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Trans-Saharan trade is trade across the Sahara between Mediterraneanmarker countries and sub-Saharan Africa. While existing from prehistoric times, the peak of such trade extended from the eighth century until the late sixteenth century.

Increasing desertification and economic incentive

The Sahara once had a very different environment. In Libyamarker and Algeriamarker from at least 7,000 BCE there was pastoralism, herding of sheep and goats, large settlements and pottery. Cattle were introduced to the Central Sahara (Ahaggarmarker) from 4,000 to 3,500 BCE. Remarkable rock paintings (dated 3,500 to 2,500 BCE) from currently very dry places portray vegetation and animal presence rather different from modern expectations.

The Sahara is a hostile expanse that separates the Mediterranean economy from the economy of the Niger basin. Fernand Braudel pointed out, such a zone, like the Atlantic Oceanmarker, is only worth crossing in exceptional circumstances, when the gain outweighs the loss. However, unlike the Atlantic, the Sahara has always been home to groups of people practising trade on a local basis.

Trade in Islamic times was conducted by caravan of camels. These camels would be fattened for a number of months on the plains of either the Maghreb or Sahel before being assembled into a caravan. According to Ibn Battuta, the explorer who accompanied one of the caravans, the average size was a thousand camels per caravan, with some being as large as 12,000.

The caravans would be guided by highly paid Berber guides who knew the desert and could ensure safe passage from their fellow desert nomads.

The survival of a caravan would be precarious and rely on careful coordination. Runners would be sent ahead to oases so that water could be shipped out to the caravan when it was still several days away, as the caravans could not carry enough with them to make the full journey.

Early Trans-Saharan trade

Prehistoric trade spanned the northeastern corner of the Sahara in the Naqadanmarker era. Predynastic Egyptians in the Naqada I periodmarker traded with Nubia to the south, the oases of the western desert to the west, and the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean to the east. They also imported obsidian from Ethiopia to shape blades and other objects.

The Darb el-Arbainmarker trade route, passing through Khargamarker in the south and Asyutmarker in the north, was used from as early as the Old Kingdom for the transport and trade of gold, ivory, spices, wheat, animals and plants. Later, Ancient Roman would protect the route by lining it with varied forts and small outposts, some guarding large settlements complete with cultivation. Described by Herodotus as a road "traversed ... in forty days," it became by his time an important land route facilitating trade between Nubia and Egyptmarker,Smith, Dr. Stuart Tyson. Nubia: History, University of California Santa Barbara, Department of Anthropology, /www.anth.ucsb.edu/faculty/stsmith/research/nubia_history.html>. Retrieved January 21, 2009. and subsequently became known as the Forty Days Road. From Kobbei, 25 miles north of al-Fashirmarker, the route passed through the desert to Bir Natrum, another oasis and salt mine, to Wadi Howar before proceeding to Egyptmarker. The Darb el-Arbainmarker trade route was the easternmost of the central routes.

The westernmost of the three central routes was the Ghadames Road, which ran from the Niger River at Gaomarker north to Ghatmarker and Ghadamesmarker before terminating at Tripoli. Next was the easiest of the three routes: the Garamantean Road, named after the former rulers of the land it passed through and also called the Bilma Trail. The Garamantean Road passed south of the desert near Murzukmarker before turning north to pass between the Alhaggarmarker and Tibesti Mountainsmarker before reaching the oasis at Kawar. From Kawar, caravans would pass over the great sand dunes of Bilmamarker, where rock salt was mined in great quantities for trade, before reaching the savanna north of Lake Chadmarker. This was the shortest of the routes, and the primary exchanges were slaves and ivory from the south for salt.

The western routes were the Walatamarker Road, from the Sénégal River, and the Taghazamarker Trail, from the Mali River, which had their northern termini at the great trading center of Sijilmasamarker, situated in Moroccomarker just north of the desert. The growth of the city of Aoudaghostmarker, founded in the fifth century BCE, was stimulated by its position at the southern end of a trans Saharan trade route.

