River and Desert:
North African Trade Routes
For much of history, Africa was, to
Europe, the “Dark Continent”, because so little was known about
it. Although considerably developed civilizations existed in Africa, the vast
distances and harsh geography limited exchange between Africa and Europe. But
in ancient times, the Nile was an important trade route, and from the Roman
Empire until the age of exploration the cross-Sahara trade routes thrived.
The most obvious trade route in northern Africa is, of course, the Nile River. Stretching north 4,132 miles from Burundi in central Africa to the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile is one of the most ancient trade routes in the world. It defined the ancient civilization of Egypt, and the desert surrounding it kept the people living close to the river on the narrow floodplain, which is on average only 19.2 km wide.
With such easy access, it was natural for practically all travel and trade in Egypt to occur on the Nile. The river allowed Egypt to have a strong central government and was the key to Egyptian unity; without it Egypt would not have existed, much less been a powerful ancient civilization. Travel downriver was facilitated by the current, and “Etesian winds” from the north carried boats with sails up the river. Egyptian traders with goods of their own and goods from Cush, further south, could travel out into the Mediterranean, down the Red Sea, and along overland routes up the Fertile Crescent. No single product defined the trade along the Nile River; Egyptian products included papyrus sheets, wheat, barley, and gold. From Cush came copper, gold, ivory, spices, and cattle.
About 1500 B.C. Egypt expanded up the river and took over Cush, and the Egyptian influence and trade caused the Cushite nomads to settle into cities. For a short time starting around 750 B.C. the Cushites took control of Egypt, only to be supplanted by the Assyrians. From this point on through Ottoman rule, which lasted until WWI, Egypt was controlled by foreign empires from around the Mediterranean who used the Nile as a connection to Egypt’s resources but did not do substantial trade further up the river. The process of desertification – the gradual expansion of the Sahara Desert – also served to decrease upriver trade. The successors of the Cushites, the Aksum (who became Christians in the 4th century), did much trade, primarily in ivory, but Muslim expansion cut them off.
A much different type of trading occurred further west. The Sahara Desert actually began to form soon after the worldwide flood – estimates range from 3000 to 4000 B.C. As it expanded, it separated the primarily Berber tribes on the north and the black tribes to the south. Camels were introduced to northern Africa around the time of Christ, and the black tribes, formerly hunters and gatherers, began to farm and form civilizations. These two developments led the Berbers to set up trade routes through the Sahara, connecting the black tribes to the Romans. Not much is known about the routes they followed, but caravans of camels were able to travel from oasis to oasis across the desert.
Soon the Berbers were trading with quite developed empires – Ghana (200-1235 A.D.), Mali (1200-1400 A.D.), and Songhai (1468 to 1591). Ghana supplied gold, ivory, slaves, and leather in exchange for cloth and tools from Europe and Arabia and salt from the Arab mines in the Sahara. The Muslim religion spread down to West Africa and became dominant by the time of the Mali Empire. At the peak of Mali’s power, the emperor Mansa Musa made a famous pilgrimage to Mecca, amazing the Arabs and Europeans with his wealth. The Songhai Empire was even richer, primarily from the gold trade. However, these great empires did not actually control the gold mines. Gold was mined by uncivilized tribes further south, closer to the coast of West Africa.
In 1591 the Songhai were defeated by an army from Morocco. By the time the Songhai fell, several different European countries – beginning with the Portuguese – had begun to explore the western coast of Africa. Trade across the Sahara decreased as European ships began to circumvent it in their ships.
The trans-Sahara caravans, already outdated in the 1600s, no longer exist today. Two roads have been built across the Sahara. A few Bedouin tribes still use camels, but in their own nomadic wanderings, not in trade. In contrast, travel along the Nile still exists, though it has very much declined. Many tourist companies offer cruises up it, but shipping trade is now directed more towards the Mediterranean Sea port of Alexandria and the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Since roads and rails connect all the major cities, the Nile is no longer necessary as a method of transportation.
There’s a great contrast between these two trade routes. One has an abundance of water, the other almost none. One route channeled trade down itself because a geographic characteristic – the river – was so favorable, while the other existed in spite of all geographic factors being against it. Another difference is that the Sahara trade routes came into being much later than the use of the Nile as a trade route did; though they existed in Roman times, they were essentially part of the early Islamic world, while trade on the Nile has existed since the earliest civilizations and (arguably) experienced its greatest period of importance at the peak of the Egyptian empire around the 1400s B.C., more than 2,000 years earlier. However, both routes channeled exotic products northward and influenced Africa significantly by encouraging the formation of civilizations there.
1. The Nile river…
A. Has a wide floodplain surrounding it.
B. Originates in Ethiopia
C. Was hard to travel upriver on because of the Etesian winds
D. Was not used for trade very much until the Muslim era
E. Is 1,432 miles long
2. The most important product traders carried north across the Sahara was…
D. Palm nuts
3. All these groups or empires were involved in the Sahara trade routes except…
A. The Mali Empire
B. The Cush civilization
C. The Songhai Empire
D. The Berber tribes
E. The Ghana Empire
4. Which of these comparisons of the Nile and the desert trade routes is NOT
A. The Nile has plentiful water, while the desert routes have little
B. Trade peaked on the Nile existed long before it peaked on the desert routes
C. The desert routes encouraged the formation of civilizations while the Nile route did not.
D. The desert routes were significant for a much shorter period of history than the Nile has been