The Oldest Map Of America Drawn By Piri Reis: The Book "Bahriyye-on Navigation"

If Piri were only a helpmate to Kemal Reis, even with the grand titles and high posts that he had won, he would not be a subject important enough for the history of civilization today. We would cite him only as one of the great admirals of the Ottoman Empire when she was a great power on various seas.

For, at the time, not only were the Black Sea and the Marmara exclusively Turkish seas, but the eastern and the southern coasts of the Mediterranean and all the neighboring islands as well as the eastern coast of the Adriatic were under Turkish domination. The Turkish banner reigned on the Red Sea and the Arabian; the Turkish fleet carried it to the coasts and islands of the Indian Ocean.

To be the ruler of so many seas the Ottoman Empire was bound to have great seamen. And yet Piri Reis, life and works differ from those of his contemporaries. He was not content to secure for his country more powers and victories but left written works on the science of navigation, which have survived to this day.


The Book “Bahriyye-on Navigation”[/h3]

Piri Reis then young but quite experienced, traveled on Kemal Reis ships almost the full length of the Mediterranean coasts, and on many occasions he was able to study various Spanish, Tunisian, French and Adriatic harbours. Acquiring information on various geographic and naval conditions of these legions, he recorded his own observations on them, and all this formed the basis for his book “Bahriye-On Navigation”.

In it Piri described the towns and countries along the Mediterranean coasts, and drew maps, charts and pictures of them. He did not neglect giving important information on navigation there, either. Reading the book page by page will take us on a delightful trip along these regions in the XVIth century. It is, basically, a kind of naval guide book.

He gathered all previous information on the subject, but added to it other practical knowledge necessary for sailors on the most important coastal routes, and drew large maps of all the spots he considered important there. In this way the book came out not only as a mere guide book, but also it became the greatest contemporary “portulano” with the most advanced technique of cartography.

One can see in this book a most significant invention: to make available all that he could not squeeze into the maps, for his readers he drew large maps and complemented them with indexes.

The book has many versions. 29 of them exist in the libraries of Europe and Istanbul. Some of them bear the date 1520 (Arabic 927) the others 1525 (Arabic 932).

The book was published in 1935, with an introduction, an index and a facsimile, based on the version now in the St. Sophia Museum in Istanbul. It has 858 large pages and a section all in verse form, consisting of 78 pages; the latter is divided into 23 chapters, 1107 couplets in all. Into these lines Piri has put all that he learned and observed as well as information indirectly acquired, on the seas of the world, in a style easy to remember and memorize.

The main theme in the book is the Mediterranean coast and the islands there.

* In Chapters I and II (pp. 7-19) he explains his aim in writing the book and also his life at sea with Kemal Reis

* In Chapters III, IV, and V (pp. 19-23) he gives information about storms, winds and the compass

* Chapters VI and VII (pp.23-29) are about maps and emblematic signs on maps.

* In Chapter VIII (p. 29) he says that one fourth of the seas that cover the earth has continents on them, and by giving names to each he cites 7 seas.

* Chapter IX (pp.30-32) is devoted to the geographic discoveries of the Portuguese.

* In Chapter X (pp. 33-37) he discusses Abyssinia as extending as far as the Cape of Good Hope and wishes that the Turks may drive back the Dutch and the Portuguese from the Red Sea.

* In Chapter XI (pp.37-43) on the globular chart which he calls “the ball of the earth” be talks about the poles, the tropics, and the equator, and relates what the Portuguese know about them.

* Chapter XII (pp. 43-52) recounts how the Portuguese make voyages from their own country to the Indies with favourable winds, in a most profitable way. Chapter XIII (pp. 52-56) is general information on navigation, but it also relates some sailors stories based on fantastic rumours.

* It includes an account of the Chinese seas, and considering that part of the world as the end of the East, he gives information on the Chinese people, their customs and traditions and their skill in pottery.

* The explanations in Chapters XIV and XV (pp. 56-61) about the Indian Ocean and the monsoons are valid even today.

* He also discusses the wind situations in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas. He describes, here, the implement called the “Indian Measure” which measures heights, and also gives information about the Pole Star.

* In Chapter XVI (pp. 61-66) he describes the Persian Gulf from what he has heard about it, because then he has not yet been able to visit that part of the world. He gives a very good account of pearl-fishing and the spots for it. This piece of information is as good as modern since pearl-fishing is still performed in the same way and at the same spots.

