For those who knew how to survive it, the Sahara was not an impenetrable desert as much as it was a vast, navigable ocean. Like ships on the ocean, large camel caravans have crossed vast distances on waves of sand for centuries, stopping at island oases along the way. The sahel, the Arabic word for shore, describes the semiarid region just below the Sahara. It was upon this inland shore that Arab and Berber traders deposited their most valuable goods: solid blocks of salt. Salt from the sea would not work as it quickly dissolved in the humid and vast region of West Africa. Only solid salt bars from the desert could be carried without spoiling. Salt was needed to replace fluids in the body and for preserving food in a tropical climate where meat spoiled quickly. Salt was so valuable to the people of western Sudan that some were willing to pay the price of gold for salt. Gold was plentiful south of the Sahara. Ibn al Hamdhani, an Arab geographer, described gold growing there like carrots in the ground.
Similarly salt was plentiful in the Sahara. The buildings in the town of Taghaza in the middle of the Sahara were built from blocks of salt. While the West Africans needed the salt for their diet, the North Africans needed gold for currency. Kingdoms, wealthy merchants, great empires, and kings would rise and fall on both sides of the Saharan shore, their fortunes largely dependent on the trade of salt and gold. With plentiful salt in the north but a lack of gold, and plentiful gold in the south with a lack of salt, the conditions for trade were perfect. Ironically the gold and salt miners almost never saw each other face to face. Merchants from the west and north traded, while the great empires of the south, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, managed the trade. The gold miners, the Wangaran people, did not want to give up the secret locations of their mines deep in the dense rainforests of West Africa and would swear not to reveal information about the gold mines if captured.
The gold and salt trade had an important impact on both the culture of the northern traders and subSahara. Gold introduced the Mediterranean world to the enticing natural riches of Africa and fueled an economic boom. The sub-Saharan rulers similarly gained from the salt and from the new ideas and religious practices introduced by the northern traders, allowing them to create unified states around Islam.
- Ajayi, J. F., and M. Crowder, eds. History of West Africa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972;
- Conrad, David. Empire of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali and Songhay. New York: Facts On File, 2005;
- Levtzion, Nehemia, and Jay Spaulding. Medieval West Africa: Views from Arab Scholars and Merchants. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2003;
McKissack, Patricia and Frederick. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. New York: Henry Holt, 1995