been a real business man he may have found a way to convert these goods
into more easily transported valuables!
Leo's opinions on a certain tribe or place are a function of the way
in which he was received by the people he met there. Hence one of his
first observations always pertains to the ways in which people receive
their guests. For example: "The Black people are agreeable and trustworthy.
They treat visitors very well." (63). On the other hand, if he
was mistreated during his visit, he usually tends to be quite critical
of his hosts: "they are the most miserly of men, and many of them
have refused to give shelter to a stranger, even for politeness or for
the love of God" (64)
On several occasions, Leo was part of an ambassadorial delegation, on
behalf of the King of Fes.
His most important appointment was as an attaché to a Cherif, member
of the powerful Saadian family, soon to be ruling dynasty in Morocco.
Leo accompanied him on his travels through the region north of Marrakesch
: "we were traveling to bring peace to that region" (78).Indeed, this
Cherif was one of two sons of Muhammed as-Sa'di, who spearheaded the
struggle against the Portugese in Southern Morocco. In 1511 the latter
had sent his two sons to Fes, to ask for the right to build an army.
They succeeded and worked on their father's behalf until his death in
1517. By 1529, they had conquered most of Western Morocco, which they
split evenly- one ruling from Marrakesch and the other from Taroudant.
Their increasing power became an obvious threat for the Wattaside ruler
in Fes- erupting in an armed conflict in 1536. By 1545, Muhammad al
Mahdi overcame both the Fes ruler and his rival brother, and became
the first Saadian sultan of Marrakesch. For more on this, take the Atlas
It is unclear which of the brothers Leo accompanied, but he must have
held an important position in this delegation, as he witnessed many
of the crucial conversations between the Cherif and the townspeople
Leo studied in Fes, most probably with professors affiliated to the
Quaraouine mosque. Leo had much affection for this 'alma mater', and
he refers to it with pride and nostalgia, befriending other Fes scholars
he met during his travels: "Among these villagers there are many scholars
and judges. I met several of them who had studied in Fes; they were
wonderful hosts and insisted on traveling with me" (112).
However, he also mentions that the overall quality of education in Morocco
has declined since the great intellectual times of the 13th and 14th
centuries: "Today there is but little income to feed the professors-
some of whom earn less than 100 ducats. This may be one of the reasons
why Fes' intellectual level has declined" (187)
Once his formal studies were over, Leo continued his education through
exchanges with other intellectuals and wise men. "While I stayed with
him, I saw and read many historical works on Africa"(76)
Leo traveled to Egypt on two occasions, and gives a detailed description
The numerous comparisons Leo makes between Italy and Morocco attest
to his knowledge of the West. Leo must have traveled about Italy as
he referred to monuments not only in Rome and the Roman countryside,
but in Bologna and even outside Italy - whether he personally travelled,
or was attentive to tales from people who had been outside Italy is
not clear: "They are the silversmiths and mint the city's coins: from
one ounce of silver they make 160 small coins which look like the Hungarian
hellers, though they are square shaped" (75)
"The town where I was raised" (191)
Leo's family emigrated to Fes from Granada. In many ways, Leo seems
to consider Fes as his second home- and he never ceases to praise the
city's people and places. The minute description he gave of Fes' neighborhoods,
population and administration show how well he knew the city, and his
words constitute one of the only testimonies of city life in 15th century
Louis Massignon, one of his French biographers writes: "Fes, Leo's
second home town, is remarkably well described. The account is all the
more valuable as it shows a Moroccan city that has barely changed since
the XVIth century, the only one that has survived among all Moorish
towns, in Morocco or Southern Spain" -- "Fes, seconde patrie de
Leon l'Africain, est analysee de facon remarquablement complete. Cette
description nous est d'autant plus precieuse qu'elle montre cristallisee
sous sa forme actuelle des le XVI eme siecle une cite marocaine, la
seule qui ait subsiste avec son complet developpement d'entre les cites
maures du moyen age, andalous ou maghrebin." (Massignon, 219)
Leo thought of Granada as his true homeland and place of origin: "I
stayed with a rich man from Granada (..) he could not let us stay with
another villager as he knew I was his compatriot" (133)
Leo's presence in Italy greatly influenced his narrative perspective
and the tone with which he describes North Africa. For example, he seems
to have integrated much of the "progressive" ideology of the renaissance,
sometimes criticizing Moroccans for being too backward: "If this mountain
was in Italy it would be mined for an extra 25 thousand ducats. But
these uneducated simpletons do not know the value of this mineral"
There is much speculation on the value of Leo's narrative perspective.
