Since ancient times, statues have served as barometers of power: They go up when the fortunes of a regime run high, and when empires tumble they too can fall. What do you do with a defunct icon? The Greeks and the Romans used to recarve images, turning one emperor into another, or change

pedestal captions to suit new circumstances. French revolutionaries toppled a statue of Louis XV in today’s Place de la Concorde, melted it down and replaced it with a guillotine. More recently, in Budapest, the bronze and stone corpses of the Communist regime were set up in a sculpture park just outside town, aestheticized and touristified. One wonders what happened to that statue of Saddam Hussein, pulled down with such symbolic pomp–and careful staging–in Baghdad’s Firdaus Square in 2003.

The fall of the British Empire, which could once treat about a quarter of the world as its sculpture garden, has produced statue anxieties of its own, particularly in the imperial capital. Postcolonial migration has transformed London into one of the world’s most diverse cities, yet images of the old empire’s heroes still stand throughout the city center. At best, they are irrelevant. London Mayor Ken Livingstone has called for the Trafalgar Square images of Gen. Sir Charles Napier (conqueror of Sindh in 1843) and Gen. Sir Henry Havelock (who led the relief of Lucknow in the 1857 Indian Mutiny) to be replaced by figures “that ordinary Londoners would know.” At worst, they are reminders of the black deeds of Britain’s imperial past. Livingstone has unsuccessfully lobbied to position a bronze of Nelson Mandela in the square as a monument to the “peaceful transition” from British imperial dominance “to a multiracial and multicultural world.”

If Napier and Havelock were shifted to the Thames Embankment, as Livingstone has suggested, they would find themselves reunited with another figure that once stood in Trafalgar Square. Gen. Charles George Gordon’s statue was moved during World War II to make way for the exhibition of a Lancaster bomber. Had he remained, he might have attracted more controversy than his comrades; he would certainly be better known. One of the most dynamic if eccentric Victorian imperial heroes, Gordon achieved fame in China, fighting the Taiping rebels in the 1860s; but he entered posterity in Sudan, where he was killed in 1885 by the army of a charismatic rebel who had proclaimed himself the Mahdi, or Muslim messiah. (Some may recognize Gordon in the form of Charlton Heston, who played him in the 1966 movie Khartoum, opposite Laurence Olivier, in fierce brownface, as the Mahdi.)

Gordon’s last adventure coupled imperial bluster with humanitarian lobbying, pitted British supporters of overseas intervention against advocates of withdrawal and set European power against Muslim revolutionaries. Sound familiar? Dominic Green would like you to think so. These exploits form a connecting thread through Three Empires on the Nile, Green’s imaginative retelling of how Britain gained supremacy in Egypt and Sudan during the last decades of the nineteenth century.

His story begins with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Though the brainchild of a Frenchman, the canal proved vital to British interests by providing a rapid route to India, Britain’s most valuable imperial possession. It had the added benefit of instantly increasing the strategic and commercial importance of Egypt in British eyes. But the tremendous costs of its construction plunged the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail, into unrecoverable debt. In 1875 Ismail sold his controlling interest in the canal to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, giving Britain a substantial stake in Egypt’s fortunes. The sale did not, however, stave off Ismail’s bankruptcy or the establishment of a joint Anglo-French commission to supervise his finances and his government.

Most people do not welcome foreign intervention, and the Egyptians were no exception. Even Egypt’s rulers could be perceived as outsiders by their subjects: They were subordinates of the Ottoman sultan; ethnically non-Arab; and increasingly Westernized, to the chagrin of the intelligentsia and dispossessed peasantry alike. Mounting popular discontent found a figurehead in the form of Col. Ahmed Urabi (or Arabi), a peasant by birth, who forced the khedive to accept a nationalist administration in 1881. Threatened by the Urabists–their rallying cry was “Egypt for the Egyptians”–Britain and France menaced Urabi’s government in turn. British warships were sent to sit in the waters off Alexandria, and in July 1882, in the wake of an anti-European riot, they turned their guns on the city. A British invasion quickly followed, with blunt orders to “put down Arabi and establish Khedive’s power.” Before the year was out, Urabi had been defeated, tried and sent into exile in Ceylon. Britain now occupied Egypt–though only temporarily, the government said.

But to the south, more trouble stirred. Since the 1820s, Egypt had ruled Sudan and profited from East Africa’s massive slave trade. Under mounting pressure from British abolitionists, Ismail hired agents–Charles Gordon premier among them–to combat the traders. Meanwhile, from an island in the White Nile, a visionary named Mohammed Ahmed began mounting his own resistance to the Egyptian regime. By the early 1880s, the Mahdi, as he now styled himself, had turned his army of tens of thousands of followers (known as the Ansar, or Dervishes) against the Egyptians. In 1883 an Egyptian force of 7,000 (commanded by a British officer) marched off to vanquish the Mahdi, only to get cut to pieces instead. The massacre encouraged British officials, unwilling to take responsibility for this Egyptian colony in revolt, to pull out of Sudan altogether. Gordon, with his determination and experience in the region, was just the man for the job. Or so it seemed.

