Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Leo Africanus-15th Century Geographer Extraordinaire

I, Hasan, the son of Muhammad, the weigh-master, I, Jean-Leon de Medici, circumcised at the hand of a barber and baptized at the hand of a pope, I am now called the African, but I am not from Africa, nor from Europe, nor from Arabia.  I am also called the Granadan, the Fassi, the Zayyati, but I come from no country, from no city, no tribe.  I am the son of the road.  My country is the caravan.  My life the most unexpected of voyages,” (from the first chapter of Leo Africanus, by Amin Maalouf, 1986:1).

Left: Plan of "Timbuctoo"  from: Dubois, Félix (1896), Timbuctoo: the mysterious, White, Diana (trans.), New York: Longmans. Page 341. View or download entire book at

  Leo Africanus was a geographer extraordinaire to kings, sultans, emperors, caliphs, the Sublime Porte, and the Christian Pope.  How he came to be all that is the subject of this fascinating fictionalized auto-biographical account of his life and times, excellently researched and told by Maalouf, with a great deal of verisimilitude to the telling of the tale.  Obviously there are many things we can never know about a person from the 15th century, especially in those days before Facebook encouraged daily regurgitation (oops!  I mean updating and documenting) of one’s life, but despite the potential for gratuitous fabrication and sensationalist imaginings, I feel the book hews closely to the facts as far as they are known, while fleshing out the particulars of al-Hassan’s life with the more general details on the history and geography of the day.  I recommend this book as a great window onto a time and place that most of us know very little about. 

Cover of the book Leo Africanus, by Amin Maalouf, which is not actually a portrait of Leo, but rather a 1609 painting by Peeter Pauwel Rubens, showing a detail from his Mulay Ahmad.

            al-Hassan ibn-Muhammad al-Wezaz al-Fasi, or as he is better known, Leo Africanus, was born about 1483 in Granada, Spain, which was then part of the Moorish Kingdom.  The Moors derive originally from the pre-Islamic Numidian Kingdom of northwestern Africa, and were ethnically and culturally of the Berber tribe, mixed with Black African and (less so with) Arab populations.  In 711, they crossed the Mediterranean Sea and conquered much of the Iberian peninsula (what is now Spain and Portugal), and they attempted to extend their rule over the Pyrenees into France, only to be stopped by Charles Martel (Charles the Hammer, the grandfather of Charlemagne) in 732.  Various other Visigothic/Christian kingdoms in Iberia also resisted the Moorish conquest, and slowly over the next 8 centuries much of the peninsula was reclaimed by Christian kingdoms, (the reconquista, the reconquest) although it is estimated that at one point over 5.6 million of Iberia’s 7 million inhabitants had converted to Islam.  Finally, after nearly 800 years of rule in Iberia, the Moors controlled only the southern strip around Grenada, where they reigned until just after the time when al-Hassan was born. 
Animated map series of the Christian reconquista of Iberia, 790-1300 AD. 

