Despite Egypt’s proximity to Mesopotamia, the camel did not become a major factor in Africa until afl:er 300 ce, more or less when it arrived in China. Its impact is no less dramatic. For the flrst time, the extensive gold, ivory, and salt resources of the region could be traded. The camel entered the continent along three basic corridors: (1) the northern coast, controlled by the Berbers, who began to connect southward into Morocco and across the Libyan Desert, the latter developing into the Tuareg; (2) from Sudan westward by a group known as the Kababish and the Zaghawa, who moved along the southern edges of the Sahara; and (3) from Somalia westward by a group known as the Rendille, who connected the eastern coast of Africa across the Chalbi Desert with the Congo and south Sudan. These three vectors constituted a rapid delivery system across the deserts, transforming the northern half of Africa, politically, religiously, and culturally. In the eighth and ninth centuries, most of these camel cultures converted to Islam, usually constructing a syncretic faith, which combined the tradition of animism with the principles of the new religion.
The transformations began around 300 ce, when camel caravans carrying salt from mines in the Sahara Desert went to trading centers along the Niger River in present-day Mali to exchange it for the gold that was mined in forests near the headwaters of the Niger. The gold was then transported back across the desert. As a consequence, we see the emergence of the Ghana Empire, which had neither salt nor gold, but which profited from this trans-Saharan trade beginning in the middle of the seventh century ce. The trade north to Morocco and the Mediterranean ports was controlled by the Idrisid Dynasty (788-985), the first Islamic state in Africa west of the Nile, and the first of several states and empires in that region. The Sahel, to the south of the Sahara, which was home to traditional agro-pastoralists and cattle herders, was relatively stateless still in the ninth century. But this was not to last as the cross-continental trade began to heat up. In Nigeria, for example, in the eighth century ce, the village world coalesced into numerous, small dynastic chieftains. One of these, centered at Ife, rose to become a significant regional power. To the east, we see the emergence of the Kanem Empire, which was founded by nomadic people known as the Zaghawa, who connected central Africa with the Sudanese Kababish to the east. Moving east again, we arrive at the Aksumite Kingdom in Ethiopia, which had dominated trade into inner Africa, but which was now in decline and would eventually disappear altogether. Without camels and deserts it could not compete with either the Kababish to the north or the Somali and Rendille to the south.