The Peculiar Cartography of Ottoman Explorer Piri Reis

The gazelle skin map fragment, discovered by Halil Edhem workers, is a mystifying relic from Admiral Piri Reis, depicting uncharted territories with eerie accuracy, including Antarctica, long before its official discovery.

The Peculiar Cartography of Ottoman Explorer Piri Reis
The esteemed Turkish cartographer, Piri Reis, integrated the lost outlines of Columbus’s maps into the inaugural Mappae-Mundi, uniting continents and the enigmatic Atlantis.

On a stormy night, February 14, 1493, Christopher Columbus sat beneath the flickering light of a lantern on his ship, penning down his recent discoveries and experiences. The tempestuous waves threatened to devour the ship, and the ominous atmosphere was thick with tension and uncertainty. The relentless gales seemed symbolic of the internal turmoil Columbus wrestled with – a turbulent mixture of doubt, guilt, and religious apprehension.

Doubting oneself in a precarious situation is a human instinct. And here was Columbus, in the throes of such self-reproach, wondering if he had put too much faith in divine providence. While his faith was firm, his recent discoveries meant the world to him, and he feared they might be lost to oblivion if the ship sank that fateful night.

His writings bore witness to the groundbreaking encounter with the natives of the islands he had just discovered. Columbus detailed the establishment of a fort, constructed from the remnants of the unfortunate Santa Maria, which had met its end at the hands of the treacherous seas. He wrote of the 39 brave men who stayed behind, in a place they fondly named “Navidad”. Columbus also meticulously chronicled his first interactions with the indigenous inhabitants, referring to them as “savages”. He had initially mistaken the newfound lands for Cipago, believed to be modern-day Japan, and he made sure his maps reflected his observations.

The sailors aboard his ship, in a bid to distract themselves from the looming threat of the storm and to pass the time, turned to gambling. They bet on various errands that might ensure their survival – perhaps a procession, a fast, or even a pilgrimage to a temple. Columbus, in a gesture of camaraderie and perhaps to lift his spirits, joined the game.

In a moment of foresight, wanting to ensure his discoveries would not die with him, Columbus sealed his letters and maps in a barrel, closing it with wax. Addressing it to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, he also enclosed copies intended for his friends, Gabriel Sánchez and Luis de Santángel. His intent was clear; if he perished, he hoped someone, somewhere, would find the barrel and share his story.

The immediate fate of that barrel remains shrouded in mystery. However, its contents seem to have made a mark in history. Two decades later, the renowned Turkish cartographer Piri Reis showcased the outlines of Columbus's map in one of the inaugural Mappae-Mundi, an ambitious project that aimed to depict all the continents of the Earth. Intriguingly, the map also featured Atlantis, adding to its allure.

Christopher Columbus, beneath the dim glow of a lantern, documents his groundbreaking discoveries.
Christopher Columbus, beneath the dim glow of a lantern, documents his groundbreaking discoveries amidst the tempest, entrusting his tales and maps to a sealed barrel, hoping they would traverse the storm and the sands of time.

When the Ottomans Met the Conquistadors

The tales of the conquest of America are punctuated with stories of gold, native civilizations, and mighty Spanish conquistadors. Yet, lurking in the shadowy corners of this grand narrative is the Ottoman Empire, a powerful player that often gets overshadowed in the wider history of conquest.

The backdrop to our tale starts with the expansive Holy Roman Empire, under the dominion of Charles I of Spain, also known as Charles V of Germany. His reign saw the Holy Roman Empire being pressed into a vassalage relation, an event less discussed but of considerable consequence. Charles V found himself caught in a political whirlwind as the city of Vienna came under siege thrice, Hungary faced invasion, and Cyprus was annexed. As the Turks and the French formed a potentially powerful alliance, Charles V, in a move that showcased both desperation and diplomatic intrigue, penned a letter to Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Sultan. In this missive, he willingly abandoned his proud noble titles, seeking only one thing in return: that the Ottoman Empire cease its relentless march through Europe.

But Suleiman was not one to be easily placated or won over. Rather than accepting the overtures with grace, he chose to taunt Charles, questioning his virility and taking audacious pleasure in admiring Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror whom Charles V despised. It is fascinating to note Suleiman's obsession with Cortés. Every piece of news about Cortés' exploits in the New World was consumed by the Sultan with an insatiable hunger. This unexpected connection, one might say, brought together the East and the West in a curious mesh of admiration and rivalry.

