Al-Bekri and Leo Africanus

views updated

Al-Bekri and Leo Africanus

Excerpt from Al-Masalik wa ʾl-Mamalik

Published in African Civilization Revisited, 1991

Excerpt from Description of Africa

Published in Readings about the World, Volume 2, 1999

"The king of Ghana can put two hundred thousand warriors in the field, more than forty thousand being armed with bow and arrow."

From Al-Masalik wa ʾl-Mamalik

"Many hand-written books imported from Barbary are also sold [in the market at Timbuktu]. There is more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise."

From Description of Africa

T he Sahara Desert in Africa is larger than the continental United States. Not surprisingly, this most forbidding of all deserts ensured that the southern part of the African continent would be shut off from the northern part, where the people had much greater opportunities for communication with other lands. Some of the most notable civilizations of premodern Africa, however, arose on the edges of the Sahara.

Among these was Ghana (GAH-nuh), which reached its high point in the a.d. 1000s. Ghana became incredibly wealthy and powerful, largely on the strength of its enormous gold reserves. Another important center of civilization was the city of Timbuktu, which flourished under the empires of Mali (MAHL-ee) and Songhai (SAWNG-hy) during the 1300s and 1400s. So many scholars lived in Timbuktu that, according to Leo Africanus (c. 1485–c. 1554), books were the most highly prized items sold in the markets there.

Yet despite Ghana's riches in gold, and the intellectual wealth of Timbuktu, both were in a highly fragile situation. From the description of Ghana written by al-Bekri (beh-KREE) in about 1067, it is hard to imagine that the splendid empire would come to an end in just a few years; but behind the scenes, a clash of cultures was forming. The capital of Ghana, Kumbi-Saleh, had been formed from two towns about six miles apart. One town became a center for Islam, al-Bekri's own religion, whereas the other remained a stronghold of the native religion. Eventually the Muslim faith would win out, in the process destroying the power of the king, whose people had believed he was a god.

Al-Bekri and Leo Africanus

Little is known about al-Bekri, except that he was a Muslim from Spain who visited West Africa in about 1067. The record of his travels, Al-Masalik wa ʾl-Mamalik, has not even been translated into English; instead, the version included here comes from author Basil Davidson's English rendering of a passage from a French translation.

Leo Africanus is more well known. Like al-Bekri, he was a Muslim from Spain, but he came into the world just seven years before the Christian rulers Ferdinand and Isabella drove out all Muslims in 1492. Therefore he and his family fled to Morocco, where his uncle became an official in the Islamic government. Thus the young man had an opportunity to travel throughout northern Africa, but on one trip in 1517, when he was thirty-two years old, he was captured and enslaved by European pirates.

Up to this point, he had been known by an Arabic name, but when his reputation as an extremely learned slave gained him an introduction to Pope Leo X (ruled 1513–21), the pope took such a liking to him that he gave him his own name. Thus he became Leo Africanus, or Leo the African, and accepted Christianity. Under the pope's direction, he wrote Description of Africa, which for many years remained Europeans' primary source of knowledge on Africa.

Timbuktu, on the other hand, was predominantly Muslim when Leo Africanus, another Islamic traveler, visited there. (His reference to the ruler's dislike for Jews, however, is not typical of medieval Islam: during the Middle Ages, Jews and Muslims typically got along well.) Yet Timbuktu faced other threats. One of these was the harsh surrounding environment, to which Leo referred in his account. Another was the near-constant state of warfare between various African peoples in the area. Though they were not necessarily of different races, their cultures and ways of life were often in conflict, and eventually this struggle would bring an end to the glory of Timbuktu.

