West African Empires and Trans-Saharan Trade

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Learning Objective 2I

Explain how the expansion of empires influenced trade and communication over time.

Historical Development 1

The expansion of West African trading states led to growth in the Trans-Saharan trade network.

Historical Development 2

The expansion of West African trading cities led to growth in the Trans-Saharan trade network.


West African Empires Influenced Trans-Saharan Trade

West Africa experienced a variety of changes as a result of the expansion of the trans-Saharan trade network. These changes were similar to those seen on other major Afro-Eurasian trading networks.

West Africa developed several prominent and wealthy trading empires that extended their power over large territories. The wealth and power of these kingdoms derived mainly from trade across the trans-Saharan trade routes. Because these kingdoms’ survival was closely tied to trade, leaders encouraged trade and supported merchant activity. 

The Mali Empire

The Mali empire emerged in 1235. Mali built its wealth on control of trade and taxation of commerce that passed through its borders. Because of the plentiful reserves of gold within their territory, Mali became one of the world’s largest gold exporters. Much of Mali’s gold found its way to the Mediterranean coast in North Africa. From there, the gold made its way into Europe and the Middle East. Mali’s largest import was salt, which they lacked in large enough quantities. They consumed the salt in their diets and used it to preserve perishable foods and human corpses. Mali also imported glass, ceramics, and precious stones from North Africa.

The Songhai Empire

As Mali declined, Songhai gained power along Mali’s eastern borders. They captured the trade routes that had been under the control of Mali and used the tax revenue to build a large and powerful military. Songhai continued supporting merchants and trade in the region. Songhai’s dominance in trade came from their control of the two largest trading cities of Djenne and Timbuktu. Songhai exported were gold, ivory, spices, kola nuts, hides, and slaves. However, unlike Mali’s rulers, the largest coastal goldfields were not under their control, limiting their ability to enrich themselves from the gold trade. Major imports included salt and luxury goods like fine cloth, glassware, sugar, and horses. The Songhai empire collapsed in the late 16th century after entering a period of civil war and being later invaded by their neighbor Morocco.

West African Trading Cities Influenced Trans-Saharan Trade

Important trading cities arose across the trans-Saharan trade network. These cities acted as commercial centers where merchants would buy and sell their goods. They also become centers of religion and learning.


Merchants established Timbuktu in the 12th century. The city flourished through trade in gold, salt, ivory, and slaves in both the Mali and Songhai empires. Timbuktu also became a center of Islamic learning. Between the 10th and 15th centuries, Islamic Imams (preachers) and scholars established three mosques and schools in the city (Sankore Madrasah, Djinugereber, and Sidi Yahya). 

Decline of Timbuktu: Timbuktu declined as trade patterns shifted from overland camel routes to European-controlled maritime routes. Today the population of the town numbers around 55,000 people


Merchants founded Djenne around 800 CE, and it quickly became a hub for merchant activity on the trans-Saharan trade network. Merchants would stop in Djenne on their way into or out of the larger trading city of Timbuktu. During the Mali empire, the town remained independent and paid tribute to Mali’s rulers. The rise of the Songhai empire led to Djenne’s conquest and incorporation into the Songhai state. The city became a major center of Islamic learning. Pilgrims from all over western Africa visited the city to study the Quran and Islamic teachings.

Decline of Djenne: After the Portuguese set up trading posts along West Africa’s Atlantic coast, the city’s fortunes began to decline. Over time, Portugal and other European powers dominated the region’s trade by offering faster and cheaper transportation options for commercial products through its maritime shipping routes. Today, Djenne is considered a small remote town with a population of just over 30,000 residents.