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The Trans-Saharan Trade Routes for AP World History

Cate O'Donnell

11 min read

Oct 18, 2023




The root “trans” means across. The Trans-Saharan trade routes were the trade routes across the Saharan Desert. They connected West Africa, East Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East. Other trade routes brought goods to and from Europe, India, China, and Southeast Asia. Read the Google Slides to learn more about the Trans-Saharan trade routes between 1200 and 1450.

Illustrative Examples

Camel Saddle


The Sahara Desert
The Sahara Desert 2372583035/Shutterstock

The Causes of the Trans-Saharan Trade Routes

The growth of Trans-Saharan trade networks from 1200 to 1450 was influenced by several key factors, which facilitated the exchange of goods, ideas, and cultures.

Technological Advances: The development of camel saddles and the widespread adoption of the dromedary (one-humped) camel as a means of transportation revolutionized Trans-Saharan trade. Camels were well-suited for the desert environment and could carry heavy loads over long distances, making it easier and more efficient to traverse the desert.

Urban Centers: Several major urban centers, known as entrepôts, emerged along the Trans-Saharan trade routes. These cities, such as Timbuktu, Gao, and Djenne in West Africa, and cities in North Africa like Sijilmasa, became vital hubs for trade. They provided traders with essential services, such as food, water, and shelter.

Gold and Salt Trade: One of the primary drivers of Trans-Saharan trade was the exchange of gold from West Africa and salt from the Sahara. The gold mines of West Africa, particularly in the region of modern-day Mali and Ghana, were rich sources of this precious metal. Salt was scarce in West Africa but plentiful in the Sahara. This exchange formed the basis of the trade networks.

Slavery and Labor: The demand for labor, including enslaved individuals, was a significant factor in Trans-Saharan trade. Slaves were bought and sold in the trade networks and often worked in various capacities in urban centers and as laborers on trans-Saharan caravans.

Islamic Influence: The spread of Islam across North and West Africa played a critical role in the growth of Trans-Saharan trade. Islamic merchants and scholars were instrumental in facilitating trade and fostering cultural exchange. Islamic cities and centers of learning emerged along the trade routes.

Cultural Exchange: Trans-Saharan trade networks were not only about the exchange of goods but also about the exchange of ideas, culture, and religion. Islamic scholars and travelers brought knowledge from the Middle East to West Africa, while African products, such as gold, ivory, and textiles, were introduced to North African and Middle Eastern markets.

Political Stability: Many regions along the Trans-Saharan trade routes experienced political stability and the rise of powerful empires during this period. Notable examples include the Mali Empire in West Africa and the Almoravid Dynasty in North Africa. These stable political entities provided a secure environment for trade to flourish.

Trade Routes: Well-established trade routes crisscrossed the Sahara, connecting various regions. These routes, often guided by skilled desert navigators, ensured that traders could navigate the challenging desert terrain.

Cultural and Religious Tolerance: In many regions, there was a level of cultural and religious tolerance that allowed traders from diverse backgrounds and faiths to engage in commercial activities.

Mali Empire

The Trans-Saharan trade had a profound and transformative impact on the Mali Empire, which was one of the West African powers at the center of this trade network.

Wealth and Prosperity: Mali was strategically located along the Trans-Saharan trade routes, which facilitated the exchange of gold from West Africa and salt from the Sahara. The trade in gold, in particular, brought immense wealth to Mali. The Mali Empire’s rulers, including Mansa Musa, became known for their vast riches and grand displays of wealth.

Economic Power: Mali’s control over gold mines and the lucrative Trans-Saharan trade routes established it as a dominant economic power in the region. The wealth generated from trade allowed Mali to invest in infrastructure, develop urban centers, and support its people.

Cultural Exchange: The Trans-Saharan trade facilitated cultural exchange. The introduction of Islam through trade and cultural connections led to the spread of the religion within the empire. Islamic scholars and travelers brought knowledge, writing, and religious practices that enriched Mali’s intellectual and cultural life.

