45 pages 1 hour read

Amin Maalouf

Leo Africanus

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1986

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Summary and Study Guide


Leo Africanus, a title also sometimes translated into English as Leo the African, is a work of historical fiction by the Lebanese-French journalist Amin Maalouf. It was first published in French as Léon, l’Africain in 1986, and the English translation by Peter Sluglett was published in 1992. The novel’s titular protagonist, Joannes Leo Africanus, whose birth name was al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, was a real early-16th-century figure. Mainly, he was known for writing a travelogue called Description of Africa, describing the Maghreb (northwest Africa) and Egypt, that became famous in Europe. Few definite facts are known about his life, and most knowledge of him comes from his own writings. He and his family left the last surviving Muslim kingdom in Spain, Granada, when it was conquered by the Kingdom of Castile. Hasan accompanied his uncle on a diplomatic mission to Timbuktu and was later sent as a diplomat to the Ottoman Empire. On the way back, he was captured by Spanish privateers and ended up in Rome, where his intelligence earned him the attention of Pope Leo X. He remained in Italy, where he was baptized and received the patronage of Leo X and later Pope Clement VI. His ultimate fate is unknown. Either he remained in Italy or he went to Tunis or Morocco.

Plot Summary

The story begins with the birth and parentage of the narrator, Hasan. He is a native of Granada and the son of Muhammad, an affluent weigh-master, and Muhammad’s first wife, Salma, a native Muslim. Muhammad has another wife, Warda, a Christian slave who gives birth to a daughter, Mariam, at the same time Hasan is born. Granada is threatened by the combined forces of Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon and is eventually attacked and conquered. Fleeing religious persecution by the Spanish Inquisition, Hasan’s family moves to Fez.

Hasan goes to school and makes a friend names Harun. Later, Hasan is appalled to find that Muhammad has engaged Mariam to marry the Zarwali—a corrupt and powerful man. Harun sabotages the engagement, and the Zarwali has Mariam wrongfully imprisoned in a nearby leper colony. Haran joins his uncle, Khali, on a diplomatic mission to Timbuktu, and a tribal leader gives Hasan a female slave named Hiba whom Hasan falls in love with. Khali grows ill and dies during the trip home. In his will, he extolls Hasan to marry his youngest daughter, Fatima.

Back in Fez, Hasan finishes school and takes a job administrating a maristan (hospital). Harun, in love with Mariam, frees her from the leper colony, and the two become fugitives. Hasan marries Fatima. They have a daughter, but it is not a happy marriage, and Fatima dies in childbirth. Hasan enjoys success in his new career as a merchant and becomes a favorite of the Sultan. He convinces the Sultan to banish the Zarwali, but the Zarwali is slain by Harun, and the Sultan exiles Hasan since he is implicated in the Zarwali’s murder.

Hasan returns Hiba to her native tribe, then resumes his career as a merchant in Cairo. There, Hasan meets Princess Nur, the widow of Ala’al-din, a nephew of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Secretly, Nur gave birth to Ala’al-din’s son, Bayazid, who is a claimant to the Ottoman throne. Hasan falls in love with Nur and marries her, agreeing to pretend that Bayazid is his son. They have a daughter together. Defying his exile, Hasan takes his family back to Fez. There, Hasan finds Harun, who has joined the band led by the pirate Barbarossa. They force Hasan to go to Istanbul and plead with the Ottoman emperor to help free the city of Algiers from a Castilian invasion. While there, Hasan discovers that the Ottomans plan to conquer Egypt. Hasan speeds off to Egypt and warns the Sultan.

Hasan plans to travel to Mecca and then rejoin the rest of his family in Tunis, but he is captured and taken to Rome, where Pope Leo X has arranged his kidnapping as he wanted an educated Muslim who could serve as an informant. Hasan is made to teach Arabic to various high-ranking members of the clergy and consents to be baptized. Leo adopts Hasan as his godson and has him renamed John-Leo de Medici. Further, Pope Leo marries Hasan to Maddalena, a Jewish woman from Granada who converted to Christianity. Maddalena gives birth to a son named Yusuf. Leo X dies and is succeeded by Adrian, then by Pope Clement VII, who joins a war against the Holy Roman Empire on the side of the King of France. Rome is then attacked by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and subjected to brutal looting and massacres. With the help of a friend, the sailor ‘Abbad, Hasan leaves Rome and sets out with Maddalena and Yusuf to meet his family in Tunis.