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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Thursday 2 June 2022

Piri Reis

 I picked up this book by Fuat Sezgin in Istanbul, not least because I love maps, and Piri Reis is an early master of the art. The full title is Piri Reis and the Pre-Columbian Discovery of the American Continents by Muslim Seafarers. Piri Reis, whose proper name was Ahmet Muhiddin Piri, was a navigator, geographer and cartographer. Today he is known for his maps and charts collected in his Kitab-i Bahriye (Book of Navigation or the Sea). In the 16th century, he was a ship's captain, rising to Admiral (Reis) in the Ottoman fleet by 1547. 

This book covers the development of Ottoman navigation and Piri Reis's role in editing his masterpiece. The key feature of his maps is how accurate they are for the period and the geographical extent, including the whole of the known world. Whilst he was very well travelled, he obviously didn't map all these regions himself, so he must have collected the information from various sources. It has been argued that he used an Italian book, the Isolario by Benedetto Bordone. However, Piri Reis first published seven years before the Italian, and this could well be part of a lazy assumption that Arab and Turkish cartographers had been dependent on Europeans. It is far more likely that Piri Reis relied on Arabic sources, and the author goes into some detail, taking clues from the Bahriye to explain why. Making comparisons with other maps, it can be seen that Piri Reis was at least 200 years ahead of his European counterparts.

When it comes to the depiction of the American continent, this suggests that seafarers had travelled to the continent before Columbus and even that Columbus relied on a map based on such travels. He is critical of the claims made by Gavin Menzies (1421: The Year China Discovered the World) that these maps were surveyed by the Chinese fleets, pointing out that the Chinese were familiar with Arabic maps. Sezgin explains in some detail why this is unlikely, not least the astonishing level of detail and accuracy, which the Chinese could not have had the time to survey. That is, if they ever got any further than Africa.

There are many stories of ships crossing the ocean from Arabic Spain, although few reliable sources remain. While Piri Reis certainly had access to Portuguese maps of South America, his maps have a level of detail that is greater than the surviving Portuguese maps. The author concludes that Muslim navigators reached the Americas by the beginning of the 15th century and even started to survey it. 

The reader can draw their own conclusion from the evidence here. Either way, it is a beautiful book full of stunning maps.

One of my 1/700th Black Seas ships from the Hagen range.


  1. Sounds good. I do like a well drawn making and hearing about how they came to be made. I tend to think of “1421” as a possible/alternative history rather than as fast-iron fact. Still, ideas for possible campaigns…? Yes, for sure.

  2. D’oh. I meant “well drawn map”. Sometimes I despair of autocorrect…