World History 2 31 - 3.1.1 Saharan Trade Routes

Camel caravans from North Africa began trekking across the Sahara Desert in antiquity (the period Before the Common Era, or BCE). The trade reached a peak during the ninth to the fifteenth centuries of the Common Era (CE), when lines of thousands of camels traveled a web-like network of trade routes that spanned the whole of North and West Africa. They moved a variety of goods, including copper, salt, ivory, enslaved people, textiles, and gold, northward from sub-Saharan West Africa to the Mediterranean coast, eastward to the Horn of Africa and Egypt, and southward into the Sahel, the semiarid region between the Sahara Desert and the Sudanian savanna to the south (Figure 3.4).

A map of North Africa is shown. There are dotted lines connecting cities across the entire region north to south and east to west. The following cities are labeled: Marrakech, Sijilmasa, Awdaghost, Timbuktu, Djenne, Gao, Agadez, Bilma, Zawila, Khufra, Cairo, Suakin, and Zeila. One dotted line crosses the Red Sea from Suakin in Africa to Arabia. The Mali Empire in western Africa, the Ghana Empire in northwestern Africa, Kanem-Bornu in central north Africa, and Egypt in northeastern Africa are labeled.
Figure 3.4 The trans-Saharan trade routes of the ninth to fifteenth centuries (red dotted lines) stretched like a web across the vast expanse of North Africa. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Long before the trans-Saharan trade route’s golden age, commerce in the Sahara was relatively localized and consisted of the exchange of agricultural products like rice, sorghum, and millet for the products of new technologies such as iron goods or rare commodities such as salt. These early inter- and intraregional exchanges were made possible by pack animals like mules, horses, and donkeys, but trade was limited because these animals were biologically ill-suited for the extremes of the Saharan environment. When the Romans conquered North Africa in the second century BCE, they introduced the camel, which was already a beast of burden in Egypt. Capable of lasting days without water and having feet and eyelashes adapted for travel in sandy environments, camels enabled the people of North Africa to carry on regular long-distance trade across the Sahara for the first time beginning in the eighth century CE. The camel saddle, invented by the Tuareg people of North Africa, enabled camels to be ridden, which furthered their usefulness to trans-Saharan trade. The introduction of the date palm also helped make systematic long-distance trade possible. The fruit of the date palm is high in sugar, a natural preservative, and when dried it provided a high-calorie, easily transportable food supply to fortify traders on long journeys.

Trans-Saharan trade was also critically dependent on highly paid nomadic North African Berber (Amazigh)1 intermediaries and the string of oasis towns that connected distant parts of the network in an otherwise unforgiving landscape (Figure 3.5). Oasis towns provided traveling merchants with places to rest, water their animals, and acquire provisions for the next leg of their journey. They served the same function as the caravanserais, inns for travelers that existed throughout the Islamic world, including along the Silk Roads in Asia, in the Middle East, and in Egypt and Morocco. The Imazighen’s skills as caravan leaders and go-betweens facilitated the movement of everything from gold ingots to ostrich feathers across thousands of square miles of desert. Yet Amazigh traders were responsible for much more than the movement of goods and commodities. They were also devout believers in Islam who spread Islamic culture, law, custom, and tradition and helped to fuse a network of local and regional trade routes into a truly continent-spanning enterprise.

This photograph shows a cluster of green trees in front of a city with brown buildings and sparse trees. Sand hills are located in the background and a blue sky. In the foreground there is rough, dry, sand-colored land.
Figure 3.5 This photo shows the Saharan oasis city of Taghit, ringed by sand hills in modern-day Algeria. (credit: “Mountains of sand loom over the oasis village of Taghit in the Sahara” by The Central Intelligence Agency: The World Factbook/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

A principal commodity exchanged during this early stage of trade was salt, which acted as a sort of currency. Not only is salt necessary to human and animal life, but it also helps to preserve foods, an important concern of people in an age before refrigeration technology existed. Communities on the edges of the desert acted as intermediaries in this trade, trading salt to forest tribes to the south that had access to goldfields. Only over time were other highly valuable trading goods introduced, such as gold and copper, which were then passed across the desert from tropical West Africa to the far reaches of the North African coast and beyond.

Trade across the Sahara gradually intensified between the fifth and seventh centuries CE, and in the eighth and ninth centuries, a series of main links became established. These developments were made possible primarily as the result of two important changes. First, the Ghana Empire of West Africa emerged as the earliest large-scale political entity in the region, and second, the Islamic conquest of North Africa led to the rise of Muslim states and a general cultural unification of the region. Combined, these developments brought people with shared interests and similar characteristics together in conditions that enabled them to consolidate and expand their economic interests, particularly as demand increased for gold from the Sudan.

As trade grew, Arab merchants in Morocco and in Islamic states in North Africa began to buy sub-Saharan gold. By the eleventh century, the gold trade was so successful that it was influencing commerce and society in the Mediterranean (Figure 3.6). For the first time, West African gold was used to mint European coins. This growth in the market for gold spurred the expansion of new links in the trans-Saharan trade route and resulted in the opening of a major trade artery between the towns of Sijilmasa, north of the Sahara, and Awdaghost to the south.

A map of northwest Africa is shown. In the western portion of the map, there are gold-colored sections by the regions of Bambuk, Boure, and Lobi and south of Lobi indicated. These are identified in the key as ‘Gold Fields.’ Starting at the north of the continent and heading south, the cities of Tunis, Kairouan, Tahert, Tlemcen, Fes, Marrakech, Nul, Tamdoult, Sijilmasa, Ouargla, Ghadames, Tamentit, Ghat, Takedda, Gao, Tadmekka, Timbuktu, Araouane, Taghaza, Araouane, Idjil, Ouadane, Aoudaghost, Oualata, Koumbi, and Saleh are labeled and connected with dotted lines. The City of Djenne is labeled as well as the region of Tuat. Aoudaghost and Sijilmasa are circled.
Figure 3.6 The network of medieval trade routes in West Africa (red dotted lines) as mapped in the 1960s by French historian Raymond Mauny. Although they were not connected directly, Sijilmasa in present-day Morocco and Awdaghost in Mauritania were indirectly linked by routes that united other trading cities in the surrounding region. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

One of the greatest early Sudanic empires, the powerful states that emerged in the region of West Africa south of the Sahara Desert, was Mali. Mali brought together the key components that had contributed to the earlier expansion of trans-Saharan trade. On the one hand, its rulers were Muslim, and the fact that they shared the same religion with many trans-Saharan traders strengthened the ties between these groups. On the other hand, these rulers exerted direct control over the goldfields at Bure. The vitally important trade centers of Timbuktu and Gao were part of the empire, as were the trading centers of Awdaghost, Oualata (Walata), and Tadmekka. Although both gold and salt remained the principal commodities of exchange, other commodities such as textiles, enslaved people, ivory, precious stones, and shea butter (a vegetable fat from the shea tree nut) were also regular exports.

During the ninth to fifteenth centuries, caravans routinely plied the sands of the Sahara, moving goods from distant West Africa to Egypt and centers of trade in North Africa, and from there onward, either across the Mediterranean to southern Europe or overland by way of the Sinai Peninsula to the region of the Levant in the Near East (modern Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel). From there, West African commodities could arrive at one of the land-based western terminals of the Silk Roads in such trade centers as the coastal city of Tyre in Lebanon, and farther inland, at Aleppo in Syria. Africa at this time was a key player in the vast commercial enterprise that laid the foundation for the first global economies.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax