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The Azalai is a semi annual salt caravan
Camel train
A camel train is a series of camels carrying goods or passengers in a group as part of a regular or semi-regular service between two points. Although they rarely travelled faster than the walking speed of a man, camels' ability to handle harsh conditions made camel trains a vital part of...

 route practiced by Tuareg traders in the Sahara
The Sahara is the world's second largest desert, after Antarctica. At over , it covers most of Northern Africa, making it almost as large as Europe or the United States. The Sahara stretches from the Red Sea, including parts of the Mediterranean coasts, to the outskirts of the Atlantic Ocean...

 desert, or the act of traveling with a caravan along that route.


In the early 20th century two West African routes were referred to as the Azalai: one from Timbuktu
Timbuktu , formerly also spelled Timbuctoo, is a town in the West African nation of Mali situated north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. The town is the capital of the Timbuktu Region, one of the eight administrative regions of Mali...

 and the Taoudenni
Taoudenni is a remote salt mining center in the desert region of northern Mali, north of Timbuktu. The salt is dug by hand from the bed of an ancient salt lake, cut into slabs and transported either by truck or by camel to Timbuktu. The camel caravans from Taoudenni are some of the last that...

 salt mines in Mali
Mali , officially the Republic of Mali , is a landlocked country in Western Africa. Mali borders Algeria on the north, Niger on the east, Burkina Faso and the Côte d'Ivoire on the south, Guinea on the south-west, and Senegal and Mauritania on the west. Its size is just over 1,240,000 km² with...

, the other from Agadez
-Sources:* Aboubacar Adamou. "Agadez et sa région. Contribution à l'étude du Sahel et du Sahara nigériens", Études nigériennes, n°44, , 358 p.* Julien Brachet. Migrations transsahariennes. Vers un désert cosmopolite et morcelé . Paris: Le Croquant, , 324 p. ISBN : 978-2-91496865-2.*. Saudi Aaramco...

, Niger
Niger , officially named the Republic of Niger, is a landlocked country in Western Africa, named after the Niger River. It borders Nigeria and Benin to the south, Burkina Faso and Mali to the west, Algeria and Libya to the north and Chad to the east...

 to Bilma
Bilma is an oasis town in north east Niger with a population of around 2,500 people. It lies protected from the desert dunes under the Kaouar Cliffs and is the largest town along the Kaouar escarpment...

 on the Kaouar
The Kaouar, or Kaouar Cliffs is a north-south escarpment running some 150 km in north east Niger. Surrounded by the Ténéré desert and the dunes of the Erg of Bilma, easterly winds striking the 100 meter high escarpment of Kaouar provide easy access to groundwater for ten oases on the leeward side...

In geography, an oasis or cienega is an isolated area of vegetation in a desert, typically surrounding a spring or similar water source...

, with its salt condensation pits. Both are some of the last caravan routes in the Sahara
The Sahara is the world's second largest desert, after Antarctica. At over , it covers most of Northern Africa, making it almost as large as Europe or the United States. The Sahara stretches from the Red Sea, including parts of the Mediterranean coasts, to the outskirts of the Atlantic Ocean...

 that are still in use. Both caravans have largely been replaced by unpaved truck routes.


The Agadez-Bilma route, passing through the Ténéré
The Ténéré is a desert region in the south central Sahara. It comprises a vast plain of sand stretching from northeastern Niger into western Chad, occupying an area of over...

 desert and the oasis town of Fachi
Fachi is an oasis surrounded by the Ténéré desert and the dunes of the Erg of Bilma in eastern Niger, placed on the western edge of the small Agram mountain outcropping. It has an estimated population of some 2000 people. A stopping point of the Agadez to Kaouar caravans of the Azalay, Fachi is 150...

, takes around three weeks to complete (both ways). It is traditionally a twice yearly caravan from the capital of the Aïr region to the natron
Natron is a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate and about 17% sodium bicarbonate along with small quantities of household salt and sodium sulfate. Natron is white to colourless when pure, varying to gray or yellow with impurities...

 salt pans
Salt evaporation pond
Salt evaporation ponds, also called salterns or salt pans, are shallow artificial ponds designed to produce salts from sea water or other brines. The seawater or brine is fed into large ponds and water is drawn out through natural evaporation which allows the salt to be subsequently harvested...

 along the string of oases formed by the Kaouar cliffs. Food and supplies were carried from Agadez each November and March and traded for bricks of salt, condensed in the natron pits of oasis towns, and to a lesser extent, dates and vegetables. The salt was then generally traded for animal use in the Hausaland regions to the south.

