We do not exactly know the date of his birth, but we presume it to be between 1465-1470. Piri Reis was born at Gelibolu or Gallipoli as the Anglo-American world calls it, a lovely coastal town on the Marmara Sea, which was then used as a naval base. He was named Muhiddin Piri. His father was Haci Mehmet, and his uncle, the famous admiral of the period, Kemal Reis. About the children born and brought up in this town, Ibni Kemal, the Turkish historian says: The children of Gelibolu grow up in the water like alligators. Their cradles are the boats. They are rocked to sleep with the lullaby of the sea and of the ships day and night.
This Turkish boy, too, falling asleep with the sound of the sea in his ears spends eleven years of his life in his native town. Like other Turkish children of the time, he acquires his early notions about the world from the ideas at home and around him, and also from the elementary teaching he was given. After he is twelve, he joins the crew of his uncle, Kemal Reis. Thereafter he is no longer an unknown Turkish youth, but Piri, a careful observer, and a sea-hero whose name will be remembered in history. He starts his career under the vigilance of his uncle and takes part in all kinds of naval activities for fourteen uninterrupted years. We can follow him at this period of his life through his book, Bahriye – on navigation in which he recorded his experiences of the places he visited with his uncle and the historical events of the time in a most vivid and delightful style. The first fourteen years of Kemal Reis’ life is spent in piracy, as was the custom at the time. After becoming a considerable power on the sea through his own personal efforts, in 1494 Kemal Reis accepted official recognition and position from the Ottoman Government, along with his worthy and experienced crew.
Several sources confirm the indication – that Piri was with Kemal Reis before this date. For instance, during a period when his uncle was at Egriboz, he says in a passage in the Bahriye, about the monasteries of Athos: The aforesaid place is a long cape, 8o miles in length; to the Thracian side lies a dried up channel. In his book, the Bahriye, he makes the following remarks about the ports on the coast of Athos on the Khalkidhiki peninsula: In front of the monastery of Alaviri stand native rocks, among which there lies a natural port. It can take only one boat at a time, but since the mouth of the port lies open to the north, the North and the East winds do much harm to the boat lying there. As we were lying in the harbor the strong east-wind blew across to the north and damaged our boat, whereupon the monks from the monastery came to our rescue. They tied the boat down on all the four sides after which she could not move at all. Thus we were saved from the storm and proceeded on our way.
The remarks refer to the coast of Athos. For the third peninsula, he gives this information: There is a cape at Karaburun. People call it the cape of Kesendere. From this cape to Kumburnu it is all covered with pinewoods. Kumburnu is a low and sandy cape; at the point, it grows quite shallow. On it, 100 miles to the north-west lies the city of Salonica. In another version of the book, he says something different about the same cape: the coast of Kesendere as far as Kum Burnu is very shallow. Along the coast run tall Pine trees. But nobody knows where one can obtain drinking water. To the humble author of these lines, Kara Hasan Reis showed the spot.
In 1494, the Moslem population in Granada in Spain asked for help from the Tunisian, Egyptian and the Ottoman Governments. It was just then that Kemal Reis was leading a life of piracy and used his ships to transport these Moslems over to Africa. From 1487 to 1493 Piri participated in various activities on these seas under the supervision of his uncle.
He gives remarkable information about the western coast of the Mediterranean and the islands there, and says the following about the island of Minorca of the Balearic Isles: They call that port Portulano. It has a good harbor. As soon as you leave the harbor and turn along the eastern coast to the north you come upon a natural spring. It emerges from under a fig-tree. Around that spring you are sure to meet Arab and Turkish boats most of the time, for they obtain their water there. Further over it stands a fortress.
During six years of piracy around various islands and coasts on the Mediterranean, they fought against other pirates of the time, conquered ships and in bad weather spent the winter in favorable harbors. Kemal Reis stayed a long time along the African coast, in Algiers, Tunis, and Bona, and formed friendly relations with the people there having an exceptionally good reception there. (Bahriye, 1935 Introduction). Thus while spending the winter months of 1490-1491 in the harbor at Bona, they took part in the battle led by Kemal Reis against Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.
