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Trans-Saharan Trade Route

Trans-Saharan Trade Route

People from all walks of life need resources no matter where they live. What do you do if some of the required resources are hard to come by? People have relied on trade to access goods for thousands of years. One popular trade route was the Trans-Saharan trade, which helped people get common and uncommon resources. Keep reading to learn about the people who used the route and the goods they traded.

Trans-Saharan Trade Route Definition

Crossing more than 600 miles of the Sahara desert between sub-Saharan African and North Africa, the Trans-Saharan Trade Route is a web of routes that enabled trade between the 8th and 17th centuries.

Trans-Saharan Trade Route

A 600-mile web of trade networks crossing the Sahara desert

Camel Caravan. Trans-Saharan Trade Route. StudySmarter. Fig. 1: Camel Caravan

Trans-Saharan Trade Route History

Historians believe that ancient Egyptians imported obsidian from Senegal in West Africa. To achieve this, they would have had to cross the Sahara desert.

Did you know? The Sahara Desert was not as hostile during the time of the Ancient Egyptians as it is now.

Evidence points to trade between the people residing in coastal North Africa and desert communities, specifically the Berber people.

Actual trade emerged in 700 CE. A few factors led to the development of this organized trade. Oasis communities grew, the use of camels increased, and Islam began to spread. The Berbers and Arabs in North Africa started to travel in caravans to West Africa and back.

Did you know? Caravans or camels made it significantly more accessible for people to cross the Sahara. Most trains had around 1,000 camels, but some had as many as 12,000!

At the dawn of the Common Era, the North African coast was under the control of the Roman Empire. Egypt and Libya were wealthy trade and population hubs. Berbers used the routes to move enslaved people, animals, spices, and gold. Other foods and goods were moved into West Africa. General trade in the area began to diminish as climate change made the area more difficult to travel.

Despite this, trans-Saharan trade roared to life, and a "golden age" of trade began around 700 CE. By this time, Islam was prevalent across all of Northern Africa. Camels revolutionized both travel and trade.

The period from 1200 to 1450 CE is seen as the peak of trading along the trans-Saharan trade route. Trade connected West Africa to the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

Trade towns developed on both sides of the desert. The Ghanian Empire dominated for two hundred years before it fell. The Mali Empire then arose.

Eventually, the importance of this trade route disappeared as sea routes became an easier way to travel and trade.

Trans Saharan Trade Route Map

Trans-Saharan Caravan Routes. Trans-Saharan Trade Route. StudySmarter. Fig. 2: Trans-Saharan Trade Route Map

Caravans of camels and traders crossed the Trans-Saharan trade route in many places. There were

  • seven routes that ran from north to south
  • two routes that ran from east to west
  • six routes that ran through forests

The trans-Saharan trade route was a web of passages through the desert that worked like a relay race. Camel caravans aided traders.

Why was this route so important? People who received goods from the route wanted goods that were not readily available in their home regions. There are essentially three different climate zones in Northern Africa. The northern part has a Mediterranean climate. The western coast has a grassland climate. In between lies the Sahara desert. Finding a safe way to cross the desert to trade allowed people in different regions to obtain new items.

  • The Mediterranean region produced cloth, glass, and weapons.
  • The Sahara had copper and salt.
  • The western coast had textiles, metal, and gold.

The trans-Saharan trade route helped people access all of these items.

Trans-Saharan Trade Route Technology

Technological innovation helped trade grow through the trans-Sahara region. Examples of these innovations include camels, saddles, caravans, and caravansaries.

The most significant piece of "technology" that helped trade throughout the Sahara was the introduction of the camel. Why the camel? Well, they were more suited to the environment than horses. Camels are naturally good at surviving for long periods with minimal water to drink. Camels can also travel long distances. They are also more robust, carrying hundreds of pounds of goods long distances.

The Berbers introduced a saddle for a camel, which allowed the rider to carry large loads of goods over long distances. Over time, different variations of the harness were introduced. People kept looking for ways to safely improve the saddle to hold heavier loads of goods. More goods could be moved through the desert if a harness could carry heavier items. This would potentially allow for lower costs and higher profits.

