HIS CONTRIBUTIONS TO GEOGRAPHY
By Sarah Aliya Azahar
As the archaeologists claim, human beings began having some social, economic and political developments at least since 5,000 years. Many roads, buildings, temples and market places were built in order to create what is today became known as a city, which was the starting point of the word civilizations. These developments required the central government, which will manage the cities in good condition and guide them towards progress. The economic institutions are needed to stabilize societies, the central government of which should utilize the capital for the welfare of the people as its (central government’s) main objective. Later, when the progress moves forward, it created a high-level community development, especially regarding behavior, lifestyle and education. But all of this progress is started from the very basic skills of a learning process, which is called education and knowledge.
Education is the major factor for progress and development of humanity. This essay discusses one of the well-known scholars or a shining star in the field of geography, by the name of Piri Reis, who lived during the Osmanli caliphate. Before we discuss Piri Reis, it should be good if we can have a basic understanding of the field of geography, especially its importance during the Osmanli times.
The word ‘geography’ is from the Greek word geographia, which literally it means “earth description.” The Oxford dictionary defines geography as:
The study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity, as it affects and is affected by these, including the distribution of populations and resources and political and economic activities.[i]
Since the ancient times, people needed to travel. When people were making trading outside of their region, like the Mesopotamians had trading relations with the Indus civilization, they were obliged to travel, use sea roads and sailing their ships in order to carry out their goods for trading and to arrive at their destinations. The sea roads were used not only for the trading activities, but also it has been used to travel to other areas, maybe, for performing the Hajj or going to another place in order to obtain education.
The basic knowledge that they applied during their travel was related to astronomy, for example, to find the direction and navigate their journey; mathematics in order to make a calculation of days, month and years of their sailing; and also geography to position the areas encountered during their journeys. Very soon, travelers learned to design maps with the descriptions of the features of the earth and its atmosphere.
During the Osmanli history, the inhabitants were having not only trading with the outside world, but also the territory of the caliphate was gradually expanding as a result of diplomacy or military campaigns. The Osmanli was very active in the Red Sea, Black Sea, and the Indian Ocean. The Osmanli people and experts used to travel from one place to another. The subject of geography became essential for the administration of a huge territory of the caliphate, to secure the area and sea roads. Such need created brilliant experts in the field of geography and Piri Reis was one of them.
Piri Reis is known to us as a cartographer, or a map-maker in the 16th century Osmanli caliphate. He was also a geographer and an admiral. The sources state that, besides his mother tongue, Piri Reis also knew some other languages such as the Spanish, Italian, Greek and Portuguese. The sources do not mention the exact date of the birth of Piri Reis, the dates presumed are between 1465 or 1470. He was born in Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, he prominent Osmanli naval base. His real name was Muhyiddin Piri. But ‘Reis’ was given later to him, which in the Turkish language means ‘captain’. So Piri Reis means ‘Captain Piri’. His father was known as Haci (Haji) Mehmed and one of his uncles was the well-known Osmanli admiral, Kemal Reis.[ii]
Piri Reis started his career as a geographer during the time of the Sultan Selim I who was passionate about collecting maps and geographical texts. Many scholars believe that his uncle, Kemal Reis encouraged him to join his voyages to the North African coast from 1487 to 1510. These journeys become the stepping stone for Piri Reis to gather information for his maps, and mark the exact location of certain places and learn about peculiarities of these places. Also, he gathered a rich information about oceans and experienced navigation. This information will help him later in his writing, known as a book entitled, Kitab-i Bahriye.
During the voyage in 1510/11, his uncle Kemal Reis died. Piri Reis left the boat and returned to his hometown, Gallipoli. This was the beginning of his work on maps of the world and on Kitab-i Bahriye. His first masterpiece was the charts of the world, which he completed in 1513. He drew a large scale map which he prepared in two parts with the characteristic of a portolan chart in structure and concept. Portolan is navigational maps based on compass directions and estimated distances, without containing any latitudinal and longitudinal lines, but it includes coastlines and islands. It was drawn based his experience and knowledge he got during his navigation and he also used a number of maps made by other sailors or travelers. It actually was drawn on the gazelle hide.[iii] Unfortunately, only one-third of the map (the Atlantic Ocean and the adjacent parts of the Old and New World) of Piri Reis is survived and the other two-third is lost.
