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Leo Africanus

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Title: Leo Africanus  
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Subject: Timbuktu, Moroccan literature, History of Casablanca, Natalie Zemon Davis, List of Moroccan writers
Collection: 1490S Births, 1550S Deaths, 15Th-Century Moroccan People, 16Th-Century Geographers, 16Th-Century Moroccan People, 16Th-Century Roman Catholics, Berber Christians, Berber People, Christianity in Algeria, Christianity in Libya, Christianity in Morocco, Christianity in Spain, Converts to Roman Catholicism from Islam, History of North Africa, Moroccan Exiles, Moroccan Geographers, Moroccan Roman Catholics, Moroccan Travel Writers, People from Fes, People of Al-Andalus, University of Al-Qarawiyyin Alumni
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Leo Africanus

The title page of the 1600 English edition of Leo Africanus’s book on Africa.

Ioannes Leo Africanus, (c. 1494 – c. 1554?) (or al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, Arabic:حسن ابن محمد الوزان الفاسي) was an Andalusian Berber[1] Moorish diplomat and author who is best known for his book Descrittione dell’Africa (Description of Africa) describing the geography of North Africa.


  • Biography 1
  • In fiction 2
  • In TV 3
  • In Drama 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


Most of what is known about his life is gathered from autobiographical notes in his own work. Leo Africanus was born in Granada in around 1494 but his family moved to Fez soon after his birth.[2][3][4] In Fez he studied at the University of Al Karaouine. As a young man he accompanied an uncle on a diplomatic mission, reaching as far as the city of Timbuktu (c. 1510), then part of the Songhai Empire. In 1517 when returning from a diplomatic mission to Constantinople on behalf of the Sultan of Fez Muhammad II he found himself in the port of Rosetta during the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. He continued with his journey through Cairo and Aswan and across the Red Sea to Arabia, where he probably performed a 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 probably near Crete. He was taken to Rome and initially imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo but when his captors realised his importance he was freed and presented to Pope Leo X. He was baptized in the Basilica of Saint Peter's in 1520.[5] It is likely that Leo Africanus was welcomed to the papal court as the Pope feared that Turkish forces might invade Sicily and southern Italy, and a willing collaborator could provide useful information on North Africa.[3]

Leo Africanus left Rome and spent the next three or four years traveling in Italy. While staying in Bologna he wrote an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin medical vocabulary, of which only the Arabic part has survived, and a grammar of Arabic of which only an eight-page fragment has survived. He returned to Rome in 1526 under the protection of Pope Clement VII. According to Leo, he completed his manuscript on African geography in the same year. The work was published in Italian with the title 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 proved to be extremely popular and was reprinted five times. It was also translated into other languages. French and Latin editions were published in 1556 while an English version was published in 1600 with the title A Geographical Historie of Africa.[6] The Latin edition, which contained many errors and mistranslations, was used as the source for the English translation.[3]

It is unlikely that Leo Africanus visited all the places that he describes and he must therefore have relied on information obtained from other travelers. In particular, it is doubtful whether he ever visited Hausaland and Bornu[7] and it is even possible that he never crossed the Sahara but relied on information from other travelers that he met in Morocco.[3]

At the time he visited the city of Timbuktu, it was a thriving Islamic city famous for its learning. Timbuktu was to become a byword in Europe as the most inaccessible of cities, but at the time Leo visited, it was the center of a busy trade carried on by traders in African products, gold, printed cottons and slaves, and in Islamic books. One legend tells of him afterwards meeting a mysterious small village of African Jews southwest of Timbuktu who traded exotic unidentified spices, weapons, and poisons with him.[7] Nothing is known of Leo's later life.[3]

In fiction

A fictionalized account of his life, Leo Africanus, by the Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf, fills in key gaps in the story and places Leo Africanus in all of the prominent events of his time.


The BBC produced a documentary about his life called "Leo Africanus: A Man Between Worlds" in 2011. It was presented by Badr Sayegh and directed by Jeremy Jeffs. The film followed in Leo's footsteps from Granada, through Fez and Timbuktu, all the way to Rome.

In Drama

It has been suggested that William Shakespeare may have been inspired by Leo Africanus' book to create the character of Othello.[8]


  1. ^ Rauchenberger 1999, pp. 27-28.
  2. ^ Rauchenberger 1999, p. 26.
  3. ^ a b c d e Masonen 2001.
  4. ^ Leo Africanus 1896, Vol. 1 p. v. He was 12 years old when the Portuguese captured the port of Safi on the coast of Morocco in 1507 and 16 years old when he visited Timbuktu in 1509-1510.
  5. ^ He took the names Joannes Leo de Medicis (Latin), Giovanni Leone (Italian), and Yuhanna al-Asad al-Gharnati (Arabic).
  6. ^ Leo Africanus 1600; Leo Africanus 1896.
  7. ^ a b Fisher 1978.
  8. ^ Verde 2008.


  • Fisher, Humphrey J. (1978). "Leo Africanus and the Songhay conquest of Hausaland". International Journal of African Historical Studies (Boston University African Studies Center) 11 (1): 86–112.  
  • Masonen, Pekka (2001). "Leo Africanus: the man with many names". Al-Andalus Magreb 8–9: 115–143.  Text also available here.
  • Rauchenberger, Dietrich (1999). Johannes Leo der Afrikaner: seine Beschreibung des Raumes zwischen Nil und Niger nach dem Urtext (in German). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.  
  • Leo Africanus (1600). A Geographical Historie of Africa, written in Arabicke and Italian. Before which is prefixed a generall description of Africa, and a particular treatise of all the lands undescribed. Translated and collected by John Pory. London: G. Bishop.  The first translation into English.
  • Leo Africanus (1896). The History and Description of Africa (3 Vols). Brown, Robert, editor. London: Hakluyt Society.  Internet Archive: Volume 1 (p.1-224), Volume 2, Volume 3 (p.669-1119); Geographical index. The original text of Pory's 1600 English translation together with an introduction and notes by the editor.
  • Verde, Tom (2008). "A man of two worlds". Saudi Aramco World (January/February 2008): 2–9. 

Further reading

  • Jean-Léon l'Africain (1956). Description de l'Afrique: Nouvelle édition traduite de l'italien par Alexis Épaulard et annotée par Alexis Épaulard, Théodore Monod, Henri Lhote et Raymond Mauny (2 Vols). Paris: Maisonneuve.  A scholarly translation into French with extensive notes.
  • Pages 272-291 contain a translation into English of Leo Africanus's descriptions of the Middle Niger, Hausaland and Bornu. Corresponds to Épaulard 1956 Vol II pages 463-481.  
  • Masonen, Pekka (2000). The Negroland revisited: Discovery and invention of the Sudanese middle ages. Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. pp. 167–207.  

External links

  • Leo Africanus; A Man Between Worlds - BBC
  • Hassan Al Wazzan aka Leo Africanus
  • Site devoted to Leo Africanus.
  • Interactive map of Leo Africanus' travels in Sub-Saharan Africa created in the Harvard Worldmap platform.
  • "Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa: Containing a Description of the Several Nations for the Space of Six Hundred Miles up the River Gambia" features an English translation of work by Africanus, dating from 1738
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