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In Search of Leo Africanus

Duke Students Retrace Early Modern History

Classroom in Fez, Morocco
This classroom in Fez, Morocco is in a school similar to the one Leo would have attended.

In late June 2004 we set off from North Carolina to retrace the steps of Hassan al-Wazzan al-Fassi al-Zayyati, later to become John Leo the Medici-Leo Africanus for short. It was 500 years since Hasan and his family had been driven out of Granada, Spain and migrated to Fez, Morocco. We met up with 18 Duke University students in southern Spain. Together we would begin a 6-week trek that would follow much of Leo's travels over 40 years: from his Spanish homeland to Morocco to Egypt and finally to Italy.

Why this man and why this journey? Both were subjects of a book that opened up for us, as teachers of Muslim/Arab culture, a vista on the past that was also a commentary on the present. It begins in late 15th century southern Spain, or Al-Andalus. For eight centuries Al-Andalus had been a Muslim region before its conquest by Castilian Catholics. The last Muslim kingdom to fall, in 1492, was Granada. Leo was a diplomat and geographer famed for his Geographical Historie of Africa. His very name Leo came from Leo X, the Medici pope whom he served as slave, translator, and ambassador. On the frontispiece of his text he indicates that it was written in Arabic and Italian, hence he must have been fluent in both languages, and that he is "John Leo, a More (Moor), borne in Granada and brought up in Barbarie (North Africa)." Little else is known about his life.

In 1986 Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese journalist and novelist, filled in the blanks and developed Leo's skeletal biography into a compelling novel. Leo Africanus follows the travel of this Andalusian migrant from Granada to Fez to Cairo to Rome. We would do the same.

A Hinge of History

Leo Africanus lived through what Fernand Braudel has called a "conjuncture," a time that frames several decades during which large scale social, economic, and political changes converge. A conjuncture is not just a period of time, it is a hinge of history. For Leo that hinge was marked by three specific dates: 1492, 1517, and 1527. 1492 is the year in which the Castilian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and soon thereafter the Muslims. It is also the year that they patronized the voyage of the Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus to the Americas. 1517 is the year that the Ottomans took over from the Mamluks rule of the Muslim world, thus moving the center of political gravity from Egypt to Anatolia. It is also the year that Martin Luther launched the Christian Reformation that constituted such a challenge for the Church of Rome. 1527 is the year that an unlikely coalition of Christians, Catholics, and Protestants sacked Rome. Leo was in each of these cities when it was stripped of its power.

These three dates have become the defining moments of the late medieval, early modern world; they changed the Mediterranean world and its neighbors forever.

Students who read Leo Africanus are invariably as taken by it as we had been. In Spring 2003 one of them asked us whether we would consider organizing a study/travel program around the places and themes highlighted in the novel. A year later, armed with the novel and excerpts from the Description of Africa translated into English by John Pory in 1600, we embarked with 18 Duke students on this journey through time and space.

Beginning at the Alhambra

We began at the foot of the Alhambra Palace. For a week we lectured in the Casa Morisca in Chapis which today houses the Center for Medieval Arabic Studies in Granada. Built some time in the 15th century, it might well have been the home of the Wazzan family. Their elite status as officials in the Alhambra Palace and advisers to the last Granada ruler, Boabdil, would have meant that they enjoyed a nice home in an upscale area of Muslim Granada. Within a week the Albaicin was as familiar as home. Each student chose a favorite path for Hassan or his father or his uncle Khali to take on his way to the market. Muslims faced painful options after the lean and hungry Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros expelled Jews from Spain in 1492 and seven years later burnt all Muslim books in BibiRambla. We tried two of those options: resist from the mountains, if you dare; or pack up and leave, if you can.

Leon L'Africaine sign in the streets of Granada
A sign on one of the streets of Granada mentions "Leon L'Africain," who once worked for a martisan, as the group learned from both Maalouf's novel and from the original travel documents of Leo.

Hide or Flee?

First we went to the mountains. Taking the local bus, we snaked through small town after small town till we reached the lovely Alpujarras. It was here the Muslim resistance flourished for decades, only stilled by a massive military response to the last Morisco revolt of 1568-70. A British woman rancher picked us up in two cramped cruisers and sped us up a steep winding road to the stables where we would start our ride. It is wild country. We rode through it in a single file. We explored the conditions that allowed Muslim freedom fighters to remain in hiding long after the Castilian Catholics outlawed

Islam in Granada.

