Up until about 5000 years ago, as research and archaeology has shown, the Sahara desert in Africa was 'a vast green land of Savannah belts, mahogany trees, acacias, lakes and wildlife.' - Cooper, 2013.
These conclusions are based on recent scientific researches into the vast desert that occupies about 30 percent of Africa's land mass. The word Sahara was derived from Arabic language, meaning the 'sea of sand' and the African Sahel was known as the 'coast,' during the trans-saharan trade that facilitated the trade in African produce in the Mediterranean.
Great empires had risen and fallen here in medieval times. Among these was, first, the Ghanah kingdom( from 8th century CE) which pioneered iron smelting after the decline of the previous kingdoms... a decline that archaeological research showed to have been caused by the expanding desert. The Second kingdom which rose to become one of Africa's largest empires was the Mali empire (from the 12th century CE).
This empire was centred around two great cities of Nani and Timbuktu. Sankore university in Timbuktu was about the third ever university to exist in the world and the city was West Africa's centre of learning and gold merchants, where, according to Ibn Battuta, a 14th century Morocan writer and explorer, who travelled around Africa, Asia and Europa; 'books were more expensive than gold' in Timbuktu. Gold was in abundance in west Africa, but 'books and salt were scarce' and the people often sought after both.
The Mali empire was described in the TARIKH AL FATASH (the chronicles of the seeker) written in the 14th century CE thus; "Mali encompasses a region of four hundred towns and its soil is extremely rich. Among the kingdoms of the world, only the land of Syria surpasses it. Its inhabitants are rich and live very well." -Al 'bambari.
The third empire to emerge here on the edges of the desert, on the banks of the Niger river, before the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century, was the Songhai empire; the first King of which was Sunni Ali, whom the chronicles of Timbuktu described as "The Sunni Ali, the model of shameful conduct..." probably because of his ruthlessness and repressive rule.
This was in medieval times. In Ancient times, the desert encroachments had sent the inhabitants of what became the Sahara desert to the South and to the North-east of Africa, where they would "build the foundation of the civilization of the Pharaohs...." Research showed that, "Seed of Crops found in tombs in Egypt are known to be indigenous to West Africa but not around the nile" -Dr Ivan Van Sertima.