Trans-Saharan trade is trade
across the Sahara between Mediterranean countries and sub-Saharan Africa.
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 Libya and Algeria from at
least 7,000 BCE there was pastoralism,
herding of sheep and goats, large settlements and pottery.
were introduced to the Central Sahara (Ahaggar) 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
Braudel pointed out, such a zone, like the Atlantic Ocean, is only worth crossing in exceptional
circumstances, when the gain outweighs the loss.
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
camels would be fattened for a number of months on the plains of
either the Maghreb
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 Naqadan era.
Predynastic Egyptians in the Naqada I period traded with Nubia to the
south, the oases of the western
desert to the west, and the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean to the
They also imported obsidian
to shape blades
and other objects.
el-Arbain trade route,
passing through Kharga in the south
and Asyut 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 Egypt,Smith, Dr.
Stuart Tyson. Nubia: History, University of California
Santa Barbara, Department of Anthropology,
Retrieved January 21, 2009. and subsequently became known as the
Forty Days Road. From Kobbei, 25 miles
north of al-Fashir, the route passed through the desert to Bir Natrum, another oasis and salt mine, to
Wadi Howar before proceeding to Egypt.
el-Arbain trade route
was the easternmost of the central routes.
westernmost of the three central routes was the Ghadames Road,
which ran from the Niger River at
Gao north to Ghat and Ghadames 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 Murzuk before
turning north to pass between the Alhaggar and Tibesti Mountains before reaching the oasis at Kawar. From Kawar, caravans would pass over the
great sand dunes of Bilma, where
rock salt was mined in great quantities for
trade, before reaching the savanna north of Lake Chad.
This was the shortest of the routes, and
the primary exchanges were slaves and ivory
from the south for salt.
western routes were the Walata Road, from
the Sénégal River, and the
Taghaza Trail, from the Mali
River, which had their northern termini at the great trading
center of Sijilmasa, situated in Morocco just north of the desert. The growth of the
city of Aoudaghost, founded in the fifth century BCE, was stimulated
by its position at the southern end of a trans Saharan trade
east, three ancient routes connected the south to the Mediterranean Sea. The herdsmen of the Fezzan of Libya, known as
the Garamantes, controlled these routes
as early as 1500 BC. From their capital of Germa 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 Carthage.
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
these routes on behalf of Rome
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
Morocco and the Fezzan, giving
origin to a theory that the Garamantes, or some other Saran people,
had created chariot routes to provide Rome and Carthage with gold
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
, 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
West Africa in the seventh
. Two main trade
routes developed. The first ran through the western desert
from modern Morocco to the Niger Bend,
the second from modern Tunisia to the Lake
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 Egypt was
abandoned in the tenth century due to its dangers.
Trans-Saharan trade in the Middle Ages
of the Ghana Empire, centered on what
is now southern Mauritania, 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 Taghaza, whereas West African
countries like Wangara had plenty of gold
but needed salt.
The trans-Saharan slave trade
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
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 Sijilmasa and Ifriqiya in what is now
Morocco 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
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
and cowrie shells
from the north (for use as
currency). It was under Mali that the great cities of
the Niger bend —including Gao and Djenné— prospered, with Timbuktu 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 Begho and Bono Manso (in present-day Ghana) and Bondoukou (in present-day Côte d'Ivoire). Western trade routes continued to be
important, with Ouadane, Oualata and Chinguetti being the major trade centres in what is now
Mauritania, while the Tuareg towns of
Assodé and later Agadez grew around
a more easterly route in what is now Niger.
The eastern trans-Saharan route led to the development of the long
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
Decline of trans-Saharan trade
Portuguese journeys around the West African coast opened up
new avenues for trade between Europe and West Africa.
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
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
Although much reduced, trans-Saharan trade continued. But trade routes to
the West African coast became increasingly easy, particularly after
the French invasion of
the Sahel in the 1890s and subsequent
construction of railways to the
interior. A railway line from Dakar to Algiers via the Niger bend was planned but never
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
routes, with many roads closed.
Traditional caravan routes are largely void
of camels, but the shorter Azalai routes from
Agadez to Bilma and Timbuktu to Taoudenni 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
African Union and African Development Bank support
the Trans-Sahara Highway from
Algiers to Lagos via
Tamanrasset 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
and salt. Three other highways across the
Sahara are proposed: for further details see Trans-African Highways
- Shillington, Kevin (1989, 1995). History of Africa, Second
Edition. St. Martin's Press, New York. Page 32.
- Braudel, Fernand (1984). The Perspective of the World.
(Vol III of Civilization and Capitalism). (Published in
French in 1979).
- David Rouge, Saharan salt caravans ply ancient route, Reuters, 21 February, 2007
- An African Pilgrim-King and a World-Traveler: Mansa
Musa and Ibn Battuta
- 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:  and .)
- Jobbins, Jenny. "The 40 days' nightmare," in Al-Ahram,
13-19 November 2003, Issue No. 664. Published in Cairo, Egypt.
- Please refer to Kharga Oasis.
- 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.
- Shillington (1995). Page 46.
- Daniels, Charles (1970). The Garamantes of Southern
Libya. Oleander, North Harrow, Middlesex. Page 22.
- Masonen, P: " Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the
- 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,
- Ibn Battuta's Trip: Part Twelve - Journey to West
Africa (1351 - 1353)
- Fage, J.D. A History of Africa. Routledge, 4th
edition, 2001. pg. 256
- The impact of the slave trade on Africa
- National Geographic (2001). Africa,
Episode 2, "Desert Odyssey" (TV/Video). This episode follows a
Tuareg tribe across the Sahara for six months by camel.
- *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
- *Kevin Shillington (eds), "Tuareg: Takedda and trans-Saharan trade" from the
Encyclopaedia of African History, Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004,
- *B.H. Warmington, Carthage, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1964
- * M'hammad Sabour and Knut S. Vikør (eds), Ethnic Encounter and Culture Change, Bergen,
1997,  Google Cache Last Retrieved
The Trans-Saharan Gold Trade 7th-14th Century from the
- * The Trans-Saharan Trade