|Saharan Trade: A Link Between Europe and Africa
The Saharan trade extended from the Sub-Saharan West African kingdoms across the Sahara desert to Europe. The Saharan Trade linked such African empires as Ghana, Mali, and Songhai to the European world.
Saharan Trade and the Empire of Ghana
In their book A Glorious Age in Africa, authors Daniel Chu and Elliot Skinner state that the "lifeblood of the [Ghana] empire was trade." Therefore, the Saharan trade routes were instrumental to the empire's success. Merchants carrying foodstuffs to the kingdom would trade them for locally produced goods such as cotton cloth, metal ornaments, leather goods, and above all GOLD. Koumbi was the trade center and capital of the empire.
The Gold-Salt Trade
While the Sudan, where the Empire of Ghana was situated, possessed a large amount of gold, the region lacked adequate salt for the survival of Empire's population. The Desert regions of present day Morocco and Algeria, however, contained huge salt resources, and desert inhabitants were always in search of valuables. Not surprisingly, the gold-salt trade between the Ghana Empire and the Arab desert merchants flourished.
The route began in Northern Africa in a commercial city known as Sidjilmassa (near the present-day Moroccan-Algerian border). It passed through the salt-rich village of Taghaza, through the Sahara and finally to the gold region of the Ghana Empire known as Wangara. No one knows the exact location of this region but it was probably near the Bambuk and Bure regions near the Senegal River.
The king maintained tight control over the kingdom's gold production in order to keep gold prices high. Only the king, for example, could possess gold nuggets; other residents could own only gold dust. The king also made profits of the trade by taxing traders who used trade routes that passed through the empire.
Saharan Trade during the Mali Empire
Despite the change in political control of West Africa due to the fall of the Ghana Empire and the rise of the Islamic Mali Empire in 1235, control of the gold-salt trade remained the economic lifeline of the region. Merchants established a second major gold-salt trade route northeast across the Sahara that passed through Tunis, and Cairo, and ended in Egypt's interior. This route complimented the traditional Western Sudan--Maghreb--Europe trade route. As the second trade route grew in popularity, Egypt's influence on the Western Sudan grew as well.
While the kings of the Ghana Empire restricted gold's availability during their reigns, the rulers of Mali did not. In fact, Mansa Musa, the most famous ruler of the Mali Empire, spent and gave so much gold during his celebrated hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) in 1324 that he severely lowered the value of the precious metal in Egypt .
Egyptian and Malian leaders continued to visit the two different kingdoms, but their voyages never could meet Mansa Musa's in splendor.
The Songhai Empire and Trans-Saharan Trade
When the Songhai people, under the leadership of Sunni Ali Kolon rose up to challenge the Mali Empire in the late 1400s, they understood the importance of controlling the trade centers of the Empire. The Songhai captured Timbuktu, a center of education and trade very well known outside of Western Africa, as well as Jenne, a beautiful city located in the backwaters of a tributary of the Niger River that was also a trade and learning center.
Gao, a city that had started to grow in importance during the Mali empire, continued to grow in population and in importance as a market center. In addition, the copper mining town of Takedda, located on the eastern trans-Saharan trading route, contributed to the Songhay empire's financial growth. Finally, during Sunni Ali's reign (late 1400s), trade along the eastern trans-Saharan route created during the Mali empire reached a peak.
Religion and the Trans-Saharan Trade
Merchants transported more than valuable commodities along the trans-Saharan routes. Just as Buddhism reached the Chinese Empire via Indian merchants travelling the Silk Road, Islam reached black West Africa through Arab Merchants on Saharan caravan routes. During the Ghana, Mali, and Songhay empires Arab merchants brought the Koran and the written language Arabic to the traditionally oral cultures each empire encompassed.
Although the common citizens usually felt no pressure to convert from their traditional religions, royal families and merchants often did convert to Islam in order to curry favor with the Arab traders. Kings and merchants understood the importance of extensive trade to their region.