Can we trust a man who is not really Moroccan (as he is Andalusian)
and questionably Muslim (as he did convert) to give us a fair account
of Morocco. Leo answers this question:
"I realize that it is questionable of him to reveal the negative qualities
of Africains. Africa was my wet nurse, I grew up there and spent the
longest and most beautiful part of my life. But I must be a historian,
and am thus obligated to speak the truth with no reserve." (65)
Lions must have been a serious threat in Leo's days as he makes a point
of mentioning them wherever they can be found. This obsession seems
to be more than a personal fascination as Leo recalls pilgrimages made
by thousands of people to the tomb of the holy patron of Lions. As a
child Leo accompanied his father on a yearly pilgrimage to this tomb,
to implore further protection from the wild beasts:
"They say that this saint performed many miracles against lions and
that he was a great seer (...) Thjs man's fame draws many people to
his town. People of Fes go to his tomb every year, after the Muslim
Easter. Men, women and children travel there, in such numbers that their
procession resembles a marching army. Each brings his tent, animals
and other items. (...) My father used to bring me with him. When I was
older I also went occasionally to fulfill oaths I had made when threatened
by lions" (168)
A maristane is both a hospital and an insane asylum. Leo worked in the
Fes maristane for two years, when he was a student in Fes. For more
on this, go to "The Maristane".
Leo wrote Cosmographia Del' Africa based on his memory of facts
and places and of the great classical works which made up his education
(Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta in particular). Though he cites quite a
few Arab historians and chroniclers, his admits to his unreliable memory:
"It would be best to refer to the History of Arab People by Ibn
Calden [Ibn Khaldun], an author who wrote extensively about the genealogy
of 'berberized' Arabs. My fallible memory can recall but extracts of
his treaty, as it has been 10 years since I last saw an Arab history
Leo describes each Moroccan region systematically: from West to East,
describing valleys first, then mountains.
"I will start in the West and describe each of the mountains and each
of the towns, according to my usual method" (95)
However, the type of facts he records for each locality greatly depends
on the purpose of his travels there. For example, for the regions of
Sus and Hea which he visited with the Saadian prince to recruit men
for war, his descriptions involve the courage, size and aggressivity
of the male population. These strategic and military concerns are not
found in the description of regions he traveled to for a religious pilgrimage.
While Leo strives to meet the standards of systematic and neutral history,
the fact that he writes principally from memory based on personal travel
taints his work with his preoccupation of the time.
Though Leo called his book: Cosmographia Del' Africa, over 70%
of his writings concern Morocco (the other countries described being
Egypt, parts of modern day Algeria and Tunisia, and parts of Sub-Saharian
Africa covering modern day Senegal and Mali).
This is not surprising, as Leo knew Morocco well, having traveled there
extensively and on repeated occasions, either on his own account or
on a diplomatic expedition for the Sultan of Fes.
Though Leo's is most famous for his Cosmographia, he did write
other works, most of which have been lost.
In total, only three of his manuscripts have been found: The Cosmographia,
a Latin/Hebrew/Arabic Dictionary and a Description of the life of 30
famous Arab thinkers.
Leo claims to have written several other major works, including:
A treaty on religion: "God willing, I intend to cover the subject of
Islam, its fundamental principles and the different ways it is practiced
in Africa and Asia, in a book which I will start after having finished
A treaty on Arab and Muslim history: While Leo does mention key historical
facts in the description of certain Moroccan towns and regions, he constantly
refers to another work of his, which he intended to be strictly historical.
