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Piri Reis and His World Map
Jul 1, 2015

Piri Reis was the founder of Turkish cartography. From a Turkish family who immigrated to Gallipoli from Karaman in central Asia Minor, he was the nephew of Kemal Reis, one of the notorious seamen of the Sultan Bayezid II era. His birthplace, Gallipoli, was - and is - one of Turkey's major ports.

Piri Reis started his naval life aboard his uncle's ship; his first job was, "Voyage Journal Keeper." This way, he had a good opportunity to practice what he learned at school and observe the construction of ships in the harbor. He also met sailors who arrived and departed from Gallipoli. He attended military raids throughout the Aegean (Islands) Sea and the Mediterranean during this time. These raids were carried out as pioneer operations before a planned Ottoman naval conquest. He also traveled through the western Aegean and Mediterranean for years, took part in many wars, and especially participated in the battles of Lepanto and Modon against the Venetians. In 1492, when King Ferdinand of Spain started atrocities against Jews through the inquisition court, the Ottoman Empire deployed Kemal Reis under the Ottoman flag to Spain. Piri Reis joined his uncle on this mission, and helped relocate Jews and Arabs to Northern African and Anatolian soils, where they would be safe.

In 1494, while the Ottomans were preparing for battle with the Venetians, Piri Reis was appointed "ship commander" by the Sultan. Between 1495 and 1510, he participated in many naval battles in the Mediterranean; he gathered the places he visited and the events he witnessed during these missions into his Book of Navigation, which is considered the first manual for world seamanship. In 1511, the shipyard near Alaiye was raided by a fleet of knights from Rhodes. Kemal Reis was assigned to avenge this raid, but during this mission, his boat was caught by a storm. Piri Reis was devastated to learn that his uncle drowned during this storm.

The solitary years in Gallipoli and a world map in 1513

Piri Reis retreated to Gallipoli for a while upon the loss of his uncle. During his stay there, he prepared his world map (1513). Today, only one piece of the colored map - which was drawn on a gazelle skin - remains. This map was not only filled with Reis' profound knowledge, but also reflections of his intuition. The remaining pieces show the shores of Southwest Europe, Northwest Africa, and Southeast America, and were apparently part of a large scale world map. The accuracy of this map drawn in the 16th century surprises scientists; it is noted that this map looks as if it had been made through aerials, as the map conforms very well to natural structures observed on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean.

The left column of the map notes, "Piri Reis who is the son of Haci Mehmed and the nephew of Kemal Reis constructed this map in the month of Muharram of the year 919 (March/April 1513)." The signature of the mapmaker is a personal connection to the time and location of the maps. While making this map, he continued compiling notes for his other work, the Book of Navigation.

He returned to seas when he finished the world map. During the years 1516 and 1517, he took part in the Egypt campaign, in which he commanded many ships and presented the world map he finished four years before to Yavuz Sultan Selim. Even though Piri Reis mentioned in his "Book of Navigation" that the map earned respect from Yavuz Sultan Selim, the fact that two thirds of the map is missing and the remaining piece stayed on the dusty shelves of Topkapi palace until 1929 makes the statement doubtful. There are some reports that Sultan Selim was interested in the east section of the map and therefore detached this part. Soon after the declaration of the Turkish republic in 1923, a museum specialist found two maps drawn on gazelle skin with degraded edges among the documents left untouched for centuries during the conversion of Topkapi Palace to a museum on October 9, 1929. The maps were brought to the museum manager, Halil Ildem. After an investigation, it was understood that the map was drawn by Piri Reis in 1513. This groundbreaking discovery was later translated into Turkish and other languages and published by the Turkish Historical Society, causing a great sensation. The year 2013 was dedicated to Piri Reis by UNESCO worldwide due to the 500th anniversary of his map.

A book that goes beyond its age: The Book of Navigation

The Book of Navigation, considered one of the early geographical masterpieces, was finished by Piri Reis in 1521 when he was shipyard chamberlain in Gallipoli. Until the 19th century, no guide book in any Western countries described the Mediterranean Sea in such detail.

The Book of Navigation was a unique reference for captains who sailed the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas for centuries. Reis later revised The Book of Navigation by adding a longer introduction in which he wrote about different parts of the world and introduced new marine terminology, and he wrote this introduction in verse. He added more maps too.