He arrived in February 1884, with orders to evacuate some 15,000 Europeans and Egyptians from Khartoum. Installed in the governor-general’s palace, he instead began to fantasize about defeating the Mahdi and installing a new regime. But the Mahdi was moving in: Soon his forces had blocked the Nile, cut the telegraph cable and laid siege to the city. Penned inside Khartoum, Gordon buzzed with defense schemes and stratagems; back in Britain, his plight became a cause célèbre. Meetings were held, donations collected and prayers offered for his relief. Succumbing to intense public pressure, Prime Minister William Gladstone–deeply opposed to further entanglement in the region–agreed at last to send a rescue party to retrieve Gordon. But as the troops chugged up the Nile, they saw no Egyptian flag flying over the city: Khartoum had fallen to the Mahdi just two days earlier, and Gordon was dead. Only in 1898, when Gen. Herbert Kitchener slaughtered more than 10,000 at the battle of Omdurman, would Britain defeat the Mahdists. Young Winston Churchill, who was there, suggested that a stonemason be sent to Trafalgar Square to carve the word “Avenged” on the pedestal of Gordon’s statue.

These events have been well rehearsed by historians, though by providing a unified account, Green calls attention to the varied imperial motives–humanitarian, economic and strategic–and Muslim political and religious visions that inspired them. His spirited writing presents all this with cinematic verve through a cast of memorable characters. Running a close second to Gordon for best leading man is Garnet Wolseley, dubbed “our only General” by Disraeli, and the model for Gilbert and Sullivan’s “modern Major-General.” This “peppery Jingoist” had managed to suppress native resistance in India, China, Canada and West and South Africa before being ordered to crush the Urabists–in which he succeeded, though his promise to bring his daughter “the tip of Urabi’s nose, cut off with the Wolseley pocket knife” remained unfulfilled. (Wolseley can now be visited in effigy in London on Horse Guards Parade.) Green gives us Khedive Ismail “wallow[ing] in earthly pleasures like a hippo”; and the radical cleric Jamal ed-Din al-Afghani, “bearded, voluble, and a little bug-eyed…a prophet without honor in many lands, usually under an assumed identity.” Then there is the Mahdi himself, surrounded by portents from birth, who, it was said, “spoke at two weeks of age” and as a baby caused milk to flow from a virgin’s breasts.

Full of narrative energy, Three Empires on the Nile resembles the romping imperial novels so popular among readers at the time (such as The Four Feathers, set in Sudan)–or a sort of Flashman minus the women. Indeed, at times Green’s writing is so enthusiastic that it borders on error, as when he describes the Egyptian minister Nubar Pasha’s mustache as “herbaceous”; the British big-game hunter Samuel Baker as “slaughtering swaths of Indian and African fauna”; or the “gouts of debris” cast up by the shelling of Alexandria. But the main trouble is that it is hard to know how well supported his vivid incidents really are. Pages at a time pass by unfootnoted, leaving the impression that Green has opted for animated paraphrase over considered and inevitably more cautious synthesis. Similarly, the short bibliography is notably thin on recent scholarship, which makes some of the book’s larger questions and arguments seem inadequately considered.

Take the death of General Gordon. By the end of the siege Gordon had become his own chronicler, writing his way through the last tense weeks in his diary; with his death, the record blurs. We do not really know how it happened. One contemporary image, popularized in a late Victorian painting by George Joy (not William Joy, as Green has it)–and successful “either in spite or because of its inaccuracy”–held that the general experienced the dignified end of a martyr: Standing above the invaders at the top of a staircase, he was pierced through the chest by a Dervish spear. Another explanation, based on two eyewitness accounts, suggests that Gordon fought his way down the stairs with pistol and sword before being overwhelmed by the vastly more numerous Ansar. Green gives a blow-by-blow account of the slashes and shots by which Gordon fell: Lanced in the left shoulder, he fired on until his bullets ran out; shot in the chest, he dragged himself up to continue fighting with his sword; stabbed in the right side with another spear, he finally “disappeared into a swarm of Dervishes, their swordpoints flashing in the early morning sun.” It is a gripping passage, but as Green remarks in an endnote, given that “the circumstances of Gordon’s death remain controversial,” its precision is somewhat misleading.

By the time Gordon’s would-be rescuers reached Khartoum, a soldier had arrived in the Mahdi’s camp bearing a cloth bundle. It was unwrapped to reveal Gordon’s severed head, its keen blue eyes staring open. But the Mahdi’s celebration was short-lived. Within six months, he too was dead, of fever. Green graphically describes the “traditional medicine” applied by the Mahdi’s wives: “They brought him gourds filled with liquid butter and a concoction of pomegranate skins. They cupped him with heated gazelle horns and slabs of iron. They injected his urine into his eyes, they wrote prayers on his stomach and hands, and they wrote koranic passages on a piece of paper, washing it off and giving the inky water to the Mahdi to drink.” Such superstitious remedies, the reader might infer, were as likely to have hastened his end as to have prevented it. Green’s sole source for this account is a 1932 “biography” of the Mahdi by Richard Bermann, which has been described by a historian of Sudan as “shocking for its bitter xenophobia and racism.” Notably, none of these striking details appear in Fergus Nicoll’s superb biography of the Mahdi, The Sword of the Prophet, deeply researched in Arabic as well as European sources.