In the first pages of the Cosmographia, he alludes to the text
as a project- but a few pages later he speaks of it as if it were already
written. This text has never been found: "…as I wrote in the History
of Africa". (76)
Leo traveled to Persia: "I saw a great gathering of pharmacist in Tauris,
a Persian city" (200)
Go to the
Atlas Trip to read about this.
Leo was in Italy during the Renaissance, a time of great intellectual
and cultural advancement for the country. This must have contrasted
with the relative stagnation and decline of Moroccan arts and political
This contrast, and the likely freedom he enjoyed in Italy (freedom from
his habitual traditions and taboos) probably explains the originality
of his narrative voice, and the little restraint he expresses when judging
his countrymen, and the people who rule them. Remember that Muslim historians
(those who wrote texts - there also was an oral tradition which followed
different rules) were more often chroniclers who wrote to the glory
of the sultan who fed them. Less flattering historians like Ibn Khaldun
ran the risk of jail and exile for speaking their own minds.
Though Leo relied on his memory to write the Cosmographia, he
does acknowledge borrowing some facts from other Muslim historians,
provided he can remember what they wrote. Among these quoted intellectuals,
Ibn Rachu: "These 5 people are divided in an infinite amount of branches,
as is well explained by one of their writers, Ibn Rachu, whose book
I read several times" (15)[no one seems to have identified this
Ibn Rachu, though "their" refers to the regions of Gumera
Ibn Khaldun: "It would be best to refer to the History of Arab People
by Ibn Calden [Ibn Khaldun]" (35).
Leo lived at the time of Mohammed the Portuguese, one of the last Wattaside
rulers. The Wattaside dynasty had taken over from the Merinide dynasty
a few decades earlier, and was soon to be dethroned by the rising Saadian
dynasty in the South.
Mohammed the Portuguese owed his name to his childhood spent in Portugal
as a prisoner: "The current Sultan and his sister were brought to Portugal.
He was held there for seven years, during which he learnt Portuguese.
His father ransomed him back for a hefty sum. This is why he is called
Mohammed the Portuguese" (262)
Leo made two trips to the Sudan and Timbuktu: One in early 1510 and
one in 1513. He was 16 years old on his first trip, a companion to his
uncle, sent as ambassador to the Sudan. The purpose of his second trip
is less clear, though it could have been another diplomatic mission
as Morocco was eager to keep good relations with the Sub Saharan kingdoms.
During his two trips, Leo visited several kingdoms. " I visited 15 kingdoms
in the land of the blacks, and there are three times as many which I
have not seen"(9)
Those who think Leo did not die in Rome, claim he returned to North
Africa and died in Tunis. While there is no record of him in the Tunisian
archives of the time, there is no denying he knew the place well, and
seemed to like it a lot. While Leo's affinities may have pointed to
Tunis, one should examine the political situation of the times to understand
the likelihood that Leo should have been able to return to that coastal
From the beginning of the 16th century, Tunis was a central siege of
conflict between two rival Mediterranean powers: the Ottomans and the
Spanish. In the early 16th century, Tunis was under the control of a
Turkish Prince, whose activities in the region were not contrary to
the general Ottoman rule. But in 1535, Charles V, King of Spain took
hold of the city, which he lost to the Ottomans a few years later. The
city was constantly threatened by Spanish intentions of conquest, until
1574 when a last failed attempt left Tunis in Turkish hands for the
rest of the century. So while Tunis many not have been the safest city
to emigrate to in the mid 1500s (remember, we lose track of Leo in 1530),
it certainly was a place for people with mixed cultural heritage.
On the other hand, had Leo made it to Tunis, it is unlikely he would
have gone unnoticed. His political clout and savviness would have probably
been solicited by the ruling Beys of Tunis.