You are currently viewing Summary: The Trans-Saharan Trade Routes (till 19th century)
Featured Image of the Saharan Trade Image credit;

Summary: The Trans-Saharan Trade Routes (till 19th century)

It is uncommon to see African scholars stressing the importance of any slave trade, especially the trans-Saharan and the trans-Atlantic slave trades.

Prior to the fifteenth century, when the European slave trade over the Atlantic became a triangular, dominant economy, the trans-Saharan trade had thrived and left many negative, as well as positive, impacts in the developments of West African empires.

Trans-Saharan trade

Briefly, the trans-Saharan trade was one of the slave trades that occurred in Africa from as far back as the eleventh century till the nineteenth century. Unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade, most of the dealings in the trade were intra-Africa.

Most West African empires like Ghana, Songhay, Kanem-Borno and Mali empires traded northwards to Tripoli, Egypt, Tunis, and others.

The Hausa state of Kano, Katsina, and also the Kanem-Borno Empire traded with north African states, exchanging west African goods; slaves, and kola nuts, especially, for North African goods; horses, and particularly. Notably, gold was a dominant means of exchange during this period.

Four Major Routes

There were four major routes; Fez and Marrakesh in Morocco to Timbuktu in Western Sudan; Tunis and Karwan to Hausaland; Tripoli to Borno; and Kanem-Borno to Egypt.

There were several developed trade and commercial centers like Taodeni, Arawan, Murzuk, Kukwa, and others. In no small influence, these diverse trade routes contributed massively to the growth of West African empires in all facets; politically, socio-culturally, economically, and religiously.

Vehicle of Civilization

The trade routes were a vehicle of civilization to West African empires. The era preceding the fifteenth century is often regarded as the era of intermediate civilization in West African history, the era when the Islamic civilization reached West Africa. It influenced the overall dispositions of West African empires positively.

In reality, every society is a civilized one, but the level of the civility of society will actually be different from another (this is mostly determined by the necessity of a particular period of time).

The influence of the trans-Saharan trade routes should be credited in this line. It brought the Western empires of Africa with that of North African states.

This development also led to the adoption of some state superstructures and statehood practices, as evidenced by the institutions of West African empires like Ghana, Mali, Kanem-Borno, and Songhay Empire in terms of economic and political transformation, socio-cultural integration, and religious development.

Introduction of Islam in West Africa

Also, it led to the introduction of Islam in West Africa. The merchants from the Songhay empire, the Mande-speaking Wangarawa should be credited here. There were developments of various kinds during this period.

Literacy and the art of keeping records were developed. Many universities, Masjids, and Madrasas were built. For instance, the al-Zahr university established by the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa, the University of Timbuktu and Sankore University in Jenne (West Africa), and others, were products of the trans-Saharan trade routes. At a time, the development of this time was an unprecedented one in the region of West Africa.

Oriental Architectural Designs

In addition, it also led to the introduction of oriental architectural designs in West Africa. The building of mosques, schools, and Madrasas took to the oriental pattern, which the West Africans emulated in the construction and building of industries, roads, houses, and others. It revolutionalized the indigenous pattern with better innovation, though an alternative development.

A Source of Revenue

Moreover, it was the dominant source of revenue for West African empires during this period. Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires were able to amass adequate revenue through the trade routes.

Also, many entry ports as gateways to West Sudan trade terminals to Hausaland were established. For instance, entry ports were built in Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt as gateways to Hausaland. The empires of West Africa were able to amass adequate revenue to manage their respective large empires.

State Consolidation

Furthermore, the trade routes were a major factor that influenced the course of state consolidation of West African states. Notably, West African empires imported horses and firearms particularly from North African states.

The Kanem-Borno Empire, during the reign of Idris Aloma, imported muskets and musketeers from Tunis and Tripoli, in order to further expand the territories of the state.

Kanem-Borno Empire

The development of Kanem-Borno state was factored by the trans-Saharan trade routes. The Mais were able to monopolize state power and embark on expansionist policy, just like other leaders of West African empires.

The trans-Saharan trade routes indeed were blessings to the developments of West African empires.

Citation: Faforiji Tadese. The Trans-Saharan Trade Routes (till 19th century) and Its Blessings on West African Empires. (July 29, 2021). Tadexprof. Retrieved at

Further Reading

Tadese Faforiji

I am Tadese Faforiji, a history student of the prestigious Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State- 21st-century University, properly called. I am a blogger and an avid writer.