The Oldest Map Of America Drawn By Piri Reis: Piri’s First Map of the World, 1513

Let us now concentrate on the first map of the world drawn by Piri. His own ideas about cartography in general are recorded in verse form (p. 24). He says that drawing maps requires profound knowledge and specification. He believes that the slightest error in drawing a map makes the map useless (p. 25). To see how faithful he was to this principle of accuracy and exactitude one need only study his maps.

Foreseeing the development of maritime possibilities of the Ottoman Empire in the early decades of the XVIth century, Piri realized the necessity for a map of the world to help those sea-men that would take voyages on the seas, with practical information. In drawing this map, as a sailor devoted to his profession, he applied all the resources then available.



In his preface to the “Bahriye” he refers to the map and says that he has made use of all the known maps, including those on the Chinese seas and the Indian Ocean, which were unknown in the western world at that time. He also records that he presented it to Sultan Selim II. From a note in the margin hand-written by the author himself, we conclude that the map was drawn by Piri at Gelibolu between March and April of 1513 (Arabic 919).

In one of these notes Piri cites his references and some twenty maps he had made use of. Eight of these were new maps of Mappa Mundi, four drawn by the Portuguese, an Indian one in Arabic, and one by Christopher Columbus on the western hemisphere. The most important point to be noted here is the fact that Piri had a map of Columbus, in his hand when drawing his own. He himself refers to it in the “Bahriye” (p.82) when talking about Columbus discovery of the Antilles.

This can be accounted for in the following way:

he came into possession of the map when he was with Kemal Reis on the Spanish shores on the Mediterranean. In a reference to the shores of Valencia he says that once on those shores he and Kemal Reis took, at a single engagement at sea, seven Spanish vessels.

(Bahriye, p. 596).

We have already noted how he refers to the “Antilia” and the natives of the Antilles.


In one of the marginal notes on the map Piri mentions a Spaniard who had taken part in three of Columbuss two expeditions and was later taken prisoner by Kemal Reis. This Spaniard had given a most interesting account of Columbus to Kemal Reis. It is quite possible that he was captured during the battle when some of those articles belonging to the natives were also taken.

The map of Columbus in Piris possession, was drawn in 1498, and, since we know that Kemal Reis and Piri had fought against the Spanish in 1501, Piris acquisition of the map during that war is quite plausible.

Although Piri had drawn a map of the whole world, the portion we now have of it is only of the western coasts of Europe and Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, Central and North Americas.

The map is drawn on a roe-skin in various colour. Like other contemporary maps it has no lines of longitude or latitude. Nevertheless We can see two rose-compasses one in the north and the other in the south. Each of the roses is divided into 32 parts and the division lines are extended beyond the rose frames. Each wind-rose is equal to one sea mile, as is shown in the measurements on the areas near the wind-roses. The map is 90/65 centimeters in size.

It is in various colour and is decorated with numerous illustrations. In the capitals of Portugal, Marrakesh and Guinea, there are pictures of their respective sovereigns. Besides these, on Africa there are pictures of an elephant and of an ostrich, and on South America of lamas and pumas. On the oceans and along the coasts we see illustrations of ships. On both the lands and the seas there are entries sometimes relevant, sometimes irrelevant of the pictures. They are all written in Turkish, and can also be found in his book “Bahriye”.

You can follow the entry-notes beginning from the north-west corner, turning southward, then proceeding along the perimeter, and finally continuing in a winding fashion towards the center.

Reading some of the notes is really difficult. The map is transcribed by experts HERE.

The mountains are drawn in outlines and the rivers are marked with thick tines. In the map Pin Reis adopts and applies the rules of emblematic signs mentioned on page 28 in the Bahriye”. Thus he indicates the rocky regions with black, the sandy and shallow waters with reddish dots, and the rocky parts in the sea which cannot be seen by sailors with crosses.

A close study of the map shows us how faithful Pin was to his sources. In the bibliography attached to the map he claims that his map is as sound and accurate for the seven seas as the map of the Mediterranean.

From the various Turkish names on these coasts like Babadagi, Akburun, Yesilburun, Kizilburun, Altin Irmagi, Guzel K6rfcz, Kozluk Burnu, Iki Hurmalik Burnu etc., we deduce that in his drawing he made use not only of the Portuguese maps in his possession, but also of the information supplied by various Turkish sailors faring along these coasts. In his drawing of the coastline and in his marking of the sites of importance on it we again notice his remarkable accuracy. He is quite accurate also in the positions of the Azores, Madeira and the Canary islands.

As for the northern part of the map, we see here how Pin Reis benefited by the new Portuguese maps and recorded on it the discoveries made before 1508 on the North American Coast by Amerigo Vespucci, Pinzon, Juan de Solis. Some of the place names on the South American coast, like Santa Agostini, San Megali, San Francisco, Port Rali, Total Sante, Abrokiok, Cav Frio and Katenio show a close resemblance to their modern forms.

Except for the two entries about the name and the date of the map, all the other entries are written by a calligrapher. This fact can account for the changes to be observed in various names on the map. Another reason for this may easily be the inadequacy of the Arabic script then in use, for expressing Turkish words.

All the principal rivers in South America are marked on the map, though the names are not written It is remarkable that he should have shown the river La Plata on the map, when Pinzon and Juan de Solis passed by it and from all accounts, never even noticed it. Outside the parts relating to Columbus map, the scales in miles are astonishingly accurate. The land extends unimpeded to the west from the south of lie Plate.

