The Road to Salt – Cruel trade across the Sahara

By Mohamed El-Gasmi | September 2nd, 2019   One Comment
The Salt Road Mosque Djenne

The Road to Salt: Cruel trade across the Sahara Desert

Camels in Salt The road to Salt

Humans  can not survive without salt, it is as important as gold. Therefore, for nearly a thousand years, nomad traders have crossed the desert, challenging the sandstorms and the harsh temperatures in search of “the white gold,” salt collected from the surface at some parts of the Sahara.

Trans-Saharan Trade

The Road to Salt sand storm

Why salt was important

In the hot climate of the Sahara, people and animals need a lot of salt to replace what the body sweats out. Salt is used to make food taste better and to preserve meat. It was valuable, rare and it could only be brought from a few locations in the whole Sahara desert. Two of the main locations were the salt source of Taghaza, ten days away from the city of Timbuktu and the village of Tichit in Mauritania.

Blocks of salt were imported on camel back for hundreds of kilometres from Taghaza then sold in markets across the arid Sahel belt from Djenne in Mali to Agadez in Niger.

The Road to Salt Mosque Djenne
Photo credit to Malakospapakos / Flickr / Djenne Mosque

This commerce forced nomads to cross the desert with their camel caravans risking their life to reach those sources in very demanding journeys that took them weeks and sometimes months in rough and unforgiving landscapes.

The Road to SAlt camel caravan

The Journey

The road to salt journey was cruel and it put the life of traders and camels in the hands of the unknown. The Sahara Desert is one of the most dangerous geographical parts of the world due to its dryness and vastness. But the lone hump camel, that was brought to the region about 3,000 years ago, is the only creature that could make it and throughout history it represented the backbone of this trade. It is known for its patience to walk long distances and strength to carry heavy goods. This animal was truly an ideal companion for nomads in their deportation of salt.

The Road to Salt White Camel

The Caravan

The caravan can be up to 40 or 50 camels going in one line. Generally the number of camels depended on the wealth of the traders. The caravan had to be guided by a group of people including workers, fighters and a guide. The desert was a dangerous place where bandits ruled in some regions. As a result, the destiny of the caravan relied on the guide to avoid locations where the caravan could be attacked.

The job of the guide was to;

a) know the mysterious roads of the Sahara

b) know the water sources, including the hidden wells

c) speak different dialects to communicate with other tribes

d) to make deals to guarantee the safety of the caravan.

The Road to Salt Map
Photo Credit Asian Geographic

The end of the road

During the trade, each camel normally carried four sacks each weighing 50 kg all over hundreds of kilometres. Mostly, after the caravan finished the mission, the camels were so weak that they would not be able to make the return journey and the traders sold them to the village slaughterhouse to be turned into food.

To conclude, the desert caravan trade in general was the only option to connect parts of the Sahara and to shrink the endless destinations.

Stay tuned for Part Two for more information about the fabulous history of the desert nomads trade caravans and to join your own camel caravan – talk to us about a Walking with Nomads trekking experience.


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