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The Reality and Myth of the Piri Reis Map of 1513

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

The Piri Reis map was compiled in 1513.

The Piri Reis map was compiled in 1513.

What Is the Piri Reis Map?

Compiled in 1513, the Piri Reis map is one of the oldest post-Columbian world maps in existence.

Drawn on gazelle skin by an Ottoman-Turkish admiral and cartographer named Piri Reis, the map is extremely detailed for its time.

The map has captivated and mystified scholars for years. Its seemingly accurate details of the quite recently discovered North and South American continents, as well as the plotted lines, give the impression that the chart was made by a cartographer who was ahead of his time. Not only that, but the map seems to depict Antarctica, which most historians agree wasn't spotted by Europeans until 1820.

For this reason, the map has given rise to myths and legends. Some claim that the map is too advanced for its time. Others speculate that it’s proof that aliens may have created it while orbiting the Earth. Theories have been posited about an earlier discovery of Antarctica and even the possibility of pyramids existing on the frozen continent.

The story of the Piri Reis map is one that mixes reality and fantasy; it is an ancient document that has fueled modern mysteries.

The map represented proof that the Turks were once masters of the seas and may have reached the new world like the other major European powers did at the time.

The map was drawn by Piri Reis, an Ottoman-Turkish admiral and cartographer.

The map was drawn by Piri Reis, an Ottoman-Turkish admiral and cartographer.

Brief History

The map has been around for more than 500 years—but for several centuries it was lost and forgotten. It would have stayed that way if it wasn’t for a Turkish museum director named Halil Ethem who stumbled upon it on November 29, 1929.

Ethem found the map during the renovation and conversion of Istanbul's Topkapı Palace to become a museum. A handwritten note found with the map explained that it was a compilation of about 20 references for the creation of the map.

One intriguing name appeared on marginal notes on the map, which reads: “The coasts and islands on this map are taken from Colombo’s map." Colombo, Ethem may have surmised, was Christopher Columbus.

The person responsible for this rediscovered map was Piri Reis, an admiral and cartographer in the Ottoman Navy (the word reis translates to “admiral”).

The announcement of the map's discovery immediately piqued the interest of scholars. Some even hoped it may give hints to the wherabouts of the fabled lost chart made by Christopher Columbus himself during his voyage to the Caribbean.

The stir it created was monumental. Not only were scholars thrilled, the entire nation of Turkey was elated. The recent end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire led to the birth of the modern republic of Turkey, a young nation with strong nationalist fervor.

To the young nation, the map represented proof that the Turks had once been masters of the sea, capable of reaching the New World along with other major European powers at the time. In celebration, the image of the map was placed on the back of the lira, Turkey's monetary notes.

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Turkish lira depicting the map.

Turkish lira depicting the map.

What the Map Shows

The map is actually a fragment—only about one-third of the original map survives. However, the part that exists depicts Europe, Africa, and the two American continents. While much of the Atlantic coast of Africa and South America appears to be accurate, other areas such as the Caribbean and portions of the North American continent were distorted or inaccurately depicted. In the Caribbean region, several islands were deleted while a mythical one called Antilia was included.

The map includes other details, as well: It shows mountain ranges, dry plains, and interior land features.

Does It Show Antarctica?

A fascinating feature of the map concerns how South America is depicted. Near its southern tip, the continent bends toward the east, taking up the bottom half of the map. For years, this part of the map was seen as an error; however, others have speculated that this curious delineation is actually Antarctica.

Curiously, this "Antarctic" region is depicted as being free of ice. However, geologists agree that the last time this continent was ice-free was more than 34 million years ago. Before that, the continent was free of ice for nearly 100 million years.

Most likely, it isn't actually Antarctica that is depicted on the map. It was probably assumed that a huge land mass existed on each of the four sections of the earth in order to “balance it out.” Also, it appears that it was an extension (or an assumption) of what the South American continent may have looked like.

The Piri Reis map appears to show the continent of Antarctica attached to South America.

The Piri Reis map appears to show the continent of Antarctica attached to South America.

Paranormal Interpretations

Scholars and cartographers were not the only ones who were interested in the map. In the 1960s, speculation about its origins took a turn toward the paranormal.

Part of the reason for this shift had to do with the map's design. It is a portolan chart. It does not have the typical latitude and longitude lines that modern maps and charts use. Instead, it contains lines called azimuth that emanate from a center known as a compass rose, or azimuthal projection. There are several compass roses on the map. These were common on maps of the time.

Erich von Däniken: The Alien Connection

The azimuth and azimuthal projections became an obsession for paranormal investigator and ancient astronaut enthusiast, Erich von Däniken. He made some interesting claims about the map in his book, Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past.

Without testing his hypothesis, he wrote that the projections shown on the Piri Reis map fit well when the center was Cairo, Egypt. Based on this, von Däniken believed that a) the map was very accurate in terms of scale; and b) it was not humanly possible in the 16th century for anyone to have created such a map.

He concluded that the map was proof that the Ottomans were in contact with aliens who were helping them create new technology and knowledge. (How he came to this conclusion—as well as others in his book—is a mystery).

Amateur historian Charles Hapgood claimed the map proved there was an unknown advanced civilization from the ice age that had explored the world.

Charles Hapgood: Ancient Sea Kings

Von Däniken’s questionable theory wasn’t the only one. In his 1966 book, Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, amateur historian Charles Hapgood claimed the map proved there was an unknown advanced civilization from the ice age that had explored the world.

He believed that the map was copied from a map from this ancient civilization. His proof was that the map showed a dry Antarctica. He does not offer any other evidence to support his theory.

The Piri Reis map superimposed on a modern world map.

The Piri Reis map superimposed on a modern world map.

The Antarctic Pyramid Myth

Several years ago, a viral article claiming that pyramids in Antarctica were discovered circulated blogs, alternative news sites, and social media. The story was vague and contained a few questionable images that supposedly showed the pyramids. Despite the many errors and inconsistencies found in the original article, many believed that this was definitive proof that there was a lost civilization on the frozen continent.

Some speculated that the Piri Reis map may provide supporting evidence to this theory. Thus, fringe sites such as Before It’s News added to the original story by inserting the map as evidence.

Unresolved Mysteries

While the Piri Reis map has been embraced by paranormal enthusiasts, some scholars have rejected it as a hoax. Some cartographers have pointed out that the azimuthal projection van Däniken proposed were not accurate.

Others have pointed out that the use of the written Turkish language on the map doesn’t correspond with the Arabic writing that was used by the Ottomans during the 16th century.

However, many of the questions raised by the map may have been answered by Piri Reis himself. In a handwritten note that was found with the map, he wrote that the map was a compilation of information and details found on other existing maps of the time.

Modern scholars agree that the map corresponds with the information that early-16th-century explorers and cartographers did in fact have at their disposal.

There are many questions that still exist about the Piri Reis map. While it represents national pride—as well as a possible link to lost documents—there are still unresolved mysteries. The map will continue to confound and captivate those who try to study its wondrous lines.

Sources Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Dean Traylor


Randy Godwin from Southern Georgia on August 01, 2016:

I've read about the ancient map since it was first rediscovered. It fascinated me at the time and still does today. Well written and I found out things I didn't know before. :)

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on July 25, 2016:

This was a very interesting read, Dean. Modern man always has a desire to unravel the mysteries of the past and wild speculation is often part of any thing that can't be definitively proven. Great hub.

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