What did the Sahara Desert ever do for us?

Studying and writing about world history is a funny thing. It makes you think odd thoughts.

Like: what’s the Sahara ever done for us?

I was in on a class recently, with the teacher introducing the Atlantic Slave Trade to her students. The teacher had a big outline map of Africa up on the board. What soon became apparent that she had no real idea about the geography of the African continent. She didn’t even know where the Sahara was. I’m not sure she knew that there was such a thing as the Sahara desert. 

Well, apart from the wider queston of the relationship between geography and history (in my view, you simply cannot understand one without the other), it’s made me ask myself the question: what part has the Sahara played in world history?

After all, its a dry expanse of waste. Very few people live there. It’s housed no civilization, no empires, no cities, no culture, no art, nothing.

Well, apart from Ancient Egypt, of course. And the huge kingdoms of medieval Ghana, Songhay, Mali, Kanem-Bornu, Darfur…and the historic trading cities of Djenne, Gao and Timbuktu …apart from them, there’s been nothing there. Oh, and of course the beautifully designed mosques and houses with those lovely twirly turrets (I spent a lot of my chidhood in this part of the world and remember the superb local archtecture well) and the ancient universities of Timbuktu and Gao, renowned throughout the Muslim world….

But seriously – would world history have been radically different if the great desert had not been there? Did the Sahara perform any important role in history?

Yes, it did.

It acted as a huge barrier between north and south. That is why we talk today of “sub-Saharan Africa”.

Crossing the desert from North Africa to West Africa is hard enough today, let alone in past centuries. It was not until the coming of the camel from the Arabian peninsula that it could be tackled on a regular basis. Even down the Nile valley, you would come to the great cataracts, and further south, the dense swampy, near-impassable terrain of the Sud. So yes, trade routes could and did traverse the region; down these routes flowed technologies (literacy) and ideas (Islam).

But in a very real way, the difficulties of these routes cut the cultures south of the Sahara off from those to the north. Trade can only go so far in transmitting culture; conquest can go a great deal further: Witness Rome’s incorporation of western Europe into Classical civilization, or the pacification of south China by the north Chinese. In the Sahara region, there was never a successful, enduring conquest from one side of the desert to the other before modern times. The projection of military and political power across the desert was impossible for pre-industrial societies: the vast stretch of arid terrain was impassable to a large force who would need food and water for months at a time in a landscape devoid of consumable resources. So, the existence of the Sahara ensured that African societies to the south – sub-Saharan African societies – developed along independent lines from those to the north. Distinct cultures grew up here.

Similarly, the lands to the north of the Sahara were cut off from the south. The countries of the Mediterranean received gold and slaves from the distant south, but they could not reach the gold fields and the elephant habitats themselves. This was a matter of gowing frustration to them. Ultimately, it was this fact which led the Portuguese to seek an ocean route to the south. And from this search sprung the age of European exploration and expansion.

So, the Sahara desert was an important factor in the rise of Europe and the West, and all that has flowed from that. So, yes, it has played an important part of world history.


Peter Britton


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