Urban Growth: Mali’s urban centers, such as Timbuktu and Gao, thrived as trade hubs. These cities attracted merchants, scholars, and travelers from across the Islamic world. Timbuktu, in particular, became a renowned center of learning and culture.

Political Influence: Mali’s control over the Trans-Saharan trade routes gave it considerable political influence in the region. The Mali Empire used its wealth and power to forge alliances, establish control over neighboring regions, and expand its territory.

Infrastructure Development: The wealth generated from the Trans-Saharan trade enabled Mali to invest in infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and caravanserais (rest stops for travelers and traders). These improvements facilitated trade and travel across the empire.

Religious and Cultural Syncretism: The exchange of people and ideas through the trade networks contributed to religious and cultural syncretism. Traditional African religious practices, Islamic beliefs, and local customs blended, creating a unique cultural tapestry in Mali.

Challenges and Decline: While the Trans-Saharan trade brought tremendous prosperity, it also presented challenges. Mali’s wealth attracted the attention of neighboring powers and contributed to internal struggles for control over the empire. Additionally, the empire’s dependence on the trade made it vulnerable to disruptions, such as shifts in trade routes and changes in demand for certain goods.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Musa I of Mali, was a prominent and legendary ruler of the Mali Empire in West Africa. He is best known for his wealth and his pilgrimage to Mecca.

Early Life and Ascension: Mansa Musa was born around 1280 in the town of Niani, which was part of the Mali Empire. He came to power in 1312 after the death of his predecessor, Abu-Bakr II.

Malian Empire: Mansa Musa ruled during a period when the Mali Empire was one of the most powerful and wealthy empires in the world. It controlled vast territories, including parts of present-day Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, and Mauritania.

Wealth and Gold: Under Mansa Musa’s rule, Mali became renowned for its vast reserves of gold. He is often considered one of the wealthiest individuals in history. The empire’s wealth was derived from the gold mines of the region and taxes from trade.

Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca): One of Mansa Musa’s most famous journeys was his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. He embarked on this hajj, or religious pilgrimage, with an entourage that included thousands of people and an immense amount of gold. His extravagant spending during the pilgrimage left a lasting impression on the regions he passed through.

Legacy: Mansa Musa is celebrated not only for his wealth but also for his contributions to the Mali Empire. He promoted education and Islamic scholarship, supporting the construction of mosques and madrasas, some of which became centers of learning. The famous Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu is one such example.

Economic Impact: Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca had a significant economic impact on the regions he visited. His generous distribution of gold and gifts along the way caused temporary inflation and affected local economies. His trip also showed the rest of the world the wealth of the Mali Empire.

Timbuktu: During his reign, Timbuktu became a center of trade, culture, and learning. It attracted scholars and artists, contributing to its reputation as a great city of knowledge.

The Beginning of the Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire’s rise and eventual takeover of the Mali Empire was a complex process involving various factors, including political, military, and economic dynamics.

Malian Decline: By the 15th century, the Mali Empire had already experienced a significant decline in power and influence. The empire was weakened by internal conflicts, such as succession disputes and rebellions in the provinces. Additionally, the lucrative Trans-Saharan trade routes had shifted to other regions, diminishing Mali’s wealth and influence.

Emergence of the Songhai: The Songhai people, who lived along the Niger River and the Gao region, had established themselves as a powerful regional force. Under the leadership of Sonni Ali, they began expanding their influence and territory.

Military Campaigns: Sonni Ali, who ruled the Songhai Kingdom from 1464 to 1492, was a formidable military leader. He embarked on a series of successful military campaigns, including the capture of important cities and trade centers along the Niger River. One of the most significant events was the capture of Timbuktu in 1468.

Control of Trade Routes: The Songhai Empire’s control of key trade routes, including the Niger River and Trans-Saharan trade routes, allowed them to benefit economically and gain access to wealth, which was critical for the empire’s growth and dominance.

Expansion and Consolidation: Sonni Ali’s successor, Askia Muhammad I, further expanded the Songhai Empire. His rule, from 1493 to 1528, was marked by military conquests and the consolidation of power. He implemented effective administrative reforms and brought stability to the empire.

