Urban Commerce Develops in the Sudan Belt Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Inhabitants of Africa’s Sudan Belt cities and towns had extensive contacts with the Mediterranean regions through trade in a wide variety of goods, of which the most important were salt and gold.

Summary of Event

Geographers and historians define the Sudan belt of the ancient world as the area that extends from the Sahara in the north to the Bay of Niger (present-day southern Nigeria) in the south and from the Atlantic in the east to the Indian Ocean in the west. In the western part of this broad environmental region, in a subregion called the Sahel, Africans established towns and cities that served as inland ports between Africa’s interior and coastal areas and the people beyond those areas.

Western Africa is characterized by several environmental zones. The Sahel, an Arabic word meaning “shore” or “coast,” is located between the Sahara in the north and the rain forest in the south. It is a mixed zone of grass-covered plains (steppe), brush, thicket, and sparse forests (savanna). The ancients knew it as the southern boundary of the Sahara, a desert so huge it seemed to them to be a kind of “sea.” Cities developed in the Sahel and prospered as a result of trade they carried on across the Sahara. Trade items from the Berbers of northern Africa—salt, textiles, spices, sword blades, and metal tools and utensils—were carried south across the Saharan “sea” on the backs of camels, animals ideally suited to endure long treks of thirty to forty days. Of these trade goods, salt was the most valuable. Produced in salt mines in the Sahara, such as the one at Taghaza, salt was so valued—as a taste enhancer and preservative for food—that it was used as currency. At various outposts along the way, the salt, spices, and sword blades were broken down into smaller or larger packages and repacked for the next stage of the journey. Rests were taken at desert oases. The termini for the trade goods were the towns of the Sahel: Koumbi Saleh, Timbuktu, Gao, Kano, and Ngazaragamu. The goods were then traded for gold, ivory, animal hides, and slaves for the trip north. Farther south, traders transferred their loads into dugout canoes or used other modes of transport. In this way, they ventured to cities of the rain forest where they were traded for bronze and iron items. Foodstuffs, in the form of rice, beans, sorghum, and millet, were also exchanged. Trade in iron weapons and tools was also important. The people of the Nok culture were smelting iron in western Africa by the first century c.e.

Several cities arose in the Sahel of western Africa that became famous as a result of trade and commerce carried on there: Dhar Tichitt, Djenné, Timbuktu, Gao, Mali, Ghana, and Walata. They comprised the leading commercial centers of the kingdom of Mali. The inhabitants of these centers were both local people and migrants from the north escaping the gradual spread of the Sahara desert. The promise of productive farmland in the south lured them into the Sahel, and the growth of trade and trade routes hastened the migrations. As people moved from north to south and around subregions within this larger region, they settled villages and towns, ostensibly with the aim of farming. Over time, however, the strategic locations of these towns and villages along Sahara, Sahel, and savanna trade routes led the inhabitants to turn from agriculture to trade. Gradually, they developed networks of interregional trade.

One of the earliest trading centers was Djenné (in present-day Mali). Located in the Niger River Delta, it was first settled c. 250 b.c.e. and grew steadily over the centuries. By 450 c.e., Djenné spread over at least 60 acres (24 hectares). At first, the people of Djenné lived from herding, fishing, farming, and exchanging their produce with others within their immediate locale. Over time, circles of trade expanded. At the center of the regional trade was Djenné, where people would gather to exchange goods. Archaeologists have discovered Roman and Hellenistic beans in the remains of ancient Djenné, suggesting that these trade items were reaching West Africa.


The trading cities of the Sudanic belt entered their peak during the Islamic era. These included Koumbi Saleh, a trading center for salt and gold in what was to become the kingdom of Ghana. Mined in the Sahara, salt was carried to Koumbi or Awdaghast. Koumbi became the liveliest trading center in West Africa. Salt and gold were the most important trading items but other things were traded as well: cattle from the south, wheat from the north, cloth, leather goods, seashells (used for decoration and as currency), copper, and ivory. Craftspeople in Koumbi worked the gold and copper into jewelry or other items.

Gao, the city that became the capital of the Songhai Empire, rose up around 500 c.e. Its important trading items were salt and gold. Luxury items that flowed into Gao from trade included glass, copperware, and cloth.

The trade and commerce of the Sudanic Belt towns and cities of Africa extended over a wide area and touched diverse peoples. Berbers were among the main traders across the Sahara to the West African Sahel. Different groups within the Sahel rose up as vital traders of goods such as gold and iron and also produced some of the leading trade items, such as gold and ivory jewelry. Of all the trade items in the trans-Saharan trade, salt was the most important. Gold was also highly desired.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Basil. The Lost Cities of Africa. Rev. ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959. A classic study of ancient sub-Saharan African civilizations
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, James L. The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Interpretation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. A geography of Africa that focuses on the development of cultures within the continent’s different regions from prehistoric times to colonization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Time-Life Editors. Africa’s Glorious Legacy. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1994. A pictorial overview of African civilizations.
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Categories: History