The Sahara Desert is one of the more frequent examples of a natural barrier to trade, with the vast arid expanse blocking communication between the southern Mediterranean coast and West Africa. However, this is relatively recent and a result of the gradual desertification of the Sahara. Trade routes across the Sahara Desert were in fact a vital part of the global trading network in the medieval era, and caravans crossing between the Mediterranean coast of Africa to the empires and cultures in the Niger River basin provided an influential cultural exchange for both sides of the Sahara.
While sporadic trading ventures across the Sahara from what is now southern Libya occurred during the Roman Empire, more extensive trade across the Sahara Desert largely started around the fifth century CE. The introduction of the camel a couple centuries prior enabled more consistent contact across the Sahara, but regular trade was not largely established until the Islamic conquest of North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries. Over time, two major lines of trade developed through the Sahara. The western route had its northern terminus in the Berber town of Sijilmasa in southern Morocco, and its southern terminus in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao on the far northern bend of the Niger River. The eastern route stretched from southern Tunisia and Ghadames in western Libya south to Agades in modern day Niger and the cities near Lake Chad. These routes grew more important as trade between the Mediterranean and West Africa intensified during the Middle Ages as Muslim influence in the Niger region intensified.
Islamic influence in the upper Niger and in the Sahel as a whole was largely driven by the decline of the Ghana Empire and the expansion of the Almoravid Empire south from Morocco. The Almoravids dominated Morocco and southern Iberia between 1040 and 1147, and reached as far south as the trading center of Audaghost in what is now Mauritania. As the Empire of Ghana fell, the Mali Empire rose to replace it as the dominant power in the Niger River basin. The increased contact spread Islam across the Sahara and in the 1300s Mansa Muna I of Mali fully converted the empire to Islam. With trade flourishing, the Malian capital of Timbuktu became a renowned center of cultural exchange, with the Sankore Madrassah emerging as one of the greatest universities in the Islamic world during the 14th and 15th centuries.
Now that the routes had been established, what were they carrying and how did they make it across the desert? As I stated earlier, the introduction of camels into western Africa helped the growth of the Trans-Saharan trade, as camels’ physiology enabled them to serve much better as pack animals in the hot desert climate of the Sahara than horses, donkeys, or oxen could. Additionally, trade was conducted by large caravans and stopped at several small oases all around the Sahara. These oases became further centers of trade and exchange for the merchants traveling across the Sahara. As for what they were carrying, the main trade goods flowing across the Sahara were salt and gold. Rich gold fields in the Bambuk Mountains in what is now southwest Mali made gold plentiful in the Sahel, while it was a valuable coinage metal for the Mediterranean and Europe. For example, during Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca, his caravan brought so much gold to Cairo that it crashed the city’s gold market. Salt, on the other hand, was in great supply in the coastal cities north of the Sahara. While it was produced in some quantities from mines on the southern edges of the Sahara, salt was in great demand in the Sahel and comprised much of the south-flowing trade. Other goods that passed along the routes were slaves and ivory moving north and cloth and refined metal goods moving south.
The trans-Saharan trade reached its height during the height of the Mali Empire in the 1300s, and declined through the 15th and 16th centuries. Advances in naval technology allowed the Portuguese to explore down the west African coast, and permitted a new faster and less treacherous route from the Niger River to the Mediterranean via the sea. North Africa declined in political importance as the West African kingdoms began to trade directly with Europe through small European outposts on the West African coast. The essential death knell of the Trans-Saharan trade routes was the Battle of Tondibi in 1591, when a Moroccan army crossed the Sahara south and sacked Timbuktu destroying the Songhai Empire.
While the Trans-Sahara trade route may had all but disappeared in modern times, it is still of great historical importance. The interaction between North Africa and the Sahel enabled the spread of Islam in to the Upper Niger basin, which remains largely Muslim today. The Saharan trade also supplied much of the gold used for coinage in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages until the discovery of the Americas. The trade fueled the growth of many cities on the Niger such as Djenne, Timbuktu, and Gao, which remained the primary urban centers of West Africa until European colonization in the 19th century. While the Mediterranean trade was indeed important during the medieval era, the simultaneous importance of the Trans-Saharan trade is often overlooked.