The Sahara Desert, The Sea of Sand Illustration

Sahara Desert
The Sea of Sand

The use of camels as a transportation vehicle changed everything in Africa.

 In ancient times, Egypt and Kush, located in East Africa, did very little trade with West Africa. They had heard that West Africa had wonderful things – gold, salt, ivory. They knew that West Africa needed iron. They knew they could trade iron for salt, gold, and ivory. The problem was getting there. The Sahara Desert was in the way and that was not only a problem, it was a huge problem.

The Sahara Desert: The Sahara Desert is located in North Africa, and divdes East and West Africa. It is the largest desert in the world. If you lifted the Sahara Desert out of Africa and plunked it down in the middle of the United States, it would stretch from California to New York. It's that big!  Can you imagine a desert that runs from New York City to Los Angeles? Or one that runs all the way from Maine to Mexico? Yet, the Sahara Desert only covers about one-third of the continent of Africa (which is the second largest continent in the world.) That's how big Africa is!

The Sahara Desert is one of the hottest places on earth. During the day, the temperature can be 130 degrees Fahrenheit. As miserable as you would be from the heat, it’s the dryness that makes it a desert. The Sahara perhaps enjoys three inches of rain a year, and even that is speckled. It might rain in one place and not rain again in the same place for years. It’s no wonder that the Sahara Desert is called the Sea of Sand. There is life in the Sea of Sand, but it's mostly poisonous snakes and poisonous spiders.

You can see why people were not eager to cross the Sahara Desert on foot, certainly not simply to see what was on the other side, and not even for trade, no matter how potentially lucrative.

Oasis: There are some little patches of land in the Sahara where green plants grow. A little patch like this is called an oasis. In these tiny sections of the desert, there are not only green plants but also cool water fed by an underground stream. But you might travel days before you found an oasis. Even though there are many of these small patches of land scattered about in the desert, the Sahara is so big that you might have to travel a day or even weeks to reach one. In the meantime, you are exposed to very hot, shifting sand dunes that seem to run forever.

Desert Life: In spite of the horrible conditions for humans, there is life in the desert. There are many animals and plants that thrive there including poisonous snakes and poisonous spiders. But the Sahara is not a geographically friendly place for humans. You can see why people were a bit reluctant to cross the Sahara in search of trading partners.

Camels – Ships of the Desert: Around 750 CE, everything changed when Islamic traders began to use camels to transport goods across the desert. The use of camels made it possible to get from Kush in the East to kingdoms in West Africa, to literally get from here to there through the desert. Camels were the perfect answer. Camels can carry heavy loads. They can keep their footing in sliding sand. They can go a long time without water. If treated well, they’re patient beasts. Camels soon were nicknamed the “Ships of the Desert”.  Even with camels, the trip was not easy, but it was at least possible. Weary and tired from their travels, trader looked forward to stopping at a life giving oasis. Some patches of green were large enough to support a small community of people who made their home there. They traded water and food for goods the traders carried.

It was also a chance to have some fun. On flat ground, camels can run very fast. In fact, they run so fast that if you stopped at an oasis in the Sahara Desert, you might find a camel race in progress. It was a popular but dangerous game. If your camel lost, it could cost you either your camel or some or all of your goods depending upon what you had arranged prior to the race. Nearly every trader believed his camels were the best. Add to that the chance of winning more goods to trade or perhaps even a camel, and you can see why camel races continued to be to a popular sporting activity for many, many years.

Caravans: The Trans-Sahara Trade Route
Traders did not try to cross the desert with one camel. Instead, they grouped together in caravans, somewhat like wagon trains were used during the American Western Expansion. Instead of wagons, traders used camels. Caravans of camels were loaded with trade goods, water, and food. The day the first caravan of camels headed west into the Sahara Desert was the day that marked the opening of the Trans-Sahara Trade Route.


  1. What huge desert is located in North Africa?

  2. What is an oasis?

  3. What is a “Ship of the Desert”?

  4. What is known as the “Sea of Sand”?

  5. What is a caravan?

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