Piri Reis maps America

by FSTC Published on: 6th January 2002

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In 1513 Piri Reis presented his famous map of the New World to the Sultan, giving the Ottomans, well before many European rulers, an accurate description of the American discoveries as well as details about the circumnavigation of Africa.

Amidst the Turkish men of the sea of great repute, Piri Reis is by far the one with the greatest legacy.

The famous (Piri Reis’s) map of America, which is a genuine document, not a hoax of any kind, was made in Islanbul in the early 16th Century. It focuses on the western coast of Africa, the eastern coast of South America, and the northern coast of Antarctica. Piri Reis could not have acquired his information on this latter region from contemporary explorers because Antarctica remained undiscovered until 1818 CE, more than 300 years after he drew the map.”

“The ice-free coast of Queen Maud Land shown in the map is a colossal puzzle because the geological evidence confirms that the very latest date that it could have been surveyed and charted in an ice-free condition is 4000 BCE”.

“It is not possible to pinpoint the earliest date that such a task could have been accomplished, but it seems that the Queen Maud Land littoral may have remained in a stable, unglaciated condition for at least 9,000 years before the spreading ice-cap swallowed it entirely. There is no civilization known to history that had the capacity or need to survey that coastline in the relevant period, i.e. between 13,000 BCE and 4000 BCE.”

Piri Reis maps the World

The Turkish navy are famous for their endless battles fought for Islam, from around the late eleventh century to the twentieth, from the most further western parts of the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and the Straight of Hormuz.

There is, however, another aspect of Turkish naval activity, that is their contribution to the wider subject of geography and nautical science. This aspect, however, like much else of Islamic science has been completely set aside. Hess puts it that European historians were only preoccupied with the identification of their own history. They first unravelled `the dramatic story of the oceanic voyages,’ their discoveries, and their commercial and colonial empires, and only stopped to consider how Muslim actions influenced the course of European history.

Once such questions were answered, the study of Islamic history became the task of small, specialized disciplines, such as Oriental studies, which occupied a position in the periphery of the Western historical profession. And the successful imperial expansion of Western states in Islamic territories during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Hess adds, `confirmed for most Europeans the idea that the history of Islam, let alone the deeds of Ottoman sultans, had little influence on the expansion of the West.’

Although Hess observes one or two improvements by the time he was writing, the picture was still the same as nearly a decade later after him, Brice and Imber in a note addressed to the Geographical Journal, observed that although European charts of the Mediterraneen have received much focus, none has seriously considered similar Turkish maps. Even worse, European scholars have dismissed Turkish works as being of Italian origin imported into the Ottoman Empire, or the work of Italian renegades, which Brice and Imber went on to demonstrate was without any foundation of veracity.

Turkish nautical science was much in advance of its time, though. Hess notes that in 1517 Piri Reis presented his famous map of the New World to the Sultan, giving the Ottomans, well before many European rulers, an accurate description of the American discoveries as well as details about the circumnavigation of Africa. Salman Reis, a year later, added more onto that. Goodrich, in a pioneering work, also went a long way to correct the overall impression, giving excellent accounts of the Ottoman descriptions of the New World as it was then being discovered in all its strangeness, variety and richness.

Amidst the Turkish men of the sea of great repute, Piri Reis is by far the one with the greatest legacy. There are two entries on him in the Encyclopaedia of Islam. The first by F. Babinger and the second by Soucek. By far, Soucek’s entry is much richer, more informative and competently written. That of Barbinger, also out-dated, still offers a good variety of notes of primary sources likely to serve a devotee or researcher.

There is a further entry on Piri Reis in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography by Tekeli. On the web, there is an excellent contribution by professor Afetinan, pages of text complemented by some first class maps at https://www.prep.mcneese.edu/engr/engr321/preis/afet/afet0.htm one such map, a very glossy Piri Reis’ oldest map of America at: https://www.prep.mcneese.edu/engr/engr321/preis/afet/pmapsm.jpg

Piri Reis – the Naval Commander

Piri Reis was born towards 1465 in Gallipoli. He began his maritime life under the command of his, then, illustrious uncle, Kemal Reis toward the end of the fifteenth and early centuries.

He fought many naval battles alongside his uncle, and later also served under Khair eddin Barbarossa. Eventually, he led the Ottoman fleet fighting the Portuguese in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. In between his wars, he retired to Gallipoli to devise a first World map, in 1513, then his two versions of Kitab I-Bahriye (1521 and 1526), and then his second World Map in 1528-29. Mystery surrounds his long silence from between 1528, when he made the second of the two maps, and his re-appearing in the mid 16th as a captain of the Ottoman fleet in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Piri Reis was executed by the Ottoman Sultan for losing a critical naval battle. His mysterious end and his adventurous life will be the subject of another article.

The World Maps

Piri Reis’s first World Map in 1513, of which only one fragment is left shows the Atlantic with the adjacent coasts of Europe, Africa and the New World.

The second World map from 1528-29, of which about one sixth has survived, covers the north western part of the Atlantic, and the New World from Venezuela to New Found Land as well as the southern tip of Greenland. The fragment of the first World map discovered in 1929 at the Topkapi Museum palace, signed by Piri Reis, and dated Muharram 919 (9 March-7 April 1513) is only part of the world of the map which the author handed over to the Sultan Selim in Cairo in the year 1517. The German scholar, P. Kahle, had made a thorough analysis and description of it, observing that Piri Reis was an excellent and reliable cartographer. Kahle also points out that the whole picture of Columbus has been distorted, as nearly all the important documents related to him, and in particular his ship’s journal, have been preserved not in their original but in abstracts and edited works, mostly by Bishop Las Casas.

Long after Kahle, in the mid 1960s, Hapgood returned to the subject of the Topkapi map, but amazed by the richness of the map, and so convinced he was that Muslim cartography was poor, he attributed it to an advanced civilization dating from the ice age. Hapgood’s position seems now to edge on the ridiculous, not just for its exuberant assertions, and his stretching of evidence to beyond the fictional, but also in view of recent works on the history of mapping. The recent voluminous work by Harley and Woodward, by far the best on the subject, shows in rich detail, the meritorious role of Muslim cartography and nautical science.

As for Kahle’s original find, one regret he expresses, was that the fragment found in the Topkapi Museum was only one from an original map, which included the Seven seas, (Mediterranean, India, Persia, East Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Red Sea), that’s the world in its vastness, and at a very early date.

The search for the other parts has remained fruitless.


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