One of these battles is recorded by Piri in this way: There are some shallow spots along the aforesaid bay of Resereno; Terranova is a fortress on a low ground. Terranova means “new town”. Now, the fore part of the town is a beach, a good shelter in the summer. The vessels lie three to four miles away from the land across the fortress. In the aforesaid harbor, we overcame three vessels this time. (Bahriye, p.493).
Thus each event is recorded with the correct dates. For the island of Corsica Piri wrote a new chapter (pp. 523-529) and added a map of the island with detailed explanations giving the contour of the island as 400 miles, and said: On this island stands a tall mountain rising from the north to the south. At this date, I counted 25 peaks of this mountain in the eastern part of it. They looked just like the teeth of a saw. Every one of those peaks is covered with snow all through the year (p.524).
About the inhabitants he says: The aforesaid island of Corsica was a demesne of the Genoese, but later when the French conquered Genoa, among the others, this island, too, passed over to the French.
At the time, the ruling sultan was Bayezid II, son of Mehmet II, the Conqueror. After the death of his brother, Prince Jeni, in 1495 Bayezid started ruling the country without a rival. Aiming at greater conquests he endeavored to reinforce the territorial as well as the naval powers, and for that purpose brought under his banner the various units of Turkish pirate ships. He invited Kemal Reis to join the imperial fleet. He did so, with Piri Reis and Kara Hasan to help him. They all were experienced and trained sailors with good knowledge of the seas. In such a capacity did he take part in the Mediterranean campaigns under Kemal Reis’ supervision.
The first official acknowledgment of Piri’s deeds is an account of the sea fights in the years 1499-1502. The actual commander-in-chief of the fleet belonging to the Supreme Admiral of all the Sea-Forces was Kemal Reis. In this fleet, Piri was given official command of some of the vessels. His service in the battles (1500-1502) against the Venetians was remarkable. The great advantages that the Ottoman Empire acquired by the Treaty of Venice in 1502 were made possible mainly by the brave deeds of these seamen. After this date, Piri works as an admiral of the fleet again, but at his uncle’s death during a sea battle, Piri was deprived of his great protector. Because of some reason unknown to us, Piri had not taken part in that battle. There can be no doubt as to how deep a source of sorrow this loss was to Piri. The knowledge acquired in the tutorship of Kemal Reis and the accumulated experience during his life at sea had secured his fame and a firm position. After his uncle’s death, he left the open seas and started working on his first map of the world at Gelibolu. The portion of the map we now possess is a part of it.
Along with this map, he arranged his notes for the book “Bahriye” which later turned out to be a kind of guidebook on navigation. In 1516-1517 Piri was given command of several vessels taking part in the Ottoman campaign against Egypt. Under the command of Cafer Bey, the fleet took Alexandria. With a part of this fleet Piri sailed to Cairo through the Nile, and later drew a map and gave detailed information about this area, too.
After Egypt was joined to the growing empire, Piri had a chance of making the personal acquaintance of the ruling sovereign, Yavuz Selim; during the battle of Alexandria. He presented the map he had previously drawn to the Sultan. After the Egyptian campaign, during a period of relaxation at Gelibolu, he put his notes on “Bahriye” into book form.
The reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, who ascended the throne in 1520, is a history of successive victories. Piri’s taking part in the Turkish fleet going to the campaign on Rhodes in 1523 is to be regarded as the only natural.
Piri commemorates the royal command of Sultan Suleyman to him to act as a guide to Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, the Chief Vizir, in verse (pp. 549-550).
It was after this campaign that Ibrahim Pasha realized the importance of the “Bahriye” and urged Piri to put the notes into book form and copy them out again. Piri records that incident, too, at the end of the book in verse. Because of a storm at sea, they cannot proceed on their way and are compelled to take refuge at Rhodes. For Piri, however, this proves to be a good opportunity to make the Pasha’s acquaintance… Piri’s frequent references do not fail to attract the Vizier’s attention.
Encouraged by his words Piri rearranges the book to Gelibolu and copies it all out, and with the help of Ibrahim Pasha presents it to the Sultan. The date of the book is given in verse in the traditional way. From the final couplet, one makes the date to be 1526 AD (923 by the Arabic Calendar).
