Posts Tagged ‘Leo Africanus’

August favourites #24: French writer

August 24, 2018

I’m going for a slightly unusual choice here, a writer who is of Lebanese origin, but writes in French and is a member of the Academie FrançaiseAmin Maalouf, whose work I have long enjoyed and admired. With my obsession with the Silk Road, I could not resist a novel called Samarcand, which links Omar Khayyam, Arab astronomy and also the famous poem, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and was then hooked. But my favourite books of his are those set in the Renaissance world, such as Leo the African, which is an imagined account of the life of the real Arab traveller Leo Africanus, expelled from Spain as a child at the time of the Reconquista, captured by Christian pirates and employed by the Pope as a traveller and geographer, whose Description of Africa remained one of the most detailed and trusted accounts of that continent for many years. And then there was Baldassare’s Travels, in search of a mysterious lost book in the seventeenth century, and there’s another which goes back to very early times and tells the story of Mani, a prophet, seer and philosopher who came into conflict with established religion and paid for it with his life, at some time in the second or third century, as I remember.

From his position in one of the more conflict-ridden societies of the current Middle East, Maalouf also has interesting perspectives to offer on current affairs; Les Identités Meurtrieres I have found very insightful into what brings peoples, races and nations into conflict. Maalouf is clearly much better known in the francophone world than ours, and that is our loss.


James Wellard: The Great Sahara

August 11, 2018

51-uNw-CF8L._AC_US218_I’ve read a good number of accounts of travel through the Sahara Desert, but hadn’t come across very much at all concerning he history of the region until I found this in a second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh recently and snapped it up for that very reason. There are so many myths and inaccuracies about the desert that have been perpetuated because of our West-centred perspective on everything; no surprise there, then…

The Sahara region was well-populated and inhabited in prehistoric times. I learned rather more about the Carthaginians and their influence than I had in my Roman history course at school, and I was also astonished to discover the extent of Roman achievements in North Africa, which was, after all, their backyard as well as their bread-basket. The efficiency of the Roman army allowed a single legion to pacify and control vast areas for several centuries; Roman engineering focused on attempts to capture, retain and usefully use, the little rainfall which fell, and with a good measure of success. There are still whole towns and cities in ruins, preserved under the sands, unknown, unexplored and unexcavated, such was the extent of Roman penetration, unparalleled since. Nothing has been as well managed since the Arab invaders of the seventh century swept in…

Wellard is very detailed on the slave trade which existed for centuries, but it is evident that there is little detail or information available between the end of Roman occupation and the eighteenth century, when Europeans began to take an imperialist interest in the continent again. Surprisingly, he places little confidence in Arab travellers such as Ibn Battutah and Leo Africanus, who have quite a lot to say. Western interests began with exploration and a fascination with reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu, which usually proved (i) a disappointment and (ii) fatal…

The book dated from the 1960s, and at times the prejudices of those times show; the author has a fairly jaundiced picture to paint of contemporary Arab life, religion, sexuality and poverty; sadly Western interference and colonialism means there is a certain amount of truth in some of his observations; local geography, and social and religious attitudes also contribute. But what came across most strongly to me was the uniqueness of the Roman civilising enterprise, which even the French in their control of most of the region for a century or more came nowhere near matching.

The author – of whom I’d never heard before – is evidently well-travelled and highly knowledgeable about the entire region, and provides an excellent (though now dated) and annotated bibliography; it’s a pity that the end-wrapper map is so cursory and the only one in the book…

Other Routes: 1500 Years of African & Asian Travel Writing

December 19, 2014

4167G5VQ1VL._AA160_I’ve just re-read this important and challenging anthology. Challenging, because it counters so many of the Eurocentric claims to have ‘discovered’ places, and been the first travellers to ‘explore’ somewhere, as if everyone else in the world just stayed put, cultivating their gardens…

It’s a well-edited anthology with an excellent, detailed, serious academic introduction which develops a clear context for the anthology: travellers from Africa and Asia, from China and Japan, from the Arab world, were all visiting new lands many centuries ago, and writing detailed and thoughtful accounts of the new things they found there, sometimes in a prejudiced and dismissive way, often in a very open-minded and wondering way.

It suffers from the obvious problems with all anthologies, that you never get enough of something you find really interesting, just small gobbets, tantalising but insufficient. And with this sort of writing, often newly ‘re-discovered’, tracking down further helpings can be either really difficult or completely impossible. Some ancient translations can be found via Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, but a lot has never been translated into English (or any European language, for that matter). Certainly, there is plenty for me to try and hunt down and enjoy (probably in my next existence). The editors do, successfully, demonstrate the range and breadth of the travelling done in the centuries they cover.