Evidently this part of the map is drawn in accordance with the Ptolemic idea of the world, as is also observed in Mappa Mundi. Eight years later, when he had finished his ~ in the preface to the book he affirms that, further south it is not land but sea, which shows that he was following le later discoveries with careful attention. And yet, from it point of view of the historical importance of these geographic discoveries, this map is particularly significant for Central America.

Close studies here confirm the idea that the map possesses all the important information that was on the map of C. Columbus drawn and sent to Europe in 1498 and also on the map of Toscanelli that Columbus had in hand when he first ventured Out on his voyages. This part of the map contains many imaginary islands with a picture of a parrot on each.

The island of Trinidad is written as “Kalerot”, which probably is derived from a cape on this island which Columbus called “Galera”. Porto Rico is named here San Juan Batichdo, and on its eastern coast is drawn the picture of a fortress. There is, however, another island to the west of Trinidad, again with a picture of a parrot near which is written San Juan Batichdo.

Drawing various islands on the South American coast opposite Trinidad shows the influence of Colombus, who believed this newly discovered continent to be a group of islands. This is to be observed also on the island of Haiti, called by Columbus Hispanyola, and by Piri the Island of Spain: instead of showing it extending from the east to the west, as it does, he shows it extending from the north to the south, which proves that Columbus took this island to be Zipang, i.e. Japan as Marco Polo calls it and in accordance with Marco Polos descriptions of it, the island is given this mistaken position.

The real Antilles are shown on the map not as islands, but as C. Columbus believed it to be, as a continent. Hence Pin calls Central America “the County of Antilia”, and the North American coast “the coast of Antilia”.

It is true that at a certain spot quite near the North American Coast there is marked an island called the Antilia, but evidently that stood for the legendary island popularly regarded as fabulously wealthy and prosperous at the time when Columbus first started on his voyages. It is to be noted, however, that beside the island is a note that states that, contrary to the common fallacy, the island is not prosperous.

Cuba, too, is shown as a continent in accordance with Columbus firm belief. So confident was Columbus in this that while he was near the coast of Cuba in 1494 he had his conviction recorded by the notary public on the boat, Fernando Perez de Luna, and asked all the crew to sign it, as we can now see from the document signed on the 12th June, 1494, which declares that, since it is quite evident that this is a continent, thereafter whoever attempts to contradict this statement shall be fined to 10.00 Maravedis pieces and also his tongue shall be cut out.


Undoubtedly the reason why Pin, too, shows it as a continent was not because he was afraid for his tongue, but because he would not question the veracity of a piece of information given by such an authority as Columbus, who had been to those parts of the world several times.

Cuba is shown as a continent also in the map of Columbus dated 1498, which formed the basis for Pins later on; in the rough sketch drawn by Christopher Columbus brother, Bartholomeo, in 1503, in the map of the world made by Ruysch in 1508, and even in the marine map by Waldeesmuller in 1507.

A comparison of the Piri Reis map with the modern conception of this area. As it will be easily perceived the distance between South America and Africa is quite correct. Comparison with the other contemporary maps reveals Piris greatness in the technique of cartography.

Piri calls the eleven islands on the south-east of Haiti “Undizi Vergine,” which shows that the number of the islands is not expressed by the word “onze” which means eleven in Spanish but by its equivalent in Columbus mother tongue, Italian.

This is another indication of how faithful Piri was to Columbus map, Keeping close to the information of Columbus map which apparently possessed all that was on the earlier Toscanelli map, Pin harided down to us the oldest map of America and informed us about various aspects of the most important phase in the history of the discoveries.

By recording the explanations given by the Spaniard who had taken part in the three expeditions of Columbus and was later captured by Kemal Reis, he related the story of these discoveries from an original source free from the later legendary tales which have grown about them.


Scattered about the map are some other entries which also enlighten us about various details in the discoveries. Beside the picture of a ship near the Azores is written that this Genoese vessel came from Flanders, was shipwrecked, and that the survivors discovered these islands. From another entry we learn that the sea there is the Western Sea, but the Europeans call it the Spanish Sea, and after the discoveries of Columbus the name is changed to Ovasana, i.e. “Osean”.

By a picture near the island of Santiago is a note stating-that the names of these places were found and given by a Genoese sailor brought up in Portugal. In anther entry close to the picture of a ship drawn near the South American coast he summarizes all the information given in a map by Nikola di Juan who was shipwrecked there. In one of the notes on the Atlantic Ocean he mentions the treaty of “Tordesillas” 1599, and a certain line that divides the Spanish and the Portuguese possessions.

Towards the north, on the map is a picture of a fish on which is drawn a woman and a man making a fire, nearby is another ship and three people in a boat. This is the story of Santa Brandon which was very popular in the middle ages, and was recorded in the “thousand and one night” stones. But Piri does not neglect to add that the legend comes down not from the Portuguese but from the old Mappa Mundi. This shows that the Turkish geographer made use of many sources and did not neglect the latest information nearest to his age, and that he was very careful about his bibliography.

From various kinds of research work done on the map we conclude that compared with the other maps of the period, Pins is the most perfect and original. It will interest the Americans as one of the oldest maps of their country, and we Turks will always be proud that the author of the maps was one of us.



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