From this land they import sugar to Tunisia and the Maghrib and Andalusia and Byzantium and Western Europe. They also import indigo, alum, and brass. From this region too come the imports of the desert such as male and female slaves and abqar, which in their language means gold. [From this region] caravans enter the land of Janawa, Ghana, Ethiopia, Gao, Zafun, and Amima. They also enter from Tafilalat and Sijilmasa, and to these two places come their booty and everything that is imported in the way of male and female slaves and gold and ivory and ebony and elephant tusks and reeds and oryx-hide shields and other things.

Mohammed ibn Abu Bakr al-Zuhri, 12th century

Saharan Frontiers

The medieval Sahara was at the center of an interconnected and far-reaching trade network that extended in multiple directions.

Based in Granada, Spain, the twelfth-century geographer al-Zuhri described the remarkable scope of trans-Saharan trade. The Almoravid Empire, of which Granada was a part, stretched across the Sahara Desert to embrace southern trading centers and connect to West Africa’s Ghana Empire. Al-Zuhri described contact between cities north and south of the desert, including Gao and Sijilmasa, across North Africa, and even with Eastern and Western Europe.

Intermediaries were essential to trade across the Sahara. Diverse peoples, each with their own language, perspective, systems of supply and demand, resources, and expertise, contributed to maintaining the connections that supported far-reaching networks of exchange. These included North African Muslims who spoke Arabic and followed Islamic laws governing trade. Amazigh (Berber) nomads, likewise competent in Arabic, were essential for their knowledge of the routes across the desert and for their expertise in managing the long camel caravans that were the most efficient way to traverse this challenging environment. South of the desert, they intersected with Wangara merchants who traveled among the diverse peoples of Africa’s Western Sudan region, spoke their languages, and navigated long-standing trade routes along the Niger River and its tributaries.