Incorporation of Mali: As the Songhai Empire expanded westward, they encountered the remaining territories of the Mali Empire. In 1468, the Songhai Empire took control of Timbuktu, which had been a key city of the Mali Empire. Over the course of the 15th century, Songhai extended its influence and absorbed the former Mali territories.

Cultural and Religious Influence: The Songhai Empire absorbed some of the cultural and religious practices of the Mali Empire, particularly Islam. Timbuktu remained an important center of Islamic scholarship and learning during Songhai’s rule.

Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire, a powerful West African kingdom, played a crucial role in the Trans-Saharan trade routes during the late medieval period.

Wealth and Prosperity: Just like the Mali Empire before it, the Songhai Empire was strategically located along the Trans-Saharan trade routes. This allowed them to control and profit from the exchange of gold from West Africa and salt from the Sahara. Gold, in particular, was a highly sought-after commodity, and the empire’s control over gold mines made it one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the region.

Cultural Exchange: The trade routes facilitated the exchange of not only goods but also culture, ideas, and religion. Islamic scholars, traders, and travelers brought Islam to the region, leading to the spread of the religion within the empire. The Islamic influence can be seen in the architecture, education, and governance of the Songhai Empire.

Urban Growth: Major cities in the Songhai Empire, such as Gao and Timbuktu, flourished as trade hubs. These cities attracted merchants, scholars, and travelers from across the Islamic world and became centers of learning and culture.

Infrastructure Development: The wealth generated from the Trans-Saharan trade enabled the Songhai Empire to invest in infrastructure, including roads and bridges, which facilitated trade and communication.

Challenges and Decline: While the Trans-Saharan trade brought immense prosperity, it also presented challenges. The empire’s wealth attracted the attention of neighboring powers, and internal struggles for control over trade routes and wealth sometimes led to conflicts. Additionally, like other West African empires, the Songhai Empire faced vulnerabilities related to shifts in trade routes and disruptions.


Timbuktu, located in present-day Mali, holds a significant place in history, particularly during the period from 1200 to 1450.

Emergence as a Trading Hub: Timbuktu began to rise as a prominent trading hub during the 13th century. It was strategically located along the Niger River and at the crossroads of key Trans-Saharan trade routes. This positioning made it a vital center for the exchange of goods, including gold, salt, ivory, and other commodities.

Mali Empire: During the 13th century, Timbuktu was part of the Mali Empire, one of the most powerful West African empires. The Mali Empire’s rulers, such as Mansa Musa brought enormous wealth and prestige to Timbuktu.

Scholarly and Cultural Center: Timbuktu became renowned for its rich intellectual and cultural life. The city attracted scholars, poets, and writers from across the Islamic world. It was home to prominent centers of learning, including madrasas (Islamic schools) and libraries. Notable scholars and academics, such as Ahmad Baba al-Massufi, contributed to Timbuktu’s scholarly reputation.

Islamic Influence: The Islamic faith played a central role in the life of Timbuktu. The city was not only a hub for trade but also a center for Islamic scholarship. It was known for its many mosques, and religious institutions.

Architectural Marvels: Timbuktu was characterized by its distinctive architecture. The city was known for its mud-brick structures, including the famous mosques and mausoleums. The Djinguereber Mosque, built in the 14th century, is a remarkable example of Sahelian architecture.

Economic Importance: Timbuktu’s economic significance continued to grow during this period. It was a primary marketplace for gold, which was sourced from the nearby gold mines, and salt, which came from the Sahara Desert. The wealth generated from this trade contributed to the city’s prosperity.

Cultural Exchange: Timbuktu was a melting pot of cultures, where diverse peoples, including Berbers, Arabs, and various West African ethnic groups, interacted.

The Spread of Islam into West Africa

Trans-Saharan Trade Routes: The Trans-Saharan trade routes, which connected West Africa with North Africa and the Islamic world, played a significant role in the early spread of Islam. Muslim traders and merchants traveling along these routes introduced Islam to West African societies.

Berber and Arab Traders: Berber and Arab traders from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula ventured into West Africa for trade. These traders not only exchanged goods but also shared Islamic culture and religion with the people they encountered.