To the east, three ancient routes connected the south to the Mediterranean Seamarker. The herdsmen of the Fezzanmarker of Libyamarker, known as the Garamantes, controlled these routes as early as 1500 BC. From their capital of Germamarker in the Wadi Ajal, the Garamantean Empire raided north to the sea and south into the Sahel. By the fourth century BC, the independent city-states of Phoenecia had expanded their control to the territory and routes once held by the Garamantes. Shillington states that existing contact with the Mediterranean received added incentive with the growth of the port city of Carthagemarker. Founded c. 800 BCE, Carthage became one terminus for West African gold, ivory, and slaves. West Africa received salt, cloth, beads, and metal goods. Shillington proceeds to identify this trade route as the source for West African iron smelting. Trade continued into Roman times. Although there are Classical references to direct travel from the Mediterranean to West Africa (Daniels, p. 22f), most of this trade was conducted through middlemen, inhabiting the area and aware of passages through the drying lands. The Legio III Augusta subsequently secured these routes on behalf of Rome by the first century AD, safeguarding the southern border of the empire for two and half centuries.

Introduction of the camel

Herodotus had spoken of the Garamantes hunting the Ethiopian Troglodytes with their chariots; this account was associated with depictions of horses drawing chariots in contemporary cave art in southern Moroccomarker and the Fezzanmarker, giving origin to a theory that the Garamantes, or some other Saran people, had created chariot routes to provide Rome and Carthage with gold and ivory. However, it has been argued that no horse skeletons have been found dating from this early period in the region, and chariots would have been unlikely vehicles for trading purposes due to their small capacity.

The earliest evidence for domesticated camels in the region dates from the third century. Used by the Berber people, they enabled more regular contact across the entire width of the Sahara, but regular trade routes did not develop until the beginnings of the Islamic conversion of West Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries. Two main trade routes developed. The first ran through the western desert from modern Morocco to the Niger Bend, the second from modern Tunisiamarker to the Lake Chadmarker area. These stretches were relatively short and had the essential network of occasional oases that established the routing as inexorably as pins in a map. Further east of the Fezzan with its trade route through the valley of Kaouar to Lake Chad, Libya was impassable due to its lack of oases and fierce sandstorms. A route from the Niger Bend to Egyptmarker was abandoned in the tenth century due to its dangers.

Trans-Saharan trade in the Middle Ages

The rise of the Ghana Empire, centered on what is now southern Mauritaniamarker, paralleled the increase in trans-Saharan trade. Mediterranean economies were short of gold but could supply salt, taken by places like the African salt mine of Taghazamarker, whereas West African countries like Wangara had plenty of gold but needed salt. The trans-Saharan slave trade was also important because large numbers of Africans were sent north, generally to serve as domestic servants or slave concubines. The West African states imported highly trained slave soldiers. It has been estimated that from the 10th to the 19th century some 6,000 to 7,000 slaves were transported north each year. Perhaps as many as nine million slaves were exported along the trans-Saharan caravan route. Several trade routes became established, perhaps the most important terminating in Sijilmasamarker and Ifriqiya in what is now Moroccomarker to the north. There, and in other North African cities, Berber traders had increased contact with Islam, encouraging conversions, and by the eighth century, Muslims were traveling to Ghana. Many in Ghana converted to Islam, and it is likely that the Empire's trade was privileged as a result. Around 1050, Ghana captured Aoudaghost, but new goldmines around Bure reduced trade through the city, instead benefiting the Soso, who later founded the Mali Empire.

Unlike Ghana, Mali was a Muslim kingdom, and under it, the gold - salt trade continued. Other, less important trade goods were slaves, kola nuts from the south and slave beads and cowrie shells from the north (for use as currency). It was under Mali that the great cities of the Niger bend —including Gaomarker and Djennémarker— prospered, with Timbuktumarker in particular becoming known across Europe for its great wealth. Important trading centers in southern West Africa developed at the transitional zone between the forest and the savanna; examples include Beghomarker and Bono Manso (in present-day Ghana) and Bondoukoumarker (in present-day Côte d'Ivoiremarker). Western trade routes continued to be important, with Ouadanemarker, Oualatamarker and Chinguettimarker being the major trade centres in what is now Mauritania, while the Tuareg towns of Assodé and later Agadezmarker grew around a more easterly route in what is now Nigermarker.

The eastern trans-Saharan route led to the development of the long lived Kanem-Bornu empire centred on the Lake Chad area. This trade route was somewhat less efficient and only rose to great prominence when there was turmoil in the west such as during the Almohad conquests.

Decline of trans-Saharan trade

The Portuguesemarker journeys around the West African coast opened up new avenues for trade between Europe and West Africa. By the early sixteenth century, European bases were being established on the coast and trade with the wealthier Europeans became of prime importance to West Africa. North Africa had declined in both political and economic importance, while the Saharan crossing remained long and treacherous. However, the major blow to trans-Saharan trade was the battle of Tondibi of 1591-2. Morocco sent troops across the Sahara and attacked Timbuktu, Gao and some other important trading centres, destroying buildings and property and exiling prominent citizens. This disruption to trade led to a dramatic decline in the importance of these cities and resulting animosity reduced trade considerably.

