The Making of the Piri Reis Map

In 1929, in the Topkapi Palace Library in Istanbul (Constantinople), a map drawn over 400 years before was rediscovered. The cartographer was actually an admiral “Re-is” by the name of Piri Ibn Haji Mohammed. The map was unusual in that it had projections of the Americas down to South America and employed correct longitudes. It also had a notation that it was, in part, drawn over a map used by Columbus, just 21 years after he reached the New World. Another notation said that over 20 maps were used to put this chart together including some drawn back in the era of Alexander the Great.

The discovery was exciting as cartographers had long searched for a “lost” map of Columbus, as well as more ancient maps drawn by explorers centuries before Columbus. Even the American Secretary of State became involved, asking Turkey to search in their library for these source maps, although none turned up.

That did not mean they did not exist. Such composite maps were not unusual, and many were incorporated into maps of their day. Five hundred years ago, most commerce took place from port to port, and maps that would indicate landmarks, harbors, and hazards were called “portolanos.” One pilot or navigator might draw the coast between Greece and Venice. Another might add Venice to Calabria. Among allies these might be shared, but among trade rivals they would be protected. Even much older Phoenicians were known to share their information only amongst themselves. A Roman sea captain told of Phoenicians who would scuttle their own ships rather that let the Romans follow them and learn their trade routes. They were known to have sailed north out of the Mediterranean Sea to the Tin Islands, most likely Cornwall in England, west into the Acorean islands of the mid-Atlantic, south to Africa, and possibly even across the Atlantic.

This map was very important in several ways. The extent of Alexander’s travels is somewhat unknown, and a missing fleet of his is believed to have reached the Pacific (although it did not return). When the Piri Reis map was drawn, there was no evidence that Europeans ever reached South America, or even knew the continent existed. Finally it was important in the way that one researcher into the Reis map suggested it actually answered the question of whether Columbus knew it was a New World and not China or India. If the map drawn had leaned heavily on a map drawn by Columbus, it would mean that Columbus was aware that he was not in Asia. This evidence is backed by the fact that Columbus crossed the ocean with bells and mirrors. While such gifts might amaze primitive peoples, Europe knew the mandarins of China and the Maharajahs of India would not be amused. Columbus may have kept such information to himself, possibly because he needed the financing.

The story of the Piri Reis map begins in 1501, nine years after Columbus’s first voyage returned. Kemel Reis was a captain in the Turkish fleet that captured a fleet of Spanish ships. Aboard one of the captured ships was a man who admitted to having sailed on the Columbus voyage. In his possession was a map drawn by Columbus himself. Such charts were extremely valuable. Kemel claimed the map for himself and willed it to his nephew Piri. When Piri made a composite of all the charts in his possession, he did something that no one had done before, reduced all the maps to a single scale. This was prior to the scale invented by Mercator. The job was not easy, in fact it took three years to complete. The map was not perfect, but it was an improvement over the loosely drawn maps of the sixteenth century.

The Reis map was accompanied by a book he authored called Kitab-I Bahriye, meaning “The Book of the Mariner.” Language in the book and on the chart regarding Columbus is the same, so it was determined to be an authentic discovery. Reis had given copies of both to the Sultan Selim, which helped his career. While Piri Reis never identified the sources from the time of Alexander the Great or the other unlisted sources, there is no doubt that the map is authentic. In addition to the Alexander the Great charts, Piri had claimed to have a world map, referred to as Mappa Mundis or Mappae Mundi. Such maps were believed to exist but have not been discovered.

Shortly after the first Columbus expedition, the Portuguese Pedro Alvares Cabral was blown across the ocean to Brazil. With this, as the only European, it was likely Piri had mapped the Amazon and Plata River from other sources, as these features were unknown.

The controversy was compounded in the last century when the most distant reaches of the map were reviewed. The Piri Reis Map not only depicted the most southern reaches of South America but also possibly the coastline of Antarctica before the ice caps. This was the conclusion of Captain Arlington Mallery. He was a skilled navigator, a sailor who knew charts and currents from practical experience. He was also a trained engineer. Looking at the map, it immediately stood out that the “hump” of Western Africa that so neatly fits into the curve of South America was accurate. This was nearly impossible in a world existing before latitude and longitude were measured. Mallery commented on the sources mentioned by Piri Reis including the Mappae Mundi. Reis noted that he had created this map and that it was deemed “correct and reliable” by seamen.

Next, a university professor Charles Hapgood got involved. He was a Harvard-educated, former OSS agent teaching in a New England college. It was 1954 when a student asked him about the submerged Pacific continent of Mu as proposed by occult writer James Churchward. The discussion led to Atlantis and finally to the Piri Reis map. He made this his number-one focus, and for seven years, his students spent semester after semester working over all the details of the map. After years of study, Hapgood had reached a handful of controversial conclusions. He concluded that Captain Mallery was correct in identifying the depiction of the part of Antarctica that later became known as Queen Maud Land. He published Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, subtitled, Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age.

The conclusion was even more startling in that he declared the map was originally drawn when the southern continent was free of ice. Antarctica was discovered in 1818, but at first was believed to be simply a mass of ice. Much later it was discovered that the ice concealed a landmass. Core samples also revealed that over the years it had been free from ice, possibly between 1000 and 4000 BC, and more likely, not since 9,600 years ago. Debate over the Piri Reis map had reached a new level. It was true the map seemed to indicate mountains that were unknown until modern sonar made it possible to “see” them under the icecap.

Soon the map became fodder for an even stranger conclusion. Chariots of the Gods author Erich von Daniken determined that the center of the world, when the map was drawn, was Cairo in Egypt. He went a step further declaring the projection from that center was accomplished by a spacecraft hovering over that important center. More precisely the city of Alexandria was regarded as an important geographical center from at least the time of the third century mathematician Eratosthenes. He used the angles of the sun in Egypt to calculate the circumference of the earth (without a spaceship).