Camel Caravan. Trans-Saharan Trade Route. StudySmarter.Fig: 3 Camel Caravan

Camel caravans were another critical innovation. More trade along the trans-Saharan trade route meant more traders traveling space. Traders began traveling together since traveling in a big group was safer. Bandits often raid small groups of traders. Caravans also provided safety in case a trader or camel was sick or injured during travel.

The last important innovation was the caravanserai. Caravanserais were like an inn where a trader could stop to rest. They also functioned as trading posts. Caravanserais were square or rectangular-shaped buildings that contained a courtyard in the center. There were rooms for merchants to rest, places to trade, and stables for camels. They were necessary for the safety they provided and the cultural diffusion that occurred from having a diverse group of people in close quarters.

These innovations were vital because they allowed for more items to be traded and communication between regions. Remember, the desert has exceptionally harsh conditions, and failure to travel through the region without taking the correct precautions would likely result in death. These innovations allowed people to travel and trade in the area a bit more safely.

Trans-Saharan Trade Route: Goods

What goods were traded along the Trans-Saharan trade route? The significant goods traded were salt, gold, humans, and cowrie shells used for currency.

The communities in West Africa often utilized the trans-Saharan trade routes for trading with those in Northern Africa and vice-versa. The West African communities looked to trade their gold, salt, textiles, and ivory. The northern African communities wanted to trade animals, weaponry, and books.

Trans-Saharan trade also included the trading of human slaves. These slaves, most often prisoners of war, were typically sold by the West Africans to the Muslim traders in North Africa.

Gold

The Trans-Saharan trade route was important as it linked Northern and Western Africa. Caravans of camels and traders traveled the web-like route, using it to trade for goods they did not have access to. Salt, gold, and humans were just some traded resources.

However, one of these items, gold, stands out from the rest. It was the most notable item being traded along the trans-Saharan route. Originally exported from western and central Sudan, gold was in high demand.

The use of the Trans-Saharan trade route to move goods extends back to the 4th and 5th century. Berbers, a group of people from Northwest Africa, used camels to transport a high volume of goods to Ghana, Mali, and Sudan. The Berbers traded these goods for gold. Then they would move the gold back across the Sahara so they could work with traders from the Mediterranean and North Africa.

Gold was abundant in the sub-Saharan areas, and people outside of Africa quickly found out about it. From the 7th to the 11th century, the Mediterranean areas of northern Africa traded salt to the sites below the Sahara desert, where there were plentiful gold reserves.

From the 6th-13th centuries, the Ghana empire was known for its abundance of gold. Nuggets of gold were weighed, and any that were deemed large enough became property of the king. This impacted gold trader as the traders mostly worked with small flakes.

The gold trade benefitted many other empires on the African continent. The gold trade allowed for them to have access to good that they might not have otherwise had. The gold trade impacted European empires as well. A lot of the gold was used to create coins for the European money economy.

West African gold has continued to be a popular and important resource. It continued to be mined, even when it was discovered that there was gold in Mesoamerica. West African empires continued to mine it, improving technology slowly but surely.

Trans-Saharan Trade Significance

The Trans-Saharan trade route expanded over time, significantly impacting nearby people and places. The significance of trans-Saharan trade can be seen in the politics, economics, and societies of North and West Africa.

Many positive effects of trans-Saharan trade can be seen in the region. They include but are not limited to

  • growth of trade towns

  • evolution of the merchant class

  • heightened agricultural production

  • new access to goldfields in West Africa.

As people gained access to new goldfields, West Africans began accumulating wealth. This encouraging growth of new trade routes expanded further into West Africa. The region started quickly gaining trading power, and large empires began to develop. Two of the most significant trading empires were Mali and Songhai. The economy of these empires was based on trans-Saharan trade, so they encouraged trade by supporting the traveling merchants in the area.