Piri Reis’s famous work was called Kitab-i bahriye, which is known in English as the Book of Maritime (naval) Matters. Its first version appeared in 1521, which was the shorter version consisting of 130 chapters and charts. The book also had the second version, which was more extensive with 210 charts and it was completed by Piri Reis in 1526. This book was designed as a manual for sailing directions. It included his drawing and maps of the cities in the Mediterranean and Aegean coast and described the information about navigation and nautical astronomy.[iv] Piri also stressed on the knowledge of navigation, which he considered necessary for a sailor or mariner to know more about the safety matters.
The slogan “safety first” is still the most important slogan in maritime science. Working at the sea is dangerous. That is why Piri Reis was emphasizing on safety matters and described the basic knowledge and important skills that they should know. In this Kitab-i Bahriye, he also discussed his understanding of wind and storms and skill of the usage of the compass.
Piri Reis showed his Kitab-i Bahriye to the Osmanli Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha in its original form during the trip to Egypt in 1524-25, when Piri Reis was the pilot of a ship which was sending the Grand Vizier to Egypt in order to settle the rebellious governor. But it failed to grab the attention from the Grand Vizier. Therefore, Piri Reis revised his book based on the advice of Ibrahim Pasha[v].
In this second version, he gives more details in describing the location of the stars, the landmarks and the layout of harbors and the monsoons. He also described more information for the war fleet of the Osmanli navy. The most important part in this second version is about the supply of fresh water. Fresh water is essential for survival in the middle of the sea as our bodies could easily be dehydrated and we cannot drink the sea water because it is made up approximately three percent of salt. But human kidneys cannot make urine from a concentration of salts of more than two percent.[vi] The sailors have to find a certain area which can supply fresh water for them. Piri Reis in his book described certain places like sheltered bays, lagoons and peninsular, wells and fresh water streams, and all are clearly depicted on his maps.[vii]
In sum, I hope that this short essay may give some positive perspective and a new spirit to encourage students to learn more about Piri Reis. Piri Reis was a person who had spent a lot of time working on his masterpiece and his contribution still influencing the modern world in some aspects. The world map that we have today was created based on his works as well. We should be respectful to previous scholars, without them, maybe, we were not able to achieve what we have today.
Casale, G. (2003). The Ottoman ‘Discovery’ of the Indian Ocean in the Sixteenth Century: The Age of Exploration from an Islamic Perspective. Retrieved November 20, 2016, from
Cerezo, A. (2012). I’m dying of thirst. Can I start drinking seawater?. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://paradise.docastaway.com/island/survival/
English Oxford Living Dictionary. Retrieved November 25, 2016, from
Svatopluk, S. (2012). “Five Famous Ottoman Turks of the Sixteenth Century.” The Journal of Ottoman Studies, 40. Retrieved November 10, 2016, from
Svat, S. (1992). “Islamic Charting in the Mediterranean.” In J. B. Harley (Ed.), The
History of Cartography, (pp.269-276). London: University of Chicago Press.
Vocbulary.com Dictionary. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from
[ii] Svat, S. (1992). Islamic Charting in the Mediterranean. J. B. Harley (Ed.), The History of
Cartography, (pp.269-276). London: University of Chicago Press, p, 266.
[iii] Svat, S. (1992). Islamic Charting in the Mediterranean. J. B. Harley (Ed.), The History of
Cartography, (pp.269-276). London: University of Chicago Press, p, 270.
[iv] Ibid, 270.
[v] Ibid, 272.
[vii] Svat, S. (1992). Islamic Charting in the Mediterranean. J. B. Harley (Ed.), The History of Cartography, (pp.269-276). London: University of Chicago Press, p, 274.
The writer is a final year student majoring in history at the Faculty of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia