History of the Appearance of the Piri Re'is Map

About the history of the appearance of the Piri Re'is map in Constantinople in 1513, history of the mysteriously accurate map.


The Event: The Appearance of the Piri Re'is Map

When: 1513

Where: Constantinople

The Mystery: Piri ibn Haji Memmed, known as Piri Re'is or Admiral Piri, was a high official in the Turkish navy. In 1513 he had his cartographers prepare a map of the Atlantic Ocean and bordering lands. The map was filed and forgotten until 1929.

In that year it was discovered in the Turkish imperial archives in Constantinople and it created a sensation. Though the map was made only 21 years after Columbus discovered America, it seemed to show the coasts of Africa and South America in correct relative longitude. It was one of the most accurate early maps of the New World. Moreover, an inscription on the map said that Piri Re'is had based the western portion on maps that Columbus had used on his first voyage. There had long been speculation that Columbus had used maps made by earlier transatlantic voyagers. Here seemed to be the first solid evidence that such maps had really existed. Another inscription on the map stated that the Turkish admiral had consulted even older maps, some dating back to the time of Alexander the Great.

The Piri Re'is map slipped into obscurity again until the 1950s, when Capt. Arlington H. Mallery, a retired U.S. Navy man and a student of old maps, pointed out something even more provocative. At the bottom of the map was what looked like the bays and islands along the coast of Antarctica known as Queen Maud Land. In 1513 the existence of Antarctica was unknown. Even more surprising, according to Mallery, was the fact that the map showed Queen Maud Land as it had looked before it was covered by glaciers. (The outlines of the land now hidden under the Antarctic ice were traced in the late 1940s and early 1950s by scientists using sophisticated seismographic equipment.)

Possible Solutions: The most intriguing and controversial theory was put forth by Prof. Charles H. Hapgood in his book Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings. He suggested that before the ice ages, and before Antarctica was covered with ice, there was a great worldwide civilization which possessed a technology that far surpassed anything known until modern times. He theorized that this civilization disappeared, almost without a trace, but that a few of its maps survived. Versions of these maps were passed down for centuries, and such maps were the source of Piri Re'is's astonishingly accurate map. An exotic variation on this theory holds that the ancient maps were made by intelligent visitors from outer space. Yet another explanation is that the map is simply a fake. Fake maps have fooled the experts before.

A fourth possibility is that the map is genuine but that Mallery's interpretation of it is exaggerated. In earlier centuries, mapmakers often added imaginary lands or mythological details. Traditionally they placed a continent where Antarctica is located. They did this because they clung to ancient Greek ideas about how the world should look, not because they knew how it did look.

Finally, the resemblance between the Piri Re'is map and Queen Maud Land under the ice is not all that close, and could be pure coincidence.

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