The inhabitants of the Western Sudan use salt for currency as gold and silver are used. They cut it into pieces and use it for their transactions.

— Ibn Battuta, 1355

Driving Desires: Gold and Salt

Gold and salt were at the heart of medieval trans-Saharan exchange; together they supported a global economy that defined the Middle Ages.

For merchants traveling southward across the Sahara, the main attraction was West African gold, which was widely admired for its purity. In addition to wealth, gold held significant symbolic value. The special qualities of gold—its rarity, its sparkle and reflectiveness, its malleability, and its resistance to tarnish, as well as the difficulty of extracting it from the earth—all contributed to its value. Empires across North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe minted gold into coins and used it to make and to embellish luxury objects. West African gold provided rulers and merchants the means to acquire goods from afar. Rock salt, mined in the heart of the Sahara, was among the most important of these. Salt, which is scarce in West Africa, is essential to human life.

The journey across the Sahara Desert was arduous and at times treacherous. A camel caravan’s pace is about three miles per hour, and caravans could travel more than 2,500 miles on a trans-Saharan trek. Such travel required tremendous motivation to risk thirst, hunger, and even death.