Leo Africanus was a complex character who led a rich and adventurous life. Actually, he was not really an African, but an Arab born in Granada in 1485, a few years before the Christian “Reconquista” of Spain, when Isabella and Ferdinando, “The Catholic kings,” expelled the last Muslim rulers from the peninsula, and before the expeditions to the New World, which are conventionally considered to be the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age.
His real name was Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi and he was a great traveler, geographer and explorer.
In those years, being an Arab born in Andalusia meant being destined to exile and life as a fugitive. After the fall of Granada, his family moved to Fez in Morocco, and he studied at the al-Qarawiyyin University, an ancient educational center that played an important role in the cultural and academic relations between the Islamic world and medieval Europe. The most famous non-Muslim student was the Jewish philosopher and theologian Ibn Maymūn, better known as Maimonides.
Thanks to his uncle, a diplomat in the service of the Sultan of Fez, Leo quickly rose in social circles Soon he began a series of trips to the East, to Central Asia and Africa, in the regions south of the Sahara. Fez was the nerve center of the trans-Saharan caravan trade, of which it continued to maintain control: the ancient trade route, more than 2000 km long, went from the Atlas Mountains to western Sudan, as far as the Guinea Gulf; while the Byzantium empire had collapsed in under Turkish expansion, on the western side of Africa Islam was on the defensive against Portuguese and Spanish raids. This is the historical context in which al-Hasan lived.
In 1518, on one of his trips, the ship on which he was sailing home was attacked and he was captured by Spanish corsairs, brought to Rome and imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo. As soon as his jailers realized his importance, he was released and presented to the Pope, Leo X. As a result of this meeting, in 1520, he was baptized Ioannes Leo in St. Peter’s Basilica. Leo Africanus was probably well received at the papal court because the Pope feared a Muslim invasion of Sicily and southern Italy, and an informed collaborator could provide useful information about North Africa.
After the Pope’s death (December 1521), Ioannes Leo remained in contact with both the curia and important cultural figures of the time. Around 1523, free to travel outside of Rome, in Bologna he met the Jew Jacob Mantino, a doctor and translator of Maimonides and Averroes, with whom he collaborated on an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin dictionary; subsequently he wrote an Arab grammar and metric treatise and a number of historical, biographical and geographical texts. Leo was at the center of diplomatic plots in a period of great turmoil: the Protestant Reformation was spreading from Germany and England was splitting from the Roman Catholic influence; from the east, after conquering Egypt, Suleiman was threatening the Balkans.
Upon his death, the humanist Leo X was succeeded by Hadrian VI, a conservative pope, with no great love of art or of Rome’s beauty, under whose mandate Ioannes Leo was probably persecuted. It was only with the advent of Clement VII that he regained his previous favor.
But Rome’s destiny had already been written: in 1527 the arrival of the Lanzichenecchi and the sacking of the city took place. Leo then decided to return to Tunis, where he spent the rest of his life in peace. He died in 1554.
The book “Descrizione dell’Africa e delle cose notabili che ivi sono” (The History and Description of Africa and of the notable things therein contained) made Leo well-known and ensured his reputation in the years to come: written in Italian, with editorial assistance, it was first published in Venice in 1550 by G. B. Ramusio, an Italian diplomat, geographer and humanist of the Republic of Venice. It became known through its inclusion in Ramusio’s most important work, the monumental treatise entitled “Delle navigationi et viaggi” (Navigations and Travels). It is considered to be the first geographical treatise of the modern age, published between 1550 and 1606, which brings together more than fifty travel and exploration memoirs from antiquity until the sixteenth century.
Leo’s work, based on his memories of his travels was then republished, again in Venice; it was translated into French, Latin, English and Dutch. It is divided into nine books: the first one contains general notions on Africa and its peoples, then North Western Africa, the “Terra negra” (Black Earth, Sudan), Egypt from the sea to Aswan, and animals, plants and rivers of those territories. In this treatise historical events, customs, traditions and products of individual areas are also described. A manuscript of the “Descrizione” was purchased in 1932 by the Vittorio Emanuele Library in Rome, presenting some differences from the Ramusian edition from which all the other reprints and translations ensue. Although the explicit of both the Ramusian edition and the Roman manuscript are dated 1526, an examination of the work would lead us to believe that it was already completed no later than 1523.
Some researchers believe that Leo led a double life and that he resorted to dissimulation: according to Islam, the ancient Shia doctrine of Taqiyya (the concealment of one’s own faith, or the ability to hide or even outwardly deny one’s belief in order to escape persecution or a serious danger) was used by Andalusian Muslims being forced to accept baptism.
Perhaps Leo’s pretense was not voluntary, but was imposed by the intolerance of the two worlds, the Islamic and the Christian, between which he spent his life.
He was born and died in the Islamic faith, the Christian phase when he was baptized and named Iioannis Leone being an interval during which his well-known cultural work was produced.
There is great uncertainty surrounding his life and works after his escape from Rome: none of al-Hasan’s work is known to have been written after the second African period.
Leone’s cultural heritage is therefore “contained in his works which remain in Europe“, and his most successful text remains “Descrizione dell’Africa”, thanks to which he secured his long-lasting reputation.
