di Diego Cuoghi

Parte 1 (Piri Reis) - Parte 2 (Oronce Fine) - Parte 3 (Philippe Buache) - Parte 4 (Atlantide)

Columbus and the Piri Reis Map of 1513

By Gregory C. McIntosh

The Piri Reis Map of 1513 is one of the most beautiful, interesting, important, and mysterious maps to have survived from the Age of Discovery. Yet for all its importance, it is one of the least understood maps of this momentous and remarkable period in the history of cartography.

Many diverse claims have been made about the Piri Reis Map: that it includes a copy of a chart made by Christopher Columbus, that it is the oldest map of the Americas, and that it is the most accurate map made in the sixteenth century. Some even have argued that it shows evidence that its mapmaker was able to measure and perform spherical trigonometry calculations, that an ancient seafaring civilization existed tens of thousands of years ago, and that the earth had been visited by extraterrestrials. Though the Piri Reis Map of 1513 probably does contain within its delineations a copy of a map made by Christopher Columbus, or under his supervision, claims that the map depicts lands not yet known in 1513 are baseless, rely upon subjective, eye-of-the-beholder comparisons with modern maps, and ignore more coherent explanations.

The magnificent Piri Reis Map of 1513 has been the subject of speculation since its rediscovery in 1929.

The Ottoman-Turkish admiral Piri Reis (Re’is) was born Muhiddin Piri around 1465, probably in Gallipoli, the famous seaport on the Dardanelles in modern Turkey. As a youth he joined his uncle Kemal Reis (circa 1450–1510), who operated as a privateer for the Ottoman navy in the Mediterranean Sea against the Spanish, Genoese, Venetians, and other Ottoman enemies. Later, at the invitation of the sultan, he and his uncle formally joined the Ottoman navy, both holding the rank of reis (admiral). After his uncle died in 1510, Piri Reis returned to Gallipoli. There, in 1513, he constructed the first of his two world maps. In 1517 he presented it to Sultan Selim the Conqueror (reigned 1512–1520).

Throughout his naval career Piri Reis collected charts, made notes, and sketched maps of the islands and coastlines he visited. In 1521 he assembled these into a book, Kitab-i Bahriye (Book of the Sea). In 1526 he presented a revised version of Bahriye to Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (reigned 1520–1566).

In 1528 Piri made another world map, based upon a quite different and later model than the 1513 map, which he also presented to the sultan. As with the map of 1513, the only portion to survive of this second world map was part of the depiction of the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1554, almost ninety years old and in command of the ships of the Red and Arabian Seas, Piri fell victim to the intrigues of the Ottoman court. Following his defeat in a sea battle with the Portuguese, officials in Egypt, where Piri had recently arrived, told the sultan that he had run from the battle in order to save himself and his great treasure. This treasure was the accumulated spoils of his many decades of pirating with Kemal Reis and service in the Turkish navy. The sultan ordered him beheaded, and his treasures were taken to the Topkapi Serai Palace in Istanbul.

Piri’s depiction of the Caribbean, West Indies, Central America, and the north coast of South America, identified in the drawing below. A part of this section of Piri’s map was based on a map by Columbus. (Courtesy of Refioglu Publications)

 The Piri Reis Map of 1513 was discovered in 1929, while the Topkapi Serai Palace was being converted into a museum. Actually, the “map” is only the surviving left-hand portion of a larger world map. The top edge displays evidence of another strip of parchment above, which would have depicted Great Britain, Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. The extant fragment measures about 35 inches high by 25 inches wide (90 by 65 centimeters). The central section and right-hand (or eastern) portion of the map are missing. The complete world map probably measured about 55 inches high by 65 inches wide (140 by 165 centimeters). It is fortunate that the surviving portion is of the newly discovered regions in the Western Hemisphere, not only because it contains a copy of Columbus’s map, but also because it documents some of the era’s evolving geographical conceptions of America.

