The Sahel is the ecoclimatic and biogeographic zone of transition in Africa between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian Savanna (historically known as the Sudan region) to the south. Having a semi-arid climate, it stretches across the south-central latitudes of Northern Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea.
The Arabic word sāḥil (ساحل) literally means "shore, coast", describing the appearance of the vegetation found in the Sahel as being akin to that of a coastline delimiting the sand of the Sahara. The Sahel can be divided from Lake Chad in west and east regions.
The Senegal and Niger rivers are the main water sources. They are also important navigational and trade lanes between the Sahel and the south and western tropical forests, and the territory of several Sahelian polities.
Traditionally, most of the people in the Sahel have been semi-nomads, farming and raising livestock in a system of transhumance, which is probably the most sustainable way of utilizing the Sahel. The difference between the dry North with higher levels of soil nutrients and the wetter South with more vegetation, is utilized by having the herds graze on high quality feed in the North during the wet season, and trek several hundred kilometers to the South to graze on more abundant, but less nutritious feed during the dry period.
The Sahelian polities were a series of monarchies centered in the Sahel. Their wealth of the states came from controlling the trans-Saharan trade routes across the desert, especially the slave trade with the Islamic world. Their power came from having large pack animals like camels and horses that were fast enough to keep a large empire under central control and were also useful in battle. All of these empires were quite decentralized with member cities having a great deal of autonomy.
The main western polities are:
- Mali Empire
- Songhai Empire
- Jolof Empire
- state of Kanem-Bornu
- Hausa city-states
The Sahel states were hindered from expanding south into the forest zone of the Ashanti and Yoruba peoples as mounted warriors were all but useless in the forests and the horses and camels could not survive the heat and diseases of the region.
The Islamization of the Sahel encompasses a prolonged period of military conquest and religious conversion spanning from the 8th century. The proliferation of Islamic influence was largely a gradual process. Sufi orders played a significant role in the spread of Islam from the 9th century, and they proselytized across trade routes between North Africa and the sub-Saharan kingdoms of Ghana and Mali. They were also responsible for setting up zawiyas on the shores of the River Niger. The rulers and governing elites converted and adscribe to Islam but the majority of the rural population practices folk versions of Islam or African traditional religions.
Sunni Islam is the sole denomination in the Sahel. The Malikī madhhab is the main schools of Fiqh or religious law in the Sahel. The introduction of Almohad orthodoxy and the Ẓāhirī madhab is small and its practice is limited to the Berber tribes and some merchant and artisan communities that have emigrate to the Sahel from Morocco.
Kings and warriors come and go but Timbuktu stands as the sands of the desert as an old saying states. Timbuktu is the major learning and cultural center of the Sahel. In its beginings Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves. Later the town's numerous Islamic scholars and extensive trading network made possible an important book trade: together with the campuses of its mosques and madrasas established Timbuktu as a scholarly centre in Africa. The main mandrasas are Sankoré, Djinguereber and Sidi Yahya. There are also several libraries, scriptural and printing workshops, and smaller madrases were each as more specific classes either in medicine, mathematics, science or jurisprudence.
Almohad orthodoxy and the Ẓāhirī madhab gained entrance in Timbuktu in 1260 thanks to a generous waqf provided by the Moroccan merchants. It allowed the purchase of books, building and maintenance of a mosque and mandrasa, and enlist lecturers and teachers.
Trade and economy
There are integrated kingdoms and empires, with substantial cities and significant towns; and less organised territories with large scattered populations.
People practice agriculture, stock-rearing, hunting, fishing, and crafts (metalworking, textiles, ceramics). They navigated along rivers and across lakes, trading over short and long distances, using their own currencies. In the agricultural zones near the rivers sorghum and African rice are cultivated.
The major trade of the Sahel is slaves, salt, copper, gold, gum arabic and ivory.
The main Sahelian Muslim polities (Mali and Songhai Empires) had long established commercial ties with the Maghreb, and also diplomatic contacts exchanging scholars and learning. However the Almohad Caliphate did not have a crucial influence nor did it engaged in territorial conquests.
An important event and that also marked further involvement of the Almohad in the trade and politics of the Sahel polities was the establishment of trade factories in Ndar (1242, 640 AH) and Takrur (1244, 642 AH) on the Senegal river.
- ↑ OTL Saint-Louis, Senegal