Once upon a time, centuries before container ships and cargo planes crisscrossed the globe, wealthy Europeans would sit down to dinner and judiciously sprinkle a few precious crystals of salt onto their food. In many cases, this priceless seasoning (which, in the days before refrigeration, was also the primary way to preserve meat and other staples) had come from mines deep within the Sahara, a continent away, traded along its journey for glass beads, gold, or slaves.
The simple seasoning we now take for granted spurred some of the first major trade routes from Africa to Europe, and was carried overland by camel caravans known as azalai, bound for ports in what is now Senegal, Ghana, and Morocco. Desert towns like Djenné and Timbuktu sprang up to support the traders, as spices, beads, and cowrie shells from north and east Africa were traded for slaves and gold from southern and western Africa. And there, in the middle of the desert, thousands of miles from Europe’s tables, was the source of the most precious element of all: salt, the only commodity that was literally worth its weight in gold.
These days, salt may be easier to procure and less precious in our estimations, but in many ways, the journey made in northwestern Africa by this essential mineral is just as treacherous as it was in the Middle Ages. And the dangers to those transporting salt—including robbery and death from exposure or thirst—persist, as well. This winter, I retraced some of this same terrain in central Mali, traveling by car over the course of three weeks. Little did I know that in the months to come, a military coup and rebel battles would overtake the nation, introducing new risks and effectively doing what plains, trains, and automobiles couldn’t do: kill the Salt Road. [As of our date of publication, April 11, no one is allowed in or out of the Tuareg rebel–controlled areas.]
My journey began about a two-hour car drive south of the famed town of Timbuktu. The 125-mile-long Bandiagara Escarpment, an unforgivingly steep sandstone ridge, has been inhabited for centuries by the Dogon people, animists who fled Arab raiders more than 800 years ago from the fertile headwaters of the Niger River to preserve their way of life. The Dogon live in adobe houses built high into the cliffs, and grow most of what they need to survive in this formidable landscape (including sorghum, millet, and onions). The Escarpment became a landmark along the ancient salt trade route by virtue of its location in the Sahel Desert south of the Niger River, which curves through Mali: For as long as the Dogon have lived here, salt has passed through the region, part of a journey that starts more than 550 miles away in the mines of the Saharan outpost of Taoudenni.
Moving north through the Sahel, alongside the pothole-studded dirt road that connects the Dogon lands to Timbuktu, we come across donkey caravans: dozens of animals laden with huge slabs of salt that resemble white granite.
One might mistake this for a scene from the 1800s, but today life on the Salt Road goes on much as it has for nine hundred years, only now the donkeys outnumber the camels, and the animals themselves are eclipsed by the cars and trucks that have become today’s preferred salt-haulers.
“Salt has always been needed for the cattle,” explained Sory, a Fulani tribesman from the ancient city of Djenné and the guide who’d traveled with me from the capital city of Bamako to Timbuktu. “Without salt the cattle will die—land here a man has always counted his wealth in cattle. Even now, cattle are our form of banking. You can’t get married without a dowry of cattle or do business without it. So without salt, you have no cattle, no prosperity, nothing.”
With the success of the salt trade, wealth flowed into Timbuktu. The city, and other towns along the route, were not only enriched by the goods exchanged in these ancient markets but also transformed by the Islamic faith practiced by the traders. In the 13th century, Arab merchants—including Berbers and Tuaregs—from the north brought with them the Koran and written language to the mostly animist tribes of the south, which had previously relied on oral tradition to communicate. “In order to do business with the Arabs, you had to be Muslim, so kings and tribes converted,” Sory explained. But the tribes also learned how to read and write—thus opening up their societies to the rest of the world.
By the 15th–16th centuries Timbuktu was flourishing as a center of commerce and scholarship. News of the city in the desert soon hit Europe, and rumors circulated of a capital paved in gold and jewels. Yet no Western explorer reached the remote and seemingly mythical place until 1826, when the Scottish explorer Gordon Laing became the first known Westerner to enter Timbuktu—only to be killed by Muslim tribesmen on his way out of town. Two years later, however, Frenchman René-Auguste Caillié made it in and out of Timbuktu alive, using the cultural knowledge he’d picked up while living for a year in what is now Mauritania to disguise himself as a Muslim (among other things, he learned how to speak Arabic and tie a turban). But according to Sory, Caillié’s accounts of the fabled city were called into question upon his return to Europe. “Caillié came back to France and told them of this crumbling city in the desert,” Sory said. “They thought he was lying. But by the 1800s, the city was in deep decline. The myths no longer held true. Caillié’s account was correct.”
Much of Timbuktu’s demise could be blamed on the sea-shipping routes that had become well established by the 19th century; additionally, other sources of salt had been found in Northern Ireland, Germany, and England, as well as on the Black Sea coast, making the dangerous trek into the desert no longer necessary on a large scale. Following the West’s discovery of Timbuktu, Mali’s salt road fell further into decline. As recently as 1960, the caravans transported some 15,000 tons of salt per year, but today the trade is only a third of this figure, as salt mines have continued to be developed in other, more accessible places throughout Europe and the Americas.
However, the old route is still in use, and life on the salt road remains dangerous (and it was so even before March’s coup). Though trucks or cars now make up the majority of the azalai, bandits remain a risk (my driver Mohammed said he had been robbed at gunpoint outside the desert outpost of Gao just three weeks before we met) and an even more timeless threat is the desert itself.
“There is only one road to Taoudenni,” Sory said (road being a generous word for the Taoudenni corridor). Unpaved and often unmarked, the desert crossing can still confuse the untrained eye. “In the early days, the traders would have to navigate by the sun and stars. Even now, you have to have knowledge of the sky, because if you veer off the road or get lost, you die.”
“It takes five days to go from Timbuktu to Taoudenni,” Sory continued. “Traders will go by caravan—at least 10 trucks at a time. There are no gas stations or hotels, so the drivers have to take everything with them. They drive up with supplies for Taoudenni salt-mine workers and the village, and drive back laden down with salt. If you go by camel—which people still do—it takes 28 days.”
Back on the road out of Dogon country, we find a small market and I bargain for some salt—a souvenir of my trip across the sands and centuries. It costs 50 cents for a hunk the size of my fist—pretty cheap for such a long, dangerous journey.