However, not all effects of trade along the trans-Saharan route were positive. Some of the more damaging effects were

  • increased warfare
  • increased slave trade

The cultural trade along the trans-Saharan route may have been the most significant. Cultural diffusion allowed religion, language, and other ideas to spread along the route. Islam is a strong example of cultural distribution along the trans-Saharan trade route.

Islam spread into North Africa between the 7th and 9th centuries. It started slowly expanding, aided by the transfer of ideas between the West African people and the Muslim merchants they interacted with. The upper, elite social classes were the first to convert. Wealthy African merchants who converted then were able to connect with wealthy Islamic merchants.

Trans-Saharan Trade Route Summary

The trans-Saharan Trade Route was a 600-mile web of trade networks crossing Africa's Sahara desert. It linked Northern and Western Africa. Caravans of camels and traders crossed the Trans-Saharan trade route in many places. There were some portions of the trail that ran from north to south or from east to west. Some parts of the route crossed through forests. This trade route was vital because it allowed people to obtain items that were not quickly produced in their environment.

Many types of goods were transported along the trans-Saharan trade route. They include salt, gold, and humans. Human slaves and gold were heavily traded in the region.

Some significant technological innovations helped sustain trade across this challenging desert region. These innovations include the introduction of camel, camel saddles, caravans, and caravansaries.

Over time, trade continued, and access to the goldfields increased. As merchants began to accumulate wealth, the wealthy merchant class emerged. Access to gold helped powerful empires rise.

Significant cultural trade arose through the cultural diffusion around the trade routes. Cultural diffusion allowed religion (primarily Islam), language, and other ideas to spread along the route. Islam spread into North Africa between the 7th and 9th centuries.

Trans-Saharan Trade Route - Key takeaways

  • The trans-Saharan Trade Route was a 600-mile web of trade networks that crossed the Sahara desert in Africa, linking northern and western Africa. This trade route was vital because it allowed people to obtain items that were not readily available in their communities.
  • Caravans of camels and traders crossed the Trans-Saharan trade route in many places.
  • Salt, spices, ivory, gold, and human slaves were heavily traded along the trans-Saharan routes.
  • The introduction of camels, saddles, caravans, and caravansaries are considered significant technological advances that aided travel through harsh environments.
  • Trans-Saharan trade facilitated the cultural diffusion responsible for the spread of Islam.

Frequently Asked Questions about Trans-Saharan Trade Route

Salt, spices, ivory, gold, and human slaves were heavily traded along the trans-Saharan routes. 

The trans-Saharan trade route crossed over 600 miles of land between Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. It connected northern and western Africa. 

The Trans-Saharan trade route was a web of routes allowing trade between western and northern Africa. 

The trans-Saharan trade route was important because it allowed for 

  • growth of trade towns

  • growth of the merchant class

  • heightened agricultural production 

  • new access to goldfields in West Africa. 


The trade routes also allowed for the religion of Islam to spread in the area. 

Final Trans-Saharan Trade Route Quiz

Question

True or False: The Trans-Saharan Trade Route crossed more than 600 miles of the Saharan desert. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

True or False: The trans-Saharan trade routes crossed sub-Saharan African and North Africa.

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Answer

True 

Show question

Question

True or false: The trans-Saharan trade route was really a web of routes that worked in a manner similar to a relay race.


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Answer

True  

Show question

Question

Why was the trans-Saharan trade route so important? 

Show answer

Answer

People who received goods from the route wanted goods that were not readily available in their home regions.

Show question

Question

The "Golden Age" of trade was around 

Show answer

Answer

700 CE

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Question

True or false: The period from 1200 to 1450 CE is seen as the peak of trading along the trans-Saharan trade route.


Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Which of the following innovations made trade easier? 

Show answer

Answer

Saddles for camels 

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Question

Why was the camel so important? 

Show answer

Answer

Camels need little water.

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Question

What goods were traded along the routes? 

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Answer

salt 

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Question

What was a positive effect of the trans-Saharan trade? 

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Answer

growth of trade towns

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