Ancient Africa: Trade Routes

The trade routes of Ancient Africa played an important role in the economy of many African Empires. Goods from Western and Central Africa were traded to faraway places like Europe, the Middle East, and India.

The main items traded were gold and salt. The gold mines of West Africa made empires such as Ghana and Mali very wealthy. Other commonly traded items included ivory, cloth, slaves, metal goods, and beads.

Major cities developed as trade centers. In Western Africa the major trade centers were Timbuktu, Gao, Agadez, and Djenne. Seaport cities developed along the coast of North Africa, such as Marrakesh, Tunis, and Cairo.

Major trade routes crossed the Sahara Desert between Western/Central Africa and the port trade centers along the Mediterranean Sea. One important trade route went from Timbuktu across the Sahara to Sijilmasa, and from there to many places including the port cities of Marrakesh or Tunis. Muslim traders who lived in West Africa became known as the Dyula people and were part of the wealthy merchant caste.

Traders traveled in large groups called caravans. Camels carried both goods and people. Sometimes slaves also transported goods. Large caravans offered protection from bandits. A typical caravan had between 1,000 and 10,000 camels. Caravans advanced at a rate of 3 miles per hour and took about 40 days to cross the Sahara Desert.

Without the camel, trade across the Sahara would have been nearly impossible. Camels can survive long periods without water and withstand the heat of the day and the cold of night in the desert. Before a trip across the desert, merchants would fatten up their camels. Camels have a double row of eyelashes to protect their eyes from the sand and the sun. They can also close their nostrils to keep out the sand.

Camels were first domesticated by the Berbers around 300 CE. With the use of camels, trade routes began to form between cities across the Sahara Desert. African trade reached its height after the Arabs conquered North Africa. Islamic merchants traded for gold and slaves from Western Africa. The trade routes remained an important part of the African economy throughout the Middle Ages.

The religion of Islam was spread throughout Western Africa through Muslim traders. Trade lowered crime rates through Islamic law and provided a common language (Arabic).

Source: Ancient Africa: Trade Routes
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