Piri Reis and the Book of Sea Lore (Kitab-i Bahriye)

Kitab i-Bahriye's description of the coasts of Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and France are well documented in his Book of Sea Lore (Kitab I-Bahriye).

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Piri Reis - World Maps and Kitab I-Bahriye (The Book of Sea Lore) by Salah Zaimeche

Versions of the Book

The matter of Piri Reis' World Map, however exciting, can be the object of a subsequent study; here, focus will be placed on his Kitab i-Bahriye. Kahle, again, pioneered the study of this work in two volumes.(endnote 18) His version is in German only, but there have been some very good contributions to the subject by Soucek most of all.(endnote 19) Mantran also brought his contribution, looking at the Kitab i-Bahriye's description of the coasts of Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and France.(endnote 20) Esin made a good task of the Tunisian coast,(endnote 21) but on this latter country, it is Soucek's account which really gives most satisfaction.(endnote 22) There are a few Italian contributions by Bausani devoted to the Italian coast,(endnote 23) and of specific parts of it, the Venetian coast, the Adriatic and Trieste.(endnote 24)

The Indian Ocean, too, is subject of interest.(endnote 25) And Goodrich informs that the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism has recently (1988-91) published a four volume book of such Kitab.(endnote 26) It includes a colour facsimile of the said manuscript, each page being a transliteration of the Ottoman text into the Latin alphabet, a translation into modern Turkish, and one into English.(endnote 27) Kitab I-bahriye has also aroused the interest of archaeologists, geographers, historians, linguists.(endnote 28)

There are two versions of the Kitab. The first dates from 1521 and the second from five years later. There are many differences between the two. The first was primarily aimed for sailors, the second, on the other hand, was rather more a piece of luxury; which Piri Reis offered as a gift to the Sultan. It was endowed with craft designs, its maps drawns by master calligraphers and painters, and even seen by wealthy Ottomans of the sixteenth as an outstanding example of bookmaking.(endnote 29)

For a century or more manuscript copies were produced, tending to become ever more luxurious, prized items for collectors and gifts for important people.(endnote 30) Its luxury aspect apart, this version also gives good descriptions of matters of maritime interest such as storms, the compass, portolan charts, astronomical navigation, the world's oceans, and the lands surrounding them. Interestingly it also refers to the European voyages of discovery, including the Portuguese entry in the Indian Ocean and Columbus's discovery of the New World.(endnote 31) This version also includes two hundred and nineteen detail charts of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, and another three of the Marmara Sea without text.(endnote 32)

There are around thirty manuscripts of the Kitab al-Bahriye scattered all over libraries in Europe. Most manuscripts (two third) are of the first version. Soucek gives an excellent inventory of the location and details of both versions,(endnote 33) amongst which are the following:

First version:
* Istanbul Topkapi Sarayi, Bibliotheque, ms Bagdad 337
* Istanbul Bibliotheque Nuruosmaniye, ms 2990
* Istanbul Bibliotheque Suleymaniye, ms Aya Sofya 2605
* Bologna, Bibliotheque de l'Universite, collection marsili, ms 3612.
* Vienna, Nationalbibliothek, ms H.O.192.
* Dresden, Staatbibliothek, ms. Eb 389.
* Paris, Bibliotheque nationale, suppl.turc 220.
* London, British Museum, ms. Oriental 4131.
* Oxford, Bodleian library, ms Orville X infra.
* USA, private collection.

2nd version:
* Istanbul, Topkapi sarayi, Bibliothque, ms. Hazine 642.
* Istanbul, Bibliotheque Koprulu Zade fazil Ahmad pasa, ms. 171.
* Istanbul, Bibliotheque Suleymaniye, ms Aya Sofya 3161.
* Paris Bibliotheque nationale suppl. Turc 956.

Translation of the Kitab: The Portulan

Kitab-i balhriye translated by Hess as Book of Sea Lore,(endnote 34) is what is commonly known as a portulan, i.e a manual for nautical instructions for sailors, to give them good knowledge of the Mediterranean coast, islands, passes, straits, bays, where to shelter in face of sea perils, and how to approach ports, anchor, and also how provides them with directions, and precise distances between places.(endnote 35) It is the only full portolan, according to Goodrich of the two seas (Mediterranean and Eagean Seas) ever done, and caps both in text and in charts over two hundred years of development by Mediterranean mariners and scholars.(endnote 36)

