Lesson 2: Trekking to Timbuktu: Trade in Ancient West Africa (Student Version)

Trade has played an important role in the economy of West Africa since very early times. As early as 300 CE, camel caravans carried salt from mines in the Sahara Desert to trading centers along the Niger River in present-day Mali. Their mission was to exchange the salt for the gold that was mined in forests near the headwaters of the Niger. West Africa's first kingdom, Ghana, became wealthy and powerful because it controlled the trade routes and commercial activities in its region.

The spread of Islam across North Africa in the 7th century dramatically increased trans-Saharan trade. As the market expanded, strategically sited towns became major centers of commerce, welcoming merchants from distant lands.

Hop in the time capsule and travel back to ancient times. Look around. You're in the Moroccan city of Sijilmasa, an important center of trade. You are disguised as a Muslim merchant, the proud owner of eight camels. You're about to join up with a trade caravan and begin the long trek south across the Sahara Desert to West Africa.

Your task is to discover the answers to the following questions:

  • What were West Africa's main products of trade?
  • What were the major trade routes in this region?
  • How did the kingdom of Ghana become very wealthy?
  • What is Islam, and why did it spread across Africa?
  • How did Muslim merchants influence the development of trade in West Africa?

Your disguise will enable you to get a first-hand view of trading activities in ancient West Africa. You'll use this information to make a detailed report about ancient West Africa for the producers of Globe Trekkers. In your report you'll need to:

  • List the major products and trade routes of ancient West Africa
  • Explain how the kingdom of Ghana became wealthy
  • Discuss the key concepts of Islam
  • Show how Islam spread from Arabia to Africa
  • Describe how Muslim merchants contributed to the expansion of West African trade

Before you set out on your journey, you might want to glance at some background information about trade in ancient West Africa:

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