Map showing extent of Almoravid (Moorish) Empire in about 1150 AD

Upon the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella (Americans know these two primarily because they were the Catholic monarchs who financed Christopher Columbus’ voyages to discover a westward route to the Indies, but instead, “discovered” America), Spanish military might was effectively united under Christianity, the Moorish rulers surrendered and were expelled from their last European stronghold.  However, it was unsatisfactory for the newly-in-charge monarchs to rule over such a vast multitude of Islamic and Jewish people (there were also many Jews living here, as well as in North Africa, as the Moorish culture at that time was notoriously open-minded about tolerating the practice of other religions, especially when those people were perceived as being beneficial to the society.  In fact, some of the best cartographers and geographers of the day were Jews from Iberia).  Ferdinand and Isabella were also famous (or infamous) for instituting the 15th century incarnation of the Spanish Inquisition, (there had been earlier ones against certain heretical groups) to root out and kill any remaining “unbelievers,” or those who pretended to convert to Christianity but continued to practice their original faiths in secret (the Inquisition also attacked Lutherans, FreeMasons, and those peasants who practiced a spiritualistic early Christian religion, among others). 
In any event, to make a long story longer, al-Hassan’s family chose to remove themselves to North Africa and lose everything, all property, etc., that they had obtained after generations of living in Grenada, rather than face death or forced conversion to Christianity.  The move proved to be a tumultuous one, involving great culture shock and deprivation for the immigrants, but it shaped the young al-Hassan’s consciousness and strengthened his resolve not to be tied down to any one place, but rather to become a citizen of the world and see as much of it as possible. 
After leaving Grenada as a youngster, al-Hassan grew up in Fez, in present-day Morocco, which was a great seat of learning and intellectual life in those days, where he eventually studied at the university there.  Then he began helping his Fezzan uncle, who was a high ranking official in the court of the Sultan of Fez, by accompanying him on diplomatic missions, including his first one to Timbuktu (in present-day Mali) in what was then part of the Songhai Empire.  The description of this journey in the Maalouf book is incredible.  al-Hassan spent his early years traveling throughout North and West Africa and the Near East, never staying very long in any one place.  The Maalouf book integrates just about every important historical personage and event of the times into al-Hassan’s life, some of which might be unlikely to have actually happened, but which certainly gives the flavor of what an unusual and interesting life he led.  Given the fact that in those days there was a relatively small circle of intelligentsia, it is not out of the question that al-Hassan really did interact with many of these people. 
In 1518 he was captured by Christian corsairs (pirates) in the Mediterranean near Tunisia, for whom it was not considered wrong to commandeer a Muslim ship and enslave the passengers.  al-Hassan was sold to the Order of the Knights of Rhodes, (a brotherhood established during the Crusades to protect the Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land) who took him to Rome and “gifted” him to the Pope.  The Knights were on shaky grounds with the Pope at that time, because the Church was trying to disband these orders of Knights since they were getting too rich and powerful, so hence the appeasement gift of al-Hassan to the Pope.  He stayed virtually a prisoner there until the Pope finally realized how helpful al-Hassan could be.  First of all, he was multi-lingual, (he later created an Arab-Hebrew-Latin dictionary of medical terms, for instance) and he arrived with all sorts of maps and drawings that he was carrying at the time of his capture.  These maps and charts actually had tipped the pirates off as to his potential worth, and probably saved his life, in the absence of ransom.  At that point the Pope was worried about the possibility of further Turkish incursions in the region, (specifically invasions of Sicily and southern Italy) and believed that having someone on his side with a good cultural understanding of the Turks (and a co-religionist) would be invaluable.  Then too, he recognized that al-Hassan had considerable geographical knowledge which could be put to good use.  After they met and began to spend time together, the Pope also realized they had much in common: they both were men of science, and the Pope was keenly interested in the “Eastern” world, which at that time meant the Islamic world of the Middle East.  Apparently the two men developed a close friendship and bond. 
Under the protection of Pope Leo X, he converted to Christianity, baptized in St. Peter’s by the Pope’s own hand, and assumed the names of his benefactor, Johannes Leo de Medici, but was commonly referred to as Leo Africanus.  There is considerable controversy whether the conversion was one of expediency on al-Hassan’s part, or whether it was “real.”  We do know from his own writings that Leo Africanus wanted very much to return to Africa and may have done so at the end of his life, in which case, he almost certainly reverted to Islam.  At the request of the Pope, he translated the Arabic manuscripts, maps, and sea charts, which he had been carrying with him at the time of his capture, into Italian in 1526, which was subsequently published by Ramusio as Descrittione dell 'Africa et delle cose notability cheiui sono, per Giovan Lioni Africano.  This book proved to be extremely popular, was re-printed many times, and translated into a number of languages, including English in 1600. 
Leo Africanus' writings on Africa had a considerable influence on all later writers on Africa.  The book, a detailed account of Africa, its trade routes, geography, terrain, and people was an exceptionally important source of information on the continent and is generally considered the first book written by a person of primarily African descent.  It is even thought that Shakespeare was influenced by this book, and based his character of Othello on Leo Africanus. 

Leo Africanus - Jean Temporal woodcut map, 1556.

This map of Africa, with south at the top, appeared in Historiale description de l'Afrique, the French version of his book, published by Jean Temporal.  Geographically, this map is a close copy of the map prepared for Ramusio's book.  In the Leo Africanus - Jean Temporal woodcut map, the names have been translated into French, and the ships and sea monsters are engraved in a new, slightly larger style.

More good stuff on Leo Africanus (including travels you can take “in his footsteps”):

Tabula Rogeriana – south on top

Other famous Moorish geographers include Muhammad al-Idrisi (after whom the Idrisi raster GIS software developed by Clark University Labs was named).  Idrisi lived from about 1100-1166, and was a geographer and polymath who created the Tabula Rogeriana, considered to be the most accurate map of the world in the mediaeval times, which was commissioned by the Norman King Roger II of Sicily (hence the name The Map of Roger in Latin).  As well as the map, al-Idrisi produced a compendium of geographical information with the title Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq fi'khtiraq al-'afaq, which translates as The book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands, or The pleasure of him who longs to cross the horizons.  

Part of al-Idrisi's world map compendium, produced for King Roger of Sicily, who in the 12th century took over what, up until that time, had been a Muslim Emirate in Sicily. 

About one hundred years earlier, in 1068, the Moorish geographer Abu Abdullah al-Bakri wrote the Book of Roads and Kingdoms, or the Book of Highways and Kingdoms, in Cordoba, al-Andalus (present-day Spain), which was a compilation of the works of other Islamic scholars of his day and before. 
Another important Moorish geographer was Ibn Battuta, 1304-1348, the most extensive traveler in pre-modern times, covering 75,000 miles across much of the Old World, from central Africa to China.  He wrote a book about his travels called the Rihla or The Journey, but the title is often translated as A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling. I can definitely relate to that one.  (See maps below for his travel itineraries.)

Ibn Buttata's Itinerary, 1325-1332 - North Africa, Iraq, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, Swahili Coast.

Ibn Buttata's Itinerary 1332-1346 - Black Sea Area, Central Asia, India, South East Asia, and China.

Ibn Buttata's Itinerary, 1349-1354 - North Africa, Spain, and West Africa.

