The Geography of Africa, a book written in Italian by the North African traveler and diplomat Johannes Leo Africanus, originally named Al-Hassan Ibn Mohamed al-Wazzani, was first published in Venice in 1550. French and Latin translations appeared six years later, followed by an English translation of the Latin text by John Pory in 1600.
Apart from some part-translations of episodes from the book that have appeared since, Pory’s 1600 version was until recently the only English version of the Geography available. However, earlier this year a complete new translation into modern English by UK scholars Anthony Ossa-Richardson and Richard Oosterhoff appeared, meaning that after 400 years the Geography has at last been put back into circulation.
English-speaking readers now have the opportunity to consult this important work of early modern geography, the first to attempt a description of Africa on such a scale and the first of its type by a North African writer. Shakespeare may have consulted it in writing his play Othello – or at least the introduction to the translation – and subsequent generations have found it to be a goldmine of information about the regions it covers, chiefly North Africa, Egypt, and some areas of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Al-Hassan Ibn Mohamed al-Wazzini was born in Granada in southern Spain in the 1480s but moved to Fez in Morocco sometime before or shortly after 1492 when the last Muslim-controlled areas of Spain were taken over by Christian forces. In the Geography, the only source material for his life, al-Wazzini says that his family prospered and that he himself soon entered the local sultan’s employ as a kind of diplomat travelling around the region on government service.
In 1518, the boat that al-Wazzani was travelling in from Cairo to Morocco was seized by pirates, and he was taken to Rome where he entered the service of Pope Leo X. However, this was not before he had been baptised a Christian and given the new name of Johannes Leo Africanus, or Leo of Africa. For the next decade or so, he worked for the Pope and his successors, translating documents, writing the book that was eventually published in 1550 as his Geography, and working on an Arabic-Latin dictionary.
It is said that after the sack of Rome by troops under the command of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527, he moved back to North Africa, this time to Tunis, and reconverted to Islam. Subsequently he disappeared from the historical record.
Al-Wazzini thus led an eventful life and one that took him the length and breadth of the Mediterranean as well as across much of North Africa. He moved between the major religions of the time, Islam and Roman Catholic Christianity, and held senior positions in the employ of both the Sultan of Morocco and the Pope in Rome. According to what he says in the Geography, he personally visited places as far apart as Cairo and Timbuktu. Most importantly, he wrote up his impressions in a book that has since been recognised as a unique document from the time.
In the introduction to their new translation, not only the first into English for over 400 years but also the first to be translated from the only known manuscript, Ossa-Richardson and Oosterhoff explain that the image of Africa presented in it is a largely Arab one. Al-Wazzini divides the continent into “Barbary,” meaning the Arab Maghreb, where he writes on the cities of Marrakesh, Fez, Tlemcen, and Tunis, “Numidia,” mostly the Sahel region, “Libya,” a category that overlaps with Numidia and includes not only the country that currently bears that name but also areas of present-day Mali, the “Land of the Blacks” (bilad al-sudan), more on Mali, and, as a kind of bonus, Egypt.
His translators say that this division derives from the earlier Arab geographer al-Idrisi, who had divided the continent by climatic zones, and from accounts by the earlier historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun, who had focused particularly on North Africa. Al-Wazzini’s description of Africa may be as much an encyclopaedic compilation of earlier views as an original piece of research, they say, pointing out that contemporary Arab authors probably drew little distinction between a compositore (compiler), the Italian word that al-Wazzini uses, and an auctore, an original author, though as they also point out he always uses the later term when referring to Ibn Khaldun.
The range and heterogeneity of the information al-Wazzini presents, passing from geography proper to fragments of historical information to often scurrilous anecdotes, suggests that he saw himself as a compiler of intriguing odds and ends rather than as a writer wishing to advance a particular thesis. This was probably owing to pre-existing Arab narrative traditions and possibly also to the interests of his Italian-speaking audience, Ossa-Richardson and Oosterhoff say, adding that al-Wazzini is often unflattering about the lands and peoples he writes about, perhaps as a result of antennae attuned to European prejudices.
Much of his writing may emerge from “a rhetorical performance of an Arabic tradition of praise and blame” rather than from a desire to accurately present his subject matter. Some of it is almost certainly made up, put more delicately by al-Wazzini’s translators when they query whether, writing in his room in Rome, he could “really have remembered that the Oulad Dalim tribe in the Libyan desert numbered ten thousand men? Or that the governor of Tuggurt received an annual revenue of 13,000 ducats?”
Did al-Wazzini visit all the places he claims to have visited – and did he have the conversations he claims to have had with their inhabitants, often presented word for word? Ossa-Richardson and Oosterhoff say that the book may be best understand as “a charismatic performance of authenticity, a claim to encyclopaedic knowledge combined with a flair for storytelling,” as if al-Wazzini had something of the same relation to truth as a certain kind of modern politician.
