In West Africa, salt and food dominated trade in the Sahara desert (sahr means desert in Arabic ). The trade also included gold, ivory, ostrich feathers, tortoise shells and furs from sub-Sahara. When the Arabs arrived in Africa, trade increased because of the camel. Camels were crucial because they were able to travel up to 100 km or more a day, that is twice the distance of pack-oxen or horses. Camels could also withstand both daytime heat and night-time cold. Berbers engaged in long-distance trade. Arab traders bought west African gold from Ancient Ghana - the land of Gold and financed Berber caravans. In this way Islam spread very quickly and transactions became easier. The expansion of Muslim trans-desert trade after about 750 AD provided a new and major spur to West African state-formation and urbanism.
By 1067 the Andulasian chronicler al-Bakri, writing in the then brilliant Andulasian city of Cordoba in southern Spain, but drawing on first-hand information from trans-Saharan travellers and traders, described Ghana as a large and powerful state. Writing at the court of the Norman king Roger II of Sicily, al-Idrisi described how the rulers of Ghana would often feed thousands at a time, spreading banquets more lavish than any man had ever seen before.
By the late Dark Ages, with western Europe in crisis, the African interior kingdoms of the western and central Sudan flourished. A number of African kings, among them Mansa Musa and Sonni Ali, enjoyed renown throughout Islam and Christendom for their wealth, brilliance and the artistic achievements of their subjects. Their capitals were large walled cities with many mosques and at least two, Timbuktu and Jenne, had universities that attracted scholars and poets from far and wide. Their power derived from a mixture of military force and diplomatic alliances with local leaders; their judges dispensed justice; their bureaucracies administered taxation and controlled trade, the life-blood of these states.
However, it was Mali in West Africa that was brought to attention of Muslim world by the ruler of Mali, Mansa Musa (d.1337), brother of Abu Bukhari (famous for sending thousands of trading ships to the Americas in the 1300s), with his famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324-5, arriving in Cairo with a huge caravan that included 100 camel-loads of gold. Musa showed his generosity by giving away quantities of gold in Egypt, depressing Egypt's currency. This created the European mythology of West Africa as a place of immeasurable wealth where even slaves wore gold . Completing the Catalan World Atlas of Africa in 1375, the Majorcan cartographer Cresques (Jew ?) showed the king of Mali seated on a throne, holding an orb (huge gold nugget ) and sceptre, in the centre of West Africa while the traders of all North Africa march sturdily towards his markets. West African gold became a staple export to Europe with at least two-thirds of the world's supply of gold coming from West Africa. Monarchs as far away as England struck their coins in the precious metal of West Africa.
Mansa Musa encouraged the development of learning and expansion of Islam. In the early years of his reign, Musa sent Sudanese scholars to the Moroccan university of Fez. By the end of his reign, Sudanese scholars were setting up their own centres of learning and Quranic learning, particularly in Timbuktu, later to become an important centre for Muslim traders and scholars, Sudanese as well as Berber.
Less than twenty years after Musa's death the globe-trotting Berber, Ibn Battuta still restlessly wandering after nearly thirty years of eager observation up and down the Muslim world visited Mali. He wrote: `the Negroes possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people...There is complete security in their country. Neither traveller nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence'. From E.W.Bovill, `The Golden Trade of the Moors'.
Timbuktu, the capital of Mali reached the height of its wealth and fame in the 16th century. Writing for an Italian audience early in the sixteenth century, Leo Africanus described Timbuktu, as a city of learning and letters where the king, besides disposing of an army of three thousand cavalry and `countless infantry', supported from his treasury `many magistrates, learned doctors and men of religion. `Here in Timbuktu', he noted, `there is a big market for manuscript books from the Berber countries, and more profit is made from the sale of books than from any other merchandise'. The reputation of their schools of theology and law spread far into Muslim Asia. This central age of Mali was afterwards remembered as a golden age of prosperity and peace.
The world renowned University of Sankore at Timbuktu - north of Ghana and in West Africa which drew students from all West Africa and scholars from different foreign countries. It was especially known for its high standard of scholarship and, therefore, exacting admission requirements about which there were some complaints. The university consisted of a Faculty of Law, Medicine and surgery, Letters, Grammar, Geography and Art (here art had to do with such practical training as manufacturing, building and other allied crafts). After the basic training the expertise required was through the traditional apprenticeship in the various craft guilds. There were thousands of students from all parts of West Africa and other regions with large numbers of scientists, doctors, lawyers and other scholars at the University. Also elementary school system and secondary school system without which there could not have been a University of Sankore with such high standards for admission.
The Arabic language, unlike any other in the world, had a three-way advantage in its spread. Like Latin in Europe at the time, it was the language of religion and learning; but unlike Latin, Arabic was also the language of trade and commerce. But the study of the Islamic Quran, law and literature was at the core of the University's curriculum. It was at Timbuktu that two of the great African writers of the period wrote their famous histories in Arabic, Tarikh al Fat-tash by Mahmud Kati, and Tarikh Al Sudan by Rahman as Sadi. The most famous African scholar during this period of Songhay's intellectual flowering was the biographer and lexicographer, Ahmad Babo born in 1526 who was the last president of the University of Sankore [pg. 218, 40]. Unfortunately, a series of his biographies were destroyed along with forty other works of which he was the author. There seems to be no question at all about Babo being the greatest and most prolific writer and scholar in the 16th century. His fame as a school educator spread to distant lands .
In 1464 one of Africa's most renowned kings and military heroes, Sunni Ali, became ruler of the Songhay people who lived around the city of Gao - east of Timbuktu. Sunni Ali's conquest built up a huge Songhay Empire, but his son was deposed as ruler by an even greater leader, Askia the Great, who reigned from 1493 to 1528. Trade flourished - especially across the Sahara - and the Songhay Empire incorporated a number of great commercial cities, including Timbuktu, Jenne and Gao, which had become centres of learning of Muslim piety.
Note: Most of the Africans who were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade came from West Africa, an area roughly from Senegal River in the north to the Congo River in the South.