Urban Centers: The establishment of urban centers in West Africa, such as Timbuktu and Gao, as important trading hubs, led to the growth of Muslim communities. These cities often hosted mosques, madrasas, and scholars, contributing to the dissemination of Islamic knowledge.

Conversion of Rulers: The conversion of West African rulers to Islam had a profound impact on the religion’s spread. When rulers converted to Islam, it often led to the adoption of Islam by their subjects, as they sought to emulate their leaders.

Intermarriage and Cultural Exchange: Interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims often led to intermarriage and cultural exchange. Over time, these interactions resulted in the gradual acceptance of Islamic practices and beliefs.

Islamic Missionaries: Islamic missionaries, known as “dai” or “marabouts,” were instrumental in spreading Islam. They traveled to remote regions, often living among local communities, teaching Islamic principles, and facilitating conversions.


Camels played a crucial role in the Trans-Saharan trade routes, facilitating the movement of goods, people, and culture across the vast desert expanse. Here are some key aspects of camels in the Trans-Saharan trade:

Adaptation to Desert Life: Camels are well-suited for desert environments. They have evolved to withstand extreme temperatures and can endure long periods without water. Their unique physiology, including humps for energy storage, allows them to traverse the arid Sahara Desert.

Transport of Goods: Camels were the primary mode of transportation for carrying goods across the Sahara. They could carry heavy loads, including commodities like gold, salt, ivory, textiles, and spices. This made them essential for the trade of valuable resources between North and West Africa.

Caravans: Caravans, consisting of numerous camels, were organized to transport goods and people. These caravans often included merchants, traders, and their goods. They followed established routes that connected trading centers across the Sahara.

Economic Impact: The efficiency of camel transportation in the Trans-Saharan trade had a significant economic impact. It allowed for the movement of commodities from regions where they were abundant to areas where they were in demand. The wealth generated by this trade shaped the economies of the regions involved.

Camel Caravanserais: Along the trade routes, there were often designated stopping points or caravanserais where travelers and their camels could rest, obtain food and water, and seek shelter from the elements. These waystations were vital for the success of long-distance journeys.

Salt and Gold

The salt-gold trade was a vital and mutually beneficial economic exchange that took place along the Trans-Saharan trade routes, connecting North Africa with the kingdoms and empires of West Africa.

Complementary Resources: The trade was called the “salt-gold trade” because it revolved around the exchange of two essential commodities—salt and gold. Salt was in high demand in West Africa, where it was scarce, while gold was abundant in the region. This trade was one of the earliest examples of specialization in economic history.

Gold from West Africa: West Africa, particularly the regions that now encompass countries like Mali, Ghana, and Niger, was known for its rich deposits of gold. Gold was highly valued in various forms, from dust and nuggets to crafted jewelry and objects.

Salt from North Africa: In contrast, North Africa, including areas like the Sahara Desert and the Maghreb, had limited sources of salt. Salt was a crucial commodity for preserving food, especially in hot desert environments.

Trade Routes: Caravans of traders, often led by Berber and Arab merchants, traversed the Sahara Desert, following established trade routes. These routes connected trading centers in both North and West Africa.

Camel Caravans: The caravans used camels, the “ships of the desert,” for transportation. Camels were well-suited for long journeys through arid and challenging desert landscapes. They could carry heavy loads, which made them ideal for the trade.

Economic and Cultural Exchange: The salt-gold trade not only facilitated the exchange of goods but also promoted cultural and intellectual exchange. Ideas, knowledge, and religious beliefs, such as Islam, spread as people and caravans traveled, contributing to the cultural diversity and richness of the region.

Wealth and Empires: The wealth generated from the salt-gold trade played a significant role in the rise and fall of West African empires. Prominent among these empires were the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, and the Songhai Empire.

Would you prefer to watch a video about the Trans-Saharan Trade Routes?

Unit 2: Networks of Exchange

AP World History

Trans-Saharan Trade Routes

#Africa #APWorldHistory #trade #transsaharantraderoutes

Cate O'Donnell

11 min read

Oct 18, 2023




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