The map follows in the tradition of portolan charts, mariners’ sea charts of the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean Seas and the Atlantic coasts of Europe. Portolan charts are based upon dead reckoning and the magnetic compass. Beginning at the end of the fifteenth century, in response to European geographical expansion, portolan-style maps were expanded beyond the traditional European regions to include depictions of the entire world.

Like other portolan charts of the time, the Piri Reis Map exhibits a network of rhumb lines radiating from a circular pattern of wind roses or compass roses, five of which can be seen on the extant fragment. The rhumb lines indicate various winds and compass directions. Most of the graphical symbols, colors, and illustrations — such as the depiction of people and animals — are typical of portolan charts, as is the lack of latitude or longitude markings. Typical of world maps of the period, the recently discovered New World is shown at a larger scale than the Old World, effectively displacing many American coastal features farther north and south.

The map includes 117 place-names. Most are typical of portolan charts and easily identifiable, particularly those found in Europe, Africa, South America, and the Atlantic islands (both real and imaginary). The map also includes thirty inscriptions. All but one are in the Ottoman-Turkish language. The exception is in Arabic and identifies the mapmaker as Piri Reis and dates the map to the spring of 1513. Other inscriptions give information about the people, animals, mineral wealth, and curiosities of the New World.

One of the inscriptions identifies the sources used by Piri Reis: eight maps of Ptolemy, four contemporary Portuguese maps, an Arabic map of southern Asia, and a map by Columbus for parts of the New World. The depictions of lands south of the Atlantic Ocean, based upon the Ptolemaic and Portuguese maps, and the New World, based upon a Columbus map, have elicited the most interest.

Charles Hapgood and others have argued that Piri’s illustration of a southern continent suggests ancient knowledge of Antarctica. But depictions of an imagined southern land were common on maps going back to the time of Ptolemy. Other sixteenth-century maps show a southern continent connecting to South America, as Piri’s does.

Some have supposed the land shown to the south of the Atlantic Ocean to be a depiction of Antarctica, predating the continent’s discovery in the 1820s by three hundred years. This representation of prehistoric Antarctica is supposed to have been copied from ancient maps made tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years ago. Of the several writers who have made this claim, the best known is Charles Hapgood, author of Maps of the Ancient Sea-Kings (1966). But there appears to be little basis for such assertions, beyond the fact that the Piri Reis Map illustrates a land located south of the Atlantic Ocean, and Antarctica also is located south of the Atlantic Ocean. Piri was not the first or the last to show this southern continent, but because of Hapgood’s book his map has become famous for its supposed depiction of prehistoric Antarctica.

Hapgood assumed that the original source maps, resulting from an ancient survey of Antarctica, were accurate. He also assumed that the differences between the depictions on the Piri Reis Map and the depictions on these accurate (but unknown) source maps were the result of copying errors made during the compilation of the Piri Reis Map. With these two basic assumptions it was an easy matter for Hapgood to move landmasses, adjust scales, alter orientations, rearrange landforms, redraw coastlines, twist the geographical depictions, and “correct errors” on the Piri Reis Map to match his hypothetical source maps.

Additionally, to identify features on the Piri Reis Map with features on a modern map, Hapgood ignored the place-names inscribed upon the map — inscriptions that not only tell us what Piri Reis himself said the features were, but also match the place-names of many other maps from the early sixteenth century to the present. Of course, it is not too difficult to make a coastline on an old map look like another coastline on a modern map if one is allowed to change it.

In the 1960s several popular writers, including Erich von Däniken, adopted Hapgood’s conclusion that the Piri Reis Map depicts an ice-free Antarctica, and repeated it as proven. To explain this “fact” the writers asserted that the survey of Antarctica must have been made by extraterrestrials (or, alternatively, people from Atlantis) who left accurate maps later copied into the Piri Reis Map. However, the depiction of the southern land on the Piri Reis Map does not even look like the coast of Antarctica — with or without its mantle of ice — as these writers claimed. There is little or no resemblance between Piri’s southern land and Antarctica, other than the fact that both lie south of the Atlantic Ocean and have a generally east-west coastline — hardly a coincidence so amazing that Atlanteans or ancient astronauts must have charted the landform.

