A while back I had to write a term paper for one of my history classes. I really wanted to do a cross-historical comparison between the Trans-Saharan trade routes of the past and the modern smuggling routes used by drug traffickers and terrorists. One of the limitations of academia (or strength depending on your perspective) is that there is this strange gap where political science, history, and journalism do not quite merry up with each other.

Journalism doesn’t care about history very much. Political Science often ignores historical precedents and anecdotal evidence on the ground, and history is by its nature going to be 20 years or more behind the power curve because someone has to write white papers and PhD dissertations before the information can be cited as a source.

I’m hoping I can fill this gap to some extent with this series on the Trans-Saharan challenge, a series that will take an in depth look at the subject of trade, smuggling, conflict, and terrorism.

I hope readers don’t mind that I am going to blatantly recycle large amounts of the historical research I did for my history paper. From there I will move on to write the paper I wanted to all along, something that addresses what is actually happening right now and the challenges of Trans-Saharan terrorism and drug smuggling. For those who don’t think history is important, feel free to skip this. For those who know better, consider this a crash course of an area study for future operations.

Lets take it from the top…

The study of trans-Saharan trade routes is interesting from a historical, social, and religious perspective. How these routes evolved over the centuries is critical to our understanding of West African history. But how did these desert trade routes change over time and what were the social, political, and geographical drivers for that change?

To understand how trans-Saharan trade routes came into existence, we first need to understand how the desert expanse came into being in the first place. Geology and Palaeontology informs us that North Africa was not always a desert wasteland, but was once a fertile green pasture occupied by giraffes, elephants, and other large fauna. It was only during the beginning of the dry period in 3000 BC1 that that the geography of North Africa began to transform into the Sahara desert as we know it today.

Population centers collapsed to desert oases, into the Sahel, or further south to the Niger river bend where Jenne-Jao was established as a center of commercial activity sometime around 300 BC. People living in West Africa now began to settle and specialize in agriculture, metallurgy, and animal husbandry, which led to a need for trade between farmers, metal workers, and animal herdering pastorialists.

The ancient Greek explorer and writer, Herodotus, described the indigenous people of what is today modern Libya, the Garamantes, who may have been the first trans-Saharan traders to transport goods from sub-Saharan Africa to the North African coast. Three main trade routes are described during this era: Libya to Sudan, Algeria to Jenne-Jao by way of Mauritania, and Sudan to Egypt. There is, however, controversy amongst historians as to how much actual trans-Saharan trade existed during this time, well before the introduction of the camel.

When the camel was finally introduced into the Sahara, sometime around 200AD, it was a revolution not just in trade but also in the lifestyle of West African peoples, allowing them to travel across the desert seasonally as nomads to engage in trade or to follow favorable climatic conditions. The camel soon became the “ship of the desert,” ferrying salt, gold, and ivory north. Camels allowed traders to travel from one oases relay to the next as they crisscrossed the desert, often going eight to ten days between sources of water.

From 500 AD to 700 AD, an extensive network of trans-Saharan trade routes was well-established prior to the introduction of Islam. Interestingly, just as the camel allowed the people of sub-Saharan Africa to express themselves northwards, projecting both their wares and their culture, the camel also allowed conquering Muslims to penetrate the Sahara as never before. One early Arab explorer, al-Ya’qubi, relates a number of trade routes during this period, one from Zawila in Central Libya to Kanem, located near lake Chad.

Image Credit: http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2010/05/mtdna-and-trans-saharan-slave-trade.html
Image Credit: dienekes.blogspot.com

By 1000 AD, the trans-Saharan caravans were again undergoing a transformation. In his Book of the Description of the World, Ibn Hawqal writes about light and heavy convoys that ran from Awdaghurst in modern day Mali to Sijilmasa, which sits near the border of current Algeria and Morocco, as well as another route from Ghana to Egypt, which demonstrates not just north-south running trade routes but also east-west running ones.

Ibn Hawqal continues by describing the heavy caravans as consisting of thousands of camels along with a few hundred men, while the light caravans would be made up of just a hundred camels if not less2.