So, many people travelled and explored and wrote intelligently and analytically whilst we in the West were in the midst of our ‘Dark Ages’ (whatever they really were); it’s a sobering and necessary reminder that, although we may now be in the ascendant (?) other peoples were once, and often our West was not part of their thoughts or their travels, either because they didn’t know about us, or because we were boring barbarians devoid of interest to intelligent people…

Times were different then, clearly, and often the writers do not touch upon the kinds of detail about foreign lands that I would find interesting, particularly in terms of their interactions with the indigenous peoples of the lands they visited. There are some brilliant glimpses – the Arab traveller who provides the only existing account of a Viking burial, probably somewhere in present-day Russia, thus also raising questions about the origins of the local populations; an angry Arab traveller ranting about how dreadful Cairo is, would give any negative reviewer in today’s Lonely Planet guides a run for their money; a fascinating perspective from an Indian traveller who visits London and Scotland. Of course, the usual suspects like Ibn Battutah and Leo Africanus also turn up.

Highly recommended if you want something completely different.

Writing from Arab lands

July 14, 2014

Continuing the posts exploring my wider reading, and my opinion that other countries and languages offer sometimes better reading than English…

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by literature and other writing from the Middle East over the years. Partly this is from a wish to understand some of the conflicts going on in various parts of the world, but also from a longer historical perspective, as I’m aware that Arabs lands in the Middle Ages were not only the safeguarding repositories of much of humankind’s knowledge, but also the places where much new research and discovery was happening, while our part of the world languished in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. I know that this is a bit of an over-simplification, but for me it’s also a counter to the Western-centrism which ignores so much of the rest of the world and what it has achieved.

Travels by Arab writers are fascinating: Ibn Battutah‘s voyages in the fourteenth century dwarf those of Marco Polo; Ibn al-Mujawil wrote in the thirteenth century and al-Masudi even earlier. I have a translation of Ibn Jubayr which is still on the to-read pile. And then there is Leo Africanus, and his Description of Africa, as well as the wonderful re-imagination of his life and travels by Amin Maalouf. Ibn Khaldun as a historian and compiler of knowledge is as interesting as Isidore of Seville.

My reading of fiction is limited by what is available in translation, and much more is accessible in French (currently) than in English. I have really enjoyed the novels and essays of the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf: his perspective is a very helpful one in that his country is a society where Christians and Muslims have long co-existed (not always peacefully). The length essays Les Identités Meurtrières, and Le Déreglement du Monde are thoughtful and insightful takes on current conflicts in the world. His novel about the celebrated poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam, Samarkand, is available in English, as is Baldassare’s Travels; his novel about Leo Africanus and many others, which I recommend highly, are not, to the best of my knowledge.

I was quite stunned by Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy when I first came across it, and have read it twice, now: it’s a panorama of life in Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries centred around a single extended family; it’s a soap-opera of daily life, a fascinating and detailed insight into a totally different society, its customs, habits and morals, and the background is the increasingly turbulent history of the times; as a Westerner I learned a lot as well as enjoyed the novels; obviously life in Egypt is far more complex than a novel can reveal, but I loved being allowed these glimpses. It is sobering and necessary to see how other people can and do think, feel, react, exist in ways that are so different from our own: we may accept the difference, we may question it, but how can we begin to do anything if we have no knowledge?

This brings me on to the realisations that the Arab lands, via the Silk Route, were the way in which we originally came to know the Far East, the lands of China and India… that the things which connect us to other peoples are, or ought to be, far stronger than those which separate us, and cause conflict. I’m no philosopher and have no wish to be a politician, but I do strongly believe that we should be celebrating this diversity.

Travel in the Middle Ages

January 13, 2014

51+nu5+broL._AA160_I particularly enjoy reading accounts of travel from the Middle Ages. Then I’m transported into a world with only very rudimentary maps, before the world was fully known – where are America, Australia and Antarctica? How did sailors actually know where they were? So travel was a much more complicated and chancy business. Equally, I’m talking about times in which the real world co-existed with imaginary and fantasy worlds, and the boundaries between them are very fluid indeed. Did Sir John Mandeville actually exist, and did he visit any of the places he writes about in his Travels? Marco Polo did exist and went to the places he describes, as did Ibn Battuta, a fourteenth century Arab traveller who covered more miles that Marco Polo all over the known world of his time, and Leo Africanus explored much of North Africa in the following ventury.

Jean Vernon‘s book Voyager au Moyen Age explains in great detail who travelled in the Middle Ages (he covers the period from the fiftth to the fifteenth centuries) and how they travelled, by land (on foot and horseback, alone and in groups) and by sea, and how long it took to get to places. The hardships are illustrated by copious references to writings of the time, and there’s an excellent bibliography, with pointers to lots more writers who I must track down… Many of these ancient texts are, of course, now freely downloadable from sites like Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive. Vernon covers not just travel to real, but also to imaginary places..

Lots of people did travel, for trade, personal and professional reasons; the journeys were often long and hard; much of Europe was heavily forested in the early Middle Ages. People were afraid of the sea, and there were lots of pirates; journeys could take ages if the weather conditions were not propitious (three weeks to cross the English Channel…)

The book is a fascinating insight into the growth of our knowledge about the world, and also into the minds of people of many centuries ago, and how they thought about themselves and their world.

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