Interestingly, both Suleiman and Charles V, along with Cortés, drew inspiration from the legendary Alexander the Great. Historical records provide ample evidence of how this ancient Macedonian leader shaped the military and strategic visions of these three potentates. Their shared admiration for Alexander highlights a complex web of influence and competition that played a vital role in shaping the geopolitics of the era, further deepening the divide between Islam and Christianity, and between the East and West.

While the intrigues played out in palaces and courts, the vast territories of the Spanish viceroyalties in America remained oblivious to the looming Ottoman threat. Their geographical remoteness, coupled with a lack of comprehensive maps and intelligence, made it almost impossible for them to fathom the gravity of events unfolding thousands of miles away.

In a poignant juxtaposition of events, 1521 saw Cortés capturing the majestic city of Tenochtitlan, while Suleiman's forces laid siege to Belgrade. These simultaneous events symbolized a changing world order. As the conquistadors faced setbacks like the infamous 'Sad Night,' Suleiman was busy expanding his territories, setting his gaze on Vienna and Transylvania. The fall of Belgrade sent shockwaves through Europe, pushing Charles V further into a corner and destabilizing the peace of the Mediterranean.

The Ottomans, led by their audacious Sultan and aided by a cadre of daring sailors, turned the Mediterranean into their hunting ground. These sailors, eager for conquest and fortune, rescued Arabs expelled from Spain and plundered the wealth of neighboring kingdoms.

The fall of Belgrade to the Ottoman forces juxtaposed with Cortés' conquest of Tenochtitlan.
The fall of Belgrade to the Ottoman forces juxtaposed with Cortés' conquest of Tenochtitlan illuminates the parallel narratives of turmoil and ambition that reverberated through East and West during the era of exploration and conquest.

Hizir bin Yakup and the Corsair Brotherhood

In the waning years of the 15th century, the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea bore witness to the rise of a remarkable dynasty of pirates. This tale begins on the island of Lesbos in 1475 with the birth of Hizir bin Yakup, a child of diverse heritage, born to a Greek potter and an Andalusian Muslim woman. But it wasn't the serene island shores that molded Hizir; it was the undulating deck of the trading boat his family owned.

While most children grew up playing on the ground, Hizir spent his formative years aboard this vessel, trading his father’s crafted clay pots and occasionally transporting garo, a fish sauce reminiscent of the Roman Empire's culinary legacy. The vast expanse of the Aegean Sea became a playground and classroom for Hizir and his brothers, especially Aruj, who was first to be smitten by the lure of the sea and the art of privateering.

By embarking on daring adventures across the sea, the brothers expanded their horizon beyond mere pottery trading. Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt felt their presence, and even the Knights of St. John on the Island of Rhodes couldn’t escape their influence. These daring brothers, who made cities like Thessaloniki their favorites, founded one of the most prestigious pirate organizations the Mediterranean had ever seen.

However, not all was about the sea. On the island of Lesbos, Ishaq, the eldest, ensured that their operations were not just about piracy but also politics. He bridged the pirate consortium's interest with the ruling crown in Istanbul, particularly as the Knights of St. John threatened the flourishing Ottoman trade.

Their reputation and wealth grew exponentially. From 24 galleys acquired in the port of Smyrna to the shores of Apulia on Italy's coast, their dominion expanded. However, as with all tales of ambition and power, adversity was lurking nearby. A succession tussle in the empire's heartlands forced Aruj to seek refuge in Egypt, momentarily sidelining him from the corsair action.

Yet, the wheel of fortune kept turning. By 1503, Aruj had established a new base on the island of Djerba near Tunis. The renewed focus shifted to transporting Mudejar Muslims from Spain to North Africa, combining philanthropy with their previous pirate raids. Their influence and wealth became so profound that in 1515, a gesture of immense significance occurred: Aruj sent precious jewels to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, cementing their allegiance.

The favor was returned when the Sultan sent two new galleys and two swords encrusted with diamonds. It was a mark of power and respect. Their influence grew: Algiers was seized, and Aruj declared himself sultan. They further conquered Médéa, Tènés, and Miliana, expanding their domain.

But, as the saying goes, pride comes before a fall. Aiming to align closely with the Ottoman Empire, Aruj renounced his sultanate title, handing it to the emperor. This move, while strategic, ushered in the brothers' darkest hours. In 1518, Diego de Córdoba, a seasoned Spanish warrior, laid siege to Tlemecén. A bitter battle ensued, claiming the lives of both Aruj and Ishaq.

