Piri Reis' Map: A Map to Intrigue East and West Alike

Piri Reis’s World map, 16th century (Source)

The Oldest Surviving Detailed Map Showing the Americas

In 1929, scholars working in Turkey’s Topkapi Palace Museum discovered a section of an early 16th-century Turkish world map. It was signed by a captain named Piri ibn Hajji Mohammed Reis (meaning “admiral”), and it was dated 1513. Now known as the famous “Map of America,” it was made only 21 years after Christopher Columbus had reached the New World.

The oldest-surviving detailed map showing America was drawn by Turkish admiral Piri Reis in 1513. He used one of Christopher Columbus’s maps, now lost, for reference. Piri Reis’s map shows Brazil’s coastline to the left, and the coast of Spain and North Africa to the right. (Source, and 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page 245)

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Portrait of Piri Reis (Source)

Piri Reis was born in the second half of the 15th century in Gallipoli, and began his maritime life under the command of his illustrious uncle, Kemal Reis. He fought many naval battles alongside his uncle, and was later a naval commander, leading the Ottoman fleet that fought the Portuguese in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

To draw the map rediscovered in the Palace Museum, Piri Reis did not rely on personal experience of traveling or sailing, as you might expect. He assembled it by referring to 20 regional maps; an Arab map of India; four Portuguese maps showing India and China; and a map “of the Western Parts,” the coasts, and islands, drawn by Columbus.

It was this last fact that made the rediscovery of Piri Reis’s map so exciting to historians worldwide. Columbus made the last map he mentions during his third voyage to the New World. Columbus sent it to Spain in 1498—but it has been lost for years. Now we can look at Piri Reis’s map and see what Columbus must have recorded.

A map by Turkish admiral Piri Reis, from his 16th-century book Kitab-i-bahriyye, shows Cyprus (Source, and 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page 243)

We know little more of Piri Reis himself. In between fighting sea battles he retired to Gallipoli, where he devised his map of 1513 and wrote Kitab-I Bahriye (The Book of Sea Lore), a manual of sailing directions.

In 1528, Piri Reis made a second world map of which about one-sixth has survived. This covers the northwestern part of the Atlantic, and the New World from Venezuela to Newfoundland, as well as the southern tip of Greenland. Historians have been amazed by the richness of the map, and regret that only a fragment of the first world map was found. The search for the other parts has remained fruitless. Mystery surrounds Piri Reis’s long silence between 1528, when he made the second of the two maps, and his reappearance in the mid-16th century as a captain of the Ottoman fleet in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Figure 9. Map of Europe, the Mediterranean sea and North Africa from Kitab-i Bahriye by Piri Reis (Source)

Today, Piri Reis’s map is the oldest surviving detailed map showing the Americas. When Piri Reis presented his New World map to the Ottoman sultan Selim I in 1517, the Turks had an accurate description of the Americas and the circumnavigation of Africa well before many European rulers.

Get the full story from 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization Reference (4th  Edition) Annotated.

Exquisite drawing of a Goke, an Ottoman war ship. Miniature taken from Katip Celebi’s manuscript Tuhfetü ‘l-kibar (Topkapi Palace Library, MS R1192). (Source)