The Trans-Saharan Caravan Trade, Religion & Culture

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  • 0:02 Trans-Saharan Trade
  • 0:40 Camels
  • 1:22 Berbers
  • 2:09 Islam
  • 3:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson explains the history of the trans-Saharan caravan trade. We highlight the Berbers, the role of the camel, and the introduction of Islam to West Africa.

Trans-Saharan Trade

When Hollywood depicts the Sahara Desert, it usually just shows mounds and mounds of sand with no signs of life. Yes, every once in a while you'll see a scene with a few camels trekking across open land, but movies very seldom capture the rich history of these sandy, sandy lands.

One of Hollywood's biggest omissions is the economic trade that was booming in the Sahara Desert from about the 9th through 13th centuries. To fill in these gaps, today's lesson will explore what has come to be known as the Trans-Saharan caravan trade, a system of extensive trade routes that connected the Saharan region to the outside world.


For starters, the trans-Saharan caravan trade was so dynamic and active that some historians refer to it as a sandy sea. In other words, just like the Pacific and the Atlantic have trade routes with bustling ports, so did the Sahara. However, rather than water and ships, the trans-Saharan trade routes had sand and camels. In fact, camels were often called the ships of the desert.

They were the animal of choice mainly because they could carry lots of weight and they could go long periods without water. The fact that they could move rather quickly was also a big plus. Traveling in large groups, these merchants and their camels formed caravans, or groups of traders traveling together over long distances.


One group of traders was known as Berbers. These were a group of Arabs from North Africa who carried trade goods across the desert. However, unlike what we usually see in movies, where there are only a few camels traveling together, the Berber caravans usually consisted of hundreds, if not thousands, of camels. Some historians believe one Arab caravan traversed the desert with about 12,000 camels.

These huge Arab caravans carried things like silk, salt and textiles to the people of Africa. They then traded these things with the West Africans for things like gold, ivory and even dark ebony wood. They would then take these goods and trade them in places as far as Europe and China. With this, the Arabs and their caravans succeeded in connecting Africa to the outside world.


Speaking of this connection, it went much deeper than trading gold dust and salt. Along with shipping and trading goods, these Arab caravans brought with them something much less tangible, but extremely influential. They brought with them the faith of Islam, a religion based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. To this day, this connection remains alive and well as many of the people of West Africa still claim allegiance to the Islamic faith.

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