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Trans Saharan Trade Route Essay

The trans-Saharan and Silk Road trade routes were global trade routes that shaped and impacted their respective areas during the Iron Age. The trans-Saharan and Silk Road both used similar methods of trade because of technological innovation and environmental interactions of the time. The trans-Saharan and Silk road trade routes lead to different cultural diffusion due to the difference in diversity among the ethnic groups in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Both the Trans-Saharan and Silk Road relied heavily on the use of caravans, merchants, and domesticated animals as a primary source of conducting trades and commerce along such long paths. In Africa, the domestication of camels proved to be a monumental invention to boost the flow of trade and commerce.

With camels, merchants could travel across the Sahara much faster and more effectively with fewer resources. The people living on the trade route through the Sahara were able to make a living off of herding and selling domesticated camels in large quantities to merchants and create caravans to aid in the crossing of the Sahara. In Asia and the Middle East, the Silk Road was almost primarily dependent on the movement of merchants on caravans, just like in the Sahara.

Horses acted as the most effective form of transportation and by the time 600 C.E. rolled around, better innovations for controlling domesticated horses arose. The most predominate of these inventions was the stirrup which is the loop at the bottom of a saddle which gave a rider more stability while riding at a high speed or at great distances. The stirrup and domesticated camels were so influential at the time of discovery that even to this day, both are still present in the areas where the Silk Road and Trans-Saharan trade routes were located.

The cultural diffusion that resulted from trade on the Trans-Saharan and Silk Road trade routes differed because of the ethnic backgrounds of the merchants and civilizations participating in each respective trade route. Along the Trans-Saharan trade route, tribes such as the Berbers, Nubians, Egyptians, and Tuareg participated as well as interactions with Roman colonists.

Many roman goods were incorporated into this route and, along with the agricultural trade within the different tribes, these aspects mixed together to result in the trade of culture between all these comingled tribes. The mixing of these cultures formed a new society in the middle of the Trans-Saharan that still exist today, the herders. The new societies along the Trans-Saharan trade route specialized in the herding of cattle and camel, and evidence shows that this new culture worshiped cattle as a result of all the necessities cattle provide.

The spread and diffusion that lead to herding in Africa is not prevalent in Asia and the Middle East where the Silk Road was. Instead, the spread of religion, especially Buddhism and Christianity, defined the cultural change brought about by the Silk Road. Missionaries and monks from India brought the teachings of Buddhism to most of East Asia through the Silk Road. As the monks traveled, the different areas they reached obtained and adapted the story of Buddha into local cultures.

Christian Missionaries from the fallen Rome Empire were forced to spread out across the Middle East through the western portion of the Silk Road. Thanks to trade between Rome and the Middle East, the missionaries were able to spread religious teaching to the Middle East and promote the new religion as well as provide a place for it to grow.

Gold Trade and the Kingdom of Ancient Ghana
Around the fifth century, thanks to the availability of the camel, Berber-speaking people began crossing the Sahara Desert. From the eighth century onward, annual trade caravans followed routes later described by Arabic authors with minute attention to detail. Gold, sought from the western and central Sudan, was the main commodity of the trans-Saharan trade. The traffic in gold was spurred by the demand for and supply of coinage. The rise of the Soninke empire of Ghana appears to be related to the beginnings of the trans-Saharan gold trade in the fifth century.

From the seventh to the eleventh century, trans-Saharan trade linked the Mediterranean economies that demanded gold—and could supply salt—to the sub-Saharan economies, where gold was abundant. Although local supply of salt was sufficient in sub-Saharan Africa, the consumption of Saharan salt was promoted for trade purposes. In the eighth and ninth centuries, Arab merchants operating in southern Moroccan towns such as Sijilmasa bought gold from the Berbers, and financed more caravans. These commercial transactions encouraged further conversion of the Berbers to Islam. Increased demand for gold in the North Islamic states, which sought the raw metal for minting, prompted scholarly attention to Mali and Ghana, the latter referred to as the “Land of Gold.” For instance, geographer al-Bakri described the eleventh-century court at Kumbi Saleh, where he saw gold-embroidered caps, golden saddles, shields and swords mounted with gold, and dogs’ collars adorned with gold and silver. The Soninke managed to keep the source of their gold (the Bambuk mines, most notably) secret from Muslim traders. Yet gold production and trade were important activities that undoubtedly mobilized hundreds of thousands of African people. Leaders of the ancient kingdom of Ghana accumulated wealth by keeping the core of pure metal, leaving the unworked native gold to be marketed by their people.

Gold Trade and the Mali Empire
By 1050, Ghana was strong enough to assume control of the Islamic Berber town of Audaghost. By the end of the twelfth century, however, Ghana had lost its domination of the western Sudan gold trade. Trans-Saharan routes began to bypass Audaghost, expanding instead toward the newly opened Bure goldfield. Soso, the southern chiefdom of the Soninke, gained control of Ghana as well as the Malinke, the latter eventually liberated by Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali empire. Mali rulers did not encourage gold producers to convert to Islam, since prospecting and production of the metal traditionally depended on a number of beliefs and magical practices that were alien to Islam. In the fourteenth century, cowrie shells were introduced from the eastern coast as local currency, but gold and salt remained the principal mediums of long-distance trade.

The flow of sub-Saharan gold to the northeast probably occurred in a steady but small stream. Mansa Musa’s arrival in Cairo carrying a ton of the metal (1324–25) caused the market in gold to crash, suggesting that the average supply was not as great. Undoubtedly, some of this African gold was also used in Western gold coins. African gold was indeed so famous worldwide that a Spanish map of 1375 represents the king of Mali holding a gold nugget (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris). When Mossi raids destroyed the Mali empire, the rising Songhai empire relied on the same resources. Gold remained the principal product in the trans-Saharan trade, followed by kola nuts and slaves. The Moroccan scholar Leo Africanus, who visited Songhai in 1510 and 1513, observed that the governor of Timbuktu owned many articles of gold, and that the coin of Timbuktu was made of gold without any stamp or superscription.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2000

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