From around AD 750 to 1500, lands to the south of Africa’s Sahara Desert were home to many thriving civilizations. Muslim kings ruled in cities like TIMBUKTU, and chiefs called OBAS were powerful in rainforest kingdoms. SWAHILI peoples became rich through trade.
Traders from North Africa crossed the Sahara together in a group called a caravan. They led as many as 10,000 camels, heavily laden with goods, in a long line known as a camel train. At the southern edge of the Sahara, the goods were transferred to donkeys or human porters, to be carried farther south.
Gold, ivory, ebony, and slaves from West African kingdoms such as Ghana, Mali, and Songhai were sold in North Africa and the Middle East. They were traded for salt and copper, mined in the Sahara. Later, European traders came for gold, ebony, and slaves.
Timbuktu (in central Mali) was one of the most important cities on the edge of the Sahara. After Muslim scholars brought the religion of Islam to the region, around 900, it became a great center of Muslim learning, with schools, a university, and a special market where valuable, handwritten books were sold.
Like a number of other cities on the edge of the Sahara, such as Gao and Jenne, Timbuktu was also on the banks of the Niger River. These cities were inland ports. Merchants from the south sent boatloads of gold, ivory, cotton, dried fish, and kola nuts upriver to them, to be sold to people living there, or to be carried to lands farther north. Timbuktu became a terminus (end point) for one of the main trading routes crossing the Sahara.
Swahili became the main language used by different peoples on the coast and islands of East Africa. Many of its words were taken from Arabic—the language of traders who sailed across the Indian Ocean, linking India and Arabia with East African ports such as Mogadishu, Gedi, and Kilwa.
East Africans produced valuable goods, such as leather, frankincense, leopard skins, ivory, iron, copper, and gold. They sold these to Indian Ocean traders. From around 1071, they sent ambassadors to trade with China, and, from 1418, welcomed Chinese merchant ships to East Africa’s ports.
From around 1250 to 1800, a number of different kingdoms made up what is now southwest Nigeria, in West Africa. Each of these was ruled by an oba. The obas were both religious and political leaders. Their subjects, the Yoruba people, lived as farmers, and built city-states surrounded by massive walls of earth.
People living in the rainforest kingdom of Benin, now in south Nigeria, were expert metalworkers and cast elaborate portrait heads of their obas, as well as decorative plaques and ceremonial objects. These were made from brass or bronze and were used for ancestor worship, or to decorate the rulers’ palaces.
The power of the obas and other African rulers was weakened by the arrival of Europeans. Portuguese, Dutch, and British traders took back news to their countries of the riches of Africa. Explorers were encouraged to travel there and, by 1900, almost all of Africa was ruled by European powers.