Desert Travel

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Desert Travel


Connections to the World. Despite the apparent barrier created by the Sahara Desert, West Africa has been connected to the Mediterranean and lands to the east for more than a thousand years. Although no surviving written documents state exactly when trade exchanges began across the Sahara Desert, historians and archaeologists have found evidence that the kingdom of Ghana was becoming an important commercial center by the year 300. North African coins dating from that period have been found in West Africa, and historians have found proof that some camelcaravan routes from North Africa to the Sahel were established around the same time. By the year 400 more-extensive travel had resumed between West Africa and Egypt. This connection had existed much earlier, when the Sahara was more of a wetland than a desert before 2500 B.C.E., but the southern movement of the desert had cut off West Africa from Egypt until the advent of camel travel, which became common in North Africa during the third century C.E. and spread into the savanna region of West Africa by the end of that century.

Travel before the Camel. The camel made it possible for the Berber nomads of North Africa to trade farther south of the Sahara and into the Sahel. Before the camel, there was some trade using horses and bullocks. Some historians deduced the existence of this earlier trade across the Sahara after rock paintings of small two-wheeled, horse-drawn chariots, like those used circa 1000 B.C.E. - 500 C.E. along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, were found at Fezzan, in southwest Libya, during the early 1930s. Yet, in the early 1970s, some critics disputed this theory, arguing that these small carts had barely enough room for a driver, let alone enough space to carry anything heavy over a long distance. In addition, no horse skeletons dating to that period have been found in the vicinity of Fezzan. Others explain the rock paintings not as historic documentation

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but as an artistic expression similar to art found over a wide region from the Mediterranean to south of the Sahara. While the debate continues, it is certain that beasts of burden such as horses, bullocks, and donkeys are less suited than camels to carrying heavy loads for long distances under desert conditions.

Camel Caravans. Although donkey caravans were used to carry merchandise to and from all points across West Africa, for the most part camels made trans-Saharan travel possible. Berber nomads from the north were skilled at crossing the Sahara Desert. The camel provided everything they needed: transportation, milk, wool and hides for clothing and shelter, and meat. From the south, merchants of the West African empires also began to use camel caravans, often with one hundred or more camels, to carry cloth and gold to North Africa, from whence those commodities reached Europe and Asia.

Dromedaries. The Granadan writer Leo Africanus, who traveled through much of West Africa in 1513-1515, explained that dromedaries, or one-hump camels, were better suited than two-hump Bactrian camels to carry heavy loads and be ridden. The dromedary was introduced into the Greco-Roman Empire from Asia and spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Well adapted to desert travel, these camels have double rows of eyelashes, hairy ear openings, and nostrils that can be closed—all providing protection from sun and sand. They can endure heat, and they can drink up to twenty-five gallons of water at a time, which enables them to travel several days without food or water. Camels can sometimes, however, be short-tempered. They are known to bite, spit, kick, run away, or refuse to move. As early as the year 500, caravan leaders often hired crews specifically trained to work with camels.


Yaqut al-Harnawi (1179-1229) was born in Byzantium, sold as a slave to a Syrian merchant, and later educated in Arabic and freed, traveling in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. In his Mujam al-Buldan (Dictionary of Countries, 1212) he described merchant caravans traveling from Sijilmasa (in southeastern Morocco) to the kingdom of Ghana and explained how the camels often saved travelers* lives:

On their way they cross desert plains, where the samum (noxious) winds dry up the water inside the water skins. They employ an artful means to carry water in the desert in order to survive.Thus they take with them unloaded camels, which they cause to thirst for one day and one night before they reach the water place, and then they let them drink a first time, and a second until their bellies are quite full. Then the camel drivers urge them on and when the water in the skins has evaporated, and they are in need of water, they slaughter a camel and save their lives with what is in its stomach. Then they hasten on their way until they reach another watering place and they fill their water skins there.

Source: Nehemia Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, eds., Corpus of Early Arabic Sources of West African History, translated by Hopkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Distances Traveled. Merchants traveling by camel caravan were away from home for long periods of time. A caravan traveled at about three miles an hour, moving from one oasis to the next. During the hottest part of the day, when temperatures soared to about 130 degrees, travelers remained at these rest areas. They continued their travels after the sun set. Writing in 903, the Iranian Ibn al-Faqih said it took forty nights to cross Egypt and seven years to travel across West Africa. Ibn Hawqal, writing in 967, said that to travel from Sijilmasa in southeastern Morocco to Audaghost, an oasis and market town northwest of Timbuktu, took two months.

Desert Travel. Writing in 1068, the Spanish Muslim geographer al-Bakri carefully described the route across the desert from Tamdult in northwestern Africa to Audaghost as a four-stage journey, traveling from one well to another. He wrote that the first watering place was four fathoms deep and travelers passed through a narrow ravine with the camels walking single file. Next they made a three-day journey through the hills of Azwar, a stony region where camels could easily become lame but where the travelers had the advantage of shade from trees that grew there but not in the rest of the desert. At the next watering place, al-Bakri wrote, travelers had to dig a well, which quickly filled in again with sand. Three more days of travel took them to the next large well, called Win Haylun, and in three more days they found rainwater under a rock in the sand. At each stop, travelers had to be sure the water was drinkable, not brackish. Writing in 1154, the Moroccan Muslim al-Idrisi told a story he had heard from a reliable traveler about nomadic Berbers who drank water from underground springs they located in the desert. The Berbers were well known for their desert knowledge. It was said that they could dig in the sand with their hands to find the underground springs and that they could smell a handful of earth and determine if there was water below.


Leo Africanus, The History and Description of Africa, 3 volumes, translated by John Pory, edited by Robert Brown (London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1896).

N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, eds., Corpus of Early Arabic Sources of West African History, translated by Hopkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Pekka Masonen, “Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean,” in Ethnic Encounter and Culture Change: Papers for the Third Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies, edited by M’hammed Sabour and Knut S. Vikor (Bergen: Nordic Society for Middle Eastern Studies, 1997), pp. 116-142.

Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Malik, and Songbay: Life in Medieval Africa (New York: Holt, 1994).