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The Piri Reis Map of 1513

Portion of the 1513 Piri Reis Map

The spectacular 1513 Piri Reis world map, next in our series of ancient maps, dates to the European ‘Great Age of Discovery’. It is one of the best-known early maps to depict the Americas, presenting a cartographic record of the oceanic voyages, expeditions and discoveries of Christopher Columbus and other early explorers in the last decade of the fifteenth century.

The map is in fact a fabulous type of portolan sailing chart created in the early sixteenth century by Ottoman Admiral of the Fleet, geographer and cartographer Ahmed Muhiddin Piri bin Hacı Mehmed, better known as Piri Reis. It was found in the Library of Topkapı Palace in Istanbul in 1929, when the palace was being converted to a museum. The map is drawn on parchment made from gazelle skin, and only a portion of the original is known to have survived. The surviving map fragment measures 35 x 24 inches (90 x 63 cm). This is thought to be approximately one third of the original.

The map is remarkable in a number of ways, not the least for having been created at a time when correct topographic positioning of recently discovered regions of the world was technically exceedingly challenging. The well-known Old World had been explored and mapped for centuries, and the mapping of it was quite accurate at the time Piri Reis was creating this map. The New World, however, was new and unexplored, and drawing a map based on the few documented and recorded voyages to it required thorough research of all known sources. Though created centuries before the advent of geolocation technology, the map presents new topographical information, much of which is surprisingly accurate.

Reis was meticulous in his research and in annotating his work. He cites his references and sources on the face of the map, stating that he used twenty sources for it, including eight Ptolemaic maps, an Arabic map of India, four Portuguese maps and the maps of Christopher Columbus featuring the ‘Western Lands’. This connection to Columbus is an important feature of the map, as many of its features support statements by Reis that he had copied a map of Columbus, and the maps made by Columbus himself are considered lost. Place names in the West Indies suggest this is true. 

East Coast of the Americas 

The map features the western shores of Europe and Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, along with portions of North and South America which reflect his access to the map or maps drawn by Columbus. Regarding islands of the New World including place names and depictions of the West Indies, in the words of specialist Gregory C. McIntosh, author of The Piri Resi Map of 1513:

"The Piri Reis Map displays the earliest, most primitive, and most rudimentary cartography of these islands, a primitiveness that indicates that the earliest of all cartographic records of the discoveries in the New World — a map made by Columbus, or made under his supervision, around 1495 or 1496 — is preserved in the Piri Reis Map."

Reis drew many images on it including portraits of rulers of Marakesh and Guinea, indigenous clothing of various regions, elephants and birds. In South America oxen and parrots, llamas and snakes are featured. Mountains and rivers are depicted. Several ships are seen plying the seas at full sail with explanatory inscriptions alongside each. Islamic imagery embellishes portions of the map.

It is covered with notes describing the various regions depicted, including 117 place names and thirty inscriptions, all but one written in the Ottoman-Turkish language of Reis’ day. A network of rhumb lines radiate from compass roses on the extant portion of the map, similar to European portolans which had been made and used for centuries. 

The map was controversial for decades for what some claimed to be the depiction of an ice-free continent of Antarctica in the South Atlantic, concerning which much has been written. Its content reveals the serious research undertaken by Piri Reis as he prepared to create the map, his familiarity with navigation, and his access to the most recent reports of exploratory voyages.

In the great mariner's own words as translated in Piri Reis and His Charts, by Mine Eisner Özen, Istanbul 2006.

“From eight Jaferyas of that kind and one Arabic map of Hind [India], and from four newly drawn Portuguese maps which show the countries of Sind, Hind and Çin [China] geometrically drawn, and also from a map drawn by Qulūnbū [Columbus] in the western region, I have extracted it. By reducing all these maps to one scale, this final form was arrived at, so that this map of these lands is regarded by seamen as accurate .. of the Seven Seas on the maps described above.”

The result of his acumen, his research, and his long years at sea is one of the most beautiful and fascinating maps of its era.

Piri Reis


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