On Trans-Saharan Trails

Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa

On Trans-Saharan Trails

This study is the first of its kind to examine the history and organization of trans-Saharan trade in western Africa using original source material. It documents the internal dynamics of a trade network system based on a case-study of the Wad Nun traders, who specialized in outfitting camel caravans in the nineteenth century. Through an examination of contracts, correspondence, fatwas, and interviews with retired caravaners, Lydon shows how traders used their literacy skills in Arabic and how they had recourse to experts of Islamic law to regulate their long-distance transactions. The book also examines the methods employed by women participating in caravan trade. By embracing a continental approach, this study bridges the divide between West African and North African studies. The work will be of interest to historians of African, Middle Eastern, and world history and to scholars of long-distance trade, Muslim societies, and Islamic law.


"This superbly written and deftly organized book provides a vast array of information concerning the mechanics of caravanning across the Sahara in the nineteenth century, the commodities traded in that period among the region's tribes, and the participants in their exchanges. … On Trans-Saharan Trails is an excellent book both for what it uncovers and for the questions it raises. Decades from now scholars in several fascinating disciplines will be using, but also seeking to refine and develop, its many fascinating findings."
The Journal of Economic History

"On Trans-Saharan Trails, with its focus on regions bordering Western Sahara in the nineteenth century, is essential reading for understanding the mental landscape and social stratification, as well as the political and economic order within this specific ecological space. Its precise yet accessible style allows for a concrete appreciation of the workings of global history, providing a welcome reminder of the interconnectedness of our world - in terms of goods, techniques, or skills exchanged, but also in terms of the dissemination of shared vocabulary, cultural practices, ideas, beliefs, and peoples' migratory patterns."

"This is a rich book. Its scope ranges from a discussion of terminology of directions and the meaning of 'Sahel', via a history of tea consumption in the Sahara, to theoretical arguments on early modern trade networks. As a Saharan would say, 'Lydon has drunk deep.'"
Baz Lecocq, The Journal of African History

"The text is a significant contribution to the literature on North and West Africa and deserves to be widely read, not only by historians but also by anthropologists, students of religion, art historians, and others."
Amanda Rogers, H-AfrArts

"Using family and court records, a breathtaking number of interviews, and a vast knowledge of Islam and northwest Africa's religious cultures, Lydon's lengthy book provides a wealth of information about the trans-Saharan trade on the eve of colonial conquest and will serve as a benchmark."
Sean Hanretta, Comparative Studies in Society and History

"… scholars looking for an account of trans-Saharan trade in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will find Lydon's book to be an indispensable resource, enriched by the author's meticulous and detailed study of Arabic private correspondence, legal documents, and commercial records."
James F. Searing, American Historical Review

"In this massive study [Lydon] tries, with considerable success, to do it all: Saharan trade is integrated into the story of global/cross-cultural exchange; the traditional divisions of 'North' and 'West' African history are repositioned by a focus on the Saharan commerce that unites them; and a remarkably lucid tale is told of Wad Nun (southern Moroccan) economic (and social, and legal) links in the nineteenth century, south through Tawdenni and Arawan to Timbuktu, then back north through Walata, Tishit, Shinqit (with a brief excursion to the coast at Arguin), Wadan, and Ijil. … We are indebted to Ghislaine Lydon for bringing all this and much, much more together, effectively opening research arenas that formerly were foggily defined, at best, and spelling out methodologies frequently ignored by Africanist blinders. But most of all, she has reaffirmed the importance of our attention to the tens of thousands of manuscripts, now increasingly accessible and known, across the Sahara and West Africa."
Charles C. Stewart, Islamic Africa

"In this pioneering work, Lydon has given historians and legal scholars a window into the commercial complexities of trans-Saharan trade that reached across vast distances and multiple currency zones … On Trans-Saharan Trails makes an important contribution to African history and by extension to world history."
Law and History Review


Martin A. Klein Prize in African History from the American Historical Association 2010 - Winner