The other option, beyond conversion or resistance, was flight. Flight meant emigration to North Africa, that is, to the Maghrib. The train took us through endless olive groves, and along ravines in the formidable Sierra Nevada ridge. Our ferry rounded the bay of Gibraltar at dusk. We could see the cragged rock that Tariq bin Ziyad first saw when he landed there with his troops in 711, establishing not just a Muslim presence but also his own signature on the landscape: Jabal Tariq (now Gibraltar) means the mountain of Tariq. The Muslim presence was to persist for eight centuries.

Three hours later the lights of Tangiers twinkled on the horizon. The next morning the muezzin's voice calling the faithful to dawn prayer awoke us. We were in the Land of Islam. The train ride from Tangiers to Fez took us through the barren Rifian countryside. This was not the arduous trip that the young Hasan al-Wazzan made with his parents some time around 1500, but the countryside has not changed.

Fez is stunning. Its seven hills circle the city below. In his Geographical Historie of Africa Leo is rapturous: "A world it is to see, how large, how populous, how well fortified and walled this citie is."

Our guide took us to many sites that would have been familiar to Leo. The food and cloth shops, the caravanserais, and the public baths that Leo and Maalouf describe with such zest. Then the madrasahs, or schools for Islamic learning, and the Qarawiyin, the most celebrated mosque/school complex in the Western Arab world, rivaled only by Al-Azhar in Cairo. Then we visited the Bou Inaniya madrasa that was recently restored to its 16th century glory. We entered a Quranic school like the one that Leo had to attend when he was a little boy, watching other boys, and today also girls, as they chanted out verses from the Quran.

Leather Tanners in Fez, Morocco
In Fez's tanners' quarters, men plunge into different colors in an attempt to stain the leather.

Until today the guilds survive, generally in assigned parts of the medina, plying their trades as they did in the 16th century. No tourist to Fez can avoid the tanners' quarter where half-naked boys and men dive into vats of lethal potions that turn rough sheep and calf skins into silk soft leather for coats, bags and, above all, book bindings. Nothing other than the chemicals in the vats has changed over the past 500 years.

Carpet Sellers in Fez, Morocco
Carpet sellers in Marrakech, Morocco.

In Maalouf's novel Leo was forced to leave Fez for two years because of his relationship with the outlaw Harun. He traveled south across the Sahara where he witnessed slave trading. Maalouf imagines that while Leo was on embassy to Timbuktu he was given many gifts, among them Hiba, a beautiful woman abducted from Ouarzazate, one of the towns our students visited on their swing through the High Atlas.

Across the Sahara to Cairo

Next, his travels took him eastward across the Sahara to Egypt en route to Mecca for the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage. On the boat trip up the Nile he met a Coptic woman who gave him the use of her house for his sojourn in Cairo. It was there that he met and married the beautiful Nur, widow of a nephew and rival to the Ottoman caliph, Selim the Grim. Cairo was Maalouf's third section and, therefore, our next stop.

In no other city than Cairo, says the fictive Leo, "does one forget so quickly that one is a foreigner." How true this was for us also. Unlike the introverted Albaicin of Granada and Fez with its enduring aloofness, Cairo is warmly welcoming. The flip side to this embrace of foreigners, of course, was that whereas the Spanish and Moroccan cities allowed us to imagine exactly where the Wazzan family would have lived and worked, 16th century Cairo was scarcely imaginable.

Cairo has changed beyond recognition. In the early 16th century Cairo was a major node in a network that stretched across the Mediterranean and into the three continents surrounding it. Granada and Fez, too, were nodes but the paths leading to them were fewer. Travelers generally came for short periods and specific purposes: Granada was in cultural touch with the Syrian heartland from its earliest days while Fez was known to be a center for religious learning. But Cairo then as now was a major hub of multiple activities.

There is no better way to be introduced to Cairo than from the Nile and preferably on a faluka, the broad-sailed boat that Egyptians have used for millennia to travel the Nile. It is probably the kind of boat on which Leo sailed into Cairo floating north from the temples and tombs of Luxor in Upper Egypt.

