Leo Africanus

Summary

Joannes Leo Africanus (born al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, Arabic: حسن ابن محمد الوزان الفاسي) was a Berber diplomat and author from Al-Andalus, known for his book Descrittione dell”Africa (“Description of Africa”), on the geography of the Maghreb and the Nile Valley. This book has been considered by European scholars to be the most reliable description of the African continent before the period of European colonisation.

Most of the information about Leon the African”s life comes from autobiographical notes in his writings. He was born around 1494 in Granada and given the name al-Hasan, son of Muhammad. His date of birth has been estimated from his stated age at the time of various historical events. His family moved to Fez shortly after his birth. In Fez he studied at the University of al-Qarawiyyin (or al-Karaouine in another spelling). As a young man, he accompanied his uncle on a diplomatic mission to Timbuktu (c. 1510), then part of the Songhai Empire. In 1517, while returning from a diplomatic mission to Constantinople as representative of the Sultan of Fez, Muhammad II, he found himself in the port of Rosetta during the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. He continued his journey through Cairo and Aswan, crossing the Red Sea to reach the Arabian Peninsula, where he would perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

On his way back to Tunis in 1518, he was captured by Spanish corsairs, either near the island of Djerba or, more likely, near Crete. He was taken to Rome and then imprisoned in the headquarters of the Knights of Joan on Rhodes. During this period, Muslim captives who were not paid a ransom worked as slaves in Christian galleys, but when his captors realised his intelligence and importance, he was moved to Castel Sant”Angelo in Rome and then presented to Pope Leo X. He was released after a short time and offered a pension to persuade him to stay in Rome. In 1520, he was baptised in St Peter”s Basilica, taking the name Johannes Leo de Medicis (Giovanni Leone in Italian). In Arabic, he preferred to translate this name as Yuhanna al-Asad al-Gharnati (”John the Lion of Granada”). It is likely that Leo the African was received at the papal court because the Pope feared a possible invasion of Sicily and southern Italy by the Turks, so he needed a collaborator to provide valuable information on North Africa.

Leo the African left Rome after the death of Pope Leo X in 1521 and spent the next three or four years travelling around Italy, probably fearing suspicions from the new pope, Adrian VI. While living in Bologna, he wrote an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin medical vocabulary, of which only the Arabic part has survived, and a grammar of the Arabic language, of which only an eight-page fragment has survived. He returned to Rome in 1526, under the protection of the new Pope Clement VII, cousin of Leo X. According to Leo the African, in the same year he completed his work on the geography of Africa, which was published in Italian as Della descrittione dell”Africa et delle cose notabili che iui sono, per Giovan Lioni Africano in 1550 by the Venetian publisher Giovanni Battista Ramusio. The book enjoyed great success and was reprinted five times. It was also translated into other languages – French and Latin versions were published in 1556, and an English version was published in 1600. The Latin version, which contained numerous translation and other errors, was the basis for the English translation.

There are several uncertain theories about the last part of his life. According to one, he lived in Rome until his death around 1550, the year the Description of Africa was published. This theory is based on an indirect allusion in a later preface to the book. Another theory holds that he left Rome shortly before the sack of the city by Charles V”s troops in 1527. He would have returned to North Africa and lived in Tunis until his death after 1550. This theory is based on the writings of the German orientalist Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter, who arrived in Italy wanting, but unable, to travel to Tunis to meet Leon, who had allegedly converted back to Islam. It is also possible that Leon left Tunis after it was captured by Charles V in 1535 and returned to Morocco, where he still had relatives, being his second homeland after Granada. This variant is based on the assumption that Leon, after leaving Granada, no longer wanted to live under Spanish rule, and on his desire, recorded in his ”Description of Africa”, to return to his country ”with God”s help”.

History of the trip to Africa

Leon is unlikely to have visited all the places he describes, so some of the information he passes on would have come from other travellers. In particular, it is doubtful that he would have visited the Hausa and Bornu lands; he may even never have crossed the Sahara, relying instead on information from travellers he met in Morocco. Historian Pekka Masonen has argued that the errors of modern scholars, who have interpreted Leon”s book as an itinerary, have perpetuated the idea that he visited all the places described.

Leon visited Timbuktu when it was a thriving Islamic town and a famous centre of learning, hosting many writers and scholars and also having a large mosque with a renowned library. The city”s name was to become proverbial in Europe as a metaphor for an inaccessible city. Its prosperity came from trade in African goods, gold, cotton and slaves, as well as Islamic books.

One of Leon”s surviving manuscripts, an excerpt from the Arabic-Hebrew-Latin medical dictionary he wrote for the Jewish physician Jacob Mantino, contains an Arabic autograph of the author – Yuhanna al-Asad al-Gharnati (“John the Lion of Granada”), a translation of his Christian name, John Leo, Johannes Leo (in Latin) or Giovanni Leone (in Italian). He was also given the surname Medici, that of his sponsor, Pope Leo X.  His original name, al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, also appears in the same manuscript, Muhammad al-Wazzan being his father”s name and al-Fasi designating the city of his origin.

“Description of Africa”, published in 1550 by Giovanni Battista Ramusio, is Leon”s best known work.

He also wrote an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin medical vocabulary for the Jewish physician Jacob Mantino. He also wrote an Arabic translation of St Paul”s Epistles, dated January 1521, the manuscript of which is now in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena. Another surviving work is an encyclopedia of 25 major Islamic authors and 5 Jewish authors. It was compiled in Rome before Leon left in 1527 and was first published in Latin by Johann Heinrich Hottinger in 1664. Unlike the “Description of Africa”, this biographical work was not popularized in Europe. It also contains erroneous information, probably because Leon did not have access to the relevant sources while living in Italy and relied solely on memory.

In “Description of Africa”, he expressed his intention to write other books – one describing important places in the Middle East and another describing important places in Europe. He also intended to write an account of the Islamic faith and a history of North Africa. Neither of these books has survived, however, nor is there any evidence that he completed them. It is possible that his work was interrupted by his return to North Africa.

A fictional account of his life is the novel Leon the African, by the Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf, which fills in the gaps in Leon”s biography and places him in the midst of the momentous events of the time.

The BBC produced a 2011 documentary film about his life called “Leo Africanus: A Man Between Worlds”. It was presented by Badr Sayegh and directed by Jeremy Jeffs. The film follows Leon”s journey from Granada through Fez and Timbuktu to Rome.

It has been suggested that Leon the African may have been William Shakespeare”s inspiration for Othello.

Sources

  1. Leon Africanul
  2. Leo Africanus
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