Here you can find maps created for the exhibition Caravans of Gold. These could serve as helpful resources in the context of teaching and learning.

Map Showing Global Trade Networks

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During the medieval period, major trade routes crossing the Sahara Desert linked cities and towns that functioned as trade centers. Southward the routes connected with the Niger River, a major byway to Africa’s forest region. Northward they connected to the vast trade networks of the Mediterranean Sea, traveling inland across Europe, while eastward they met the Levantine routes and ultimately the Silk Roads of Central and East Asia.

*Please note this map was developed to highlight the trans-Saharan routes and their linkages. Trade routes also existed in the southern part of the African continent but are not rendered here.

Map Showing Medieval Polities and Regions

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Map Showing Saharan Frontiers (Sijilmasa, Tadmekka, & Gao)


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The vast Sahara Desert (comprising more than 3.5 million square miles) is composed of dry rocky plateaus called hamada, steep mountains, and areas of shifting sand dunes, called ergs. Routes across the desert follow paths through this varied terrain, moving between oases—the underground sources of water that are critical to the survival of travelers. The main routes across the Sahara were established by the 5th century CE, and most continue to be used today.

Materials sifted from archaeological sites around the Sahara Desert are a crucial starting point for understanding the medieval past. These precious fragments connect us to a period that is today almost completely veiled by the passage of time.

Remains from three sites are highlighted here: Gao (Mali), on the arc of the Niger River, Tadmekka (Mali) on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, and Sijilmasa (Morocco) on the desert’s northern edge. The materials excavated from these sites, and from other medieval sites in the region, provide clues to understanding history; however, they must be augmented by additional information drawn from texts, oral accounts, inscriptions, and the careful analysis of a material and cultural legacy that continues into the present day. Together these diverse pieces of information spark what archaeologists call “the archaeological imagination,” a process of seeing the long-hidden past.

Map Showing Mansa Musa Pilgrimage Route


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This map shows the presumed route of Mansa Musa based on historical understandings of the towns he passed through. Mansa Musa traveled over 4000 miles (6440 km) on his pilgrimage to Mecca.

The 14th-century ruler of the Mali Empire, Mansa Musa, was immensely wealthy and powerful. He controlled a territory that included the Bambuk and Bure gold fields, the Sahara Desert’s southern fringe, and the upper and middle Niger River. Musa made full use of his empire’s strategic location at the crossroads of these major zones of trade.

In 1324 Musa embarked on the hajj, the religious pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to make in their lifetime. It was also an opportunity to forge alliances and to advertise his wealth and power through lavish displays. According to the scholar Shihab al-‘Umari, who interviewed residents of Cairo who were present at the time of Musa’s visit, “this man flooded Cairo with his benefactions. He left no court emir nor holder of a royal office without the gift of a load of gold. . . . They spent gold until they depressed its value in Egypt and caused its price to fall.”

Al-‘Umari describes the sumptuous diplomatic gifts that Musa received during his stay in Cairo:

“The sultan sent to him several complete suits of honor for himself, his courtiers, and all those who had come with him, and saddles and bridled horses for himself and his chief courtiers. His robe of honor consisted of an Alexandrian open-fronted cloak embellished with… cloth containing much gold thread and miniver fur, bordered with beaver fur and embroidered with metallic thread, along with golden fastenings, a silken skull-cap with caliphal emblems, a gold inlaid belt, a damascened sword, and a kerchief embroidered with pure gold.”

Mansa Musa’s renown was so widespread that 50 years after his pilgrimage he was prominently portrayed wearing a golden crown and grasping a large gold orb and scepter on a world map created on the Mediterranean island of Majorca.

Map Showing Ife and its Orbit (Ife, Durbi Takusheyi, & Igbo Ukwu)


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The Niger River was a major thoroughfare for trade from the Sahara into West Africa. Niger River trade connected to land routes through the West African forest and the region known as the Central Sudan.

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 14th-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.