We entered Leo's City through the Bab al-Nasr, "that is, the gate of victory, which standeth eastward towards the desert of the red sea." We visited a merchant's house, recently restored with Kuwaiti financing. Its beautiful tile work, sculpted stucco and exquisite mashrabiya, or tooled wooden latticework, must have looked like the house lent to Leo by his Coptic friend. We wandered down the street still called "Bayn al-Qasrayn," or "Palace Walk," that gave the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz the title for one of his most famous novels. In Leo's day it was divided between madrasas, "mercers shops where the rich stuffes of Italy" are sold, victualers shops, confectioners, fruiterers who sold exotic fruits like "quinces, pomegranates, and other fruits which grow not in Egypt; next unto them are the shops of such as sell egges, cheese, and pancakes fried with oile." In the middle of our walk through this street that is being museumified like Fez al-Bali, we too stopped for a lunch of "pancakes fried with oile."

We left Leo's City through Bab Zwayla and entered what Leo called its suburb. Today it is situated at the heart of a city that stretches for miles in all directions. Here we visited two of Cairo's 500 mosques that were already old when Leo arrived.

Most disconcerting for our students was the Qarafa, or the City of the Dead. The Mamelukes (successors to the Ayyubids and precursors to the Ottomans) built it in imitation of the Pharaohs and in contravention of Islamic law minimizing grave markers. Since Leo's day much has changed. No longer a sacred and sumptuous place, the tombs have provided shelter for large numbers of Cairo's poor. In the past decade the government finally acknowledged this centuries-old practice; for the first time, it provided the inhabitants of today's Qarafa with running water.

Sinai, Egypt
The group stopped at St. Catherina Church, where they rented camels to ride up the mountain of Sinai, Egypt.

Exploring Ancient Egypt

The highlight for most tourists is the ancient Egyptian world. For a long weekend, some of our students went to Upper Egypt, to the vast Pharaonic tombs at Luxor and Aswan that Leo passed on his way to Cairo. And then there are the Giza Pyramids, those "round buildings" as Ibn Battuta called them, that were way out in the western desert. They were the last structures we saw as we flew out of Cairo on our way to Rome.

To fit four countries into our 6-week course schedule, we could not afford the time it would have taken to go by boat from Alexandria to Ostia, Rome's port, let alone to go to the island of Djerba off the southern coast of Tunisia, where Leo was captured by Sicilian pirates on behalf of Pope Leo X.

Leaving Cairo at 10 a.m., we were walking into our hotel high up in the Gianicolo area of Rome by 1:30 p.m. The view from the plaza allowed us to take in all of the great sights of Rome: St. Peter's and the Vatican, the Coliseum and the Forum and, above all, the round fortress of Castel San Angelo. Built by Hadrian in the 2nd century, it was Leo's home/prison for years.

Rome at Last

We do not know how free he was to wander the streets because of his years of incarceration. What we do know is that Leo must have walked the narrow passageway connecting Castel San Angelo to the Vatican many times, since he spent time in both complexes teaching Arabic and learning Hebrew, Turkish, Latin, and Italian. It was there that the Medici popes consulted with him. They sought his advice on how to establish an alliance with the Ottoman Muslims against the Spanish Catholic inquisitors, the Lutheran upstarts, and the feuding cities in the north of Italy. It was here also that he wrote his Geographical Historie of Africa, a book that was to be influential in many languages for centuries and to form the basis for Amin Maalouf's novel about his life.

In 1527, when Rome was about to be sacked (not by Muslims but by Christians, the troops of the self-styled Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), Leo left for Africa with Giuseppe his son by his Roman Jewish/Christian wife, Maddalena. Amin Maalouf ends his novel with: Leo addressing his son on the boat approaching Gammarth on the Tunisian coast. He had written his life so that Giuseppe might know, and remember, who his father had been.

"Wherever you are, some will want to ask questions about your skin or your prayers. Beware of gratifying their instincts, my son, beware of bending before the multitude! Muslim, Jew or Christian, they must take you as you are, or lose you. When men's minds seem narrow to you, tell yourself that the land of God is broad."

It is a lesson that on our last day in Rome we all discussed with an unprecedented openness. Such a conversation could not have happened in North Carolina, or indeed anywhere else at any other time.

Rome: View from Castel Sant'Angelo
Looking out from the Castel San Angelo, in Rome, to the bridge Leo crossed several times to get into the Vatican.