The Piri Reis map is a pre-modern world map compiled in 1513 from military intelligence by the Ottoman admiral and cartographer Piri Reis. The half of the map that survives shows the western coasts of Europe and North Africa and the coast of Brazil with reasonable accuracy. Various Atlantic islands including the Azores and Canary Islands are depicted, as is the mythical island of Antillia and possibly Japan. The historical importance of the map lies in its demonstration of the extent of exploration of the New World by approximately 1510, perhaps before others. It used 10 Arabian sources, 4 Indian maps sourced from Portuguese and one map of Columbus.
The map is the extant western third of a world map drawn on gazelle skin, with dimensions reported as 90 cm × 63 cm, 86 cm × 60 cm, 90 cm × 65 cm,85 cm × 60 cm,87 cm × 63 cm, and 86 cm × 62 cm.These discrepancies are largely due to the damaged corner. The surviving portion primarily details the western coast of Africa and the eastern coast of South America. The map was signed by Piri Reis, an Ottoman-Turkish admiral, geographer and cartographer, and dated to the month of Muharram in the Islamic year 919 AH, equivalent to 1513 AD. It was presented to Ottoman Sultan Selim I in 1517. In the map’s legend, Piri inscribed that the map was based on about twenty charts and mappae mundi. According to Piri, these maps included eight Ptolemaic maps constructed during the era of Alexander the Great, an Arabic map of India, four newly drawn Portuguese maps from Sindh, Pakistan and a map by Christopher Columbus of the western lands. From Inscription 6 on the map:
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 [now in modern day Pakistan], 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 and as reliable as the accuracy and reliability of the Seven Seas on the aforesaid maps.”
There is some scholarly debate over whether the 20 charts and mappae mundi in Piri’s inscriptions includes the eight Ptolemaic maps, the four Portuguese maps, the Arabic map and the Columbus map. From one perspective, the number of charts and mappae mundi used by Piri equals 20, while in the other, it could mean a total of 34.Some[who?] have claimed that the source maps were found in the ancient Library of Alexandria, based on Piri’s allusions to Alexander the Great, the founder of Alexandria, Ptolemy I, who ruled Alexandria in the 4th century BC, and Claudius Ptolemy, the Greek geographer and cartographer who lived in Alexandria during the second century AD.
The map was discovered serendipitously on 9 October 1929, through the philological work of the German theologian, Gustav Adolf Deissmann (1866–1937). He had been commissioned by the Turkish Ministry of Education to catalogue the Topkapı Sarayı library’s non-Islamic items. At Deissmann’s request to search the palace for old maps and charts, the director Halil Edhem (1861–1938) managed to find some disregarded bundles of material, which he handed over to Deissmann. Realizing that the map might be a unique find, Deissmann showed it to the orientalist Paul Kahle who identified it as a map drawn by Piri Reis. The discovery caused an international sensation, as it represented the only then known copy of a world map of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), and was the only 16th century map that showed South America in its proper longitudinal position in relation to Africa. Geographers had spent several centuries unsuccessfully searching for a “lost map of Columbus” that was supposedly drawn while he was in the West Indies.
After reading about the map’s discovery in The Illustrated London News, United States Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson contacted the United States Ambassador to Turkey Charles H. Sherrill and requested that an investigation be launched to find the Columbus source map, which he believed may have been in Turkey. In turn, the Turkish government complied with Stimson’s request, but they were unsuccessful in locating any of the source maps.
The Piri Reis map is currently located in the Library of the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, but is not usually on display to the public.
Part of the Piri Reis map showing Europe and the Mediterranean Basin.
Charles Hapgood began studying the map in the middle of the 20th century and published the book Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings in 1966.
Hapgood claims this and other maps support a theory of global exploration by a pre-classical undiscovered civilization. He supports this with an analysis of the mathematics of ancient maps and of their accuracy, which he says surpassed instrumentation available at the time of the map’s drafting.
Hapgood argued that owing to the map being assembled from components, the Caribbean section was rotated nearly 90° from the top of South America. He attributed this to either copying from a polar projection, or to fit in the space available by hinging the map at that location and giving it an “alternate north”, of which other examples are known in maps of the era.
Gregory McIntosh, a historian of cartography, has examined the Piri Reis map in depth and published his research in the book The Piri Reis Map of 1513 (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2000).
He claims that the depiction of the Caribbean was developed from at least one of Columbus’s maps. Hispaniola is depicted with a north-south axis similar to depictions of Japan on maps of the same era. At the time it was widely believed that the east coast of the Americas was in fact that of Asia. Columbus believed that Japan and Hispaniola were actually the same island and Cuba was part of a mainland. The mainland in the extreme northwest is labeled with place-names from Columbus’s voyages along the coasts of Cuba. McIntosh claims the map shows double sets of Virgin Islands because Piri Reis took them from two maps. Many of the names of ports and geographic points are found in Columbus’s written texts.
McIntosh, in comparing the Piri Reis map to several other portolan-style maps of the era, found that
The Piri Reis map is not the most accurate map of the sixteenth century, as has been claimed, there being many, many world maps produced in the remaining eighty-seven years of that century that far surpass it in accuracy. The Ribero maps of the 1520s and 1530s, the Ortelius map of 1570, and the Wright-Molyneux map of 1599 (‘the best map of the sixteenth century’) are only a few better-known examples.
McIntosh intended for this conclusion to be part of a direct challenge to Charles Hapgood’s theory about the historical roots of the map. McIntosh found that many of Hapgood’s claims were problematic and that, in many cases, the accuracy of the map as Hapgood presents it is exaggerated and that some figures, such as Cuba, Hispaniola, part of Newfoundland, and others have to be rotated or distorted to appear accurately drawn.
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Amateur historian Gavin Menzies claims in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered America that the southern landmass is indeed the Antarctic coastline and was based on earlier Chinese maps. According to Menzies, Admiral Hong Bao charted the coast over 70 years before Columbus as part of a larger expedition under the famous Chinese explorer and admiral Zheng He to bring the world under China’s tribute system.
Gregory McIntosh and other cartographers and historians who have examined the map in detail believe the resemblance of the coastline to the actual coast of Antarctica to be tenuous. For centuries before the actual discovery of Antarctica, cartographers had been depicting a massive southern landmass on global maps based on the theoretical assumption by some that one must exist, if only to balance the landmass of the North. It was widely believed that South America and, once its northern coastline was discovered, Australia, must be joined to this land mass, which was thought to be very much bigger than the real Antarctica. This theoretical southern continent, the Great Southern Land or Terra Australis Incognita (literally Unknown Southern Land), in various configurations, was usually shown on maps until the eighteenth century. An alternate view is that the “Antarctic” coast is simply the eastern coastline of South America skewed to align east-west due to the inaccurate measurement of longitude or to fit it on the page.
Hapgood suggests that the Antarctic section of the map was copied at an incorrect scale to the rest of the map and resulted in the distortion and enlargement of the continent on several ancient maps. This would explain why there is no waterway between South America and Antarctica. He suggests several points of continuity between the Piri Reis Map and modern maps of the continent below the ice sheets. Since the Antarctic continent was not officially sighted until 1820 and its full coastline was not known until much later; this claim, if true, would require major revisions to the history of exploration, settlement, evolution, and technological advancements of the time.
Comparison between a modern projection of South America and Piri Reis’s version.
There are many difficulties in the map of South America, including duplication of rivers. Close examination of the coastline supports the alternative theory that the “extra” landmass is simply the South American coast, probably explored in secret by Portuguese navigators, and bent round to fit the parchment. There are features resembling the basins at the mouth of the Strait of Magellan, and the Falkland Islands.