Leo Africanus

Leo Africanus (c. 1487–c. 1554) is the Latinized literary pseudonym of Al-Hasan al-Wazzan, a Spanish-Moroccan diplomat who spent several years in Italy and wrote a geography of Africa that was widely read in late 16th-century Europe. “Al-Wazzan's book was used for many purposes,” commented biographer Natalie Zemon Davis in Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds, “but for the myriad educated readers it reached over the centuries, it bore witness to the possibility of communication and curiosity in a world divided by violence.”

Al-Hasan al-Wazzan was born in Andalusia, Spain, sometime between 1486 and 1488. From roughly 1518 to 1532 he lived in Italy, having arrived as a captive seized from a pirate ship in the Mediterranean Sea. He converted to Christianity in 1520 in Rome, learned Latin and Italian, and called himself Yuhanna al-Asad, or Yuhanna the Lion. Another name he used while in Italy, al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan, reveals firmer details about his family background. Wazzan was the family name, and the patronyms ibn Muhammad and ibn Ahmad translate as son of Muhammad (al-Wazzan) and grandson of Ahmad (al-Wazzan). In his writings, al-Wazzan also described himself as al-Gharnati, or one born in the Spanish-Moorish capital city of Granada, and al-Fasi, meaning one hailing from Fes, Morocco.

Moved to Morocco

Al-Wazzan's wealthy Andalusian family arrived in present-day Morocco during the mid-1490s and settled Fes, the center of a new Wattasid-dynasty sultanate established by Muhammad al-Shaykh. His uncle was a courtier in service to this Muslim ruler, and this important connection helped the family establish itself in the new city, one of the largest in the Maghreb. Fes dated back to 789 and boasted one of the largest walled marketplaces, or medinas, in the medieval world. Situated safely inland, the metropolis was a triangulation point connecting the Strait of Gibraltar—the western portal of the Mediterranean basin and the southern tip of continental Europe—with trade routes stretching to Morocco's Atlantic Ocean coastline. A lateral line in the opposite direction extended across the entirety of the Maghreb, linking Fes and Morocco to Egypt and the Nile River region. Moroccans also maintained contact with powerful Malian and Mande-ethnicity kingdoms holding power further south in the Gulf of Guinea, the African continent's fabled Gold Coast. Al-Wazzan's Description of Africa makes reference to each of these places and provides details about population groups, economic activity, and long-running enmities and alliances.

As he reveals in his writings, al-Wazzan embarked on his first memorable adventure around age 12 when he visited the port city of Safi on the Atlantic Ocean, accompanied by his father or uncle. As a youth, he attended a madrasa in Fes and in his mid-teens studied at the renowned University of Al Quaraouiyine, which was founded in the 850s and was then the longest continually operating institution of higher learning in the world. Al-Wazzan's later writing reveals the rigorous education then standard for a Muslim male aspiring to a career in government service: a proficiency in religious philosophy, Arabic grammar, and rhetoric as well as a smattering of humanities and an understanding of the foundational principles of Sunni-based law and jurisprudence. During his university years, al-Wazzan also worked at the mental hospital in Fes, which had a separate wing for foreign visitors in need of medical care. His position there was that of scribe-notary, a recorder of deeds and legal testimony.

Visited West Africa

Following the completion of his studies at the University of Al Quaraouiyine around 1504, al-Wazzan was presented at court and formally entered the civil service as an assistant to his uncle. At the time, his uncle was an envoy for the new Wattasid sultan Muhammad, who was known as al-Burtughali because of an extended period during his youth when he was detained by the Portuguese. The first major diplomatic mission of al-Wazzan's career was accompanying his uncle to the wealthy Malian kingdom to the south. By caravan, these diplomats and scribes crossed the Atlas Mountains and a forbidding stretch of the Sahara Desert, a perilous arid zone that took two entire months to traverse in favorable conditions. From there they visited Timbutku and Gao, main cities of the Songhay dynasty that ruled Mali and large parts of western Africa.

Al-Wazzan spent his twenties in transit, undertaking private commercial enterprises and diplomacy missions on behalf of al-Burtughali. He visited the Niger Delta region, made the long journey to Egypt, and spent time in what he later called Bilad al Sudan, or Land of the Blacks. His Description of Africa reveals his extensive knowledge of large parts of the Maghreb, including the coastal Mediterranean port cities, caravan routes, and vital desert oases. Although he divulged no personal details, he was most likely now married and a father, and his descriptions of the predominantly Muslim Maghreb and its religious practices reveal a devout adherence to Islam and skepticism toward the mystical Sufi branch of the faith.

Seized by Pirate Captain

In 1516, around age 30, al-Wazzan joined an expedition to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Turks, on behalf of al-Burtughali. This onerous journey was made by sea, and on the return trip home al-Wazzan made his hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, the Arabian peninsula city and one of two holy cities of Islam. The timing of this trip corresponded with an auspicious religious event that occurred in December of 1517. The last verifiable reference that placed al-Wazzan in Africa came in the summer of 1518 when he booked passage on a vessel set to sail from Cairo to Ceuta, a stronghold on the Moroccan side of the Strait of Gibraltar.

