Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

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

Created November 17, 2010


The Lesson


Timbuktu French Map

1743 French Map of Northwest Africa, depicting the areas covered in this curriculum unit.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Trade has played an important role in the economy of West Africa since very early times. As early as 300 AD, 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.

Guiding 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?

Learning Objectives

  • 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

Preparation Instructions

Become familiar with the lesson plan and bookmark important websites. For background information, you might wish to visit the following websites:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Salt Mines of the Sahara

The main stopping point of caravans moving south across the desert was the salt mines of Targhaza. In this activity, students will find out how the salt was obtained and why it was so important in the West African trade networks.

Activity 2. Ghana Corners the Gold Market

The salt that was brought down from the Sahara was usually traded for gold. The gold was mined in the forests of Guinea, near the source of the Niger, and carried downstream to the markets along the Niger in dugout canoes. Many local merchants became quite wealthy. Ghana, West Africa’s first kingdom, depended upon income from trade. It became so rich it was known as the Land of Gold.

  • Access the Map of salt and gold mines. These are the major salt mines (near Targhaza) and the gold mines (in the regions of the upper Niger). Return to Trans-Saharan Gold Trade. Locate the gold fields.
  • Go to Ghana Empire, from the EDSITEment-reviewed website, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. After reading the text, click on the map to enlarge it. Now go to Ghana Empire. What are some of the other products traded in Ghana? How did the ruler of Ghana make a big profit? (Imposing import and export taxes, payable in gold.)
  • Go to Mali: Geography and History. Scroll down to History, then read paragraph 8 (beginning “trade took place far from the gold mines…”) Discuss with the students the “silent trade.” What might have been the reasons for this unusual practice?

As king of the Land of Gold, Ghana’s ruler made certain that he looked the part.

  • Access Ancient Ghana. Scroll to the box entitled Royalty Gorgeously Attired. Click on the audio and listen to a description of the king and his court as recorded by an Arabic visitor.
Activity 3. Muslim Merchants Flock to Mali

The expansion of Islam across North Africa in the 7th century led to a great increase in West African commercial activities, as Muslim merchants became actively involved in the trans-Saharan trade routes.

  • Access Islam, a link through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. Have students define the words Islam and Muslim. Who was Muhammed? What is the Qur’an? What is a mosque? Where is Mecca, and what is its importance to Islam? Now go to The Birth of Islam, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. What does the word Qur’an mean? What are the teachings of the Qur’an? What is the Ka’ba? Who were the caliphs? In what direction did Islam first expand from Arabia?
  • Go to Trans-Saharan Gold Trade. Read the first section: Gold Trade and the Kingdom of Ancient Ghana. Why did people in the north want the African gold? (for coinage)
  • Return to Ancient Ghana. Scroll down to the sections entitled Islam and Muslims in Africa. Did Islam coexist peacefully with local tribal religions? How do you think Muslims in other parts of the world might have thought about this? Could there have been pressure for the African rulers to convert?


Pretend you are standing are in a bustling trading center in Ghana. What products are being traded? (Remember the “silent trade” of gold.) What are the merchants quibbling about? What are the smells in the air? The sounds? Write a poem or an essay about your “virtual” experience.

Extending The Lesson

The Basics

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Africa
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Architecture
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Art and Culture
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Map Skills
  • Visual analysis
  • Suzanne Art (AL)