Two comprehensive field campaigns were conducted in 2006 and 2008 in the framework of the Saharan Mineral Dust Experiment (SAMUM) project. The relationship between chemical composition, shape morphology, size distribution and optical effects of the dust particles was investigated. The impact of Saharan dust on radiative transfer and the feedback of radiative effects upon dust emission and aerosol transport were studied. Field observations (ground-based, airborne and remote sensing) and modelling results were compared within a variety of dust closure experiments with a strong focus on vertical profiling. For the first time, multiwavelength Raman/polarization lidars and an airborne high spectral resolution lidar were involved in major dust field campaigns and provided profiles of the volume extinction coefficient of the particles at ambient conditions (for the full dust size distribution), of particle-shape-sensitive optical properties at several wavelengths, and a clear separation of dust and smoke profiles allowing for an estimation of the single-scattering albedo of the biomass-burning aerosol. SAMUM-1 took place in southern Morocco close to the Saharan desert in the summer of 2006, whereas SAMUM-2 was conducted in Cape Verde in the outflow region of desert dust and biomass-burning smoke from western Africa in the winter of 2008. This paper gives an overview of the SAMUM concept, strategy and goals, provides snapshots (highlights) of SAMUM-2 observations and modelling efforts, summarizes main findings of SAMUM-1 and SAMUM-2 and finally presents a list of remaining problems and unsolved questions.