Things to remember while reading the excerpts from Al-Masalik wa ʾl-Mamalik and Description of Africa

  • Though the term "Negro" came to have a negative meaning in the late twentieth century, al-Bekri's use of it does not imply a racial judgment; rather, he used it as a simple descriptive term equivalent to the word "Caucasian" for white people.
  • Both writers were born in Spain when it was under Islamic control, but Leo Africanus wrote his account for Europeans. Therefore he used units of measure such as the mile and the ducat (DUK-et), a type of money in Europe, whereas al-Bekri used Middle Eastern words: dinar (dee-NAHR) and mitqal (meet-KAHL) for units of money, and vizier (VIZ-ee-ur) for a type of government official.
  • The two writers make a number of interesting observations about the economic systems of Ghana and Timbuktu. Salt was and is a highly valued item in the Sahara: even today, African merchants do a brisk business selling the mineral, which is necessary to human life but scarce in the region. Al-Bekri also noted that if the king of Ghana did not control the supply of gold, it would lose its worth, a fact that is true of any unit of value, whether it be gold, paper money, or another item. Leo Africanus, for his part, perhaps said a great deal when he wrote that "The inhabitants are very rich, especially the strangers who have settled in the country." This seems to imply that the people of Timbuktu were not becoming wealthy in as great numbers as the foreigners in their midst.
  • Many of the names used by the two travelers are lost to history. The locations of Ghiaru and Tegaza are not clear. Nor is there much information about the architect named Granata, who must surely have been a prominent citizen of Timbuktu.

Excerpt from Al-Masalik wa ʾl-Mamalik

The king of Ghana can put two hundred thousand warriors in the field, more than forty thousand being armed with bow and arrow….

When he givesaudience to his people, to listen to their complaints and set them to rights, he sits in apavilion around which stand ten pages holding shields and gold-mounted swords: and on his right hand are the sons of the princes of his empire, splendidly clad and with gold plaited into their hair. The governor of the city is seated on the ground in front of the king, and all around him are hisvizirs in the same position. The gate of the chamber is guarded by dogs of an excellent breed, who never leave the king's seat: they wear collars of gold and silver, ornamented with the same metals. The beginning of a royal audience is announced by the beating of a kind of drum which they call deba, made of a long piece of hollowed wood. The people gather when they hear this sound….

The king exacts the right of onedinar of gold on each donkey-load of salt that enters his country, and two dinars of gold on each load of salt that goes out. A load of copper carries aduty of fivemitqals and a load of merchandise ten mitqals. The best gold in the country comes from Ghiaru, a town situated eighteen days' journey from the capital in a country that is densely populated by Negroes and covered with villages. All pieces of native gold found in the mines of the empire belong to thesovereign, although he lets the public have the gold dust that everybody knows about; without this precaution, gold would become so abundant as practically to lose its value….


Audience: A ruler's formal review of his people's concerns.


Pavilion: A covered area open on the sides.

Vizirs (or viziers)

Vizirs (or viziers): High government officials in Middle Eastern and some African lands.


Dinar: A type of gold coin used in the Middle East and North Africa at one time.


Duty: Tax.


Mitqal: A unit of money in some Middle Eastern and African regions.


Sovereign: King.


Wattles: A group of poles woven together with reeds or branches to form a structure.


Artisans: Skilled workers who produce items according to their specialty.


Berber: A general term describing several groups of people in northwestern Africa.

Excerpt from Description of Africa

The houses of Timbuktu are huts made of clay-coveredwattles with thatched roofs. In the center of the city is a temple built of stone and mortar, built by an architect named Granata, and in addition there is a large palace, constructed by the same architect, where the king lives. The shops of theartisans, the merchants, and especially weavers of cotton cloth are very numerous. Fabrics are also imported from Europe to Timbuktu, borne byBerber merchants.

The women of the city maintain the custom of veiling their faces, except for the slaves who sell all the foodstuffs. The inhabitants are very rich, especially the strangers who have settled in the country; so much so that the current king has given two of his daughters in marriage to two brothers, both businessmen, on account of their wealth. There are many wells containingsweet water in Timbuktu…. Grain and animals are abundant, so that the consumption of milk and butter is considerable. But salt is in very short supply because it is carried here from Tegaza, some 500 miles from Timbuktu. I happened to be in this city at a time when a load of salt sold for eightyducats . The king has a rich treasure of coins and gold ingots. One of theseingots weighs 970 pounds.

The royal court is magnificent and very well organized. When the king goes from one city to another with the people of his court, he rides a camel and the horses are led by hand by servants. If fighting becomes necessary, the servants mount the camels and all the soldiers mount on horseback. When someone wishes to speak to the king, he must kneel before him and bow down; but this is only required of those who have never before spoken to the king, or of ambassadors [from other countries]. The king has about 3,000 horsemen andinfinity of foot-soldiers armed with bows … which they use to shoot poisoned arrows. This king makes war only upon neighboring enemies and upon those who do not want to pay himtribute . When he has gained a victory, he has all of them—even the children—sold in the market at Timbuktu.

