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Leo Africanus Describes the Region of Sous in Morocco

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The excerpt from A Geographical Historie of Africa, Written in Arabicke and Italian, by Johannas Leo Africanus, was translated and compiled by J. Pory and printed in London in 1600. The work had been published in Italian with the title Della descrittione dell’Africa et delle cose notabili cheiui sono, per Giovan Lioni Africano in 1550 in Venice, and in the next 50 years, translations were made in Latin and other languages, not always accurately. Leo Africanus’ work remained an important source on west Africa until the nineteenth century, when European explorers succeeded in reaching the interior. This excerpt describes a region in the south of Morocco called the Sous, beyond the Atlas Mountains, including the valley of the Sous River and extending from the Atlantic coast inland to the Sahara Desert. The map of Africa illustrated the same edition.


Of the region of Sous. Now comes the region of Sus to be considered of, being  situated beyond [the] Atlas, over against the territorie of  Hea, that is to say, in the extreme part of Africa. Westward it beginneth from the Ocean sea, and southward  from the sandie deserts: on the north it is bounded with  the utmost towne of Hea; and on the east with that  mightie river [Sous] whereof the whole region is named. Wherefore beginning from the west, we will describe all those  cities and places which shall seem to be worthy of  memorie.   

Of the towne of Messa. Three small townes were built by the ancient Africans upon the sea shore (each being a mile distant from  other) in that very place where Atlas takes his beginning: all which three are called by one only name, to wit,  Messa, and are environed with a wall built of white stones. Through these three runneth a certain great  river called Sous in their language: this river in summer is  so destitute of water, that a man may easily without  peril pass over it on foot; but it is not so in the winter  time. They have then certain small barkes, which are  not meet to sail upon this river. The place where the  foresaid three townes are situated, aboundeth greatly with  palm trees, neither have they in a manner any other wealth ; and yet their dates are but of small worth, because they will not last above one year. All the inhabitants exercise husbandry, especially in the months of September and April; what time their river increaseth. And in May their corn grows to ripeness. But if in the two aforesaid moneths the river increaseth not according to the wonted manner, their harvest is then nothing worth. Cattle are very scarce among them. Not far from the seaside they have a temple, which they greatly esteem and honour. Out of which, Historiographers say, that the same prophet, of whom their great Mahomet foretold, should proceed. Yea, some there are which stick not to affirm, that the prophet Jonas was cast forth by the   whale upon the shore of Messa, when as he was sent to preach unto the Ninevites. The rafters and beames of the Great store of said temple are of whale’s bone. And it is a usual thing  amongst them, to see whales of an huge and monstrous bigness cast up dead upon their shore, which by reason of  their hugeness and strange deformity, may...astonish the beholders. The common people imagine, that, by reason of a certain secret power and virtue infused from heaven by God upon the said temple, each  whale which would swim past it can by no means escape  death. Which opinion had almost persuaded me; especially when at my being there, I my self saw a  mighty whale cast up: unless a certain Jewe had told me, that it was no such strange matter: for (quoth he) there lie  certain rocks two miles into the sea on either side; and  as the sea moves, so the whales move also; and if they chance to light upon a rock, they are easily wounded to  death, and so are cast upon the next shore. This reason  more prevailed with me than the opinion of the people. My selfe (I remember), being in this region at the same  time when my Lord the Sherif ruled over it, was  invited by a certain gentleman, and was by him conducted to a whales’ rib garden: where he shewed me a whale’s rib of so great a size, that lying upon the grounde with the convex or bowing side upward in manner of an arch, it resembled  a gate, the hollow or inwarde part whereof aloft we could  not touch with our heads, as we rode upon our camels  backs: this rib (he said) had lain there above an hundred  years, and was kept as a miracle. Here may you find upon the sea-shore great store of amber[gris], which the  Portugal, & Fezzan merchants fetch from there for a very  mean [high] price: for they scarcely pay a dukat for a whole...choise and excellent amber[gris]. Amber[gris] (as some think) is made of whales dung, and (as others suppose) of the Sperma or seede, which being consolidated and hardened by the sea, is cast upon the next shore.

Of Teyeut, an ancient towne of Sus.Teyeut being (as the report goeth) built by the ancient  Africans in a most pleasant place, is divided into  three parts, whereof each one is almost a mile distant  from another, and they all make a triangle or three-square. This Teyeut containeth fewer [than a] thousand families, and  standeth not far from the river of Sus. The soil  adjacent is most fruitful for grain, for barley, and for all  store of sugar, kinds of pulse [beans]. They have here likewise a good quantity  of sugar growing; howbeit, because they know not how to  press, boil, and trim it, they cannot have it but black  and unsauory: wherefore so much as they can spare, they  sell unto the merchants of Marocco, of Fez, and of the land  of Negroes. Of dates likewise they have plenty ; neither use they any money besides the gold which is digged out of their owne native soil. The women wear upon their  heads a peice of cloth worth a dukat. Silver they have  none, but such as their women adorn themselves with.  The least iron-coine used amongst them, weighs almost an ounce. No fruits take plentifully upon their soil, but only figs, grapes, peaches, and dates. Neither oil nor olives are here to be found, except such as are brought  from certain mountains of Marocco. A measure of oil is sold at Sus for fifteen dukats; which measure containeth an hundred and fifty pounds Italian weight.  Their pieces of gold (because they have no certain nor  proportionable money) do weigh, seven of them & one  third part, one ounce. Their ounce was all one with the  Italian ounce: but their pound containeth eighteen ounces, and is called in their language Ratl; and an hundred  Ratl make one such measure of oil as is aforesaid.  For carrying of merchandize from place to place, their custome is to pay for a camels load, that is, for 700 pounds  of Italian weight, 3 pieces of gold, especially in the springtime: for in summer they pay somtimes 5 and somtimes 6 pieces of gold, as the time requireth. Here is that  excellent leather dressed, which is called leather of  Marocco ; twelve hides whereof are here sold for six Cordovan leather of dukats, and at Fez for eight. That part of this region Marocco which lies toward [the] Atlas [Mountains] has many villages, townes, and hamlets: but the south part thereof is utterly destitute of inhabitants, and subiect to the Arabians which border upon it. In the midst of this city stands a fair and  stately temple, which they call The Greatest, and the  Chiefest, through the very midst whereof they have caused  a part of the foresaid river to rune. The inhabitants are stern and uncivil, being so continually exercised in wars, that they have not one day of quiet. Each part of the  city has a...captain and governour, who all of them together do rule the commonwealth: but their  authority continueth never above three months, which  being expired, three other are chosen in their...[place]. Their apparel is somewhat like unto that of the people of Hea: saving that some of them make their shirts, and  other of their garments of a certain kinde of white stuff. 


Leo Africanus (Al-Fasi, al-Hassan Ibn Mohammed al-Wezaz), Robert Brown, and John Pory. The history and description of Africa: and of the notable things therein contained. London : Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1896, pp. 248-252. Image credit: map of Africa from the same edition. (Some spellings modernized for legibility)

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #249: Leo Africanus Describes the Region of Sous in Morocco", May 21, 2024


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