There were many kingdoms along the west coast of Africa. One of the most famous was the ancient kingdom of Ghana. This is because Ghana handled the trade between traders to the north and traders to the south. The north had salt mines. The south had gold. Ghana was the the middle, and had a very strong army. Ghana offered the traders protection, for a fee. Ghana set up the rules of trade. Trade was even – an ounce of gold for an ounce of salt. The kingdom of Ghana did not have gold mines or salt mines, but Ghana got rich handling the trade of gold for salt. After a while, word reached the east coast of Africa about the riches to the west. All the east coast traders had to do was cross the Sahara to get there, which was no easy feat. Camels helped them do that. Camel trains began arriving ready to trade. They brought with them silks and spices and other luxury goods, like peacock feathers. The king of Ghana was very smart. He wanted to protect his people from the foreigners. He was concerned about invasion. No one knew these people. No one knew if they were honest. First, the king charged these new traders a tax. People had to pay a tax to enter Ghana, and a tax to leave Ghana. Ghana\’s army kept the trade routes protected from bandits. This system worked for everyone. Some traders did not want to pay the tax.
They tried to negotiate directly with the miners to the north and south. But the miners would not work with them. They knew the value Ghana\’s army offered. They did not trust the new traders. The traders had no choice but to trade through Ghana and pay the tax. This tax helped to make Ghana even more rich than she was already. Second, the king set up a system of silent barter. The traders from the camel trains never saw the people with whom they were trading. The west coast Africans left gold at a prearranged spot. The camel train traders took the gold and left goods in payment. If they did not leave enough good in payment, all trade stopped. So the camel traders often left more than they needed to, to make sure trade would continue. It was a very clever system. This solved the problem of speaking different languages and risking working with people you did not know or trust. Third, the king of Ghana set up an entire city for the foreign traders, a place to eat and sleep and relax and worship in their own way. He did not want these Moslem traders, these new people, to disrupt life for his people. This city was built about 6 miles away from the real city. This system worked very well for a very long time. While nearby, only 6 miles away, camel trains arrived and departed, the people in the capital city did not notice them.
They continued to enjoy public prayer in the big open plazas in the real city, and the stories of the Griots, and the dancing at the many festivals. The drums beat. The people sang and laughed and worked. Life was good in ancient Ghana.
For those who knew how to survive it, the Sahara was not an impenetrable desert as much as it was a vast, navigable ocean. Like ships on the ocean, large camel caravans have crossed vast distances on waves of sand for centuries, stopping at island oases along the way. The sahel, the Arabic word for shore, describes the semiarid region just below the Sahara. It was upon this inland shore that Arab and Berber traders deposited their most valuable goods: solid blocks of salt. Salt from the sea would not work as it quickly dissolved in the humid and vast region of West Africa. Only solid salt bars from the desert could be carried without spoiling. Salt was needed to replace fluids in the body and for preserving food in a tropical climate where meat spoiled quickly. was so valuable to the people of western Sudan that some were willing to pay the price of gold for salt. Gold was plentiful south of the Sahara. Ibn al Hamdhani, an Arab geographer, described gold growing there like carrots in the ground. Similarly salt was plentiful in the Sahara. The buildings in the town of Taghaza in the middle of the Sahara were built from blocks of salt.
While the West Africans needed the salt for their diet, the North Africans needed gold for currency. Kingdoms, wealthy merchants, great empires, and kings would rise and fall on both sides of the Saharan shore, their fortunes largely dependent on the trade of salt and gold. With plentiful salt in the north but a lack of gold, and plentiful gold in the south with a lack of salt, the conditions for trade were perfect. Ironically the gold and salt miners almost never saw each other face to face. Merchants from the west and north traded, while the great empires of the south, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, managed the trade. The gold miners, the Wangaran people, did not want to give up the secret locations of their mines deep in the dense rainforests of West Africa and would swear not to reveal about the gold mines if captured. The gold and salt trade had an important impact on both the culture of the northern traders and sub-Sahara. Gold introduced the Mediterranean world to the enticing natural riches of Africa and fueled an economic boom. The sub-Saharan rulers similarly gained from the salt and from the new ideas and religious practices introduced by the northern traders, allowing them to create unified states around Islam.