Hawqal also noted that he came across a debtor system in the Sahara in which a legal document existed as a statement of debt between a merchant in Sijilmasa and another in Asdaghurst. This type of legal tender would become more predominant in later centuries with the spread of Islam, which created a shared culture across the desert.

The peoples who engaged in this early trans-Saharan trade included the Wangara. Early explorers and historians mistakenly believed Wangara to be an actual location rather than a people. These people constituted an early trade network that existed around the outskirts of the Songhay empire, which stretched across modern-day Mali.

Ranging from Mali to Sudan, the Wangara traded in gold, salt, and kola nuts, sometimes making the north-south trips directly to North Africa as well. As Islam caught on with the Wangara traders, they planted the seeds of their religion in many of the places they traveled to, aiding in the diffusion of Islam throughout the Sahel.

Just as the origin of the Wangara peoples is somewhat vague, the origin of Jewish traders in North Africa is also little understood. While some believe Jews first came to North Africa during biblical times, others believe that they are the decedents of converts within the Berber tribes.

Ghislaine Lydon writes that, “by the eight century, there were communities of Jews in most major oases on the desert edge such as Sijimasa, Tuwat, Gurara, Ghadamis, Sus, and Wad Nun.3” In addition to having a solidified position in these outpost trade centers, the Jews shared with Islam a religious motivation for literacy, which gave them a leg up on their competition when it came to the administrative side of complicated long distance transactions.

The Ibadi merchants are interesting in that they provided a link between the transitory Wangara people and the largely stationary Jewish population. The routes they traveled included Tahert and Sijilmasa to Awdaghust and Ghana. While the Ibadi were orthodox Muslims, it seems that their entrepreneurial spirit as caravan merchants allowed them easy interaction with the Jews to facilitate trade.

The Islamic Influence

The next shift in trans-Saharan trade happened because of the 11th century Almoravid Jihad of the Lamtuna Berber tribe. The invading North West African Muslims secured key trade routes such as Nul Lamta and Awdaghust with the key oases relay of Azugi4.

In addition to unifying much of West Africa under Muslim rule, the jihad also secured both ends of the trans-Saharan trade routes from Awdagust all the way to Ghana, inserting themselves into the local economic system.

Camel Caravan in the Sahara
Camel Caravan in the Sahara

While the Jihad played a large role in the development of trade in the Sahara, it should be mentioned that it was the Ibadi, the Jews, and the Wangara who institutionalized the trans-Saharan networks, which the Islamic Jihadists then overlaid their own system on top of.

The spread of Islam also brought with it the Maliki Doctrine, which was based on the Koran and the Hadiths as a foundation for a legal system. This legal system was first used in the city of Medina before spreading into North and West Africa with the Islamic faith.

The Maliki doctrine established a system of social and legal norms that could be used for the common good, and helped to develop long distance trade by emphasizing that Islamic law should be used for the benefit of society as a whole. Furthermore, the Maliki Doctrine established a set of rules that helped overcome principle-agent problems inherent to long distance transactions, as well setting policies for handling loans, debts, currency exchanges, and other mechanics of commerce in a precursor to the modern day bills of lading used by import/export agencies.

The Book of Routes and Realms, by al-Bakri, lays out additional trade routes utilized by the Almoravid jihadists in the 11th Century. These routes included Wad Nun to Awdagust by way of the Azugi Oases route. Another was the East to West running routes to Sudan which traversed Wansamin, an oasis which has since disappeared into the desert.

In the 14th Century, The Empire of Mali had a stabilizing effect on West Africa that also led to increased trade. Eventually Walata and Timbuktu took the place of Awdaghust and Sijimasa as migration patterns and political conditions led to the trade routes to move further to the East.

Coming in Part 2, whitey shows up and crashes the party in West Africa…

1Susan Keech McIntosh, Themes in West African History (James Currey Ltd, 2006), 12.

2Ghislaine Lydon, On Trans-Saharan Trails (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 61.

3Ibid., 65.

4Ibid., 72.