Better Directions at Sea: The Piri Reis Innovation

by Thomas D. Goodrich Published on: 8th January 2007

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The Ottoman Turk Pîrî Reis is truly a great figure in the history of cartography. Pîrî Reis has become well known for his two world maps and for his portolan, the Kitab-i Bahriye. By merging text and maps into one he tried to help sailors get where they want to go safely; he improved maritime directions.

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Figure 1. Chios (Sakiz) Island, Kitab-i Bahriye, Suleymaniye Library, Ayasofya, 2612.

Extracts from a full article:
Better Directions at Sea: The Piri Reis Innovation by Prof. Thomas D. Goodrich

Our lives are filled with directions of all sorts, including how to write this paper and both where and when to submit it. Directions are generally very useful. Among the most common visual directions nowadays are those we see as we speed along the highways. They tell us how fast or slowly to go, which side of the road to drive on, and how to get to where we want to go. On land, it used to be that we went slowly enough to ask directions. We could even stop to ask someone for help or visit a house to seek help. Nowadays life and directions are more complex, so we need more help. In order to reach a particular place I find that I want both written directions and a map. They complement each other.

In the open sea, on the other hand, it is more difficult to see signposts like those on the road or to ask directions even when sailing slowly, even when becalmed. At sea we need something else. The development of useful help took a long time and is still improving with newer technology such as Global Positioning System (GPS). Up until about 1300 CE and the early Renaissance, sea captains relied largely on memory, perhaps some personal notes, and practiced skill to get to where they wanted to go. About that time the knowledge that was accumulated began to be written down in portolans, that is, books of instructions on how to get from one port to another port. Also at this time, almost miraculously, a new style of chart or map appeared based on the use of the compass. The map might accompany a portolan, though visually not, and has come to be called a “portolan chart.” These maps became ever more detailed and accurate, giving additional information as it was reported to the mapmaker. The maps improved much more after the development of printing as corrections were easier to make without adding copiers’ errors.

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Figure 2. Canakkale area, Kitab-i Bahriye, Suleymaniye Library, Ayasofya, 2612.

In 1584 Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer published Die Spieghel der Zeevaeri in the Netherlands. It included not only detailed instructions but also many coastal maps. This book is considered “the first to contain charts and sailing directions in one book. It was soon available in English and other languages. It was very popular, often republished, and used a great deal for a long time.

In the 1520s, more than half a century before Waghenaer, however, another mapmaker did the same thing, if not in so detailed a fashion. It is that earlier book of the 1520s that I would like to examine and, in doing so; add one more leaf to the laurel wreath of fame on the brow of the already famous Ottoman cartographer, Pîrî Reis.

Pîrî Reis has become well known for his two world maps and for his portolan, the Kitab-i Bahriye. There is, however, an innovation of his within the Kitab-i Bahriye that to my knowledge no one has ever fully explored for its useful creativity. The large-scale coastal maps of Pîrî Reis illustrate what he says in his text, and his maps add additional information to the text. The two elements go together. Waghenaer may have done a much more thorough work and added aspects such as coastal profiles, but no cartographer before Pîrî Reis had developed quite such a close interrelationship between the two elements of text and maps.

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Figure 3. Sicily Island, Kitab-i Bahriye, Suleymaniye Library, Ayasofya, 2612.

In the second version of 1526 his great Kitab-i Bahriye (A Book on Maritime Matters), there are more than two hundred large-scale maps. To help get the attention of his sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent (ruled 1520-66), Pîrî Reis made the maps beautiful. More importantly for us today, he included information about historical and personal events. Most importantly and the main purpose of the book, however, was the large number of directions he wrote about safely getting around the Aegean, Adriatic, and Mediterranean seas. The text is as practical and rooted in reality as possible. The details are emphasized. During the previous two centuries maps or “portolan charts” had been made to help sailors cross the open seas of the Mediterranean, Aegean, Black seas, and even to navigate the east coast of the Atlantic. Most sailors, however, continued to use the safer routes along coasts and around islands. Pîrî Reis wrote to help those sailors, both naval and commercial. In the Kitab-i Bahriye he did not explain how to navigate the open seas across the Mediterranean or even from island to island, nor did he consider the Black Sea, a sea that he did not know. He tried to help the sailors in what they actually did in the Mediterranean and the Aegean, that is, sailing short distances around an island or a few miles along the coast, surviving the difficulties of winds, currents, soundings, climate, and finding water to drink. As he explained in his introduction, maps of large areas (by which he meant here the portolan charts) cannot provide the details that are necessary near the coasts. Only through his extensive text, with supplementary information on the detail maps, was this possible. In his efforts to assist the sailor by providing even more information he developed his innovation of linking the maps directly to the text.

While today we are captured by the maps, both by their beauty and because they are easier to comprehend than the Ottoman text, they are actually both an aid to understanding the text and a supplement to the text, the result being something no one had done before.

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Figure 4. Cairo map, Kitab-i Bahriye, Istanbul University Library, T 6605.

Pîrî Reis was an extraordinarily able cartographer, somehow absorbing two types of mapmaking created in the western Mediterranean and making them his own to the extent that he was able to improve upon them. It would be nice to say that he began a school of Ottoman cartography, but I do not know anyone anywhere who followed his path. His world maps were buried in the palace, and the portolan that he made for mariners, even though copied many times, like Gilbert and Sullivan admirals, seems never to have gone to sea. It was not revised with the knowledge that later sailors acquired either in his text or in his maps. This lack of change in Ottoman mapmaking has a significance that we cannot explore here. In general historians do not function well in the absence of evidence. One reason for this absence may be that Pîrî was an Ottoman who as a cartographer was thoroughly westernized, and his maps were too different from the cartography of the Ottoman and Islamic World, therefore difficult to understand. The Western cartographers, on the other hand, never saw his work and so did not learn from his innovative coupling of text and maps.

Now in the 21st century, almost five hundred years after Pîrî Reis completed his magnum opus; we can recognize the novelty of what Pîrî Reis created in the Kitab-i Bahriye. By merging text and maps into one he tried to help sailors get where they want to go safely; he improved maritime directions. The Ottoman Turk Pîrî Reis is truly a great figure in the history of cartography.

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