In his preface to the book, Piri mentions the favorable reception it received from the Sultan. Later he draws another map and presents that, too, to Suleyman.
One can follow his life up to 1526 in this book. After this date, we deduce from the state records that Piri was appointed an admiral of ships in the south seas. He rendered many services to the government in this capacity, in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea. Thus we find him growing old at the head of his ships. He died exactly 400 years ago in 1554, as an old man of 84. Mortal though he himself was, he left behind him immortal works and unforgettable services to the world of civilization.
With this ends the biography of Piri Reis. Most of it has been taken from his own memoirs on his experiences at seafaring. On the science of navigation, Piri was one of the most outstanding scholars of his time. Apparently, besides his native tongue, he knew Greek, Italian, Spanish and even Portuguese. He acknowledges his debt to various works in these languages, in drawing his map of the world.
A galley from the Turkish-Ottoman period. The flags have a crescent or a sword in red and blue. All these ships were built in Turkish docks and belonged to a powerful organization. Those serving in this fleet had to go through a strict course of training.
The Nautical Charts of Piri Reis
Ottoman Turkish map making really begins with Piri Reis, and this is no faltering start as might be expected, but a spectacular debut. His Kitab-i Bahriye (Book of Navigation) is a portalan or manual of maps showing every cove, harbor, and islands in the Mediterranean in unprecedented detail. He also drew two maps of outstanding importance in the history of mapmaking, one of the world and another of North America, whose accuracy and projection system was extraordinary for their time.
As well as cartographer and navigator, he was a commander who left his mark on Ottoman naval history. He was born sometime between 1465 and 1470 in Gelibolu (Gallipoli), a town on the strait linking the Marmara Sea to the Aegean where the inhabitants had been seafarers for many generations. He owed his own place in Ottoman nautical history to his uncle Kemal Reis, a famous Turkish corsair and admiral who was feared throughout the Mediterranean during the last quarter of the 15th century.
Until 1492, he served with Kemal Reis on his pirating expeditions along the coasts of Spain in the western Mediterranean. At the request of Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512), Piri Reis and Kemal Reis abandoned piracy to enter the Ottoman as naval service, and naval commanders they took part in the sea battles of Lepanto, Methoni, Koroni, Navarino, Mitylene and Rhodes.
When Kemal Reis died in 1510, Piri Reis returned to Gelibolu, where he began work on his Book of Navigation. In 1517 he returned to sea to serve as an admiral in the Egyptian campaign of Selim I, and it was then that he presented the world map which he had completed in 1513 to the sultan. During this period he also accompanied his cousin Muhiddin Reis, one of Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa’s captains, on campaigns in the Mediterranean. He subsequently spent several years in Gelibolu working on the maps and text for his Book of Navigation.
He completed this work in 1526 and presented it to Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. When he finished his map of North America in 1528 he presented this to the same Sultan. His final period of active service with the Ottoman Navy was as Commander of Egypt, an episode which ended in tragedy. After his second campaign against the Portuguese in 1552, he left his fleet in Basra for repairs and sailed with three ships filled with spoils of war to Egypt. Here he was imprisoned and unjustly condemned to death for failure to perform his duty by the governor of Egypt Mehmed Pasa, incited by Kubat Pasa, governor of Basra, whose enmity Piri Reis had aroused by refusing to cede a share of the spoils. He was over 80 years old when he died, and his estate was seized by the authorities.
Piri Reis World Map was discovered at Topkapi Palace in 1929 by Halil Edhem Eldem, director of National Museums. The map was examined by the German orientalist, Prof Paul Kahle, who was engaged in research in Istanbul at the time, and Kahle reported on the map to the Eighteenth Congress of Oriental Studies in Leiden in 1931. Meanwhile, the map was taken to Ankara, where it was examined by historians, and Atatürk ordered a facsimile reproduction of the map to be printed.