Timbuktu – A Center for Trade – The Arab use of the camel for transport allowed them to go overland across the Sahara Desert to remote parts of inland Africa, from which they converted the inhabitants to Islam.  By contrast, when the Europeans started making inroads to this part of the world, they generally came by ship, and usually didn’t get much further inland than the coast and navigable rivers.  This is why, in many West African countries today, the coastal areas are predominantly Christian and the inland areas are Muslim.

Here is Leo Africanus’ description of Timbuktu (Tombuto), just for a small taste of his writing (at least as translated into English, about which translation there is much controversy and debate as to accuracy and meaning).  It is in more or less the English of 1600 (Shakespeare’s English, in other words) so is a little difficult, but once you get used to it, it begins to make sense!  (Hint: “u”s are “v”s, “I”s are sometimes “j”s, and there are lots of spelling inconsistencies and irregularities – lots of unnecessary “e”s at the end of words, for instance).
Timbuktu in those days was perhaps the most famous Muslim town on the Niger River, and a thriving commercial center for Maghribi traders in the Sudan.  It is estimated to have had a population of 25,000 when Leo Africanus visited it in about 1510.  Timbuktu also became a great center of Muslim learning, and scholars from North Africa and Egypt visited the city for its universities and libraries.  Doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men were maintained in Timbuktu at the king's cost (nice gig for them!).

Of the kingdome of Tombuto.
This name was in our times (as some thinke) imposed vpon this kingdome from the name of a certain towne so called, which (they say) king Mense Suleiman founded in the yeere of the Hegeira 610, and it is situate within twelue miles of a certaine branch of Niger, all the houses whereof are now changed into cottages built of chalke, and couered with thatch. Howbeit there is a most stately temple to be seene, the wals whereof are made of stone and lime ; and a princely palace also built by a most excellent workeman of Granada. Here are many shops of artificers, and merchants, and especially of such as weaue linnen and cotton cloth. And hither do the Barbarie-merchants bring cloth of Europe. All the women of this region except maid-seruants go with their faces couered, and sell all necessarie victuals. The inhabitants, & especially strangers there residing, are exceeding rich, insomuch, that the king that now is, married both his daughters vnto two rich merchants. Here are many wels, containing most sweete water ; and so often as the riuer Niger ouerfloweth, they conueigh the water thereof by certaine sluces into the towne. Corne, cattle, milke, and butter this region yeeldeth in great abundance : but salt is verie scarce heere ; for it is brought hither by land from Tegaza, which is fiue hundred miles distant. When I my selfe was here, I saw one camels loade of salt sold for 8o. ducates. The rich king of Tombuto hath many plates and scepters of gold, some whereof weigh 1300. poundes : and he keepes a magnificent and well furnished court. When he trauelleth any whither he rideth vpon a camell, which is lead by some of his noblemen ; and so he doth likewise when hee goeth to warfar, and all his souldiers ride vpon horses. Whosoeuer will speake vnto this king must first fall downe before his feete, & then taking vp earth must sprinkle it vpon his owne head & shoulders : which custom is ordinarily obserued by them that neuer saluted the king before, or come as ambassadors from other princes. He hath alwaies three thousand horsemen, and a great number of footmen that shoot poysoned arrowes, attending vpon him. They haue often skirmishes with those that refuse to pay tribute, and so many as they take, they sell vnto the merchants of Tombuto. Here are verie few horses bred, and the merchants and courtiers keepe certaine little nags which they vse to trauell vpon : but their best horses are brought out of Barbarie. And the king so soone as he heareth that any merchants are come to towne with horses, he commandeth a certaine number to be brought before him, and chusing the best horse for himselfe, he payeth a most liberall price for him. He so deadly hateth all Iewes, that he will not admit any into his citie : and whatsoeuer Barbarie merchants he vnderstandeth haue any dealings with the Iewes, he presently causeth their goods to be confiscate. Here are great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the kings cost and charges. And hither are brought diuers manuscripts or written bookes out of Barbarie, which are sold for more money than any other merchandize. The coine of Tombuto is of gold without any stampe or superscription : but in matters of smal value they vse certaine shels brought hither out of the kingdome of Persia, fower hundred of which shels are worth a ducate : and sixe peeces of their golden coine with two third parts weigh an ounce. The inhabitants are people of a gentle and chereful disposition, and spend a great part of the night in singing and dancing through all the streets of the citie : they keep great store of men and women-slaues, and their towne is much in danger of fire : at my second being there halfe the town almost was burnt in fiue howers space.

Niger-Saharan Mediaeval Trade Routes.

UPDATE, 9-5-2011: Also check out for a nice biographical sketch of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a 10th century Muslim Persian geographer from what is now Uzbekistan. His interests were map projections, and geodesy.  


  1. A wonderful story. Moorish cartographers tend to get looked over far too much. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! I was just in Morocco last year, and had read a great deal of its history and so forth previously, and have always been fascinated by Islamic scholarship's contributions to geography and cartography. After reading the Maalouf book a few years ago, I really wanted to write about the story myself, so there you have it.

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  4. Thank you for your research and bringing this information to the world at large. I appreciate your effort and clear writing sytle. Thank you.