Among the Infidels


In 1550 there appeared in Rome (in the words of the first of its English translators)

a geographical historie of Africa, written in Arabicke and Italian by John Leo a More, borne in Grenada and brought vp in Barbarie, wherein he hath at large described, not onely the qualities, situations, and true distances of the regions, cities, townes, mountains, rivers, and other places throughout all the north and principall partes of Africa; but also the descents and families of their kings…gathered partly out of his owne diligent obseruations, and partly out of the ancient records and chronicles of the Arabians and Mores.1

Except for rumors and externals, little more is known about the author of this remarkable book, for centuries a shaping force in the European imagination of Africa. He does, indeed, seem to have been born as al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan, in Grenada in the late 1480s or early 1490s, just a few years before or a few after this last bastion of Islam in Spain finally fell to Ferdinand and Isabella’s Castilian Christians. His parents fled with him to Wattasid Fez in Morocco, as part of the great Andalusian migration after the reconquista. He seems to have attended a madrasa there, perhaps even the famous Qarawiyyin, one of the oldest universities in the world. From the time he was sixteen or so he began to accompany his uncle, who was a highly placed aide in the service of the Wattasid sultan, on various embassies across North Africa and into the Sudan, perhaps even to Constantinople and Baghdad, though this has been disputed. And later he journeyed on his own in the sultan’s service, crossing and recrossing the Atlas and Rif mountains (in today’s Morocco) and through the Sahara Desert to Gao and Timbuktu in present-day Mali, and the fabled black empire, the Songhai, then centered there.2 (All these places appear in the texts published under his name, although whether and for how long he actually visited them has been a matter of dispute.)

In 1518, when he would have been in his mid- to late twenties, he was captured at sea, while returning to Fez from Mamluk Cairo, by Spanish corsairs harassing Turkish shipping in the central Mediterranean, and delivered as tribute to Pope Leo X, Giovanni de’ Medici, in Rome. After a brief imprisonment he decided, or was induced, to convert to Christianity by means of a papal ceremony in the basilica of St. Peter’s, taking as his baptismal name Johannes Leo de’ Medicis in Latin, Giovanni Leoni in Italian, Yuhanna al-Asad (asad means “lion”) in Arabic, “Leo Africanus” to the world of learning.

When Leo X died two years later, the new Christian left Rome to travel about Italy, settling for a while in Bologna where he compiled an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin lexicon and a grammar of Arabic, of which only fragments remain.3 By 1526 he was back in Rome under the protection of Pope Clement VII (Guilio de’ Medici,…

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