Modern investigators believed that the map determined that the original creator understood longitude, something Europe only discovered in 1760. The map also did have much in common with similar projections made by photographs above Cairo taken by the lunar probes.

Another feature on the Piri Reis map was the Andes Mountains. Since Magellan had not found his away around South America until after the map was published, where had such knowledge come from? The Oronteus Finaeus map, published a decade after the map of Piri Reis, also included a fairly accurate southern South America and the Ross Sea of Antarctica.


Pre-Columbian Suspects

There are two other suspects. First are the Phoenicians. When the world plunged into a dark age in 1200 BC, the Phoenicians prospered. They settled the North African coast and the coast of the Atlantic on that continent. They settled in Cadiz in Spain and controlled the Straits of Hercules (Gibraltar). They were first in sailing to distant lands. One place where hints have been left is La Venta in Mexico, where Semitic faces on clay structures along with Negroid heads have been found dating to 800 BC. On one of the Azores islands, namely Corvo, a terracotta image of a horseman pointing west, was found. Corvo is 1000 miles from Canada. Inscriptions found in Brazil in two places include the phrase “sons of Caanan from Sidon,” and the words Tyre and Phoenicia. Eastern Semites once had a moon goddess named Sin who became a moon god by the same name. The Chimu people of Colombia had a moon god by the name of Sin-An. The ancient (H)Ibernian god names have mostly been lost, but the Shannon River of Ireland was named for the goddess Sin-Ann.

The Roman historian Strabo credited the Phoenicians with being the source of information for the Greeks. He claimed they occupied Iberia (Spain) and Libya (Africa) even before 1200 BC. A bishop, St. Augustine, claimed that the language of the western coast of Africa was Phoenician and that it was still spoken in 400 AD, long after Carthage was destroyed by Rome. Perhaps Hanno, who sailed with 30,000 colonists out of the straits into the Atlantic, led the greatest Phoenician expedition. It is reported that he started down the coast of West Africa, but little is known of where the expedition ended. The Phoenicians were very obviously world travelers. They may have been the mapmakers for the elusive Mappa Mundi.


Enter the Dragon

The second suspect is a country that until recently was not given credit for ocean-going exploration. This oversight became apparent in the last century.

In 1953, researcher and author Henriette Mertz published Pale Ink, the story of two separate expeditions launched by China. She was a Chicago lawyer who vacationed in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1936. There she met a man who looked to be pure Chinese, but she was told he was an Indian whose family had been in Mexico as long as anyone could remember. Her Zapoteca friends said there had been at least five separate voyages from China to Mexico.

Two of these are recorded. The oldest is in a text that is still preserved in the Chinese archives. In fact dating from 2250 BC, the Classic of Mountains and Seas is the oldest known work of geography in the world. The second, more modern Fu Sang dates from 400 AD. Both give estimates of the distances traveled and the first-eye accounts of the voyagers.

The fifth-century voyage may have had a great deal of influence. Hwui Shan, a Buddhist priest, wrote of his travels to the American southwest and the north of Mexico. Ms. Mertz found no publisher for her book, so she published it herself.

Modern adventurer Tim Severin had better luck. In 1994, his China Voyage quickly found a publisher. The book described his own voyage to copy that of another intrepid Chinese explorer who was sent from China to the Americas to find life-prolonging plants. This voyage occurred in 200 BC.

In 2003, Gavin Menzies published 1421 The Year China Discovered America. He described multiple ships traveling in fleets that circumnavigated the world. He connects these voyages to the detail found on the Piri Reis map. Especially notable is the area known as Patagonia, where several unusual animals are drawn. He believes the reason for these depictions was the Chinese emperor ordering his commanders to bring back flora and fauna from the lands they encountered. While some of his claims leave historians scratching their heads, it is hard to dismiss the documented voyage in total. That leaves the question, how did the maps find their way to the Mediterranean Sea?


Marco Polo

While China and Western Europe had little direct contact, there is the highly documented overland voyage of one Italian trader. Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant who traveled to China and stayed for two decades. Venetians were the greatest merchants of their day and had established trading posts in Africa, the Middle East, on the Black Sea, and wherever profits were to be made. The Polo family may have been important, as the Kublai Khan himself welcomed them. Upon returning to Europe, Marco Polo’s ship was captured by the Genoese that were at war with Venice. In prison, Polo spent his time telling a fellow prisoner, Rustichello of Pisa, of all the wonders of the continent visited by few Europeans. Rustichello convinced him to record these adventures, and together they wrote Il Milione. It was published when he was released.

It was used by many and the famous Fra Mauro map, based in part on Polo’s book, included Japan, China, and Java. Marco Polo described the river commerce in China as greater than all of Europe. They had the largest fleets in the world before his visit and reported they resented the inroads of Saracen commerce. They competed with the Arabs for control of the Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean traffic.

Polo would have returned to Italy before his 1421 return to China, but it is possible that he had access to the earlier voyages, as uncovered by Mertz and Severin. It is also likely that records of other voyages might have survived. Marco Polo was not the only Italian to reach China in the fourteenth century. Tombs dating to 1342 in Yangzhou attest to the presence of the Ilioni family of Genoa. Caterina and Antonio Ilioni are buried there.

With the trade between the East and the West taking place unrecorded for centuries, there is no doubt that the map of Piri Reis was what it claimed to be—a compilation of the knowledge of the world at that time. The only mystery is just how much of that early world travel is unrecorded and, worse, ignored by modern historians.

By Steven Sora

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