The beginnings of the Leo Project:

The following is an extract of Cristel's statement of purpose sent to the Fulbright Comission during the grant application process:

Leo Africanus' unusual life and unique work lay the grounds for centuries of European study of Africa and the Arab world. The publication of his Descrittione dell' Africa in 1550 was a revolutionary event for all those interested in the "Orient". Never before had Western readers heard of a Muslim-born traveler write about his homeland, and in Italian! Though Leo was widely read from the 16th to the early 20th century, he is almost forgotten today.

While many myths have been spun around Leo's persona, very little is actually known of his life and works. Al Hassan Ibn Mohammad Al Fassi was born in Muslim Spain and raised in Morocco. As a young man Hassan traveled extensively through the realm of Islam and beyond, on diplomatic or commercial voyages. Sailing home from one of these expeditions he was captured by pirates and brought to Rome, as a gift to Pope Leo X. Intrigued by this Muslim traveler's knowledge, the Pope adopted and baptized him: Hassan this became Joannes Leo de Medici, or Leo Africanus as he was called. Little is known of the years following his sojourn in Italy- he may have died there or returned to North Africa and to his old faith.

The details of Leo's life are little known and clouded with mystery. Through the centuries, several scholars have attempted to write his biography without much success. To this day there is no comprehensive work on his life and travels, in part due to the scarcity of primary material. Most information on his existence derives from the confessions he scattered though the Descrittione, a work he hardly intended to be autobiographical. This lack of primary sources is a considerable obstacle to studying Leo, however there are at least two other ways to gain insight to his life and work. Neither of these paths have yet been explored by his biographers.

The first untapped resource is secondary literature on Leo, written from the Arab perspective. While scholars have examined Leo's legacy in the West, very little is known of the impact and influence he had on his homeland. To my knowledge, there is at least one Moroccan scholar who studied Leo. Though Professor Mohammed Hajji, of the University of Rabat, wrote and gave talks about Leo in the 1930s, none of his research has been published in the west.

The second unexplored route to Leo's life are the paths he followed through Morocco, as a resident or traveler. As Leo illustrates in the Descrittione, travel was an essential component of his identity. The landscapes he describes, the customs he mentions and the legends he recalls reflect his childhood memories and adult experiences. Which places was he most familiar with? Can we learn more about his travels with his uncle, with his father?
I will be in Morocco from September 2000 to the following summer. I will spend the first four months in Rabat, learning spoken Moroccan Arabic and studying the Arab perspective on Leo. This research will complement the biographical work I have already compiled at Stanford and lay the grounds for a comprehensive essay on Leo's life and works. In February 2001 I will begin my travels through Morocco, gathering anecdotes and local information for an educational website. will give readers an unusual and enticing introduction to Leo.

Leo Africanus is about to be rediscovered....