Piri Reis’ Book on Navigation (Kitab-i Bahriyye) as a Geography Handbook

Piri Reis’ Book on Navigation (Kitab-i Bahriyye) as a Geography Handbook

By Dimitris Loupis

Tetradia Ergasias Vol.25/26 (2004)

Abstract: The Ottoman Admiral Piri Reis (ca. 1470 – 1553/4) compiled in 1520/1 his Book on Navigation (Kitab-i Bahriyye), which was based partly on Bartolommeo [da li Sonetti]‘s [Isolarlo] (Venice ca. 1485). His personal observations, though, are of great significance. For the first half of the 16th century this book of nautical instructions and charts (a sort of Isolano or Arte del Navigare) was the best hydrographical work on the Mediterranean Sea among other Italian and Spanish books of its kind. A larger second version appeared in 1525/6 and a third, not from Piri Reis’ own hand though, during the second half of 17th century. This work has a long manuscript tradition for a period of 250 years (till the end of 18th century). More than forty copies seem to have survived nowadays. Kitäb-i Bahriyye was the first cartographical work in Ottoman language and was used for a long time not as a book of nautical instructions solely, but as well as a Turkish handbook of geography and an atlas of the old world of the Mediterranean Sea in Turkish. Its latest copies pay more attention to the cartographical part of the work and less to the text. New maps of large scale are added in the luxurious manuscripts with the aim to produce modern atlases. This paper considers Kitäb-i Bahriyye as a geography handbook and atlas, actually the more original one in Ottoman-Turkish literature.

Introduction: The 16th century was for all peoples surrounding the Mediterranean basin an era marked by an intense activation in the sea and a constant and tireless effort to depict it accurately. Those states that could navigate that encircled sea were obsessed with the idea of perceiving and knowing the area. The Italian city-states, the Iberian kingdoms and the Ottoman Empire kept on being in trade and war among each other, registering their own dominion and that of their enemies and allies, and on making their presence felt all around the Mediterranean Sea.

On the part of the Ottomans, who are the latest settlers in the Mediterranean, a state establishment is consolidated at the end of the 14th and the early 15th century, anyhow, based on new, more stable grounds after the capture of Constantinople. The sultan, his court and the Ottoman scholars and scientists of this period are in close dependence on the learned tradition of the East and its achievements, even though they are a few centuries far from the classical Arabic production. Thus, the first works on geography, which are produced within the Ottoman dominion under the aegis of the sultan, are limited both to translations and adaptations of the classical Arabic or Persian geographies and to translations from Greek literature.

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