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Saharan Gold Trade

From the ancient up to the modern times, no other metal was prized by humans more than gold. The ease with which it could be molded or hammered into brilliant accessories made it a favorite among the elites. Over time, it was also molded into statues and coins which further increased its value. Although the mining of gold decreased during the Early Medieval Period (between the fifth and tenth century) due to wars and instability, the gold trade across the Sahara flourished because of the expansion of the trade routes in Muslim North Africa. This is recorded on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History at 800 AD.

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Trans-Saharan Gold Trade

“Trade routes of the Western Sahara c. 1000–1500. Goldfields are indicated by light brown shading.”

As common as salt may seem to modern people, it was a prized commodity in seventh century Ghana Empire (which encompassed not just Ghana but also present-day Senegal, Mali, and the southern part of Mauritania) where it was exchanged for more-abundant gold. It was especially prized by the Soninke Wangara—the ancient inhabitants of Ghana and the first group of the Sudanese people who had experience in metallurgy—whose land was abundant in gold but produced little salt. The gold was mined from the region of Bambouk (in present-day Mali) and a place called Ghiyaru which was rumored to have the best gold in the empire. Meanwhile, camel or donkey-loads of salt were transported from the Mediterranean coast into various trading posts in the Sahel region of the Sahara. They eventually made their way into the Ghana Empire.

To illustrate the importance of salt in the Ghana Empire, Muslim chroniclers recorded that the king taxed a donkey-load of salt with one gold dinar and additional two gold dinars were needed if the merchants wanted to sell it outside the capital. Gold was so abundant in the empire that it was not taxed when it was sent out from Ghana to other kingdoms for trade. It later became the foundation for the empire’s enormous wealth. The Berber merchants—the main transporters of salt and gold in the Sahara—also brought with them the Muslim religion. Many West Africans eventually converted to Islam as the years progressed. The trade continued to flourish until the thirteenth century when Muslim raiders started to invade the empire.

Picture By Aa77zzOwn work, CC0,
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “The Trans-Saharan Gold Trade (Seventh–Fourteenth Centuries).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2000)
Fage, J. D. The Cambridge History of Africa. Vol. II: From C.500 BC to AD 1050. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
“Ghana.” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM). Accessed September 28, 2016.
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