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.
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.
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
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.
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
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. Leoafricanus.com
will give readers an unusual and enticing introduction to Leo.
Leo Africanus is about to be rediscovered....