The map is drawn on camel skin, with illustrations in nine different colors. It is 86 cm long, 61 cm wide at the upper edge, and 41 cm wide at the lower edge. Close examination shows that the right-hand section of the map has been torn away, although the discrepancy in width between the upper and lower edges is due to the natural shape of the skin. The surviving half of the map shows the east and west coasts of the Atlantic Ocean. The coastlines of North and South America, the Antilles, northwest Africa, Spain, and France correspond closely to modern maps. The map is a typical nautical chart, with compass roses and lines showing the direction in place of lines of latitude and longitude. It is decorated with mythical and realistic pictures, including a number of ships.
As well as placed names, the chart is annotated with dates of discovery, legends about the places shown, and explanations of how the map was compiled. The beautifully executed decoration confirms that the map was drawn as a gift for the Ottoman sultan. There are five compass roses on the map, three small and two large.
The lines of writing on the northwest section of South America read, “The humble Piri, son of Haci Mehmed, and renowned as the nephew of Kemal Reis, composed this map in the town of Gallipoli in the holy month of Muharram 919 . May God absolve them both.”
He reveals the sources which he used for his map with the honesty of a scholar, as we see in the notes over South America: “This section states the way in which this map was drawn. I have used twenty maps and mappae mundi dating from the time of Alexander the Great showing the lands inhabited by men. The Arab people refer to those maps as caferiye.
As well as eight caferiye of that kind, I have made use of one Arabic map of India and four modern Portuguese maps, some of which delineate the lands of Sind, India, and China according to geometrical methods, and one map drawn by Columbus in the western lands. By reducing all these maps to one scale this form was arrived at. So that the present map is as correct and reliable for the seven seas as the map of our countries is considered correct and reliable by seamen.” Above this is an account of the discovery of the American continent, ending with a further acknowledgment of the fact that his map was based on that of Christopher Columbus: “Whatever shores and islands are shown on the map in question have been taken from the map of Christopher Columbus.” This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the map since although Christopher Columbus is known to have made maps of the coasts during his four voyages to America between 1492 and 1504, none of them have survived. They live on only in the map drawn by Piri Reis.
The world map was drawn by Juan de la Cosa, who accompanied Columbus as a guide on his second voyage, dated 1500, that of Contari dated 1506, and of Martin Waldseemuller dated 1507 are the earliest maps of America, and Waldseemuller’s is the first to show the American continent as separate from Asia. However, Piri Reis Map is more accurate than any of these.
The perfection of his projection is the map’s most outstanding feature. A study by Prof. C. Hapgood in 1965 has demonstrated an extraordinary correlation between Piri Reis Map and a map based on aerial photographs taking Cairo as the central point. Erich Von Däniken, in his book Chariots of the Gods, makes the sensational claim that the map must have been drawn from photographs taken from spacecraft.
The depiction of mountains in Antarctica poses a particular enigma since the mountains are invisible under layers of ice, and their existence only became apparent after scientists conducted experiments using soundwaves in 1951.
In short, the map of Piri Reis is the most accurate of all those made in the wake of Columbus’s discovery of America, and the closest to modern maps.
During the unsuccessful search for the missing section of Piri Reis World Map, Director of Topkapi Palace Museum, Tahsin Öz, came across a second map measuring 69 by 70 centimeters. Drawn on gazelle skin in eight colors, this is a typical nautical chart and similar in style to the first, although more meticulously executed. Again this is only a fragment of the original map. The ornately decorated border remains along the north and west edges, and the annotation along the other edges is broken off where the other sections have been removed. The remaining section shows the northern Atlantic and the coasts of North and Central America and bears four large ornate and two smaller compass roses. The two scales are in miles, and below them is an explanatory note to the effect that each division represents ten miles.
Beneath the vertical scale are four lines telling us the date of the map: ‘The humble Piri Reis, son of Haci Mehmed and nephew of the late Captain Gazi Kemal of Gelibolu, completed this in the year 935 . This is his work.’ This signature inscription is in Arabic, but all the other annotations on the map are in Turkish.
