Between The Old World And The New Piri Reis

The name Piri Reis represents a turning point in the history of world and Ottoman civil navigation. This famous seafarer compiled his Book of Navigation from observations he made over many years on a number of seas, mainly the Mediterranean. Piri Reis’s Book of Navigation, which brings the world of centuries ago to the present with its maps of the sea and cities, is also a handy reference work with its insightful texts distilled from his vast knowledge. Besides navigation, this great Ottoman admiral also distinguished himself by his superior knowledge of cartography. The Aegean, the Adriatic, Italy, Sicily, Spain and the North African coast, as well as Egypt, Cyprus and the Canary Islands make up just one chapter of the book.

The seafaring life he embarked on in 1481 would bring Piri Reis esteem for all time. From the beginning of his life as a navigator, Piri had two great passions: the Mediterranean and navigation the first, knowledge and research the second. Consequently, as he sailed the open seas he examined the geography of the Mediterranean’s coasts and islands at every opportunity, gathering information relevant for navigation, drawing maps and observing the social and economic lives of the people and taking notes. Nor did he fail to follow the great voyages of discovery that were the most momentous events of their time.

After serving for 15 years on his uncle Kemal Reis’s ship, Piri Reis entered the service of the Ottoman Empire in 1495, again with his uncle. In 1500, again in his uncle’s fleet, he became a ship’s captain (reis) and continued to serve in that position. Settling in Gelibolu when his uncle lost his life in an accident at sea in 1511, Piri Reis chose not to go to sea for two years. During the time he spent at Gelibolu he drew his famous world map of 1513, making use of his observations and notes, and the oral and written documents and sketches he had collected. When Topkapı Palace was converted into a museum in 1929, a fragment of his map was found that includes only the Atlantic coast and the South American continent and constitutes a mere one-sixth of the whole. Unfortunately, the main part of the map including the Old World has never been found to this day.

After drawing his map, Piri Reis went to sea again continuing his life as a navigator, occasionally in the service of the state but more often independently. As he roamed the seas, he made it his purpose from the start to write a book describing the geography of the Mediterranean and the economic and social lives of the people who inhabited its coasts and islands.

Suleiman the Magnificent’s son-in-law and grand vizier Ibrahim Pasha set out for Egypt by sea in 1524 taking Piri Reis along as his guide. During the voyage he came to know Piri Reis well and saw and liked his work, which was as yet unfinished. In this way, Piri Reis was able to present his work to the Sultan in 1526 through the Grand Vizier, Damad Ibrahim Pasha, as intermediary.

After explaining that he has penned his book for the people of the Mediterranean, Piri Reis points out that he has called it ‘Navigation’ for a reason. For, in addition to the science of navigation, not only the maps, subjects such as the economic and social lives of the people inhabiting the Mediterranean coastline and islands, their flora and fauna, their lakes and rivers, the areas ruled by their states, their natural resources, both above ground and under ground, but also historical information and climate data are also explained and illumined in the book. This seminal work has earned him the admiration and esteem of scientists even today for its verisimilitude and sociocultural details.

The 500th anniversary of the drawing of Piri Reis’s World Map, 2013 has been declared the Year of Piri Reis by UNESCO.

(Below): Drawing of the island of Mytilene (Lesbos) in the Aegean Sea.