Piri’s inscriptions on his southern land indicate that his depiction was a combination of the commonly held belief in a southern continent, accepted by geographers since the time of the ancient Greeks — a southern continent had to exist in order to balance the globe with the other landmasses in the Northern Hemisphere — and reports from Portuguese voyaging along the east coast of South America. In this, the Piri Reis Map is typical of most other world maps of the sixteenth century, which depict a southern continent with inscriptions describing South America, and there are other sixteenth-century maps that show a southern continent as connected to South America.

 The shape and orientation of Hispaniola on the Piri Reis Map is strikingly similar to the depiction of the island of Cipango on maps of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Cipango was Marco Polo’s name for the islands of Japan, and it was one of the goals sought by Columbus on his first voyage. Columbus and his contemporaries believed that Cipango was rectangular, with its main axis oriented north to south. Many maps of the early sixteenth century show Cipango with this shape and orientation. When Columbus discovered the island of Hispaniola during his first voyage, he thought he had found Cipango. Several other early-sixteenth-century maps also assert that Hispaniola was Cipango, and the island of Hispaniola on the Piri Reis Map is shown with Cipango’s traditional north-south orientation.

The island of Cuba is depicted as part of the mainland on the Piri Reis Map, in accordance with the opinion of Columbus, who believed that Cuba was a great cape of Asia. Piri’s place-names on this mainland and on the islands offshore all result from Columbus’s second voyage and clearly identify the land as Cuba. The prominent cape pointing toward Hispaniola undoubtedly represents present-day Cabo Maisi at Cuba’s eastern end. The region at the north of the cape illustrates the coast on the north side of Cuba, explored by Columbus on his first voyage. The region to the south is the south coast of Cuba, which he explored on his second voyage.

Columbus described the north coast of Cuba as extending northward. He described the south coast of Cuba as extending first westward, from a great cape, and then southward. The Piri Reis Map follows these descriptions, illustrating Cuba as a mainland with a coastline that tends north and south. Columbus’s contemporaries — Paolo Toscanelli, Henricus Martellus, Francesco Rosselli, and Martin Behaim — depicted the same view of the Asian mainland on their maps, made between 1474 and 1492.

The Piri Reis Map exhibits many features in common with other surviving portolan charts and portolan-style maps of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and fits well into the evolution of mapmaking from the late Middle Ages to the early Renaissance. Many features of the map show close affinities to contemporary Portuguese maps, especially the delineations of the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America. A Portuguese map — similar to those made by Lopo Homem, Pedro Reinel, and Jorge Reinel, around 1519, and those used by Juan Vespucci (nephew of Amerigo) in 1523 — was also the apparent source for the land connection of South America with the southern continent. All of these features confirm Piri’s own statements that he used Portuguese maps as sources for making his world map.

 Though some features on the Piri Reis Map might first appear unusual — such as the connection of the southern continent to South America, the orientation of Hispaniola, and the depiction of Cuba as continental — these and other features are not unexpected on a map of the early sixteenth century.

The most significant aspect of the map is its connection to Christopher Columbus. Many of the map’s unique features support statements by Piri that he copied a map by Columbus. What appears to be a confused jumble in the northwest section of the map conforms to Columbus’s geographical ideas. Hispaniola lies in the same orientation as Cipango. The place-names and depictions in the West Indies also indicate a strong connection to Columbus.

The Piri Reis Map displays the earliest, most primitive, and most rudimentary cartography of these islands, a primitiveness that indicates that the earliest of all cartographic records of the discoveries in the New World — a map made by Columbus, or made under his supervision, around 1495 or 1496 — is preserved in the Piri Reis Map.


Gregory C. McIntosh is a scholar of the history of cartography and geographical explorations, particularly of the Americas in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and vice president of the California Map Society. This article was adapted from his forthcoming book, The Piri Reis Map of 1513, with a foreword by Norman J.W. Thrower, to be published by the University of Georgia Press.

"The Piri Reis map of 1513" by Gregory McIntosh