There are different styles of telling stories, but some are more convincing than others. Although academic historians sometimes give memoirs, contemporary biographies and travel accounts short shrift, this is partly because such materials (as the spate of recent fabricated memoirs underscores) do not always cleave to the highest standards of evidence. Moreover, European sources of the period tended to be tinged by the cultural biases so famously condemned by Edward Said as Orientalist and must, at the very least, be treated with an informed and skeptical eye. An unfortunate consequence of Green’s otherwise compelling narrative is that he ends up reproducing numerous stereotypes. He describes a worldwide “eclipse of Muslim power” in which the Ottoman Empire was “rotten with corruption, conservatism, and xenophobia” and “the Mughal emperors of India were crushed by first the French and then the British” (which will certainly be news to the French). He portrays Islam and modernity as fundamentally at odds, telling us that “from Africa to India, Muslim societies failed to adapt to modern technology and communications, and seemed paralyzed before modern banking and science.” He replays the now controversial argument, advanced by Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher in their 1961 book Africa and the Victorians, that Britain was essentially forced into imperial intervention by indigenous disorder–though he emphasizes humanitarian motives over strategic ones. And his description of the collision between Britain, embodied by the pious figures of Gladstone and Gordon, and its various Egyptian and Sudanese adversaries echoes a “clash of civilizations”-style opposition between Christian West and Muslim East.

“Jihad” is a clever word to put in the title of a book. In the average media-saturated American mind, it conjures up wild images of terrorists, suicide bombers and Muslim “fanatics.” Green clearly wants readers to draw parallels between the demonized jihadis of today and the Mahdi’s spear-toting followers, clad in their signature patchwork jibbas. But it would be suggestive to consider how and when “jihad” acquired the resonance it did, since in the Victorian British ear it would not have rung in quite the same way it does in ours. Many had declared jihad on Britain before the Mahdi. In the late nineteenth century, the term would have evoked the Indian Mutiny, which encouraged xenophobia and racialized fears in general as much as it did anti-Islamic sentiment in particular. Nor, for that matter, would Victorian Britons have associated religious war so consistently with Islam, in the way that many Americans appear to today. “Chinese” Gordon, after all, had established his reputation by battling the Taipings and their messianic quasi-Christian leader Hong Xiuquan.

If anybody merits the designation “fanatic,” it is Gordon, whose faith reached such a pitch of mystical intensity that he stood out as a zealot even in his fervently evangelical day. Lord Derby called him “a fanatic of the Puritan type”; Sir Evelyn Baring found him “half-cracked.” Gordon spent his penultimate year walking in the footsteps of Christ around Jerusalem, Bible in hand, identifying possible locations for various holy events. The mission to Sudan, he felt, was a divine obligation: “If God is with me,” he wrote, recalling Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “who can or will be hurtful to me?”

Green emphasizes Gordon’s religiosity and uses it as a mirror against the Mahdi. This is a nice observation, if not a novel one; the contrast between these devout leaders even inspires several fictitious encounters between Gordon and the Mahdi in Khartoum. Gordon’s weird piety, widely remarked on by his peers, forms a major theme in Lytton Strachey’s brilliant critique of him in Eminent Victorians (1918). (Surprisingly, Strachey’s essay does not appear in Green’s notes or bibliography, though Green does allude to it once as a “glib expression” of post-Victorian “cynicism.”) But by implicitly comparing Gordon with today’s evangelicals, Green skirts an issue equally deserving of comment, namely the degree to which Gordon–like so many of those involved in British empire-building–was an adventurer, an outsider and a maverick. Instead of relating Britain’s imperial past and America’s imperial present, Green might have suggested a more accurate comparison between nineteenth-century contemporaries, such as Gordon and his American peer George Custer.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity comes as a consequence of Green’s insistent relation of these events to the occupation of Iraq. The book even opens with a preamble declaring: “In a major Arab nation, a secular tyranny is toppled by Western intervention, but an Islamic backlash turns the liberators into occupiers…. This is not the Middle East in the twenty-first century. It is Africa in the nineteenth century.” But it would be hard in any case to miss the point. One is almost encouraged to read this as a roman à clef, with Urabi as Saddam, perhaps; the Mahdi as any one of a number of militants; and Gladstone as Tony Blair. But only on the last two pages does Green turn to the current situation that any reader would surely first associate with Sudan: Darfur. In the nineteenth century, Darfur sat squarely on the slave routes that drove hundreds of thousands of black Africans into the hands of largely Arab slavers; in 1874, it was absorbed into Egyptian hands by a notorious slave lord. The dark history of this ethnically fueled traffic does not merely resemble present realities; it suggests a clear line of continuity with them. Yet despite Green’s attention to the slave trade and its abolitionist opponents, this element of his story consistently gets overshadowed by the sexier topics of religious violence and imperial occupation–just as Darfur is eclipsed in the public eye by Iraq. As in real life, strategy, economics, fear and war trump compassion, humanitarianism and calls for tolerance.