Only small, poor horses are born in this country. The merchants use them for their voyages and the courtiers to move about the city. But the good horses come fromBarbary . They arrive in a caravan and, ten or twelve days later, they are led to the ruler, who takes as many as he likes and pays appropriately for them.

The king is a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any to live in the city. If he hears it said that a Berber merchant frequents them or does business with them, heconfiscates his goods. There are in Timbuktu numerous judges, teachers and priests, all properly appointed by the king. He greatly honors learning. Many handwritten books imported from Barbary are also sold. There is more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise.

Sweet water

Sweet water: Drinkable water.


Ducats: A type of coin used in medieval and Renaissance Europe.


Ingots: Blocks of gold or other metals.


Infinity: Literally, an unlimited number; in this case, however, a very large number.


Tribute: Forced payments to a king or conqueror.


Barbary: A term used in pre-modern times to refer to the Mediterranean coast of North Africa.


Confiscates: Seizes.

Cowrie shells

Cowrie shells: Bright shells that come from a variety of ocean creatures, used as money in some countries before modern times.

Instead of coined money, pure gold nuggets are used; and for small purchases,cowrie shells, which have been carried from Persia, and of which 400 equal a ducat. Six and two-thirds of their ducats equal one Roman gold ounce.

The people of Timbuktu are of a peaceful nature. They have a custom of almost continuously walking about the city in the evening (except for those that sell gold), between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., playing musical instruments and dancing. The citizens have at their service many slaves, both men and women.

The city is very much endangered by fire. At the time when I was there on my second voyage, half the city burned in the space of five hours. But the wind was violent and the inhabitants of the other half of the city began to move their belongings for fear that the other half would burn.

There are no gardens or orchards in the area surrounding Timbuktu.

What happened next …

In 1080, just thirteen years after al-Bekri's visit, Ghana suffered an invasion by Muslim conquerors from Morocco in the north. Despite its wealth and the apparent power of its king—power which had already been weakened by the people's acceptance of a religion from outside—the empire of Ghana quickly disappeared.

Within the next two centuries, a new empire arose in Mali, and from the 1200s, it came to dominate the region. Despite the strong leadership of several kings, however, Mali was also overtaken—this time by invaders from within the region. The new power, Songhai, oversaw Timbuktu at its height, a period that actually preceded the visit of Leo Africanus. Yet like the empire of Ghana five centuries before, Songhai fell to conquerors from Morocco in 1591.

Because of Leo Africanus, Timbuktu remained alive in the imagination of Europeans, yet it would be three centuries before another outsider visited the region and wrote about it, and in the meantime it suffered a series of wars and invasions. In 1828, a French explorer went to find the legendary city, and in its place he found a "mass of ill-looking houses built of earth." Eventually, the name "Timbuktu" became a synonym for a remote, forgotten place.

Did you know …

  • The emperor of Ghana was not the only ruler in the region noted for his great wealth in gold; another was Mansa Musa (ruled 1307–c. 1332), who reigned at the height of Mali's power and became the first African ruler to become widely known throughout Europe and the Middle East. He once made a visit to Egypt, where he spent so much that he actually caused an oversupply of gold (and resulting economic problems) in that country.
  • Today there is an African country called Ghana, but it is actually located in an area to the south of the former empire by that name. The nation of Mauritania contains most of what was called Ghana in premodern times. There is also a country called Mali, but its boundaries are not the same as the lands once controlled by the empire of Mali. The nation of Mali does, however, contain Timbuktu—or rather, Tombouctou (tohn-buk-TOO), a town of some 30,000 inhabitants.

For More Information


Brians, Paul, et al., editors. Readings about the World, Volume 2. New York: Harcourt Brace Custom Books, 1999.

Davidson, Basil. African Kingdoms. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978.

Davidson, Basil, editor. African Civilization Revisited. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1991.

McKissack, Pat. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.

Web Sites

"African Empires Timeline." [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

"Glimpses of the Kingdom of Ghana in 1067 CE." [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

About this article

Al-Bekri and Leo Africanus

Updated About content Print Article