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2.4 Trans-Saharan Trade Routes

8 min readjanuary 3, 2023

K

Katie Moore

Riya Patel

Riya Patel


AP World History: Modern 🌍

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What Were The Trans-Saharan Trade Routes?

The Trans-Saharan trade routes were a network of trade routes that crossed the Sahara Desert in Africa, connecting the Mediterranean coast to the West African savannah and the sub-Saharan region. These routes were an important part of the global trade network and played a significant role in the economic, cultural, and political development of Africa.
The Trans-Saharan trade routes were used to transport a variety of goods, including gold, ivory, salt, and slaves. They were also a major source of cultural exchange, as traders brought goods, ideas, and technologies from one part of the world to another, leading to the spread of religions, languages, and other cultural traditions.
The Trans-Saharan trade routes were used by a number of different peoples and civilizations over the centuries, including the ancient Romans, the Arab empires of the Middle Ages, and the European colonial powers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite the development of more modern transportation systems, the Trans-Saharan trade routes continue to be an important part of the economy and culture of the region.
Overall, this trade network led to the formation of diasporic communities, new technology, the spread of religion (Islamic traditions), and even a super rich king by the name of Mansa Musa.

Formation of Diasporic Communities

The Trans-Saharan trade routes facilitated the formation of diasporic communities, or communities of people who have migrated from their homeland and settled in a new location. These communities were often formed as a result of the movement of people along the trade routes, as traders and travelers settled in new areas and established communities in their adopted homes.
One example of a diasporic community that was formed as a result of the Trans-Saharan trade routes is the community of West African merchants who settled in Cairo and other cities in the Middle East. These merchants established trading networks and brought with them their own customs, traditions, and languages, which helped to enrich the cultural diversity of the region.
Other diasporic communities that were formed as a result of the Trans-Saharan trade routes include the communities of African slaves who were taken to the Americas and the Middle East, and the communities of Arab and Berber traders who settled in West Africa. These communities played a significant role in the cultural exchange and economic development of the regions where they settled and helped to shape the history and culture of these areas.

New Technologies

The Trans-Saharan trade routes facilitated the spread of new technologies and innovations throughout Africa. As traders and travelers moved along these routes, they brought with them new tools, techniques, and ideas that were adopted and adapted by the local populations.
One example of a technology that was introduced to Africa through the Trans-Saharan trade routes is the camel, which was domesticated in the Middle East and brought to Africa by Arab traders. The camel proved to be an invaluable tool for trade and transportation in the Sahara Desert, as it was able to travel long distances across the desert with minimal water and could carry heavy loads. The use of camels revolutionized trade and transportation in the region and facilitated the growth of the Trans-Saharan trade routes.
Other technologies that were introduced to Africa through the Trans-Saharan trade routes include ironworking, the wheel, and the compass. These technologies were adapted and integrated into local cultures and helped to stimulate economic and social development in the region.

Spread of Islam

The Trans-Saharan trade routes played a significant role in the spread of Islam in Africa. The routes connected West Africa to the Islamic world, particularly the Middle East, and facilitated the exchange of goods, ideas, and technologies between these regions. As traders and travelers moved along these routes, they also brought Islam with them and helped to spread the religion to new areas.
Islam was first introduced to West Africa through the Trans-Saharan trade routes in the 8th century, and it gradually spread throughout the region over the next several centuries. The religion appealed to many people in West Africa due to its emphasis on social justice, personal responsibility, and equality, and it was also supported by many West African rulers who saw it as a means of strengthening their empires.
The spread of Islam along the Trans-Saharan trade routes was facilitated by the establishment of Islamic centers of learning and trade, such as the city of Timbuktu, which became a major center of scholarship and commerce. The routes also supported the growth of a number of Islamic empires and states in West Africa, such as the Mali Empire and the Sokoto Caliphate, which played a significant role in shaping the history and culture of the region.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa was a West African ruler who reigned as the king of the Mali Empire in the 14th century. He is known for his tremendous wealth and his role in promoting the Trans-Saharan trade routes, which connected West Africa to the Mediterranean and the rest of the world.
During his reign, Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca, which was a major center of trade and learning at the time. On his journey, he is said to have brought with him a large entourage of followers and an enormous amount of gold, which he used to generously distribute to the poor and to fund the construction of mosques and other public works. This journey helped to promote the Trans-Saharan trade routes and brought Mansa Musa great fame and wealth.
After his return from Mecca, Mansa Musa continued to support the Trans-Saharan trade routes and encouraged the growth of trade and commerce in his empire. He is remembered as a great ruler and a patron of learning and culture, and his reign is considered a golden age in the history of the Mali Empire.
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Image Courtesy of Hardy-Leah B, thinglink

Causes of Trans-Saharan Trade

As always, technology helped spur these trade networks. The two big ones here are camel saddles and caravans.