Piracy was rampant across the Mediterranean sphere, as it was elsewhere in waters where valuable cargo was transported. The ship on which al-Wazzan sailed was eventually boarded by Don Pedro de Cabrera y Bobadilla, a Spanish brigand whose brother was Bishop of Salamanca. Bobadilla recognized the potential value of an Islamic-state diplomat and opted not to offload al-Wazzan when he brought his latest non-Christian captives to the slave-auction markets that were a fixture of all ports. The pirate took him instead to Rome, where al-Wazzan was detained at Castel Sant'Angelo, the summer residence of the popes. It was a fortress that contained extensive underground detention facilities for Jews, Muslims, and others viewed as disruptive infidels in the capital city of Christendom.

Converted to Christianity

Another influential figure for al-Wazzan in Rome, Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo, was a prelate who offered to serve as his godfather for the baptism. Egidio was a highranking Augustinian cleric, historian, and most recently the papal emissary to Spain. The Augustinian order was named after one of the early fathers of the Christian Church, St. Augustine of Hippo, who had served as Bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa 11 centuries earlier.

Al-Wazzan spent at least nine years in Italy, becoming moderately fluent in first Latin and then Italian. Already a prolific diarist and correspondent, he again put quill to vellum once he established himself in Rome. He was first employed as a translator by renowned diplomat-scholar Alberto Pio, the prince of Carpi. Pio was forward-thinking and intrigued by ancient Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts. Under his guidance, al-Wazzan completed several translations of the letters of the apostle Paul, a task he undertook while living in the household of Cardinal Egidio near the Campo Marzio district of Rome. Al-Wazzan later traveled through northern Italy and taught Arabic to students of the University of Bologna. At some point, perhaps by correspondence, he collaborated with a renowned Jewish physician, Jacob Mantino, whose family had also been exiled from Spain in the 1490s and was now living in Italy. Mantino sought al-Wazzan's assistance in compiling a Latin-Hebrew-Arabic dictionary.

Described Africa, Then Vanished

Al-Wazzan completed his historic Descrittione dell'Africa on March 10, 1526, as his original manuscript states. It was printed on a Gutenberg press in Venice 24 years later by geographer Giovanni Battista Ramusio, as part of the collected tome Navigationi e viaggi (“Navigations and Travels”). A rare first-person account of a continent whose exact outline had not been fully mapped until Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed to India in 1498, al-Wazzan's Description of Africa was widely read across Europe for decades. It was of particular interest to those seeking commercial fortunes in commodities—including human cargo—or religious missionaries hopeful about the possibility of converting new continents to Christianity. Al-Wazzan described the various zones, climates, and peoples, cited the legacy of earlier Christian and Jewish figures in African history, and repeated the oft-cited claim that the original inhabitants of Africa were descendants of two sons of Noah, the Old Testament prophet.

Municipal authorities in Rome conducted a census in January of 1527, and a head of household listed as “Io. Leo” was then domiciled in the swampy Regola neighborhood located along the banks of the Tiber River. This man's household numbered three persons, leading scholars to surmise that al-Wazzan had married a second time and become a father. Two months later, on May 6, Rome was pillaged and looted by soldiers of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, in a violent revolt marking a papal power shift. In 1532, German scholar Johann Widmanstadt (also known as Johan Widmastetter) visited Cardinal Egidio, al-Wazzan's godfather, recording that Egidio left following the Sack of Rome and settled in Tunis. No other reference to the cardinal survives.

Regarding al-Wazzan's fate, scholars surmise that he was allowed to renounce his conversion to Christianity and live once again as a Muslim, likely in one of the sultanates of the Maghreb. In Trickster Travels, Davis includes a passage al-Wazzan appended at the end of his translated Epistles of St. Paul that was dated January 31, 1521, just a year after his baptism. He mentions Prince Pio of Carpi, and then refers to himself in the third-person as Yuhanna al-Asad al-Gharnati al-Fasi. “May God protect him from the malice of his own soul and make his today better than his yesterday,” he wrote of himself. To the reader he requests “that you pray for the enlightenment of the writer's heart and for his repentance and that he may be guided so as to please the Lord in this life and join the circle of saints in the upper regions of Paradise after his death.”


Davis, Natalie Zemon, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 2006, pp. 186, 260.

Emissaries in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Mediation, Transmission, Traffic, 1550–1700, edited by Brinda Charry and Gitanjali Shahani, Ashgate, 2009, reprinted, Routledge, 2016.


British Broadcasting Corporation website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/ (June 20, 2011), “Leo Africanus; A Man between Two Worlds”(video).❑

(MLA 8th Edition)