In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Trans-Saharan Trade

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Resources
  • Early Trade until Late Antiquity
  • Early Muslim Era to the 12th Century
  • Golden Age to the 16th Century
  • Trade in the 17th and 18th Centuries
  • Caravans in the Colonial Period and More Recent Times

African Studies Trans-Saharan Trade
Ghislaine Lydon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0009


Since E. W. Bovill’s captivating Caravans of the Old Sahara (Bovill 1933, cited under General Overviews), and its significantly revised sequel, The Golden Trade of the Moors (Bovill 1995, cited under General Overviews), the history of Africa’s trans-Saharan trade has garnered great interest on the part of scholars of various disciplines. Still, remarkably few have assessed the significance of this long-distance trade system to the cultural, political, religious, and, especially, economic history of the peoples across the northern half of the African continent, let alone its place in world history. Consequently, the networks, logistics, and routes of transcontinental exchange within and across the Sahara Desert remain poorly understood. It is important to recognize the variety in size, direction, and purpose of caravan traffic. Across the ages, caravans hitched up at certain known crossroads to traverse designated legs and reformed at other crossroads. Typically, several caravans joined forces to complete an annual “trans-Saharan” crossing, and caravan circulation within Saharan regions was more frequent. In the past decades, research centers from Morocco to Libya have organized conferences on the subject of caravan trade, resulting in several publications. As the scholarly chasm between North Africa and the rest of the continent—the product of geopolitical mappings and the neglect of Saharan studies—is progressively redressed, our knowledge of trans-Saharan and Saharan exchange through the ages stands to significantly transform the contours of African history as a whole. By no means purporting to be comprehensive, the following bibliographical essay seeks to provide a broad survey of the literature on Saharan trade published in and out of Africa. It is limited primarily to scholarship about long-distance trade connecting markets across and within the central and western regions of the Sahara Desert.

General Overviews

This section lists publications that provide broad historical and cultural contexts for understanding trans-Saharan trade. Delafosse 1924, which traces the historical links between Morocco and Mali, is a reminder that some researchers paid no head to the scholarly divide between North Africa and so-called sub-Saharan Africa that presented the Sahara as a barrier to intracontinental exchange; a divide that later would be reinforced by the area-studies paradigm. Despite some of its dated conclusions, Bovill 1995 has stood the test of time and remains a key resource for historians of Africa. Godinho 1956 was one of the first to consider the links between Saharan and Mediterranean commercial systems. A special issue on caravan routes (Ṭarīq al-qawāfil) published in Algiers includes Arabic and French articles of varying depth, while a more recent edited volume, Ahmida 2009, contains work drawing on empirical research. Lydon 2009 sheds light on the inner workings of caravan trade, including women’s participation. As is the case with most scholarship on long-distance trade systems in world history, the involvement of women in the caravanning economy remains largely overlooked. Finally, Nājīh 2009 provides a multifaceted study of the hero of Saharan caravan trade, the camel.

  • Ahmida, Ali Abdullatif, ed. Bridges across the Sahara: Social, Economic and Cultural Impact of the Trans-Saharan Trade during the 19th and 20th Centuries. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2009.

    This is a collection of articles, some of which were presented at a conference on caravan trade organized by the Libyan Studies Center in 2006. It includes research on topics ranging from the organization of caravan trade, patterns of trans-Saharan migration, and contraband activities, to the trans-Saharan trade in camels for butcher.

  • Bovill, Edward William. Caravans of the Old Sahara: An Introduction to the History of the Western Sudan. London: Oxford University Press, 1933.

    Written by a gentleman-scholar whose passion for African history was sparked after he served in the West African Frontier Forces in Kano, Nigeria. Bovill surveyed all the known information on the links between western Africa and northern markets.

  • Bovill, Edward William. The Golden Trade of the Moors: West African Kingdoms in the Fourteenth Century. Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner, 1995.

    In his much-revised version of Caravans, Bovill expanded his discussion of the 14th century, considered the heyday of trans-Saharan commercial exchange. He also considers when the era of the great caravans drew to an end in the late 19th century. Originally published in 1958, it remains a landmark study in African history.

  • Delafosse, Maurice. “Les relations du Maroc avec le Soudan à travers les âges.” Hésperis-Tamuda 4 (1924): 153–179.

    Written by French colonial ethnographer, this is an original attempt to trace the history of Morocco’s interactions with western African states.

  • Godinho, Vitorino M. O. “Mediterrâneo saariano” e as caravanas do ouro: Geografia económica e social do Sáara Ocidental e Central do XI ao XVI século. São Paulo, Brazil: Coleção da Revista de História, 1956.

    Crafted by an Annales-trained historian, this is an important study of the “caravans of gold” from the 11th to the 16th century based on multilingual sources, including in Portuguese and Arabic.

  • Lydon, Ghislaine. On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Western Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511575457

    Focused on the 19th century, this study includes a chapter reviewing the history of trans-Saharan trade in the longue durée. It is the first study to trace changes in the logistics of caravanning based on trade records and the writings of Muslim legal scholars. It also documents the involvement of women.

  • Nājīh, ʿUmar. “Al-ibil fī al-taʾrī kh al-ʿām li-mujtāmaʾ gharb al-Ṣaḥrāʾ.” In Abḥāth wa-dirāsāt ḥawl al-Ṣaḥrāʾ/Majmūʿat al-Baḥth wa-al-Dirāsāt Ḥawl Sāḥil al-Ṣaḥrāʾ. Edited by Muḥammad Shrāyimī. Rabat, Morocco: Top Press, 2009.

    A useful examination of the place of the camel in the social, cultural, political, and economic history of the western Sahara. It is informed by sources spanning several centuries and includes a discussion of fatwas or legal opinions concerning transactions in camels.

  • Ould Cheikh, Abdel Wedoud. “La caravane et la caravelle: Les deux âges du commerce de l’Ouest saharien.” L’Ouest Saharien/The Western Sahara 2 (2000): 29–70.

    An excellent overview of the evolution of trans-Saharan trade along western axes, that identifies two broad periods: “the age of salt” and, starting in the 17th century with European coastal demand, “the age gomme arabic.”

  • Ṭarīq al-qawāfil. Algiers, Algeria: Al-Markaz al-Waṭanī lil-Buḥūth fī ʿUṣūr mā Qabl al-Taʾrīkh wa ʿIlm al-Insān wa-l-Taʾrīkh, 2001.

    A collection of longer and shorter essays on various topics concerning caravan trade in northwestern Africa. It includes a notable article by Wuld Saʿad (Wuld Saʿad 2001, cited under Islam and Scholarly Networks).

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