What scholars know about Leo…
Leo Africanus is a nickname, a name assigned to Leo by his Italian peers when he was already in his 30s. At birth, Leo had a distinctly more Muslim name: Al Hassan Ibn Muhammad Al Wazzan. Hassan was his first name, Mohammed was his father’s name (the prefix “Ibn” means “son of”) and Al Wazzan was his family name referring to his lineage. For more information on Leo’s name, please go to “Hassan El Wazzan”.
Hassan was born in Granada in the 1490s, around the time the city was reconquered by the Catholic kings. The Granadan environment rapidly became inimical to Muslims and other non-Catholics, which explains why Hassan’s family left Spain, and moved to Morocco shortly after the Reconquistada. It should be noted that their flight antedates the greater exodus which occurred at the beginning of the 16th century, when Muslims and Jews were officially expelled from Spain. It is very likely that they were able to leave Spain with all their family members, belongings and wealth. For more on Leo’s Spanish years, please go to “Granada”.
His family was relatively well off, which explains the ease with which they settled into Fes, then capital of the Moroccan kingdom. Hassan’s uncle held a high position in the Sultan’s administration, high enough to make him a worthy ambassador to Timbuktu and to the King of the Sudan (then a strategic partner for Morocco). As for Hassan’s father, there is no precise indication of his position, though we do learn through Hassan’s own words that his father received rent from several properties and townships near Fes. These sorts of rights were usually attributed to members of the Sultan’s court. Let it be said however that such high ranking administrative posts were not equivalent to ‘princely’ status, and that the Wazzan family probably belonged to professional/intellectual circles, not royal ones. Also, being of Andalusian descent, Leo’s family was part of the Andalusian community in Fes, a community which believed in its own sophistication and superiority, but which was rarely at the center of political decisions. Though he probably belonged to the ruling elite, Leo also had a fondness for popular culture that Natalie Zemon Davis and Oumelbanine Zhiri emphasize in their research (seeBibliography).
Hassan spent his childhood and young adult years in Fes, following the very exacting education of the Koranic schools and medersas. It is very likely that he studied at the famous Quaraouine mosque (though the mosque’s records show no mention of his name- as revealed by Prof. Muhammed Hajji’s careful examination of the Quaraouine’s records). As a student, to supplement his meager income, Leo worked as a secretary in the city’s most renown hospital (and insane asylum): the Maristane. For more about this first job, go to“Maristane”.
As a student and young official in the Fassi administration, Leo traveled extensively, within and outside of Morocco. By his mid 20s, Leo had journeyed to Constantinople, Arabia, to Sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt. He had also extensively covered the Maghreb, both coastal and inland.
Diplomacy and Travel:
Most of these travels were warranted by small diplomatic missions on behalf of the Wattaside Sultan in Fes, and were quite unusual given Leo’s very young age. One explanation for this exceptional set of responsibilities was Leo’s own talent. Having an uncle and a father working in the Sultan’s court, it would not have been impossible for the later to notice Leo’s budding abilities.
Another, more probable explanation, was the precariousness of the political environment in which Hassan came of age. In the early 1500s, the rise of a political rival in the South (later known as the Saadian dynasty) greatly threatened the Sultan of Fes, who found it necessary to send numerous envoys across the country (learn more about the rise of the Saadian dynasty by taking the Atlas Trip). These envoys had to assess the Saadian progress, and measure different regions’ susceptibility to switch allegiances, in addition to their usual missions which consisted in monitoring the progress of the Spanish and the Portuguese on the Moroccan coast (learn more about this foreign presence in Morocco by taking the Pirate Coast Trip).
As one of the Sultan’s envoys, Leo was involved in many events concerning the Portuguese, Spanish or Saadian supporters.
In 1518 (Leo was then in his mid 20s), as he was sailing back from Constantinople, he was made captive by a corsair ship, belonging to the Knights of Saint John. The Knights of Saint John, also known as the Knights of Rhodes, and soon to become the Knights of Malta were active in the Mediterranean seas, attacking enemy boats for their goods, and for slaves to man the galleys. The fleet that captured Leo’s ship was commanded by a certain Pedro Bodiviglia, brother to the bishop of Salamanqua (in Spain), and a high ranking Knight. For more on his captivity, go to “Captivity”.
Having noticed the maps, charts and notes Leo carried with him, his jailers took him to Rome to give him to Pope Leo X, who had a known interest for all things Oriental. For more on the Pope’s personal tastes, go to “The Pope’s Elephant”. It is quite possible that Pedro Bodiviglia intended this gift to ‘soften’ the Pope to the Knights of Rhodes’ cause, as they were under increasing threat from the Turks to leave the island of Rhodes. A few decades later, Leo Xth’s successor, Pope Clement VIIth was indeed to give the territory of Malta to the Knights, who had been defeated and chased from Rhodes.
Leo stayed in Italy for a period of 10 years, at least. Two years after his arrival,on January 6th 1520, he was baptized and given the Pope’s own names: Johannes Leo de Medici. This baptism was obviously synonymous to conversion, an act of faith whose sincerity scholars disagree on. For more about his conversion please go to “Conversion”.
In Italy, he seems to have written prolifically; though very few of his works are still available today. His most famous work, the Cosmographia Del’ Africa, would make his posthumous fame. Published in 1550, in Ramusio’sPrimo volume delle navigationi et viaggi, one of the most popular ‘geographic’ works of the time, this text drew the immediate attention of readers worldwide. Never before had the Western World read about Africa and the Orient from the viewpoint of a ‘native’- i.e. a Muslim.
Pope Leo X died shortly after Leo Africanus’ baptism, and Leo left Rome, presumably for Bologna, where he taught Arabic. His mastery of Arabic, Hebrew and Italian (which he acquired very quickly, probably as a result of his mastery of Spanish, being Andalusian and having used that language with other Andalusian refugees in Fes) enabled him to write a trilingual dictionary, on commission from a Jewish doctor in Italy.
Leo was well known in intellectual circles, as shown by an Austrian monk’s desire to travel to Italy to meet the renown Arab scholar.
The details of Leo’s death are unknown. When Emperor Charles Quintus’ troops ransacked Rome in 1527, Leo must have fled the city with the numerous other refugees (he may also still have been in Bologna). Some conjecture he escaped to Tunis and reconverted to Islam, but there are no Tunisian documents referring to this. Given Leo’s fame and experience, and the Maghreb’s desperate need of savvy diplomats to manage the uneasy relations of a country caught between Turkey (the Ottomans) and Europe it is highly unlikely that Leo could have returned to North Africa unnoticed.
More likely is the scenario by which he died slaughtered by thetroops of Charles Quint, or in a rough sea, trying to cross over to North Africa.
Regardless, this uncertainty surrounding his final years only enhanced the ‘myth building’ phenomenon that was to follow. For more about myths, go to“Leo myths”.
The above ‘biography’ was derived from D. Rauchenberger’s thorough work on Leo Africanus (see Bibliography), and from Prof. Muhammed Hajji’s preface to the Arabic Translation of the Cosmographia, as well as details gleaned from my conversations with Prof. Hajji in Rabat. More detail about each of Leo’s life stages can be obtained in the various ‘chapters’ which make up the Leo section of this site.