The Sahel is a region of Africa at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. It is the transitional zone in between the Sahara and the tropical savanna of the Sudan region and farther south the forest-savanna mosaic of tropical Africa.

The Sahel region is mainly flat and the average elevation lies between 200m and 400m. It runs 3,862 km from the Atlantic Ocean coast of Mauritania in the west to the Red Sea coast of Sudan in the east.

The region consists of semi-arid grasslands, savannas, steppes, and thorn shrub-lands lying between the Central African wooded savanna to the south, and the Sahara to the north.

Countries of the Sahel

  • Chad — Well off-the-beaten-path for all but the hardiest of travelers; very unstable in the north
  • Mali — A country with a remarkable history and heritage; home to the ancient trade capitals and seats of learning of Djenné and Timbuktu
  • Mauritania — Interest for the traveler here is primarily centered on the Saharan dune regions
  • Niger — Similar to neighboring Mali and perhaps the most popular Sahelian country with travelers
  • Sudan — One of the largest countries in Africa and home to the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations; it has been very prone to conflict

Top Cities in Sahel

There is a very small population in this region of Africa. Cities are rare and far between but here are the main ones.

  • Agadez — historically, a very important stage on the trans-Saharan caravan routes in northern Niger
  • Bamako — the capital of Mali
  • Khartoum — the capital of Sudan and by far the largest city in the region
  • Mopti — one of the main ports in Mali and a good gateway for many impressive attractions such as Djenné, Timbuktu, and Dogon Country.
  • N’Djamena — the capital of Chad
  • Niamey — the capital of Niger and perhaps the most accessible Sahelian city for the traveler
  • Nouakchott — the capital of Mauritania
  • Port Sudan — a large Red Sea port city
  • Timbuktu — a city of great historical importance particularly for education and the spread of Islam

Must-Visit Travel Destinations

See the Agadez mosque, a 600-year-old structure located in the largest city of Niger. Visit Mopti, the urban example of Mali.

Explore the large town of Bamako, which has a film named after it and is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

Lounge on the shore of the Niger River in Niamey. Discover what makes Timbuktu a world heritage site.

  • Balleyara Market — Two hours from Niamey in Niger, one of West Africa’s largest animal markets, plus a colorful array of other traditional market and artisanal goods (Sundays)
  • Dogon Country —a trek through this landscape of scattered cliff-side villages in is not to be missed by any Mali visitor
  • Djenne — The Great Mosque of Djenne and the city of Djenne, once a religious and commercial center to rival Timbuktu, this small town of multi-story mud buildings in Mali is quite a sight
  • W National Park — a large trans-border National Park, most accessible from Niamey in Niger
  • Lake Chad

History of Sahel

Over the history of Africa, the region has been home to some of the most advanced kingdoms benefiting from trade across the desert. Collectively these states are known as the Sahelian kingdoms which were a series of empires, based in the Sahel, which had many similarities.

The wealth of the states came from controlling the Trans-Saharan trade routes across the desert. 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.

The first large Sahelian kingdoms emerged after 750 and supported several large trading cities in the Niger Bend region, including Timbuktu, Gao, and Djenné.


Annual rainfall varies from around 200 mm in the north of the Sahel to around 600 mm in the south.

Books to Read

Overland travel in the region is covered extensively in the book Sahara (ISBN 0297843036) by Michael Palin, detailing a journey they did for a BBC program back in 2001.


A significant part of the Sahel remains unsafe for travel. An active civil war is ongoing in Mali, with Al-Qaeda linked group controlling much of northern Mali (including Timbuktu & Gao).

Various Tuareg and Islamist factions have roamed the most remote regions of the Sahara for years and at times have been responsible for the kidnapping and deaths of foreigners in Mauritania, Mali, & Niger.

Chad remains a very underdeveloped country, even by African standards, and movement in the country is difficult. Violent crime and various jihadist and rebel factions also pose a danger to travelers.

Western Sudan remains dangerous for travelers, where the ongoing Darfur conflict remains active. Read the travel warnings on the pages of countries you plan to visit and also consult the advice of your embassy.

November 22, 2019 2:18 pm Published by

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