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Archaeological Imagination Station: Giving Context to Fragments / Hi Videos | Saharan Frontiers | Shifting Away from the Sahara | Teachers Guide | Virtual First Look
Subsections: Arabic Accounts of West Africa | Slavery in the Medieval Western Sudan | Mansa Musa at the Crossroads
Sahara at Center The medieval Sahara was at the center of an interconnected and far-reaching trade network that extended in multiple directions. It was a hub of exchange—in goods, people, and ideas—that was at the heart of medieval global history.
Intermediaries were essential to trade across the Sahara. Diverse peoples, each with their own language, perspective, system 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 interacted 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.
Arabic Accounts of West Africa
In addition to its role as a conduit for goods and people, the Sahara was also connected by ideas. Scholars on both sides of the desert built a common intellectual tradition linked by a shared faith—Islam.
Diplomats, geographers, historians, and travelers of the era wrote medieval Arabic accounts of the Bilad al-Sudan, the “land of the Blacks.” This literature is challenging to interpret, as its authors frequently drew from second- or third-hand reports. Nonetheless, when viewed in conjunction with the material record, these accounts can provide valuable information.
For instance, in composing his Book of Routes and Realms, the 11th-century C.E. Andalusian scholar al-Bakri combed through existing literature, which he enriched with information he garnered from travelers. The book, which has been copied many times throughout the centuries since its first appearance, describes trade across the Sahara Desert and includes early mentions of towns including Sijilmasa, Gao, and Tadmekka.
Slavery in the Medieval Western Sudan
Both Christian and Muslim teachings in the medieval period were used to justify the enslavement of “non-believers.” In justifying the Crusades and state-building across the linked “seas of gold” of the Mediterranean and the Sahara, these cynical statements by popes and scholars alike had the net effect of slowly dehumanizing peoples connected by centuries of exchange, yet divided by faiths.
Medieval Arabic accounts reveal facets of Saharan exchange that are not apparent in the archaeological record. This is particularly true of slavery, which is made visible almost uniquely in these written accounts.
In the medieval period, enslaved West Africans, predominantly women and children, were first taken to Morocco and then eastward to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and beyond. Captured individuals were forced to make the harrowing trek on foot across the Sahara, and many died during the journey.
Some scholars have argued that high-profile events, like Mansa Musa’s celebrated pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 C.E., may have inadvertently contributed to growing European perceptions of West Africa as a source of unimaginable wealth of all kinds. Gold and material resources were certainly in evidence but—accompanied as Musa was by thousands of enslaved peoples—so too emerged the suggestion of West Africa as a source of forced labor.
Mansa Musa at the Crossroads
The 14th-century C.E. ruler of the Māli 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 encouraged 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 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 also 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.