Although much reduced, trans-Saharan trade continued. But trade routes to the West African coast became increasingly easy, particularly after the Frenchmarker invasion of the Sahel in the 1890s and subsequent construction of railways to the interior. A railway line from Dakarmarker to Algiersmarker via the Niger bend was planned but never constructed. With the independence of nations in the region in the 1960s, the north–south routes were severed by national boundaries. National governments were hostile to Tuareg nationalism and so made few efforts to maintain or support trans-Saharan trade, and the Tuareg Rebellion of the 1990s and Algerian Civil War further disrupted routes, with many roads closed.

Traditional caravan routes are largely void of camels, but the shorter Azalai routes from Agadezmarker to Bilmamarker and Timbuktumarker to Taoudennimarker are still regularly - if lightly - used. Some members of the Tuareg still use the traditional trade routes, often traveling 1,500 miles and six months out of every year by camel across the Sahara trading in salt carried from the desert interior to communities on the desert edges.

The future of trans-Saharan trade

The African Union and African Development Bank support the Trans-Sahara Highway from Algiersmarker to Lagosmarker via Tamanrassetmarker which aims to stimulate trans-Saharan trade. The route is paved except for a 200 km section in northern Niger, and border restrictions still hamper traffic. Only a few trucks carry trans-Saharan trade, particularly fuel and salt. Three other highways across the Sahara are proposed: for further details see Trans-African Highways.

See also



References

Notes

  1. Shillington, Kevin (1989, 1995). History of Africa, Second Edition. St. Martin's Press, New York. Page 32.
  2. Braudel, Fernand (1984). The Perspective of the World. (Vol III of Civilization and Capitalism). (Published in French in 1979).
  3. David Rouge, Saharan salt caravans ply ancient route, Reuters, 21 February, 2007
  4. An African Pilgrim-King and a World-Traveler: Mansa Musa and Ibn Battuta
  5. Barbara G. Aston, James A. Harrell, Ian Shaw (2000). Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw editors. "Stone," in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge, 5-77, pp. 46-47. Also note: Barbara G. Aston (1994). "Ancient Egyptian Stone Vessels," Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens 5, Heidelberg, pp. 23-26. (See on-line posts: [1] and [2].)
  6. Jobbins, Jenny. "The 40 days' nightmare," in Al-Ahram, 13-19 November 2003, Issue No. 664. Published in Cairo, Egypt.
  7. Please refer to Kharga Oasis.
  8. Burr, J. Millard and Robert O. Collins, Darfur: The Long Road to Disaster, Markus Wiener Publishers: Princeton, 2006, ISBN 1-55876-405-4, pp. 6-7.
  9. Shillington (1995). Page 46.
  10. Daniels, Charles (1970). The Garamantes of Southern Libya. Oleander, North Harrow, Middlesex. Page 22.
  11. Masonen, P: " Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean World."
  12. Lewicki, T. (1994). "The Role of the Sahara and Saharians in Relationships between North and South". In UNESCO General History of Africa: Volume 3. University of California Press, ISBN 92-3-601709-6.
  13. Ibn Battuta's Trip: Part Twelve - Journey to West Africa (1351 - 1353)
  14. Fage, J.D. A History of Africa. Routledge, 4th edition, 2001. pg. 256
  15. The impact of the slave trade on Africa
  16. National Geographic (2001). Africa, Episode 2, "Desert Odyssey" (TV/Video). This episode follows a Tuareg tribe across the Sahara for six months by camel.


Further reading

*Albert Adu Boahen, Britain, the Sahara and the Western Sudan 1788-1861. Oxford 1964
*Edward William Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1995) ISBN 1-55876-091-1
*Donald Harden, The Phoenicians, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1971 (1962)
*Kevin Shillington (eds), "Tuareg: Takedda and trans-Saharan trade" from the Encyclopaedia of African History, Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004, ISBN 1-57958-245-1
*B.H. Warmington, Carthage, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1964 (1960)
* M'hammad Sabour and Knut S. Vikør (eds), Ethnic Encounter and Culture Change, Bergen, 1997, [109180] Google Cache Last Retrieved Jan.2005.
* The Trans-Saharan Gold Trade 7th-14th Century from the Museum of Modern Artmarker
* The Trans-Saharan Trade



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