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Saharan Trade Routes – West African Empires, 1050 – 1500
Ancient Egypt and other areas of North Africa served as a crossroads for traders and
travelers over the centuries.
Geographic reasons for this economic factor:
The location on the Mediterranean brought N. Africa into contact with the empires of
Phoenicia, Greece and Rome. Egyptian civilization dominated its eastern edges for
Traders from the western African kingdoms brought their goods to North African cities
and ports. Gold and salt made these empires rich. Trade was made easier by camels and
the invention of a camel saddle that allowed traders to ride instead of walk. Camels could
take traders in any direction across the Sahara; they did not require roads to be able to
travel across the sands.
There were many salt deposits in the Sahara Desert and the ancient empires of Mali and
Salt has always been plentiful in the Sahara like gold was always plentiful in areas south
of the Sahara. Europeans called Ghana the land of gold.
In tropical Africa, salt has always been precious because it helps muscles work, aids in
digesting foods, and replaces nutrients lost from sweating.
1. Until camels were introduced in Africa in A.D. 300, trade from Mediterranean
ports was limited because many people couldn’t make it across the blistering
2. After the invention of the camel saddle, traders began caravans of thousands of
camels loaded with tons of salt to the southern markets. The camel saddle
revolutionized trade because it allowed trade without roads.
3. South of the Sahara, gold was plentiful, but salt was limited.
4. Salt literally became worth its weight in gold as traders exchanged their salt for
slaves, ivory, nuts, and gold.
5. The ancient empires of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai rose to great power from the
fortune brought by taxing goods along the salt trade routes.
6. Trade networks were also influential in spreading things like religion, culture,
ideas, and inventions. Islam was also introduced for the first time in Africa.
7. Mali’s most famous ruler, Mansa-Musa, made Timbuktu a leading center of
Islamic learning. People came from all over the Muslim world to study there.