Whilst Brice observes that Kitab-I Bahriye provides `the fullest set known to us of the kind of large scale detailed surveys of segments of coast which, by means of joining overlaps and reduction to a standard scale, were used as the basis for the standard Mediterranean Portolan outline.'(endnote 37)And in his introduction, Piri Reis mentions that he had earlier designed a map of the world which deals with the very recent discoveries of the time, in the Indian and Chinese seas, discoveries known to nobody in the territory of the Rum.(endnote 38) He also gives reasons for making his compilation:(endnote 39)

`God has not granted the possibility of mentioning all the aforementioned things (i.e cultivated and ruined places, harbours and waters around the shores and islands of the Mediterranean, and the reefs and shoals in the water) in a map since, when all is said and done, [a map] is a summary. Therefore experts in this science have drawn up what they call a `chart' with a pair of compasses according to a scale of miles, and it is written directly on to a parchment. Therefore only three points can fit into a space of ten miles, and there are places of less than ten miles. On this reckoning only nine points will fit into a space of thirty miles. It is therefore impossible to include on the map a number of symbols, such as those showing cultivated and derelict places, harbours and waters, reefs and shoals in the sea, on what side of the aforementioned harbours they occur, for which winds the harbours are suitable and for which they are contrary, how many vessels they will contain and so on.

If anyone objects, saying, `Is it not possible to put it on several parchments?' the answer is that the parchments would become so big as to be impossible to use on board ship. For this reason, cartographers draw on a parchment a map, which they can use for braod stretches of coast and large islands. But in confined spaces they will a pilot.'

And whilst Piri Reis notes that his Kitab will supply enough good detail to obviate the need for a pilot, this passage also shows his familiarity with small scale portolans of the Mediterranean, his kitab being designed to overcome their shortcomings.(endnote 40)

The contents of Kitab-I Bahriye are organised in chapters, 132 of them in the first version, and 210 in the second. Each is accompanied by a map of the coast or the island in question. In Harley's, alongside Soucek's article, are beautiful maps and charts of the island of Khios, the Port of Novograd, the city of Venice, the Island of Djerba etc...(endnote 41) It was, indeed, Piri Reis's recurrent emphasis that text and map complement each other.(endnote 42) In places, Piri Reis follows his predecessors that include Bartolomoeo de la Sonetti (himself having found inspiring himself in previous Islamic sources). On the whole, though, Piri Reis brings many improvements.(endnote 43) The copy at the Walters Art gallery of Baltimore in the USA (W.658), which includes sixteen supplemental maps, attracts much focus by Goodrich.(endnote 44)

Maps one, two, three and four bear an extraordinary beauty, and map three (f.40b) World Map in a Double Hemisphere, appears in no other manuscript. Furthermore, this map, Goodrich observes,(endnote 45) is very similar to the `Mappe Monde' of 1724 by Guillaume de L'Isle.(endnote 46) Map Four (f.41a) is the Oval World Map with the Atlantic Ocean in the Center. Goodrich also notes(endnote 47) that a later map (from 1601), Anoldo di Arnoldi's two sheet world map, an oval projection called `Universale Descrittone Del Mondo' is almost exactly the same as Piri Reis'.(endnote 48)

Description of the Mediterranean Coasts

The wealth of information in Kitab I-Bahriye is articulated in the series of articles on the Mediterranean coasts. The French coast ,(endnote 49) here briefly summarized, includes four maps, and delves on some important locations such as the city of Nice, or Monaco, which Piri Reis observes, offers good possibilities for anchorage. Marseilles, its port and coastline, receive greater focus; and from there, it is said, French naval expeditions are organized and launched. The Languedoc region, from Cape of Creus to Aigues Mortes, is inventoried in every single detail, too: its coastline, water ways, ports, distances, and much more. Kitab I-Bahriye thus offering, not just accurate information to sailors, but also pictures of places of times long gone to readers and researchers.

The southern shores of the Mediterranean, however, capture even greater focus. They were the natural base of the Turks led by Kemal rais, and amongst whom was also Piri Reis. The description of the Tunisian coast, in particular, deserves thorough consideration. Mantran's(endnote 50) study although adequate is less worthy than Soucek's, which is here relied upon.(endnote 51) Soucek uses the term Tunisia but recognises that Ifriqyah is more correct (note 16, p. 132) as the focus stretches from Bejaia (today's Algeria in the West) to Tripoli (Libya) in the east. At the time, though, both places were under the Hafsid dynastic rule. The Muslims of North Africa, as a rule, welcomed the Turks not as aliens but as allies (p. 130.) At the time, the inhabitants of North Africa were, indeed, under constant threat of attacks by European pirates, who often came disguised as Muslims in order to capture Muslims (note 4, p. 161). Turkish seamen used those southern shores to rest between their expeditions to the north and to the West, and often wintered in one of the harbors or islands, and this is how Piri Reis became familiar with these shores (p. 130).(endnote 52)