Camel Saddles

Berber nomads are a group of indigenous people who live in the Sahara Desert and other arid regions of North Africa. They are known for their traditional lifestyle, which centers around the use of camels as a means of transportation and sustenance.
Camel saddles are an important tool for Berber nomads, as they use them to ride their camels and to carry supplies and other equipment. Camel saddles used by Berber nomads are typically made of leather or other durable materials and are designed to be comfortable for both the rider and the camel. They often have a high, padded cantle to provide support for the rider and a large horn or pommel at the front of the saddle to provide a handhold.
Berber nomads have a long tradition of using camel saddles, and they continue to rely on them as a vital part of their daily lives. The saddles are an important part of the culture and history of the Berber people and are an integral part of their way of life.

Caravans

A caravan is a group of people traveling together, typically on a long journey. Caravans have been used for centuries as a means of transportation and as a way to protect against bandits and other dangers.
Caravans were often used in trade and commerce, as they provided a way to transport goods over long distances. They were particularly important in desert regions, such as the Sahara Desert in Africa, where they were used to transport goods across the desert and connect distant trade centers. Caravans were often made up of camels, which were able to travel long distances with minimal water and could carry heavy loads.
In addition to their practical function, caravans were also an important cultural and social institution in many societies. They provided a sense of community and support for travelers, and were often led by experienced guides who knew the route and the local customs.
These technologies made this route far safer and easier to travel, and thus trans-Saharan trade flourished, carrying salt, gold, slaves, and cowrie shells, the last of which were used as currency.

Expansion of Trans-Saharan Empires

The biggest religion that spread across this trade route was Islam. Over time, if African states weren’t already taken over by the Islamic caliphate, they may have converted voluntarily, with much help from the Arab Berber traders, many of whom were already converted to Islam.
Additionally, empires with valued goods expanded rapidly during this flourishing of the trade route, such as the Mali, Ghana, and Songhai empires.

Mali Empire

The Mali Empire was a West African empire that emerged in the 13th century in the region that is now western Mali. The Mali Empire was located along major trans-Saharan trade routes and played a significant role in facilitating the trade of gold, salt, and other goods between West Africa and the Mediterranean. The empire was known for its rich deposits of gold, which were a major contributor to its wealth and power. The Mali Empire was also known for its strong centralized government, its military might, and its ability to extract tribute from its neighbors. The capital of the Mali Empire was located at Niani, which was a major center of trade and commerce. The Mali Empire reached its peak of power in the 14th and 15th centuries, but it eventually declined and was eventually conquered by the Moroccan Saadi dynasty in the late 16th century.

Ghana Empire

The Ghana Empire was a medieval West African empire located in what is now southeastern Mauritania and western Mali. It is known for its role in facilitating the trans-Saharan trade of gold, salt, and other goods between West Africa and the Mediterranean. The empire was located along major trans-Saharan trade routes and controlled the trade of these valuable commodities. The Ghana Empire was also known for its military prowess and its ability to extract tribute from its neighbors. The capital of the Ghana Empire was located at Kumbi Saleh, which was a major center of trade and commerce. The Ghana Empire declined in the 11th century, but its legacy continued to influence the region for many centuries afterwards.

Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire was a West African empire that emerged in the 15th century in the region that is now southeastern Mauritania, western Mali, and eastern Senegal. The empire was located along major trans-Saharan trade routes and played a significant role in facilitating the trade of gold, salt, and other goods between West Africa and the Mediterranean. The Songhai Empire was known for its strong centralized government, its military might, and its ability to extract tribute from its neighbors. The capital of the Songhai Empire was located at Gao, which was a major center of trade and commerce. The empire's political and economic power was based in large part on its control of the trans-Saharan trade routes and the trade of valuable commodities. The Songhai Empire reached its peak of power in the 15th and 16th centuries, but it ultimately declined and was conquered by the Moroccan Saadi dynasty in the late 16th century.
Mali in West Africa in particular became one of the richest empires in the region due to its large supply in gold-- so rich, in fact, that when their king Mansa Musa made his pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca every place he stopped along the way became so flooded with gold that their economies inflated drastically. That’s how rich this guy was-- he could literally give out so much gold that it could crash an entire city’s economy.

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