Leo the African

views updated

Leo the African

also known as al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzān al-Zayyāatī; al-Gharnātī

(b. Granada, Spain, ca 1485; d. Tusnis, Tunisia, after 1554)


Leo was born in Granada, some five years before the fall of the kingdom and his family’s exile to Fez, where he was educated. His geographical knowledge was based on the medieval Islamic geographical corpus and on direct observation gleaned from from four journeys (as reconstructed by Mauny): (1) from Fez to Constantinople in 1507-1508; (2) to Timbuktu in 1509-1510 or the following year; (3) to Timbuktu again, and thence to Egypt Via Lake Chad in 1512-1514, and (4) a final sojourn (1515—1518) as ambassador from Morocco to the Ottoman court, which took him to Constantinople and then Egypt, Arabia, and Tripoli, where he was captured by Italian pirates, transported to Italy, and given as a slave to Pope Leo X. Leo was converted to Catholicism under the aegis of the pope, whose name he took upon baptism. In 1529 he returned to Tunis and was reconverted to Islam.

In Italy, Leo wrote his geographical treatise, Della descrittione del’ Africa, in Italian (although doubtless it was based on Arabic notes or drafts). The Descrittione is divided into nine books, with the first devoted to generalities about Africa and its people and the next five to a description of North Africa. Book VII added measurably to what little had been known of the upper Niger and other regions bordering the Sahara on the south. Book VIII describes Egypt. The ninth book (of most interest to historians of science because of fresh data presented by Leo and his discussion of the limitations of Pliny’s knowledge of Africa) is an essay on the rivers, animals, minerals, and plants of Africa.

The Descrittione was a substantial addition to the impoverished knowledge of African geography inherited from the Middle Ages. A treatise of practical geography, giving distances between places in miles, it belongs to the traditional Islamic geographical genre of “routes and provinces” (masālik wa-mamālik). It was much consulted by makers of maps and portolanos (as in the maps of Africa of Ramusio [1554], Luchini [1559], and Ortelius [1570], and the Mediterranean portolano of W. Barentszoon [1596]) for 200 or more years after publication and was, in consequence, one of the few works composed in the postmedieval Islamic world which had influence in Europe.


I. Original Works. Leo’s treatise,Della descrittione dell’ Africa et delle cose notabili che quivi sono, was first published in G. B. Ramusio, ed., Navigationi e viaggi, I (Venice, 1550), 1-103. An inexact Latin trans. by Jean Fleurian, De totius Africae descriptione (Antwerp, 1556), was the source of John Pory’s English trans., A Geographical Historie of Africa (London, 1600; facs. ed., Amsterdam-New York, 1969), which was reedited by Robert Brown for the Hakluyt Society: The History and Description of Africa, 3 vols. (London, 1896; repr. New York, 1963). The standard modern critical ed. is Description de I’ Afrique, A. Epaulard, trans., 2 vols. (Paris, 1956).

II. Secondary Literature. The fullest treatment of Leo’s life and work is provided by Louis Massignon,Le maroc dans les premières années du XVIe siècle. Tableau géographique d’après Léon I’ Africain (Algiers, 1905), which is concerned solely with the Moroccan portion of his work. Two brief nut important summaries are Massignon’s entry in Encyclopaedia of Islam,III (Leiden, 1936), 22; and Angela Codazzi, “Leone Africano,” in Enciclopedia italiana di scienze, lettere ed arti, XX (Rome, 1933), 899. For specific aspects of Leo’s work, see Codazzi, “Dell’ Unico manoscritto conosciuto della ‘Cosmografia dell’ Africa’ di Giovanni Leone I’ Africano,” in International Geographical Congress (Lisbon, 1949). Comptes rendus, IV (Lisbon, 1952), 225-226; Raymond Mauny, “Notes sur les ’Grands Voyages’de Léon I’ Africain,” in Hespéris,41 (1954), 379-394; and Robert Brunschvig, “Léon I’ Africain et I’ embouchure du Chélif,” in Reuve africaine (Algiers),79 (1936). 599-604.

Thomas F. Glick