First describing Bejaia, he states that it was a handsome fortress situated on a pine tree covered mountain slope with one side on the shore. The city's ruler was called Abdurrahman, related to the Sultan of Tunis, a family descendant from Ommar Ibn al-Khatab, he holds (p.149). He observes that among all the cities of the Maghreb, none would offer a spectacle comparable to it. Piri Reis must have seen the Hammadite palaces and was so impressed by them before they were destroyed by the Spaniards when they took the city (note 2 page 160). When the Spaniards, indeed, took the city in 1510, they forced the population to flee to the mountains, settled part of it, and razed the rest (p.151).(endnote 53) Piri Reis moves onto Jijel and the region around, noting that it was under the rule of Bejaia (prior to the Spanish take over), under the protection of Aroudj Barbarosa (p. 157). Further to the east, his attention is caught by Stora, (now part of Skikda), its ruined fortress, and the large river which flows in front of its harbor, its water, he notes, tasting like that of the Nile. Before crossing into today's Tunisia, Piri Reis notes the presence of lions in the Bone (Annaba) region (p.169), people often falling victims to their hunger.(endnote 54) Piri Reis begins his exploration of Tunisia proper with Tabarka, drawing attention that safe anchorage is on the western side, where it was navigable, and water deep enough. South of the island of Calta (Galite), he notes great danger when southern winds blow. The island, he points out has exceptionally good quality water `tasting of rose-water,' (p.177), and includes innumerable flocks of wild goats.(endnote 55) Bizerte, on the other hand, impresses for its sturdy fortress, its good port for anchorage, and abundance of fish (p.185).

Further on, at Tunis, great interest is in its climate, commerce, its rulers and their rivalries. The city has fifty thousand houses, each `resembling a sultan's palace' (p.197), and orchards and gardens fringe the city. In each of these gardens, were villas and kiosks, pools and fountains, and the scent of jasmine overpowering the air. There were water wheels, too, and so many fruit people hardly paid any attention to them. The city was visited by venitians and Geonese traders, their ships loading with goods before departing; their site of anchorage in the port nine miles in front of the city (p.197). The harbor of Tunis itself is a bay which opens toward the north, and anchorage, he points out, is seven fathoms deep, the bottom even, and the holding ground good. Further safety of the port is secured from enemy fleets by the means of a tower with a canon guarding it (p.199). To Cape Cartage, also called cape Marsa, uninterrupted anchorage is secure, and ships can winter all over the ports. Danger lies, however, in the vicinity of the island of Zembra, which is exposed most particularly to southerly winds, whilst rocks often covered by water (p 201) can be very treacherous. Along the Hammamet coast, the sea has shallow waters, an even bottom and white sand. The depth in the open sea, one mile offshore, is four to five fathoms. (p. 219).

Continuing to Sousse, he points to the large fortress on the coast facing the North east; in front of it is a harbor built by `infidels'; a man made breakwater, as in the Khios harbor, protecting it on the outer side. Water, however, is too shallow for large vessels (p.221). The island of Kerkena offers excellent anchorage conditions regardless of the severity of the sea storms; hence an ideal place for wintering (p.235). The same goes about Sfax. Around Kerkenna, however, he notes, is the constant threat of European pirates, especially where waters are deep enough to allow the incursion of their large boats.

The island of Djerba, of all places, is what attracts most attention (pp 251-267). Piri Reis goes into the detail of its people, history, customs, economy, and, of course, of the sailing conditions close and around the island, including anchorage, nature of currents, tides, and risks to sailors. The focused attention on Djerba is the result of his earlier experiences, when, with his uncle Kemal, he conducted rescues of Muslim and Jewish refugees as they were being cleansed out of Spain following the Christian Re-conquest.(endnote 56)

Now entering Libya, Reis focus falls on Tripoli (pp. 273-285), its history, commerce, and its thriving port. He indicates how to sail there using a mountain as landmark. Anchorage at the city port is good, he notes, three islets on the northern side of the harbor, cutting down the wind velocity. By that time he is describing the city, though, it had already fallen into Spanish hands, something that aggrieved him so much. It was the loss of the place, of course, that of fellow companion seamen, and above all the destruction of the city fortress that compounded such grief. He notes (p.273) that in the Maghreb, no fortress was as handsome as Tripoli's, all its towers and battlements as if cast from bee's wax, and the walls painted in fresh lime. The fortress had fallen on July 25, 1510; and so much joy there was in Spain as in the rest of Christendom, that Pope Julius II went on a procession of thanks giving.(endnote 57)

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