On a whole, the book contained much information that had never been compiled elsewhere, including the names and properties of seas, notes about settlements around Indian Ocean and the American continent, detailed descriptions of European, African, and Asian coastlines and islands. This data was reinforced with large scale maps for every harbor and shore. The book also had sections dedicated to ship construction, religion, and politics. Grand vizier Ibrahim Pasha of Parga, who witnessed the good use of The Book of Navigation, during a campaign in Egypt, asked Piri Reis to reproduce and present his book to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Piri Reis presented a new copy of his book to the Sultan in 1526. Certain manuscripts produced from the original books dating to 1521 and 1525 can be found in major libraries around the world, and in museums and state libraries in Istanbul.

The making of the second world map (1528)

Piri Reis constructed a second world map in 1528, 15 years after completion of his first map. Today there is a 68x69 cm wide piece remaining from this map inscribed with his signature. This piece displays the north of the Atlantic Ocean, and the known shores of North and Central America in that time. In this map, shores were drawn more successfully compared to the first one, blank areas were filled in, but uncharted areas were still left blank. This map was composed with eight colors and a few small errors from previous maps had been corrected completely. This map is significant the history of science because Piri Reis was able to project the spherical world on a plane surface as if he copied from a planetary globe we have everywhere today. Starting with the coast of Greenland, the map continues to cover the Azores archipelago and the Labrador seafront, plus newly discovered land masses like Honduras, the Yucatan-Haiti region and Cuban islands, and finally the Florida coast. This map, like others, featured four compass-roses.

How did Piri Reis draw world maps?

How did Piri Reis picture the New World when he never visited it? The map itself contains the answer to this question. It is written that a "Columbus map" was referenced in the legend; this map described the Antilles coast and islands. Reis is believed to have obtained this map from a Spaniard who claimed to have traveled to America three times along with Columbus and was a captive of Kemal Reis.

Along with his map, Piri Reis attached a note: "No such map existed in our time; it is composed by me, becoming the main reference. It shows the settlement areas of the world. This shape is developed by method of comparison with many maps, but especially twenty maps in addition to eight world maps called 'Jafariya' by Arabs constructed during the times of Alexander the Great containing land masses, an Indian map in Arabic, four Portuguese maps showing the Sind(h), Indian, and Chinese countries via geometric means, and the map Columbus built of the Western region."

Prof. Fuat Sezgin, director of Arab-Islamic Sciences Institute of Goethe University, presents a different opinion in terms of Western mapmaking. Prof. Sezgin states that the modern maritime science owes a lot to Arab scientists who lived between the 9th and 16th centuries. According to him, there are two basic principles in maritime sciences. The first is to be able to measure vast distances across massive oceans; the second is to be able to locate a specific spot in the seas. These two were developed in the first half of the 20th century in Europe, whereas Muslims could apply these principles as early as the 15th century. Islamic scholars prepared the first world map based on latitude and longitude. In fact, the Portuguese learned the maritime sciences during the 15th century when they obtained maps developed by Arabs. Like the rest of the world, Piri Reis was also influenced by the Arab-Islamic tradition. Giancarlo Casenle claims that Islamic geographical sciences were known by the Ottomans, but Arabic publications were not utilized sufficiently before the 16th century.

Why was Piri Reis executed?

Piri Reis was assigned with the Captainship of Egypt in 1547. While attending to this duty, he recaptured Aden from the Portuguese and conquered Muscat with a fleet of 31 ships. While he was in the Persian Gulf, he received news that a large Portuguese fleet was in the vicinity and left with three ships, so as not to be restrained in the gulf. On his return, one of the ships sank but two made it back. He was sentenced to death for he left 29 ships behind. He was executed in Egypt. His tomb is located in Cairo.

There is debate about the exact cause of his death. According to Portuguese author Couto and other historians referencing his work, the main reason for his execution was disobedience to the sultan. He was apparently asked to go to Basra first and then to capture the Hormuz Island. Because he didn't follow through, the Ottomans lost the opportunity to capture Hormuz Island; this meant they couldn't access the Indian Ocean via the Persian Gulf. The most important consequence was that the Portuguese were able to dominate both the Persian Gulf, the waters of Aden, and the Red Sea. In this case, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were exposed to the Portuguese threat more than ever.

Despite this, Piri Reis had good reasons for leaving, but it was a time when one didn't disobey the sultan. Whatever the circumstances of his death, Piri Reis made major contributions to maritime sciences and navigation.