Joannes Leo Africanus, (c. 1494 – c. 1554?) (born al-Hasan ibn
Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, Arabic: حسن ابن محمد
الوزان الفاسي) was a Berber Andalusi diplomat and
author who is best known for his book Descrittione dell’Africa
(Description of Africa) centered on the geography of the
Nile Valley. The book was regarded among his scholarly peers in Europe
as the most authoritative treatise on the subject until the modern
exploration of Africa. For this work, Leo became a household name
among European geographers.
1.1 Historicity of Africa trip
4 References in media
7 Further reading
8 External links
The courtyard of the University of al-Qarawiyyin, Fez, Morocco, where
al-Hasan (future Leo Africanus) studied.
Most of what is known about his life is gathered from autobiographical
notes in his own work.
Leo Africanus was born as al-Hasan, son of
Granada around the year 1494. The year of birth was
estimated from his self-reported age at the time of various historical
events. His family moved to Fez soon after his birth. In Fez
he studied at the
University of al-Qarawiyyin
University of al-Qarawiyyin (also spelled
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
Constantinople on behalf of the
Sultan of Fez
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
Red Sea to Arabia, where he probably performed a pilgrimage
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
Rome and initially imprisoned in Rhodes, the headquarters of
the Knights Hospitaller. During this period, the usual fate of
unransommed Muslim captives was slavery in Christian galleys, but when
his captors realized his intelligence and importance, he was moved to
Castel Sant’Angelo in
Rome and was later presented to Pope Leo X. He
was soon freed and given pension to persuade him to stay. He was
baptized in the Basilica of Saint Peter's in 1520. He took the Latin
name Johannes Leo de Medicis (Giovanni Leone in Italian). In Arabic,
he preferred to translate this name as Yuhanna al-Asad al-Gharnati
(literally means John the Lion of Granada). 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.
Pope Leo X
Pope Leo X (center) was Leo's initial benefactor in Rome. His cousin,
Medici (left) later became
Pope Clement VII
Pope Clement VII and continued
the papal patronage of Leo.
Leo Africanus left
Rome and spent the next three or four years
traveling in Italy. The death of his patron Leo X in 1521, and
suspicions from the new Pope
Adrian VI against a Moor in court, was
likely the reason for his leaving Rome. While staying in
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 the new Pope Clement VII, a cousin of Leo X who
replaced Adrian. 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. The Latin edition, which contained
many errors and mistranslations, was used as the source for the
There are several theories of his later life, and none of them are
certain. According to one theory, he spent it in
Rome until he died
around 1550, the year Description of Africa was published. This theory
was based on indirect allusion in a later preface to this book.
According to another theory, he left shortly before the Sack of Rome
by Charles V's troops in 1527. He then returned to North Africa and
Tunis until his death, some time after 1550. This was based
on records by German orientalist Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter, who
arrived in Italy and planned (but ultimately failed) to travel to
Tunis to meet Leo who had since reconverted to Islam. Yet another
theory said that he left
Tunis after it was captured by Charles V in
1535 for Morocco, his second home country after
Granada where his
relatives were still living. This was based on the assumption that
Leo, having left Granada, would not have wanted to live under
Christian Spanish rule again, and his wish (recorded in Description of
Africa) that he wanted to ultimately return to his home country "by
Historicity of Africa trip
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
Hausaland and Bornu and it is even possible that he never
Sahara but relied on information from other travelers that
he met in Morocco. The historian Pekka Masonen has argued that the
belief of his further travels was based on misreadings by modern
scholars who interpreted his book as an itinerary.
At the time Leo visited the city of Timbuktu, it was a thriving
Islamic city famous for its learning. Home to many scholars and
Timbuktu also possessed a Great Mosque, renowned for its
expansive library. The town was to become a byword in
Europe as the
most inaccessible of cities. At the time of Leo's journey there, it
was the center of a busy trade carried on by traders in African
products, gold, printed cottons and slaves, and in Islamic books.
In an autograph in one of his surviving manuscripts, a fragment of an
Arabic-Hebrew-Latin medical vocabulary he wrote for the Jewish
physician Jacob Mantino, he signed his name in Arabic as Yuhanna
al-Asad al-Gharnati (literally means John the Lion of Granada), a
translation of his Christian name, John-Leo, or Johannes Leo (Latin),
or Giovanni Leone (Italian). He was also given the family name Medici
after his patron, Pope Leo X's family. The same manuscript also
contained his original name al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi.
al-Hasan ibn Muhammad was a patronymic name meaning "al-Hasan, son of
Muhammad", and al-Fasi is the Arabic demonym for someone from Fez,
The title page of the 1600 English edition of Leo Africanus’s book
List of writers
Criticism and awards
See also: Description of Africa (1550 book)
Description of Africa, published in 1550 by Giovanni Battista Ramusio,
is Leo's most famous work.
Other than this, he wrote an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin medical vocabulary
for the Jewish physician Jacob Mantino. He also wrote an Arabic
translation of the Epistles of St. Paul, which is dated in January
1521, and the manuscript currently belongs to the Biblioteca Estense
in Modena. Another surviving work is a biographical encyclopedia of 25
major Islamic scholars and 5 major Jewish scholars. It was completed
Rome before he left the city in 1527 and published for the first
time in Latin by
Johann Heinrich Hottinger
Johann Heinrich Hottinger in 1664. Unlike Description
of Africa, this biographical work was hardly noticed in Europe. It
also contains various erroneous information, likely due to his lack of
access to relevant sources when he was in Italy, forcing him to rely
solely on memory.
In Description of Africa, he also referred to plans to write other
books. He planned to write two other descriptions of places, one for
places in the Middle East and another for places in Europe. He also
planned to write an exposition of the Islamic faith and a history of
North Africa. However, none of these books survived nor has there been
any proof that he actually completed them. This might have been due to
his possible return to North Africa.
A fictionalized telling of Leo's life is presented in an eponymous
novel by Amin Maalouf.
References in media
A fictionalized account of his life, Leo Africanus, by the
Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf, fills in key gaps in the story
Leo Africanus in 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.
It has been suggested that
William Shakespeare may have been inspired
by Leo Africanus' book to create the character of Othello.
^ Rauchenberger 1999, pp. 78-79.
^ Rauchenberger 1999, pp. 27–28.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k Masonen 2001.
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.
^ Rauchenberger 1999, p. 26.
Leo Africanus 1600;
Leo Africanus 1896.
^ Fisher 1978.
^ 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.
doi:10.2307/217055. JSTOR 217055.
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. ISBN 3-447-04172-2.
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 (pp. 1–224), Volume 2, Volume 3
(pp. 669–1119); Geographical index. The original text of Pory's
1600 English translation together with an introduction and notes by
Verde, Tom (2008). "A man of two worlds". Saudi Aramco World
(January/February 2008): 2–9.
Davis, Natalie Zemon (2007). Trickster Travels: a sixteenth-century
Muslim between worlds. New York: Hill and Wang.
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.
Hunwick, John O. (1999).
Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sadi's
Tarikh al-Sudan down to 1613 and other contemporary documents. Leiden:
Brill. ISBN 90-04-11207-3. pages 272–291 contain a
translation into English of Leo Africanus's descriptions of the Middle
Hausaland and Bornu. Corresponds to Épaulard 1956 Vol II pages
Masonen, Pekka (2000). The Negroland revisited: Discovery and
invention of the Sudanese middle ages. Helsinki: Finnish Academy of
Science and Letters. pp. 167–207.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Joannes Leo Africanus.
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
ISNI: 0000 0000 8169 4307
BNF: cb11912461v (data)