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Trans-Saharan trade, between Mediterranean countries and West Africa, was an important trade route from the eighth century until the late sixteenth century. Before inquiring about the locations of caravan routes and the ebb-and-flow of trade volume, it is essential to ask how such trade existed it all? For the Sahara Desert is a hostile expanse that separates the Mediterranean world-economy from the economy of the Niger. Fernand Braudel pointed out (in The Perspective of the World), such a zone, like the Atlantic Ocean, 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.
The trade was conducted by caravans of Arabian 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
Small trade routes around the Nile Valley have been used for millennia, but travel across the Sahara prior to the domestication of the camel was difficult. Objects and materials found far from their places of origin are archaeological records of some trade taking place, particularly in the far west, where the desert is at its narrowest. There are also some reports of contacts in classical literature. The growth of the city of Aoudaghost may have been around this limited trade, but suggestions that all urbanisation in the region was as a result of it are now discounted.
Depictions of horses drawing chariots in contemporary cave art south of the Sahara have led some to suppose that they were used. However, 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 Tunisia to the Lake Chad 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 the area south of 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
The rise of the Ghana Empire, centred on what is now southern Mauritania, paralleled the increase in trans-Saharan trade. Mediterranean economies were short of gold but could supply salt, whereas West African countries had plenty of gold but desired salt. The slave trade was also important because large numbers of Africans were sent north, generally to serve as domestic servants. The West African states imported highly trained slave soldiers. Several trade routes became established, perhaps the most important terminating in Sijilmasa and Ifriqua 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 travelling to Ghana. Many in Ghana converted to Islam, and it is likely that the Empire's trade was privileged as a result. Much of the trade was conducted and managed by the Jewish minorities found on both sides of the Sahara. Around 1050, Ghana captured Audaghost, but new goldmines around Bure reduced trade through the city, instead benefiting the Soso, who later founded the Mali Empire.
Like 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 Gao and Djenné - prospered, with Timbuktu in particular becoming known across Europe for its great wealth. 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 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 Portuguese 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 now 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, but the major blow to trans-Saharan trade was the Moroccan War 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 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 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.
Today, a few tarmaced roads cross the Sahara and a limited number of trucks carry trans-Saharan trade, particularly fuel and salt. Traditional caravan routes are largely void of camels, but shorter 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 tradeing in salt carried from the desert interior to communities on the desert edges.
- M'hammad Sabour and Knut S. Vikřr (eds), Ethnic Encounter and Culture Change, Bergen, 1997,  Google Cache Last Retrieved Jan.2005.
- The Trans-Saharan Gold Trade 7th-14th Century from the Museum of Modern Art
- Kevin Shillington (eds), "Tuareg: Takedda and trans-Saharan trade" from the Encyclopaedia of African History, Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004, ISBN 1579582451
- Lewicki T., "The Role of the Sahara and Saharians in Relationships between North and South", from UNESCO General History of Africa: Volume 3, University of California Press, 1994, ISBN 9236017096
- Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World, vol III of Civilization and Capitalism 1984 (in French 1979)
NotesSee National Geographic series Africa (2001), Episode 2 "Desert Odyssey", which follows a Tuareg tribe across the Sahara for six months by camel.
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