Trans-Saharan Trade & West African Sudanic States

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  • 0:02 Trans-Saharan Trade
  • 0:39 Beginnings
  • 3:27 Decline
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the beginning, height, and decline of the trans-Saharan trade and the various states in West Africa which thrived off the trade.

Trans-Saharan Trade

Gold is one of the most expensive commodities and one of the most sought-after rocks in human history. Chances are you know someone with flashy gold jewelry, or maybe even a weird uncle who buries gold coins in his backyard. Gold's sheen and durability has caused it to have many uses in human history, from decoration to coinage. So important was gold in the Middle Ages that it caused thousands to traverse the most barren landscape on Earth on a regular basis: the Sahara desert.

In this lesson, we will explore the beginning, height, and decline of the trans-Saharan trade and the states and people who profited from it.


As mentioned just seconds ago, gold has been sought after for centuries. After the fall of Rome, the seat of power in the western world shifted east, to the Eastern Roman Empire which became the Byzantine Empire. At its height, it controlled large swaths of North Africa and most of the Middle East. This prosperous and burgeoning empire needed gold badly to create coins and other products. Fortunately for North African and Mediterranean traders, a route to the gold fields of sub-Saharan Africa had already been established. Indeed, by about the 4th or 5th century C.E., Berber-speaking people from the North African Maghreb had established trade routes across the Sahara using camels.

By the end of the 5th century, Berbers were routinely traveling across the Sahara to trade salt and other goods to the African states in Sudan, Mali, Ghana, and elsewhere in western Africa. In exchange, they received gold, which the sub-Saharan African states had in abundance. Indeed, travelers to these early African states have left accounts of plentiful quantities of gold decorating sub-Saharan African courts, homes, and people, from gold-embroidered clothing, swords, and scabbards, to even gold pet accessories! After acquiring the gold, the Berbers traveled back across the Sahara to trade the gold back to Mediterranean and North African traders.

As the word spread of these resources, demand grew and expeditions grew larger. By the 7th century C.E., the trans-Saharan trade was thriving. The trade depended heavily on both camels and oases. Camels were perfectly suited to Saharan travel; not only could they go long periods of time without needing water, but they could also carry heavy burdens across great distances.

Still, the Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world, and oases served these Saharan caravans as makeshift refueling stations. There, trading caravans could take on water and extra food, as carrying enough for the entire trip would have been far too heavy a load to be profitable. When the trade was at its height, between the 7th and 11th centuries, complex systems were devised where word was sent ahead to oases and water was brought to the caravans as they passed so the traders never had to stop moving. Over time these caravans grew from a few dozen camels to several thousand strong!

The trans-Saharan trade enriched the sub-Saharan African kingdoms beyond what would have been possible without it. For example, the Soninke Empire of Ghana's rise during the 8th century C.E. is thought to be directly connected to the wealth created by the trans-Saharan trade. The Soninke managed to maintain their stranglehold on the trade through keeping the source of their gold a secret. The accumulation of wealth helped them expand their empire, and by the 11th century, the Soninke had taken control of several southern Saharan stops in the hope of monopolizing the gold trade altogether.


The gold fields' profitability in time worked against them. Though the Soninke had managed to keep the Ghanaian gold sources secret, this did not stop others from opening up their own mines. In the 12th century, new fields opened up west and south of the Soninke's traditional fields, and traders began to bypass the Soninke to trade with other tribes.

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