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Trade & Empire: The Road to Timbuktu Volume 53 Number 6, November/December 2000
by Timothy A. Insoll

Camel caravans and the rise of commerce in medieval Mali


A camel caravan crosses the western Sahara enroute to Timbuktu with blocks of salt mined at Taodeni, 350 miles to the north. (Emilie Manfuso Aebi)

For nearly a thousand years, camel caravans plied the trackless sands of the western Sahara, a barren landscape where arid conditions and searing sun conspire against crops, trees, and even desert grasses. Traveling from well to well, merchants transported the products of West Africa--gold, ivory, salt, and slaves--to the northern reaches of the continent, where they would exchange them for glass, ceramics, and precious stones brought to North Africa from the wider Mediterranean world.

It was the control of this trans-Saharan trade that fueled medieval West Africa's greatest empires, those of Ghana (not to be confused with the modern country), which flourished between the ninth and eleventh centuries A.D.; Mali, which reached its apogee in the late fourteenth century; and Songhai, which dominated the region between the mid-fifteenth and late sixteenth centuries. Until recently, however, little was known about the origin and nature of trans-Saharan trade. What we knew came primarily from West African oral traditions and Arab historical sources, the latter often biased in their assessment of West Africa prior to the arrival of Islam in the late ninth century A.D.

[image] West African commodities such as ivory, god, salt, and slaves were shipped north in exchange for ceramics and semiprecious stones brought in from the wider Mediterranean world. Dotted lines on larger image indicate caravan routes. (Ken Feisel) [LARGER IMAGE]

What was the nature of trade in the region before Islam and what impact did the religion have on commerce? A desire to find answers brought me to the banks of the Niger River in 1993, to investigate an oasis with the magical name of Timbuktu and the ancient city of Gao, capital of the Songhai Empire. Located in the Sahel, a semidesert zone midway between the true desert, the Sahara, and the more fertile grassland and wooded savannahs to the southeast, Gao and Timbuktu lay at the juncture of riverine- and land-based commercial networks. These towns in modern-day Mali, along with Tegdaoust and Koumbi Saleh in Mauritania, served as vital entrepôts in trans-Saharan trade.

The arrival of Islam in North Africa and the Saharan regions created a stable political environment that allowed for safe passage of camel caravans and provided an expanded market for the commodities of West Africa. Through my research, undertaken with archaeologists from the Malian Human Sciences Institute, I have been able to determine that Islam was not the impetus behind the development of West African trade. It had, in fact, already been in place for nearly five centuries.

Timothy A. Insoll is a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Manchester.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America