Trade Across the Sahara

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Medieval Trade Routes Across the Sahara

Between the 11th and 15th centuries West Africa exported goods across the Sahara Desert to Europe
Between the 11th and 15th centuries West Africa exported goods across the Sahara Desert to Europe and beyond. Image: © Alistair Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The sands of the Sahara Desert could've been a major obstacle to trade between Africa, Europe and the East, but it was more like a sandy sea with ports of trade on either side. In the south were cities such as Timbuktu and Gao; in the north, cities such as Ghadames (in present-day Libya). From there goods traveled onto Europe, Arabia, India, and China.


Muslim traders from North Africa shipped goods across the Sahara using large camel caravans -- on average, about 1,000 camels, although there's a record which mentions caravans traveling between Egypt and Sudan that had 12,000 camels. The Berbers of North Africa first domesticated camels around the year 300 CE.

The camel was the most important element of the caravan because they can survive for long periods without water. They can also tolerate the desert's intense heat during the day and cold at night. Camels have a double row of eyelashes which protects their eyes from the sand and the sun. They're also able to close their nostrils to keep the sand out. Without the animal, highly adapted to make the journey, trade across the Sahara would have been nearly impossible.

What Did They Trade?

They brought in mainly luxury goods such as textiles, silks, beads, ceramics, ornamental weapons, and utensils. These were traded for gold, ivory, woods such as ebony, and agricultural products such as kola nuts (a stimulant as they contain caffeine). They also brought their religion, Islam, which spread along the trade routes.

Nomads living in the Sahara traded salt, meat and their knowledge as guides for cloth, gold, cereal and slaves.

Until the discovery of the the Americas, Mali was the principal producer of gold. African ivory was also sought after because it's softer than that from Indian elephants and therefore easier to carve. Slaves were wanted by the courts of Arab and Berber princes as servants, concubines, soldiers, and agricultural laborers.

Trade Cities

Sonni Ali, the ruler of the Songhai Empire, which was situated to the east along the curve of the Niger River, conquered Mali in 1462. He set about developing both his own capital: Gao, and the main centers of Mali, Timbuktu and Jenne became major cities which controlled a great deal of trade in the region. Sea port cities developed along the coat North Africa including Marrakesh, Tunis, and Cairo. Another significant trade center was the city of Adulis on the Red Sea.

Fun Facts about Ancient Africa's Trade Routes

  • To prepare for a trip, camels would be fattened up for the journey across the desert.
  • Caravans moved at about three miles per hour and it took them 40 days to cross the Sahara Desert.

  • Muslim traders spread Islam throughout Western Africa.

  • Islamic law helped to lower crime rates and also spread the common language of Arabic, thus encouraging trade.

  • Muslim traders living in West Africa became known as the Dyula people and were part of the caste of wealthy merchants.