The African Transition Zone

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  • 1:10 Ancient Cultures
  • 2:33 Contemporary Issues
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

The African Transition Zone is an imaginary transition zone between cultures and environments of north and central Africa. In this lesson, you will learn why the region is important, why it is grouped together, and major events that have impacted the area.


Like many geographical areas, the African Transition Zone is actually an imaginary region geographers have made to group together similar territories. In this case, the African Transition Zone separates the Sahara Desert environment and peoples of North Africa, from the tropical rain forests of Central Africa. It stretches all the way from the western coast to the eastern coast. Parts of the Nile River also pass through the zone.

The environment of the African Transition Zone is known as the Sahel, a semi-arid region of grasslands created by the collision of the Sahara Desert and central African rain forests. The African Transition Zone stretches over a million square miles, and is over 3500 miles in length. To put that into perspective, the distance from the eastern to western coasts of the United States is only 2500 miles.

Located close to the equator and the Sahara Desert, the African Transition Zone is one of the hottest places on Earth. Temperatures can reach as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The zone cuts across ten countries, including, from west to east: Senegal, The Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea.

Ancient Cultures

The western zone of the African Transition Zone (the area around Mauritania, Mali, and Niger) is an ancient cultural region that is home to some of the largest African civilizations the world has ever known. You might be familiar with the site Timbuktu, a world heritage site located in Mali that was an ancient city and cultural trading center for over a thousand years. The African Transition Zone is unique because it is centrally located between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Therefore, the region has been known for its trade and cultural exchange since ancient times.

In eastern areas of the African Transition Zone, countries are much more tied to ancient Egypt, and later on, the Islamic world. In Sudan, for instance, the famous Nubian peoples established the ancient kingdoms of Kush during the first millennium BC. Similar to the Egyptians, the Nubians built impressive pyramids and public monuments. The Nubians actually conquered Egypt for a time and contributed to Egypt's cultural achievements.

Hundreds of years later, the Nubian people joined the Islamic world during the Islamic conquests of the first millennium AD. Islam eventually reached across the entirety of the African Transition Zone, and places like Timbuktu became major Islamic capitals. Islam in the African Transition Zone area mixes traditional beliefs of the many different people making up the zone, with classic Islamic teachings. This practice is known as religious syncretism.

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