It has been claimed that this is a world map like the first, but in my opinion, this cannot be the case since the scale is too large. Almost certainly the missing sections extended to Antarctica in the south and to Istanbul in the east. It appears that he wished to show the Ottoman capital in relation to the New World on a large scale map. Another objective was perhaps to present Sultan Süleyman with a map updated in the light of new discoveries. Alternatively, it may have been that the Ottoman palace commissioned him to draw this map. The fact that some of the imaginary islands which appear on the first map are not shown here, that the coast of America is more accurately delineated, and that the mythical illustrations and legends included on the first map are now absent demonstrate that over the intervening fifteen years, he had kept up with the findings of explorers. The Tropic of Cancer is drawn (with a very small degree of error), so we may deduce that the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn were shown on the missing sections. He also avoids the practice on portolan charts of exaggerating the scale of harbors so as to provide additional detail for sailors. Evidently, he was concerned to produce a map which was more accurate and up to date than the earlier one.
The Book of Navigation is a subject of equal fascination, but one of such broad scope that it must be reserved for a future article.
Kitab-i Bahriye (The Book of Navigation)
Kitab-i Bahriye, The Book of Navigation, is a manual written in 1521 by the Turkish seaman Piri Reis, who is regarded as the father of Turkish mapmaking. It was unprecedented in its time, and not until the 19th century were navigation manuals charting and describing the Mediterranean in greater detail produced in the West. Such manuals known as portolans had been in use since the 13th century, both produced and used by Mediterranean seamen. Since they were based on first-hand observations and experiences they were of more practical use than other contemporary maps and charts. So that they would be resistant to damp and salt, they were executed on parchment. Portalan charts were characterized by seventeen compass roses representing compasses placed at specific points. They represented a revolution in cartography at the time, and today are a valuable source of information for historians due to the pictures they bear of flags, armorial devices, cities, ships and symbols. Kitab-i Bahriye was a remarkable guide for sea captains navigating the Mediterranean and the Aegean.
Its author Piri Reis sailed every corner of the Mediterranean with his uncle, the famous corsair Kemal Reis, from the 1480s onwards, and his manual was based on 25 years of practical experience at sea. He prepared the text and charts while serving as a steward of the shipyards in Gelibolu, the Ottoman Empire’s most important naval base, completing the work in 1521. Nearly 40 copies of the manual have survived to the present day, bearing witness to the wide extent to which it was used at that time.
When he was appointed navigator to the Ottoman fleet sent against Egypt in 1524, its commander Ibrahim Pasa, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent’s grand vizier and son-in-law, saw him using his manual. He was so impressed that he asked Piri Reis to make a copy for presentation to Sultan Suleyman. When he returned to Gelibolu, he revised his book, adding an introductory section in verse devoted largely to an account of world geography and geographical terms, and additional charts.
The finished manuscript was presented to Sultan Suleyman by Ibrahim Pasa in 1525. In the introduction, Piri Reis explains his reasons of writing the manual and the benefits of the navigational sciences for sailors, and gives accounts of storms and winds, the compass, nautical charts and their symbols, the different seas and oceans, Portuguese colonies on the shores of the Indian Ocean, voyages of exploration along the African coast and in the Sea of China, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic, and the discovery of America. The manual proper begins with a description of Canakkale Strait (the Dardanelles), and its forts of Sultaniye and Kilitbahir. Piri Reis goes on to describe in detail the fortresses, islands, coasts and harbours of the Mediterranean and Aegean, including those of Greece, the Morean Peninsula, the Adriatic, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, France, Spain, the Canaries, North Africa, Egypt and the Nile, the eastern Mediterranean, Crete, Cyprus, southern and Aegean Turkey, Gelibolu and the Gulf of Saros.
As well as information about water depth, anchorages, coastal vegetation, sources of drinking water and shipyards, he describes the local inhabitants, their religions, the political powers of each region and trade. He even includes information about ancient sites. There is a large-scale chart for each harbor and island, and drawings of buildings and important monuments in the coastal towns. Kitab-i Bahriye is a matchless nautical guide to the Mediterranean and a primary source of biographical information about Piri Reis himself. Later copies were enlarged to include the coast and islands of the Marmara Sea and Istanbul. Copies of the original edition of 1521 and that produced for Sultan Suleyman in 1525 are to be found in major libraries around the world as well as in museums and libraries in Istanbul. One of the most outstanding Kitab-i Bahriye manuscripts is that with 232 charts now in Istanbul University Library.