“Many critics have focused on Leo’s story of a bird, who, when the king of the birds came to collect his tribute, dived into the sea to live among the fish, and when the king of the fish came for his tribute, fled back up into the sky to live with the birds,” they add.
“He explains this as a parable of his own practice.”
From Fez to Egypt: Al-Wazzini served the sultan of Fez in Morocco during the North African portion of his life, and it takes up a considerable part of the Geography’s second volume.
“Fez, the greatest of cities, was built by a schismatic’s son during the reign of the caliph Haroun [al-Rashid] in AH 185 [801-02 CE],” al-Wazzini says, referring to Moulay Idris, founder of the Moroccan Idrisid Dynasty, who was driven out of Arabia in the 8th century CE by the then ruling Abbasid Dynasty. He describes the city’s famous mosques and madrassas, as well as its merchants, shops, and homes, praising its opulence and wealth.
However, not everything he says about the city is flattering, since he also spends time describing its crooks and impostors, apparently sometimes to be found among its Sufi orders. “Some locals are honourable and friendly,” al-Wazzini says. “But not many.” Perhaps with a view to his European readers, he misses few opportunities to dwell upon the European presence in the region, mentioning the Genoese merchants trading in Fez and the Portuguese trading posts on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast.
Egypt is the subject of the sixth book of the Geography, and in it al-Wazzini cites Old Testament accounts of the ancient Egyptians as well as giving a potted history of its history that includes its Islamisation after the conquest by the 7th-century Arab general Amr Ibn al-As. He writes of Cairo that its “reputation as a huge, teeming, wondrous city has circled the globe,” in contrast to Alexandria, which, he says “is not very cultured or much inhabited.”
“Most of the city has been empty and ruined since it was attacked by the Christians after [French king] Louis IV was freed by the sultan,” al-Wazzini says, one of his mistakes or approximations, since he apparently means Louis IX, captured by Egyptian forces during the Seventh Crusade.
Al-Wazzini mentions Bab Zuweila in Cairo and the “huge suburb of around 20,000 homes” that he says extends westwards towards the Citadel. He mentions the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrassa (“remarkable for the height of its vaults and walls”), the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, “wondrous for its size and beauty,” and the Khan al-Khalili and other bazaars selling “precious fabrics from Italy,” another wink to his European readers, and “riches from all over the world.”
“The people of Cairo are likeable and jolly,” he says, “talking endlessly, but getting little done. Some busy themselves in trade and the arts, but rarely venture outside their districts; many spend their lives studying law, and a few study the arts; the colleges are full of scholars, even if little profit is to be had there.”
“In the streets there are innumerable people selling goods like fruit, cheese, and raw and cooked meat; there are also water-carriers with heaps of large skins carried on camels and other animals, for the city is around two miles from the Nile. The city is well-furnished with craftsman and merchants of every sort, especially along the road from the Nasr Gate to the Zuweila Gate. There are madrassa buildings so stupendous and gorgeously ornate that words cannot suffice to express them and huge mosques like that of al-Hakim.”
Al-Wazzini says he visited Cairo before the Ottoman conquest of 1517 that put an end to centuries of Mameluke rule. While he is not clear as to whether he also visited it later, he does recount at least one story of looting by Ottoman soldiers, claiming that the “janissaries of the Grand Turk Selim” – the victorious Ottoman Sultan Selim I – looted the tomb of Al-Sayeda Nafisa, a descendant of the Prophet Mohamed, in Old Cairo, taking with them 500,000 sherifi (around 500,000 dinars – an enormous sum) in gold.
He mentions a “new madrassa built by [Mameluke] Sultan [al-Ashraf Qansuh] al-Ghuri, who died in the war with the Grand Turk Selim,” but says that he is describing Cairo as it appeared under Mameluke rule “as the author lived in the time of the sultan, when he studied [Egypt’s] life and customs.” There follows an account of some of the principal officers of the Mameluke state, including the dawadar, a kind of deputy sultan, the al-amir al-kabir, the military commander, the na’ib al-sultan, the sultan’s deputy in Syria, the khazindar, the state treasurer, and the tasht khanah, the master of the sultan’s wardrobe.
“The history in the Geography is valuable but factually unreliable,” Ossa-Richardson and Oosterhoff write in their introduction, adding that al-Wazzini’s versions of events “are often hard to contextualise against other sources and are sometimes contradicted by them.” Finally, the image of Africa that he presents is “also an image of Leo [al-Wazzini] himself – proud, learned, and worldly. We need not, of course, take that image at face value; it was the last and finest touch of his performance.”
Johannes Leo Africanus (Al-Hassan Ibn Muhammad al-Wazzini), The Cosmography and Geography of Africa, trans. Anthony Ossa-Richardson and Richard Oosterhoff, London: Penguin, 2023, pp511.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly