The Discovery of the Piri Re'is Map

In 1929, in the old Imperial Palace in Constantinople, a map was found that caused great excitement. It was painted on parchment, and dated in the month of Muharram in the Moslem year 919, which is 1513 in the Christian calendar. It was signed with the name of Piri Ibn Haji Memmed, an admiral of the Turkish navy known to us as Piri Re'is.

The map aroused attention because, from the date, it appeared to be one of the earliest maps of America. In 1929 the Turks were passing through a phase of intense nationalism under leadership of Kemal, and they were delighted to find an early map of America drawn by a Turkish geographer. Furthermore, examination showed that this map differed significantly from all the other maps of America drawn in the 16th Century because it showed South America and Africa in correct relative longitudes. This was most remarkable, for the navigators of the 16th Century had no means of finding longitude except by guesswork.

Another detail of the map excited special attention. In one of the legends inscribed on the map by Piri Re'is, he stated that he had based the western part of it on a map that had been drawn by Columbus. This was indeed an exciting statement because for several centuries geographers had been trying without success to find a "lost map of Columbus" supposed to have been drawn by him in West Indies. Turkish and German scholars made studies of the map. Articles were written in the learned journals, and even in the popular press.

One of the popular articles, published in the Illustrated London News, caught the eye of the American Secretary of State Henry Stimson. Stimson thought it would be worthwhile to try to discover the actual source Piri Re'is had used, a map which had supposedly been drawn by Columbus and which might still be lying about somewhere in Turkey. Accordingly, he ordered the American Ambassador in Turkey to request that an investigation be made. The Turkish Government complied, but no source maps were found.

Piri Re'is made other interesting statements about his source maps. He used about twenty, he said, and he stated that some of them had been drawn in the time of Alexander the Great, and some of them had been based on mathematics. The scholars who studied the map in the 1930's could credit neither statement. It appears now, however, that both statements were essentially correct.

After a time, the map lost its public interest, and it was not accepted by scholars as a map by Columbus. No more was heard of it until, by a series of curious chances, it aroused attention in Washington, D.C., in 1956. A Turkish naval officer had brought a copy of the map to the U.S. Navy Hydrogarphic Office as a gift (although, unknown to him, facsimiles already existed in the Library of Congress and other leading libraries in the United States). The map had been referred to a cartographer on the staff, M. I. Walters.

Walters happened to refer to the map to a friend of his, a student of old maps, and a breaker of new ground in borderland regions of archaeology, Captain Arlington H. Mallery. Mallery, after a distinguished career as an engineer, navigator, archaeologist, and author, had devoted some years to the study of old maps, especially old Viking maps of North America and Greenland. He took the map home, and returned it with some very surprising comments. He made the statement that, in his opinion, the southernmost part of the map represented bays and islands of the Antarctic coast of Queen Maud Land now concealed under the Antarctic ice cap. That would imply, he thought, that somebody had mapped this coast before the ice had appeared.

This statement was too radical to be taken seriously by most professional geographers...

--Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, Charles H. Hapgood, Chapter 1: The Treasure Hunt Begins

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