History has taught us about the contribution of many Moroccan figures to influencing the course of our country’s past. Amazighi Yuba II, an ancient king of Morocco, the globetrotter Mustafa Azemmouri, Ibn Battuta, and Moses ben Maimon, commonly known as Maimonides, among others have left a lasting impact on Moroccan history.
Rabat – Other historical figures have been sadly left out of the limelight, leaving us ignorant of their stories and lasting influence. One such legend is Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi. Al-Fasi was welcomed by Pope Leo X at the Papal headquarters in Rome, having been captured in 1518 while returning home from Pilgrimage.
“A man with art and knowledge is always welcomed among us, not as a servant but as a protector,” said Pope Leo X to Hasan al-Wazzan as a welcoming speech.
The description paints Hasan al-Wazzan as no average man, bestowing on the traveler his widely famous family name, Leo de’ Medici, as a show of respect and acceptance. The globetrotter name, thus, became ‘Leo Africanus.’
The name de Medici, Pope Leo’s surname, is famous in the city of Florence, Italy, and all over Europe. Hasan al-Wazzan is indeed a legendary character; a globetrotter, a geographer, an ambassador, a researcher, a writer, and a scholar.
Hasan al-Wazzan or Leo Africanus was the subject of much research and study in the west.
The research and studies were initiated by many orientalists, historians, and geography scholars, including Italian John Baptist Ramozia in his book, “Sailing and Traveling,” in more than one edition since 1550, the Russian Kratchovski in his book, “the history of Arabic Geographical Literature,” Canadian and American historian Natalie Zemon Davis, the German Detrick Richenberg, as well as French orientalists Guillaume Postel and Francois Poyon, just to name a few.
All those names, among many others, have spent decades studying and analyzing Leo Africanus’ personality and checking the accuracy of his manuscripts, as explored by the Italian Angela Kadatsi and Frederic Kristy.
The date of birth of Hasan al-Wazzan is either 1483 or 1488 in Granada, Spain. He lived at a crossroads of historical events as he witnessed the middle ages, the birth of the Renaissance, the end of Muslim presence in Andalusia, the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from the region, and the inquisition. This period was also the beginning of major geographical discoveries.
The renowned scholar also experienced the pain of separation from Andalusia and the migration to Fez or the kingdom of Morocco. He saw the rise and fall of dynasties and empires, witnessing the last days of the Mamluk in Egypt and the Al Watasi dynasty in Morocco, and watched the Ottoman empire take its place in history.
The religious philosopher saw, too, the Catholic Church struggle, the expansion of Martin Luther’s supporters (1482-1546) and Protestantism, and also King of France’s alliance with the Ottoman, and the fear of Pope Leo X of an Ottoman Islamic invasion from the south.
Hasan al-Wazzan was a scholar who lived in many worlds as he accompanied a number of philosophers, geographers, and travelers. He studied at the Al Qarawiyyine University in Fez and the Vatican. He brought together mosques and churches and went to perform pilgrimage in Mecca, and lived in the Muslim southern Mediterranean, as well as in the Northern non-muslim regions, and married a Muslim woman.
All these elements make al-Wazzan or Leo Africanus a character close to legend, which led some Orientalists to question the credibility of his life, works, and manuscripts, especially his book, “The Description of Africa” which had 8 different editions.
The author of “Sailing and Trekking,” Batiste Ramouzio, has even sent a letter to his friend, Hironimous Frakstoro, in which he admitted having to change the text for translation on purpose and make shortcuts to reduce translation costs, which caused him to alter and delete many paragraphs.
The location of the Arabic version of the book is another mystery, with some speculating that it can be found in Morocco, and others wondering if it was lost during the move of the Jean Vincenzo library from Venice to Napoli at the beginning of the 17th century. Others believe that he took it with him to Tunisia in 1527.
According to a study conducted by Italian historian and orientalist Giorgio Levi Della Vida within the Vatican library in 1939, Hasan al-Wazzan was collaborating with Monk Ilias Bin Brahim al Maroni, who is a great calligrapher and master of Latin, Italian, and Arabic. Al Maroni was brought to the Vatican from Lebanon in 1515 by the Pope Leo X.
In the Italian version of the book, “The Description of Africa,” Al Maroni speaks Italian and Arabic as a native speaker, but Al Wazzan was a beginner in the Italian language and did not master it as Al Maroni had.
German orientalist Detrich Rosenberg conducted an extensive study about the conditions and ambiguities of writing in “The Description of Africa,” and shed light on a number of factual and historical misconceptions related also to the translation and the veracity of the manuscripts.
Leo Africanus is a Moroccan personality who was influenced by the world and, in turn, left his mark in it. There is still uncertainty as to whether he died in Tunisia or Morocco. The uncertainty stretches to his religion and whether he renounced Islam to convert to Christianity, as well as whether it was an obligation or a choice, although his decision to flee to Tunisia suggests that he was under duress.
The location of the Arabic version of his book is still unknown, even though his book was a scientific reference to the West for more than 500 years and helped them to invade Africa.
Was his extensive knowledge and scientific genius a threat to the powers of the time? In whose interest was it to bury the truth about a man who so impacted the world?
Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi is, undoubtedly, an impressive figure in world history, but he is not the only Moroccan to deserve a place there. The success and distinction of Moroccans living abroad are thanks to the natural accumulation of Moroccan identity through our history.
Moroccans’ integration, distinction, and social and professional prominence in foreign societies of multiple languages, religions, and ethics did not come from nothing. It is a natural extension to the diversity of the Moroccan personality, which encourages shedding light on other Moroccan legends who have influenced the world.
Translated into English by Hamza Guessous