Yet, from this tragedy, Hizir bin Yakup emerged from his brother's shadow, inheriting both the title of Baylar Bey and a name that would become synonymous with maritime legends: Barbarossa.

Amidst the glittering waves of the Mediterranean, Hizir bin Yakup (Barbarossa) and his corsair brothers.
Amidst the glittering waves of the Mediterranean, Hizir bin Yakup (Barbarossa) and his corsair brothers, Aruj and Ishaq, breathe life into their maritime legends, their ships a power and rebellion against the backdrop of a changing empire.

How Pope Julius II's Fleet Was Duped by Barbarossa's Lieutenant

In 1504, an age when Michelangelo was soon to grace the Sistine Chapel with his brilliance and Columbus was setting foot in what we know as Venezuela. A naval incident was set in motion by the Vatican that would go down in history.

Pope Julius II, often remembered as the 'warrior pope', wasn't just a spiritual leader. He displayed the ambition of a monarch, heavily investing in strategies, security, and military policies. For Julius, trade wasn't merely a financial transaction; it was a testament to the Vatican's influence. So, when ships packed with goods were set to sail from Genoa to Civitavecchia, it was imperative that this mission be a success. The entrusted commander of the Italian fleet was Captain Paolo Vittori.

But Julius II made a grave oversight. His belief that the seas were devoid of pirates led him to order the voyage without an armed guard.

As the papal fleet was nearing the shores of Elba, they spotted a ship with its sails down, seemingly distressed. Underestimating the situation as a crew of amateurs, Vittori called his men to assist. But this was no ship in distress. In a surprising twist, the sails swelled, and the ship made a rapid maneuver to board the papal ships. This vessel was commanded by Kemal Reis, a privateer hailing from Gallipoli and a favored lieutenant of the famed pirate, Barbarossa.

By the time Julius's men could react, the damage was done. The ships and their treasures were seized, and the crewmen were taken as prisoners.

Ambush at Sea: Kemal Reis and his crew cunningly raise their sails to seize Pope Julius II’s unguarded fleet.
Ambush at Sea: Kemal Reis and his crew cunningly raise their sails to seize Pope Julius II’s unguarded fleet, marked by a deceptive calm before the strategic storm. Göke (1495) was the flagship of Kemal Reis. Credit: Wikipedia

Who Was Kemal Reis?

Kemal Reis, a seasoned naval strategist, began his maritime career with the Euboea fleet. His expertise on tidal patterns and disciplined approach earned him immense respect. His legacy was further cemented when he was assigned to protect Emir Abu Abdullah, the ruler of Granada's lands, in 1487. Under his watch, significant raids were carried out in Malaga, the Balearic Islands, Corsica, and even Pisa.

While Columbus was being hailed for his discoveries in the New World, Kemal Reis was writing his story. He heroically saved Arabs who were expelled from Spain, rescuing them from the African coasts of the Mediterranean.

His seafaring adventures stretched from Istanbul to the Gulf of Trent, even reaching as far as Mecca and Medina under orders from Emperor Bayazet II. Here, he undertook the sacred duty of transporting Muslims and safeguarding the Ottoman Empire's treasures destined for the holy cities.

Once Reis teamed up with Barbarossa in Tunis, their combined might become even more formidable. After seizing the papal ships, a thorough search of the sailors revealed a Spaniard possessing a unique item: a parrot feather plume. However, it was the map stored inside a blue bomb bag that truly piqued Reis's interest.

Upon interrogation, the Spaniard claimed he had voyaged thrice to the New World alongside none other than Christopher Columbus, the map's creator. The exact ramifications of this discovery remain shrouded in history.

Kemal Reis (c. 1451 – 1511) was a Turkish privateer and admiral of the Ottoman Empire.
Kemal Reis (c. 1451 – 1511) was a Turkish privateer and admiral of the Ottoman Empire. Credit: Turkdenizcileri

The Map of Piri Reis at Topkapi Palace

Fast-forwarding through centuries teeming with dynastic changes, political upheavals, and cultural transformations, we find ourselves in the nascent Republic of Turkey. This was the era that dawned after the disintegration of the mighty Ottoman Empire, marked by the abolition of the Sultanate of Mehmed VI by Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk” and the subsequent proclamation of the Republic. This metamorphosis also led to the expulsion of the Greeks, a harbinger of the forthcoming years of reconstruction.

