How the famed Moroccan writer behind ‘first major work on African geography’ was sold to the Pope in 1518

Mildred Europa Taylor Aug 6, 2019 at 01:00pm

August 06, 2019 at 01:00 pm | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

August 06, 2019 at 01:00 pm | History

al-Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad al-Wazzān al-Zayyātī, a Moorish traveller and linguistic scholar who would become known as John Leo Africanus. Pic credit: Morocco World News

Al-Hassan Ibn Mouhamed Al-Wazzan, Al-Fasi achieved a lot of things as a writer, geographer, and papal adviser while in Europe.

The Moorish serf took major roles throughout his life; from a Granadan refugee, he was once a royal ambassador and a Muslim slave, as well as, a converted Moor living in Rome after he was captured by Christian pirates in the Mediterranean and sold to Pope Leo X.

In Rome, he wrote about Islamic culture and the geography of Africa and today, he is best known for his book, Description of Africa (Descrittione dell’Africa), which described North African geography, including the famed city of Timbuktu (Timbuctoo) in Mali, West Africa.

Some accounts state that his book was the first geographical description of Africa to be published in Europe.

Hassan, a Moorish traveller and linguistic scholar who would later become known as Leo Africanus, was born in Granada, Spain in the 1490s, around the time the city was reconquered by the Catholic kings.

The Granadan environment suddenly became unwelcoming for Muslims and other non-Catholics, and this compelled Hassan’s family to leave Spain and move to Fez, Morocco rather than to convert to Christianity.

In Fez, Hassan was enrolled at Quaraouiyine University, where he was instructed in different sciences. It is documented that his family belonged to professional/intellectual circles, as his 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 a young man, in his 20s, Hassan travelled all over North Africa and West Africa on trade and diplomatic missions, including accompanying his uncle on a diplomatic mission to Timbuktu and the Songhai kings. During that journey, he saw an enormous amount of Africa, said Nicholas Jubber, a travel writer.

In fact, by his mid-20s, Hassan had journeyed to Constantinople, Arabia, to Sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt. He had also extensively covered the Maghreb, both coastal and inland.

“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,” according to leoafricanus.com.

But the unfortunate happened in 1518 when he was kidnapped by pirates off the Mediterranean coast as he was sailing back from Constantinople. Hassan’s ship was attacked by the notorious Knights of the Order of Saint John who were active in the Mediterranean seas, “attacking enemy boats for their goods, and for slaves to man the galleys.”

Hassan was first taken to Malta as a slave, but after being found to have extraordinary intelligence, he was sent to Rome and given to Pope Leo X as a slave.

Though some accounts state that Hassan was sold to the Pope, an article on leoafricanus.com said the move was largely 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.”

Impressed with Hassan’s intellectual prowess, the Pope set him free in 1520 and asked him to convert to Christianity, baptizing him Johannes Leo de Medicis (Leo Africanus).

For the 10 years that he was in Italy, Leo taught Arabic to many Christian scholars who were eager to know about Islam. He also translated many documents into Arabic and wrote vocabulary in Spanish, Latin, Italian, Hebrew and his native language, Arabic, according to Moroccan World News.

By 1526, he had completed his greatest work, Descrittione dell’Africa (1550; A Geographical Historie of Africa, 1600). He subsequently returned to North Africa, where he is believed to have died a Muslim.

Leo’s Descrittione dell’Africa was the “authoritative work on the geography of Africa at the time and was significant in shaping the idea of Africa for early modern Europeans,” according to a report by the British Library.

“It is also thought to have influenced Shakespeare in his depiction of Othello’s virtues and vices,” the report added.

“In his day, he[Leo] was regarded as one of the most well-travelled people in the world. If you compare him with some of the great travellers of medieval times, like Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta, he matches up pretty well,” said travel writer Jubber.

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