In fact, the life of this character is the inspiration for the novel “Léon l’Africain” by the Lebanese writer, Amin Maalouf, published in France in 1986; Maalouf, a man of two worlds like al-Hassan, has often told of men travelling between lands and cultures, and identified with Leo’s life to the point of producing a rich imaginary biography of him.
Reading Leone’s work introduces us to a tolerant vision of religion, to curiosity toward peoples’ customs, and to the creation of links and cultural exchange as a peaceful alternative in a world split by violence.
His work offered a completely new description of places which until then had been considered legendary and mysterious, even inhabited by monsters; Leo gives a detailed report of every land he visits, precisely describing not only what he sees with his eyes, but also what he feels: he tastes foods and observes the habits of local populations, in a mix of approval and disapproval of the communities he portrays. And in telling us about the food and the way of life, about cultural and religious events, Leo created a work which was useful not only for the merchants and politicians of his time but also, withstanding the test of time, for modern scholars, who can draw on his treatise as a documentary source with which to compare the current evolution of the states he described.
One such instance is his description of the legendary and famous city of Timbuktu, capital of the Songhai empire, founded in the 7th century; its empire extended from Niger to Mali, to part of present day Nigeria.
The beautiful and thriving Timbuktu, meeting point between Black Africa and Arab Africa, was considered to be a holy city of Islam and for a long time remained forbidden to non-Muslim travelers.
For centuries it was the main Arab-Berber cultural center, home to the Islamic University, several Koranic schools, and famous craftsmen who processed leather, gold, and fabrics.
The work of Leo al-Hassan the African’s remains a document of great historical value to this day.
What is striking is it’s modernity: his story bears witness to a world of exchanges and not only commercial:, culture too is an aspect of identity. Of course one’s birthplace cannot be chosen but, by being open to knowledge and affording it the respect it deserves, one can begin to understand cultures, languages and religions other than one’s own.
DESCRIPTION OF AFRICA – PART SEVEN
v. Tombutto, kingdom
The modern name of this kingdom originates from a city built by the king Mense Suleyman in the year 610 of the Hegira, about twelve miles away from a branch of the Niger River.
The houses are wattle and daub huts with thatched roofs. However, there is a stone and mortar temple, built by an excellent master from Granata, and also a big palace, constructed by the same architect, where the king lives. Many are the artisans’ and the sellers’ shops in this town, especially of cotton cloth weavers. Some fabrics are also imported from Europe to Timbuktu by Berber merchants.
The women of the town still maintain the custom of veiling their faces, except for the slaves, who sell all the foodstuffs. The population is very rich, especially the foreigners who have settled there; so much so that the present king has given two of his daughters in marriage to two brothers, both merchants, on account of their wealth. There are also many drinking water wells in Timbuktu; even though, when the Niger is flooding, some canals channel the water from the city. There is plenty of wheat and animals, so that the consumption of milk and butter is very high. But salt is in very short supply because it is carried here from Tegaza, some 500 miles from Timbuktu. I happened to be in this city at a time when a load of salt was sold for eighty ducats. The king has a rich treasure of coins and golden ingots. Some of these ingots weigh 1300 pounds.
The royal court is magnificent and orderly. When the king goes from one city to another with the people of his court, he rides a camel and servants lead the horses by hand. If they are starting a battle, the servants tie up the camels, and all the soldiers mount on horseback. When someone wishes to speak to the king, he kneels before him and bows down; takes a handful of soil, and spreads it over his head and on his shoulders: and this is the reverence that he does for the king; but this is only required of those who have never spoken to the king before, or of ambassadors. The king has about 3,000 horsemen and innumerable foot-soldiers armed with bows made of wild fennel wood, which they use to shoot poisoned arrows. This king often makes war upon neighboring enemies and upon those who do not want to pay him tribute. After a victory, he has all of them–even the children–sold in the market at Timbuktu.
Only small, poor horses are born in this country. The merchants use them for their travels and the courtiers to move about the city. But the good horses come from Barbary. When they arrive in a caravan, the king has them led to the ruler, and if they are more than twelve, he takes the one he likes the most and pays appropriately for it.
The king is a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any of them to live in the city. If he hears that a Berber merchant is in relationship or does business with them, he confiscates his goods. In Timbuktu there are many judges, teachers and priests, all properly paid by the king. He greatly honors men of letters. Many manuscripts imported from Barbary are also sold. There is more profit made from this commerce than from all the others.
Instead of coined money, they use pure gold nuggets; and for small purchases, cowrie shells coming from Persia, of which 400 are worth one ducat. Six and two-thirds of their ducats are worth one Roman gold ounce.
The people of Timbuktu are of a peaceful nature. They have a custom of almost continuously walking about the town in the evenings between 10 PM and 1 AM, playing instruments and dancing. The citizens have at their service many slaves, both men and women.
This town is greatly endangered by fire. At the time when I was there on my second journey, half the city burned in the space of five hours. There are no gardens or orchards in the area surrounding Timbuktu.
Translation by Michele Curatolo (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)