It was November 9, 1929, a day shrouded in biting cold winds breezing through the ruptured windows of the historical Topkapi Palace. The grand edifice, once the regal residence of sultans, was buzzing with the sounds of hammers and chisels as masons and master builders were deeply immersed in the process of remodeling. The objective was clear – to metamorphose the palace into a museum, a keeper of numerous tales and relics of times long past. The remnants of the glorious epoch were evident in rows of portraits, musical instruments, paper-filled trunks, photographs, broken furniture, stamp collections, royals, mirrors, and carpets scattered all around.

In the midst of restoring the original architecture, a few diligent workers discovered a small, hidden chamber, enveloped by bricks, revealing gazelle skins shrouded in dust. This unsuspected discovery called for the immediate presence of Halil Edhem Eldem, the esteemed director of the National Museums. Eldem was not only an aficionado of antiquities but also possessed extensive knowledge of geology, chemistry, and philosophy, thanks to his academic endeavors at Vienna Polytechnic Institute and the University of Switzerland.

Halil, son of the grand vizier Ibrahim Edhem Pasha and brother of ancient coin expert Ismail Galip Bey and the painter Osman Hamdi Bey, beheld the unanticipated find. The room was bathed in a lamp's dim glow, revealing a seemingly wounded, animal-like lump. Eldem, after moments of contemplation, gingerly unfolded the skins, and with meticulous strokes of a fine-haired brush, revealed the enigmatic black and red imprints on the yellowish animal canvas. It was a long-lost ancient map, inconspicuously ensconced behind walls for four centuries, now revealed among other portolan charts.

The air was thick with anticipation and reverence when Eldem’s gaze, magnified by the glass, met the inscription on one of the ends of the map. The silence was only broken by the caught breath of Edhem, as he read: “This map was drawn by Piri Ibn Haji Mehmed, known as the nephew of Kemal Reis, while in Gallipoli, in the month muharrem of the year 919 (1513 of the Christian era).”

This monumental find represented not just a mere piece of geographical illustration but served as a tangible connection to the rich Ottoman heritage, providing insights into the technological and navigational prowess of the bygone era. The map, attributed to Piri Reis, a notable Ottoman admiral, was a testament to the intricate blend of art and science, and a reflection of the comprehensive knowledge of the geography of the time.

Map of the world by Ottoman admiral Piri Reis, drawn in 1513.
Map of the world by Ottoman admiral Piri Reis, drawn in 1513. Credit: Wikipedia

The Legacy of Turkish Cartographer Piri Reis

In the golden age of exploration, the clashing aspirations of empires led to both fierce rivalries and the unfurling of mysteries that had remained concealed for ages. The tale of Piri Reis brings to light a blend of geography, ambition, and the allure of the unknown.

Upon unearthing the tattered map concealed within the garments of a captured Spaniard, Commander Kemal Reis couldn't help but beckon his young nephew, a budding cartographer with an insatiable curiosity. As the young Piri Reis ran his fingers over the outlines of uncharted lands, an idea sparked—a vision to map the world in a manner never attempted.

Born in 1465 in Karatay, within the heart of the Ottoman province of Konyea, Piri Ibn Hadji Muhammad, or Piri Reis as he is popularly known, was no ordinary figure. A life-altering move to Gallipoli at twelve paved the way for a passion for navigation and astronomy. Gifted in languages like Turkish, Spanish, Arabic, Greek, and Portuguese, he voyaged extensively with his uncle, Kemal Reis. Their adventures spanned from Venice to Rhodes, culminating in myths as captivating as the lost Colossus.

Piri Reis' knowledge encompassed the daring ventures of explorers like Christopher Columbus and the trailblazing voyages of Spanish and Portuguese sailors to the New World. With an obsession to gather as many maps and navigational records as he could, Piri embarked on his most significant mission, one that saw the creation of two unparalleled works: The Mappae-Mundi and The Book of Marine Matters (Kitab-i Bahriye).

The Mappae-Mundi was a most important work that amalgamated maps from various epochs, including the time of Alexander the Great, Ptolemaic, Arabic, and Portuguese representations. What's more, it bore traces of a map that once belonged to Columbus himself. Yet, what survives today is but a fragment of this masterpiece—a glimpse, with annotations suggesting that much more lies hidden.

His other renowned work, The Book of Marine Matters, portrayed the Mediterranean in detail. By 1526, a revised edition dedicated to the revered Suleiman the Magnificent had emerged, boasting 210 chapters laden with vivid descriptions, elaborate maps, and a poetic narrative recounting his sea-bound adventures.

The recovered fragments of Piri Reis' map, with their suggestive, fragmented annotations, have fueled many a debate. Was the original map crafted by Columbus, or was it the work of a predecessor that guided the Admiral's journeys? These mysteries, paired with speculation on the Ottomans' ambitions—whether Piri's map aimed to plot a conquest of the New World or merely display the Iberian discoveries—continue to captivate historians.

Despite their prowess in various domains, the Turks lacked an Atlantic fleet and the maritime technology to venture into these unknown waters. However, their innate adaptability had always been their strength. Yet, the vast Ottoman Empire, spanning Asia, Europe, and North Africa, stretched its resources thin, focusing more on the known than the unfamiliar.

One can't help but ponder: Had the tides of history shifted just slightly, with the Ottomans gaining control over the European heartlands or establishing a lasting French alliance, would Piri Reis' map have been the guiding star for a Muslim conquest of uncharted realms? We may never know, but the legacy of Piri Reis ensures that the allure of such 'what ifs' remains undimmed.

Bust of Piri Reis in the Istanbul Naval Museum.
Piri Reis, the master cartographer, engrossed in his labor of love, mapping uncharted lands and merging diverse topographies. Bust of Piri Reis in the Istanbul Naval Museum. Credit: Wikipedia

The Admiral’s Journey and Tragic Demise

When the workers of Halil Edhem stumbled upon gazelle skins concealed within a crumbling wall, little did they know that they were unearthing a fragment of a map — a tangible echo of Admiral Piri Reis from the past. Now, this fragment breathes anew within the confines of a museum, safeguarded as its most illustrious treasure.

Measuring ninety by sixty-five centimeters, this irregularly shaped piece is a splendid amalgamation of fantastical illustrations, depictions of various faunas, and a labyrinth of geographical intricacies. The spectacle unfolds to reveal ships unfamiliar to Turkish seafaring and encompasses a substantial portion of the American coastline, including North America, Brazil, and the Antilles, contrasted vividly against Africa.

The meticulous strokes on the fragment resonate with the scales of different maps, intricately interwoven with red and black course lines that traverse the Atlantic Ocean. To the astonishment of modern cartographers, the depiction even includes Antarctica — a land unknown until the 19th century, stirring contemplation about the myth of Atlantis and the mysterious accuracy of the Antarctic coastline. The precision, coupled with meticulous attention to distances and proportions, gives rise to bafflement, considering the limited geographical awareness of 1513.

The map, however, is more than an artistic geographical rendition; it's a poetic narrative of the uncharted worlds and the mariners who dared to voyage into the unknown. The annotations etched onto the map reveal discovery, fantasy, and fear, sketching the cosmogony of a bygone epoch. These notes resonate with the subtle poetic tones and the extensive knowledge that the cartographer amalgamated into the gazelle skin.

The vivid descriptions of regions, like Antilia, reveal a plethora of flora and fauna, along with whispers of a land populated with various parrots, white-haired monsters, and six-horned oxen. The startling revelations about the supposed uninhabitability of lands and the prevailing beliefs about the world's boundaries manifest the explorer's vision of the New World through the prism of Ottoman curiosity.

Piri Reis, an eminent admiral, navigated through a world filled with wonders and uncertainties for 89 years until the executioner’s axe silenced his tales in 1552. The admiral, leading a fleet of thirty galleys, embarked on a conquest, which, marred by heavy casualties and accusations of desertion, culminated in a grim sentence in the city that his hand had once lovingly illustrated in his Book of Marine Matters.

The cartographer's map is not merely a delineation of lands and seas; it is an illustrious relic of a world wrapped in myths and enigmas. The fragment showcases the amalgamation of scientific precision and poetic annotation, offering glimpses of the uncharted worlds and the mariners who sailed into the unknown, witnessing the existence of untold marvels and monstrous fantasies.

Piri Reis’s beheading in Cairo marked the tragic end of a life devoted to service and exploration. His severed head, rolling like an egg, met its end in the very city he had intricately mapped, surrounded by the bridges, palm trees, streams, and palaces he had depicted with such finesse. The mystery and artistry enshrined in his fragment continue to captivate the modern world, whispering tales of ancient explorations, untold myths, and the unceasing curiosity of the human spirit.

Map of Alanya by Piri Reis.
Map of Alanya by Piri Reis. Credit: Wikipedia

In-Text Citation and Source: Raphael, Pablo. ‘Piri Reis o La Cabeza Del Cartógrafo | Pablo Raphael’. Revista de La Universidad de México, Accessed 23 Sept. 2023.