Piri Reis: Ottoman Sailor of the Exploration Age

30 January 2014 - 08:07

Piri Reis was once again in the news this year for his very famous map "The New World" which dates back to year 1513. 

This map is from the age of geographical exploration and is one of the rare maps that have been transferred to the present day, and rather, the only map which shows the shape of the American Continent as discovered by Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo). For this reason, Piri Reis is a well-known cartographer who introduced the newly discovered Atlantic Ocean and the Americas to the Ottoman world .The ‘Book Of Navigation’, which he wrote on the Mediterranean Sea and composed with portolan charts, was his masterpiece. 

After having navigated in Mediterranean for many years and after gaining experience at sea as a naval soldier, he became an Ottoman naval commander by being promoted to the Admiral-in-Chief of the Ottoman Indian Ocean Fleet. 

Piri Reis was probably born in 1470 at Gallipoli and his father was Hadji Mehmed and his uncle was the famous marine veteran /privateer Kemal Reis. 

From a young age, he sailed with his uncle. They operated together on many raids along the Mediterranean Sea primarily to the coasts and bases of Spain and Italy. 

While privateering  in the Mediterranean Sea he captured a fortress near Majorca, sieged Pantelary island in the South of Malta, captured the Pianos Island close to Corsica and had enslaved its people. 

Piri Reis , during his privateering in the Mediterranean; captured three commercial ships in the Southeast of Toulon and sold them in Tunisia. He also seized three ships in the West of Sicily and seven ships near Valencia and had been in many similar battles.

Passing the winter season at the Tunisian coast, Piri Reis met with Sultan Mevlây Muhammad.  They were based in Algeria’s Bejaia Port and sailed from there in the summer season. We know that they arrived in North Africa before the Barbarossa Brothers did. 

Piri Reis, after entering the service of the Ottoman Empire in 1495, in compliance with an order from Sultan Bayezid II, had sailed to Alexandria together with Kemal Reis to transfer the income of the Ottoman monetary foundations dedicated for the cities of Mecca and Medina. 

On his return, together with his uncle, he fought many battles with the Knights of St. John. He was present in the Navy in the Ottoman conquest of Lepanto, Modon, Koron and Pylos (1499-1501).

Piri Reis played an active role in the battles and raids in the Spanish coast, which were fought to protect the Muslims in Andalusia and in North Africa (1506). 

He was together with his uncle when he commanded the fleet sent by the Ottomans which shipped troops, ammunition and cannons to Egypt to help the Mamelukes against the Portuguese.

With the death of Kemal Reis, Piri Reis began a new era in his life (1510). 

Piri Reis joined the Ottoman Fleet with his own galley in support of the Ottoman Campaign in Egypt and went to Cairo through the River Nile, and presented the first 1513 map of the New World to Sultan Selim the Grim (1517).

In 1524, when the Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha was on the way to Egypt, Piri Reis took him until Rhodes with his own galley, and during this journey, he found the opportunity to present the first draft of his ‘Book of Navigation’ to him. 

With the encouragement of İbrahim Pasha, he presented the fair second version of his book and in 1528 he presented the Second World Map to the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. 

In the fleet of Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, he participated in the Naval Battle of Preveza in 1538.

In 1547, a new era began for him. Rising up to the rank of Reis (admiral), he was the Commander of the Ottoman Fleet in the Indian Ocean and this was the greatest honour of his life, although the position would also prepare his bitter fate. 

Departing from Suez with 60 ships under his command, Piri Reis was in the rank of Provincial Governor, when he recaptured Aden from the rebels. Aden  was the sole Ottoman base in the Indian Ocean (1548) 

The second campaign of Piri Reis was in Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, which was in the hands of the Portuguese. 

Sailing from Suez in 1532, with a fleet of 30 ships, consisting of galleys, small galleys and galleons, Piri Reis  sieged Muscat after entering the Oman sea and conquered the castle enslaving 128 Portuguese soldiers. 

The he sieged the Hormuz but he was not able to capture the internal castle due to the strong defence of Portuguese Commander Noronha. Afraid of a possible raid from the Portuguese navy, Piri Reis moved to Basra after lifting the siege. 

This decision of Piri Reis received criticism, because it was alleged that the retreat to Basra was in exchange for gold and jewels. Kubad Pasha reported this situation to Istanbul as a complaint and this was to his disadvantage. The accusations were unfounded and unfair because true l to his prediction; the Portuguese Navy actually came in front of Hormuz.

Due to the risk of closure of the Persian Gulf by the Portuguese Navy, Piri Reis left his main navy in Basra and sailed to Suez with three galleys.  One of the galleys went aground during the journey and Piri Reis was able to arrive in Suez with two galleys, from where he then travelled to Cairo through land. 

Piri Reis was perceived as a fleeing commander who had left his navy in the battlefield by the Ottoman Governor of Egypt and this along with the complaints against him resulted in him being beheaded in Egypt with the approval of Suleiman the Magnificent; who was in Aleppo at that time (December 1553).

Features of the World Map 1513

Piri Reis has gained great fame with drawing two maps of the ‘New World’ in 1513 and 1528 and with his ‘Book of Navigation’ which included the portolan charts of the Mediterranean Sea. 

The first New World map which he depicted on gazelle leather in Gallipoli in 1513 was 63 cm wide at the top and 41 cm at the bottom.  The map showed Spain, Portugal and France in Western Europe, the West African coast, Eastern coasts of Central America and Southern parts of the American continent. 

The map includes five wind roses of which two are big and three are small, depictions of nine ships and drawings describing cities at the coasts and inside the lands, rulers, castles, animals and indigenous peoples are also shown.

Piri Reis mentioned that in preparing his New World Map of 1513, he took reference of old world maps such as  twenty mappamundo,  maps from Ptolemy's geography, maps of eight Muslim geographers, an Indian map in Arabic language, the newly drawn Sind, Indian and Chinese maps,  four Portuguese maps and particularly  the American map of Christopher Columbus.

The Second World Map, dated in 1528, showed the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean, the coasts of North and Central America and corrected the names of some places that were incorrect in the first map.

Piri Reis is a unique sailor who has contributed to the scientific world with his maps and works and with his expertise as an oceanographer and cartographer. 

On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his first  World map; scientific publications of his works in the English and Turkish languages; opening exhibitions at  the international level, recording documentaries and films, organizing a Mediterranean cruise following his  footsteps could serve to make him better known around the world. I hope these initiatives are taken at least this year. ν

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