|Biographical detail : ||The historian and geographer who was presented as a prize to the Pope.
When Granada fell to the Castilian armies of Ferdinand and Isabella al-Wazzan and his family decamped to Fez. Here he became a roving diplomat for the Wattasid sultans, travelling as far as Timbuktu and Cairo.
While returning from Cairo to Fez, in 1518, al-Wazzan was captured by Spanish pirates, taken in chains to Rome, and presented as a prize to the Medici Pope Leo X. He was baptised, perhaps under coercion, by Leo X, on 6 January 1520, and he was named Joannes Leo, or in Arabic Yuhanna al-Asad (Latinised to Leo Africannus).
He lived among Rome’s aristocrats and intellectuals and worked on a series of documents, first helping with a Latin-Hebrew-Arabic dictionary (now in Madrid) and a Latin version of Qu’ran. Writing on a series of books interpreting his home culture for Europeans, of which the best known is the ‘Libro de la Cosmographia et Geographia de Affrica’. Printed in Venice, in 1550, the book details the physical geography, culture and history of Africa, some of it from his own first-hand witness and memories, some from half-remembered travellers’ tales. The book remained the standard reference for geographers for more than 250 years.
In 1527, al-Wazzan disappeared from Rome and came to settle in Tunis, in 1532, a city he praised for its cosmopolitan and tolerant nature – his return to Muslim society.
Born al-Hasan Ibn Muhammad Ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan, son of an Andalucian trader, in Granada, in the dying days of the Muslim period in that country. He was qualified in law, well travelled and from a good family that had fled the Spanish re-conquest of Granada and settled in Morocco.