The Agadez-Bilma Azalai was historically a monopoly of the Tuareg, and successively the Kel Gress, Kel Owey
Kel Owey
The Kel Owey are a Tuareg clan confederation which from the 18th century until the advent of French colonial rule at the beginning of the 20th century was a dominant power in the Air region of north central Niger.-History:The Kel Owey have, like many Tuareg confederations been both a sub-group of...

 and Kel Ayr
Kel Ayr
Kel Ayr were a semi-nomadic Tuareg tribal confederation which ruled an area centered on the Aïr Mountains in what is today Niger....

 confederations in particular. Many Tuareg traders owned the salt pits and date plantations in Kaouar, as well as holding bonded laborers there, and traveled the azalai to administer their property. The Tuareg Azalai, numbering 10,000 camels and stretching 25 km at the beginning of the colonial period, is led by the representative of the Amenokal
Amenokal is an autochthonous title for the highest Tuareg traditional chiefs.-History:Before the colonization by the French of the North African and Sahel countries they dwell in, the nomadic Tuareg federations elected a chief among the wise men of the tribes to rule the loose union of closely...

 (confederation leader), followed by each sub group.

Pre-colonial history

The Camel was introduced into the Sahara in the late first millennium, and Tuareg tribes moved south into the region in the 13th century. In the 18th century, Tuareg confederations captured the Kaouar oases from the Kanem-Bornu Empire
Kanem-Bornu Empire
The Kanem-Bornu Empire existed in modern Chad and Nigeria. It was known to the Arabian geographers as the Kanem Empire from the 9th century AD onward and lasted as the independent kingdom of Bornu until 1900. At its height it encompassed an area covering not only much of Chad, but also parts of...

 and began transporting goods from Agadez.

Colonial and post-colonial history

The disruptions of the French colonial expansion
French colonial empires
The French colonial empire was the set of territories outside Europe that were under French rule primarily from the 17th century to the late 1960s. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonial empire of France was the second-largest in the world behind the British Empire. The French colonial empire...

 in the first years of the 20th century led to inter clan rivalries, and later, the rise of mechanised traffic. In 1904, Ouled Sliman raiders from what is now Chad
Chad , officially known as the Republic of Chad, is a landlocked country in Central Africa. It is bordered by Libya to the north, Sudan to the east, the Central African Republic to the south, Cameroon and Nigeria to the southwest, and Niger to the west...

 destroyed the Azalai at Bilma, and again in 1906 at Fachi. The French reported that the 1906 caravan numbered 20,000 camels. Following the Kaocen Revolt
Kaocen Revolt
The Kaocen Revolt was a Tuareg rebellion against French colonial rule of the area around the Aïr Mountains of northern Niger during 1916-17.-1916 rising:Ag Mohammed Wau Teguidda Kaocen was the Tuareg leader of the rising against the French...

, no Azalai traveled the route until 1925, and then it was accompanied by French colonial forces. By 1948, the caravans had shrunk to 8000 camels, and continued to shrink thereafter. The northern road route, marked by the Tree of Ténéré, has supplanted most camel trains, but small Azalai trains continue to head out each November. In the post colonial era, some Hausa
Hausa people
The Hausa are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. They are a Sahelian people chiefly located in northern Nigeria and southeastern Niger, but having significant numbers living in regions of Cameroon, Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Chad and Sudan...

 merchants travel the Azalai, calling it by the Hausa language
Hausa language
Hausa is the Chadic language with the largest number of speakers, spoken as a first language by about 25 million people, and as a second language by about 18 million more, an approximate total of 43 million people...

 name Taglem or Tagalem.


At one time the caravan route from Timbuktu extended through Taoudenni to Taghaza
Taghaza is an abandoned salt-mining centre located in a salt pan in the desert region of northern Mali. It was an important source of rock salt for West Africa up to the end of the 17th century when it was abandoned and replaced by Taoudenni. Salt from the mines formed an important part of the...

, another salt-mining site, and on to the lands north of the Sahara on the Mediterranean Sea. Caravans with up to 10,000 camels carried gold and slaves north, returning with manufactured goods and salt from Taghaza and Taoudenni. Until the 1940s, the Taoudenni caravans were made up of thousands of camels, departing Timbuktu at the beginning of the cool season in November, with a smaller caravan departing Timbuktu in March.

Additional reading

  • Benanav, Michael. 2006. Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold. The Lyons Press. ISBN 1592287727 ISBN 9781592287727