigerator, car in the house, even the servant had been sent to the market to buy food, as if we were just going out for the night.”

Jewish life had disappeared from Sudan by 1973. A Jewish cemetery partially remains in Khartoum, although it is currently used as a dumping ground. In 1977 a small number of members worked together to remove their families’ remains from the cemetery. Those tombstones that were left have been either desecrated or destroyed.

The vast majority of Sudanese Jews moved to Britain, America, Switzerland and, of course, Israel. They are largely philosophical. Robert Cohen, who came to the UK, puts it succinctly: “Why would I want to go back? I mean, I have a British passport and Sudan has changed so much.”

Those who settled in Britain have largely done so in London or Brighton.

In the capital, the majority belong to the David Ishag Synagogue, named after the patriarch of one of its founding families. One of the Sifrei Torah from the Khartoum synagogue is now housed at the shul and is used today at the barmitzvahs of descendants from the Sudanese community.


Daisy Abboudi presented a session at this year’s Limmud Conference and is planning to publish her research as a book. Her website is

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