Then the Niger River descends from Dia to Timbuktu and then to Gao…then to Ife. Ife is one of the largest countries of the Sudan, and their sultan is one of the greatest sultans.”

— Ibn Battuta, 1355

The Long Reach of the Sahara

The Sahara Desert sits between the Mediterranean Sea and the Niger River, extending the reach of the great desert’s routes of exchange across three continents.

Ibn Battuta, the intrepid fourteenth-century Moroccan diplomat, traveler, and writer, who traversed the Sahara Desert on his last extended journey, observed the importance of the Niger River as a major thoroughfare that led to distant lands of wealth and influence, including the famed Kingdom of Ife, in West Africa’s dense rainforest. Like the trading cities and empires of Africa’s Western Sudan, the medieval empires of the forest and of the Central Sudan were deeply entwined in a global economy.

Archaeological excavations at West African sites beyond the Western Sudan, including those associated with the Ife Kingdom, as well as with the earlier polity of Igbo Ukwu to its southeast, and Durbi Takusheyi to its Northeast, reveal the prominence of glass beads, ivory, and copper among the materials that circulated through the Sahara Desert in multiple directions. Tracing their movement provides a compelling image of the wide scope of medieval trade.