A Map of the Pearling Beds of the Arabian Gulf

This map was drawn by hand by Rashid Al Maktoom, in about 1930.

Depth is measured in “Baa” (fathoms in English) which is 6 ft. X number shown on the map.

Dark areas are earl beds. The stamped compass rose with degrees is a later addition.


* In Chapters XVII, XVIII, XIX and XX (pp.67-77) he calls the Indian Ocean “the Sea of the Negroes”, and gives an account of the coast and the islands there.

* In Chapter XXI (pp. 77-84) he studies the Atlantic Ocean under two different names: “the Western Sea” and “The Great Ocean”. He says that the “Western Sea” begins from the Straits of Gibraltar and extends 4000 miles towards the west.

* He also informs the reader of the continent he calls “the Antilia”. He says, that there the mountains contain rich gold ores, and four fathoms deep in the sea pearl is to be found (p.78).

* He discusses the history of the continent and says that it was discovered by sailors. About the inhabitants there he says that they have flat faces, and eyes a full span apart from each other; they are large in build and frightful creatures. He recounts all this on hearsay.

* He adds to it, though, some personal experiences as to how he once got a hat belonging to the natives on some Mediterranean island. The hat was made of parrots feathers. There was also an axe made of some hard, black stone that could cut even iron. In this way Piri wrote most of the information in the margin of the map of America into this book.

* In the chapter on this “Western Sea” we read all that is known about the discovery of America at the time. Of this he recounts, on hearsay again, how a certain book from the time of Alexander the Great was translated in Europe, and after reading it how Christopher Columbus went and discovered the Antilles with the vessels he obtained from the Spanish government.

It is quite evident today that Piri Reis came into possession of the map that the great discoverer had used. He makes a reference to the Caspian Sea and says that it is a closed sea. He gives no information, however, about the Red Sea or the Black Sea. Thus in these 74 pages of verse he was able to gather all the contemporary information about navigation.

The main body of the book consists of 743 pages (pp. 85-848), and these are divided into 209 chapters with 215 maps and charts.

This part is written in prose, the aim being to make it available and easy for every sailor. It begins with the Dardanelles, then goes on to the Aegean Sea, the coastline and the islands there, then the Adriatic Sea and the coasts along Western Italy, Southern France and Eastern Spain; geographic and historical information about the islands there are given and then along the Straits of Gibraltar to the African coast as far as Egypt, then to the shores of Palestine and Syria, to Cyprus and then the Anatolian coastline up to Marmaris.

At the end of this part he studies Crete and other islands which he had not previously mentioned. Later coming back to the Straits of Dardanelles he finishes the book with a description of the Gulf of Saros.

In composing the work Piri first gives historical and geographical information and then he discusses the necessary practical knowledge on navigation. Each chapter contains detailed charts, some in different colours. Since his method is still used in modern guide books on navigation and seas one cannot help wondering at the advanced outlook, which the book presents. On many points the accuracy of his statements are indisputable. The work, therefore, must he regarded as very important for the science of navigation.

The great sailor-writer draws maps of and gives information about the Adriatic coast in general and about the Bay of Venice in particular. About the latter he says,

“The city of Venice extends to an area of 12 miles. The whole district consists of parts of land and parts of an “ear” of the sea. The sea is at some places quite shallow and at others deep. The people have put piles upon these shallow spots and upon them built their city. Before the city was thus constructed fishermen used to come to these lonely spots, spread their nets and catch fish.

When fishing flourished there, more people began to come and then to settle there by building houses over those piles. In the course of time they increased in number. The wise ones among them thought that they must see to it that the city they were building must be able to stand for all time”.

(Bahriye, p.422-423).

Then Piri describes the building of the famous St. Marco, the purpose and the process involved in building it. He later tells us that the inhabitants live by trade, and that one has to hire a guide from the fortress of “Yaransa” to go to the city, otherwise, they do not take the responsibility for any loss or damages incurred because of the shallow waters.

The final judgment arrived at about the book, after profound study, is as follows:

“Research work done on it reveals that not a single statement can be found in it that is not based on facts”.

This becomes very obvious in the ease of Crete when knowledge concerning the island at two different periods in history is compared.

Unfortunately, however, since this great work was not published in the XVIth century and was there fore unknown to the world of science, it has not been as useful as it could have been. Nevertheless the work still retains its Importance and value despite the intervening centuries.



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