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The Trans-Saharan Trade route was a trade route that traveled across the Sahara desert. These trade routes have always been popular for people, even prior to the kingdoms of the Western and Central Sudan. At their height 8th century until the 17th century they served as a cultural highway for the different peoples and tribes along the trade route; and still serve the people today. Not only culture and goods, but religion was traded along this network.
These interactions with traders and merchants helped spread Islam to the Western African States and the Sahara. The Trans Saharan trade network is the first real example of people using camels to cross the desert. The merchants would travel in caravans with hundreds, even up to tens of thousands of camels in the caravan. These camels would have to be prepared for months before the journey, grazing and fattening themselves up.
Travel across the desert was extremely dangerous, requiring the trip to be well planned ahead of time. The Sahara once had a very different environment. In Libya and Algeria , from at least BC, there was pastoralism , herding of sheep and goats, large settlements and pottery. Remarkable rock paintings dated to BC , in places which are currently very dry, portray vegetation and animal presence rather different from modern expectations.
As a desert, Sahara is now a hostile expanse that separates the Mediterranean economy from the economy of the Niger basin. As Fernand Braudel points out that crossing such a zone especially without mechanized transport is worthwhile only when exceptional circumstances cause the expected gain to outweigh the cost and danger. Trade, beginning around CE, [ citation needed ] was conducted by caravans of camels. According to Ibn Battuta , the explorer who accompanied one of the caravans, the average size per caravan was 1, camels; some caravans were as large as 12, The survival of a caravan was precarious and would 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 easily carry enough with them to make the full journey.
In the middle of the 14th century Ibn Battuta crossed the desert from Sijilmasa via the salt mines at Taghaza to the oasis of Oualata. A guide was sent ahead and water was brought on a journey of four days from Oualata to meet the caravan. Ancient trade spanned the northeastern corner of the Sahara in the Naqadan era. Predynastic Egyptians in the Naqada I period traded with Nubia to the south, the oases of the Western Desert to the west, and the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean to the east.
Many trading routes went from oasis to oasis to resupply on both food and water. These oases were very important. The overland route through the Wadi Hammamat from the Nile to the Red Sea was known as early as predynastic times;  drawings depicting Egyptian reed boats have been found along the path dating to BC. The Darb el-Arbain trade route, passing through Kharga in the south and Asyut in the north, was used from as early as the Old Kingdom for the transport and trade of gold , ivory , spices , wheat , animals and plants.
The westernmost of the three central routes was the Ghadames Road, which ran from the Niger River at Gao north to Ghat and Ghadames before terminating at Tripoli. Next was the easiest of the three routes: The Garamantean Road passed south of the desert near Murzuk before turning north to pass between the Alhaggar and Tibesti Mountains before reaching the oasis at Kawar. From Kawar, caravans would pass over the great sand dunes of Bilma , where rock salt was mined in great quantities for trade, before reaching the savanna north of Lake Chad.
This was the shortest of the routes, and the primary exchanges were slaves and ivory from the south for salt. To the east, three ancient routes connected the south to the Mediterranean. The herdsmen of the Fezzan of Libya , known as the Garamantes , controlled these routes as early as BC.
From their capital of Germa in the Wadi Ajal , the Garamantean Empire raided north to the sea and south into the Sahel. By the 4th century BC, the independent city-states of Phoenecia had expanded their control to the territory and routes once held by the Garamantes.
West Africa received salt, cloth, beads, and metal goods. Shillington proceeds to identify this trade route as the source for West African iron smelting. Although there are Classical references to direct travel from the Mediterranean to West Africa Daniels, p. Herodotus had spoken of the Garamantes hunting the Ethiopian Troglodytes with their chariots; this account was associated with depictions of horses drawing chariots in contemporary cave art in southern Morocco and the Fezzan , giving origin to a theory that the Garamantes, or some other Saran people, had created chariot routes to provide Rome and Carthage with gold and ivory.
However, it has been argued that 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 3rd 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 7th and 8th centuries. 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 of the Fezzan with its trade route through the valley of Kaouar to Lake Chad, Libya was impassable due to its lack of oases and fierce sandstorms.
The rise of the Ghana Empire , now called Mali, Senegal, and southern Mauritania , paralleled the increase in trans-Saharan trade.
Mediterranean economies were short of gold but could supply salt, taken by places like the African salt mine of Taghaza , whereas West African countries like Wangara had plenty of gold but needed salt. The trans-Saharan slave trade was also important because large numbers of Africans were sent north, generally to serve as domestic servants or slave concubines.
It has been estimated that from the 10th to the 19th century some 6, to 7, slaves were transported north each year. There, and in other North African cities, Berber traders had increased contact with Islam, encouraging conversions, and by the 8th century, Muslims were traveling to Ghana.
Many in Ghana converted to Islam, and it is likely that the Empire's trade was privileged as a result. Around , Ghana lost Aoudaghost to the Almoravids , but new goldmines around Bure reduced trade through the city, instead benefiting the Malinke of the south, who later founded the Mali Empire.
Unlike Ghana, Mali was a Muslim kingdom since his foundation, and under it, the gold—salt trade continued. Other, less important trade goods were slaves, kola nuts from the south and slave beads and cowry shells from the north for use as currency. The eastern trans-Saharan route led to the development of the long lived Kanem-Bornu empire as well as the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires,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.
By the early 16th century, European trading bases, the " Factories " established on the coast since , and trade with the 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. However, the major blow to trans-Saharan trade was the Battle of Tondibi of — 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 the 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 s 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 s, 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 s and Algerian Civil War further disrupted routes, with many roads closed.
Traditional caravan routes are largely void of camels, but the shorter Azalai routes from Agadez to Bilma and Timbuktu to Taoudenni are still regularly—if lightly—used. Only a few trucks carry trans-Saharan trade, particularly fuel and salt. Three other highways across the Sahara are proposed: Building the highways is difficult because of sandstorms.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. History of Africa, Second Edition. Martin's Press, New York. The Perspective of the World. Published in French in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Harrell, Ian Shaw Nicholson and Ian Shaw editors.
Published in Cairo, Egypt. Retrieved January 21, Millard and Robert O. The Garamantes of Southern Libya. Oleander, North Harrow, Middlesex.
Archived at the Wayback Machine. A History of Africa. Routledge, 4th edition, This episode follows a Tuareg tribe across the Sahara for six months by camel.