The Trans-Sahara Trade Route
In ancient times, the Kingdom of Kush, located in East Africa, did very little trade with kingdoms located in 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. 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. To make things even more miserable, the Sahara is home to poisonous spiders and snakes.
There are some little patches of land in the Sahara where green plants grow and water flows from underground streams. 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.
As lucrative as they suspected trade would be, it just wasn't possible. It was very unlikely that you would live if you tried to make the trip.
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.
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.
Oasis Towns: 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. All the caravans looked forward to resting at the oasis towns and a chance to restock their food and water for the next leg of the trip.
Camel Races: The oasis towns also offered 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.
Mansa Musa: The most exciting visitor to the oasis towns was Mansa Musa, King of Mali, on his way from Mali in the West to the holy city of Mecca in the East. Every time he stopped at an oasis city, he left behind gold in exchange for food and water. Since he was traveling with an extremely large group, he left behind piles of gold, monies the townspeople used to trade for goods from various caravans for a very long time. Mansa Musa was incredibly generous.