Leo Africanus received a classical Islamic education at the well-known Quarawin (Kairaouine) mosque and university in Fez. He worked for a short time in a maristan, a combination hospital and asylum for the mentally ill. While in his teens, he accompanied a relative on major diplomatic missions within Morocco and Africa.
Leo Africanus lived during an age of political and cultural changes. He twice visited the famed city of Timbuktu, as well as much of the Sudan in western Africa (Mali and Mauritania), Constantinople, and Cairo, where he saw the defeat of the Mamluks by Ottoman forces.
In 1518, the ship he was traveling on from Egypt to Tunis was captured by Portuguese Christian pirates (corsairs); however, owing to his learning and diplomatic experience he was not sold into slavery as a galley slave but was given to Pope Leo X as a gift.
The pope made use of Leo Africanus’s knowledge of Arabic and the Muslim world in his dealings with other Mediterranean political powers. While under the patronage of the pope, Leo made what was probably a conversion of convenience to Christianity and was baptized Johannes Leo de Medici in Italy.
His Latin/Hebrew/Arabic dictionary indicates the centrality and common use of these three languages by the educated elite in the 16th century. He also wrote a compiled description of 30 famous Arab thinkers, but the Cosmographia del’Africa (Description of Africa) written in a corrupt form of Italian from Arabic notes in 1526, is Leo’s most famous work.
It was translated into English and published in London in 1600 and served as a major resource on African societies for hundreds of years. His descriptions, especially of Timbuktu, fueled Western imaginations about Africa while his life may have been a model for Shakespeare’s Othello.
After the death of his patron Pope Leo X and the accession of Adrian VI in 1521, Leo fell out of favor. It is not known for certain but following the sack of Rome in 1524, Leo may have left Italy for North Africa, although it is likely he returned to Fez, where he died around 1554.