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D - 43: Famous People in the Mediterranean - Piri Reis

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Most people won’t recognise the name of Piri Reis, or Captain Piri, the Turkish Admiral and cartographer to the Sultan, unless you are an expert in Turkish history or have been to the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul.

Map of the World from Piri Reis, 1513

Ahmet Muhittin Pîrî with his full name, Piri Reis was a remarkable person. Born either close to Gallipoli or Ankara in 1465, he lived to 1553 when he was beheaded after a vicious court intrigue. He was a corsair, navigator, cartographer and a skilled diplomat. His brilliant career took him from the Canary Islands in the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. He was a scholar and a fighter, a combination we hardly see today. Turkish people hold him in high regard – mostly for his achievements, but also for showing a different perspective in geopolitic strategy that Turkey never followed.

At the age of 12 years – Nelson joined the Royal Navy at the same age - Piri Reis was hired by his uncle Kemal Reis, an experienced mariner and corsair. He would stay with him for 14 years and saw action along the coasts of North Africa, Spain, the Baleares, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and Italy. His first independent command in 1492 was the evacuation of Muslims and Jews from Spain, which evicted them at the end of the Reconquista. It brought him in touch with well-educated scholars and intellectuals whose families had lived in Spain for centuries. The experience cemented his low opinion of the Christian culture, which allowed these cruelties on religious grounds. He brought many of these refugees to Istanbul where they were welcomed with open arms. The Ottoman Empire was respectful of people’s religions and granted religious freedom provided it was not used to undermine Turkish rule. And the skills of Jewish people were always in demand.

Expulsion of the Jewish and the Moors from Spain in 1492

When Sultan Selim appointed his uncle to Admiral of the young Ottoman Fleet in 1495, Piri Reis became one of his commanders and fought several fleet actions with him. Defeating Venetian and Genovese flotillas, they cleared the Aegean Sea of the two Mediterranean powers. In 1501, Captain Piri also participated in his uncle’s raid on Spain and the Canary Islands, the first time an Ottoman Fleet ventured into the Atlantic. Piri Reis became aware of the big new world of the Atlantic.

When his uncle Kemal Reis drowned in a severe storm on his way to Egypt in 1511, Piri Reis left the fleet and retired to Gallipoli to work on his geographical observations and to deepen his understanding of navigation and cartography. Without any doubt, Piri Reis had access to Christopher Columbus’ and some other Portuguese maps. From his records and these maps, he drew his first Map of the World (top picture) of which some fragments survived and are exhibited in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul.

Piri Reis in front of his first World Map from 1513

In 1517, we find Piri Reis again at sea, this time accompanying the Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha on his trip to Alexandria. During the trip, the Grand Vizier became aware of Piri’s work in cartography. He took him up the Nile to Cairo, where he presented his maps and books to Sultan Selim who had just conquered Mamluk Egypt. The maps showed the naval activities of the Portuguese who were able to reach the Indian Ocean directly since 1498 (Vasco da Gama) and the big New World Empire that the Spanish were building. It could have been a turning point in Turkish history but the Sultan was not interested in the opportunities the Atlantic offered. Turkey lacked the sturdy ships the Portuguese and the Basque fishermen had developed over centuries. The Ottoman Empire stuck to what they had and knew: galleys. Controlling the wealth flowing from the east remained priority number one.

Piri Reis’ Map of the Mediterranean

In 1526 and again in 1528, Piri Reis was invited to present his maps in Istanbul to Suleiman the Magnificent. The new Sultan quickly understood their value. They put his conflict with the House of Habsburg (Spain and Austria combined) into a bigger context. The Ottomans were involved in a struggle for global supremacy, which went beyond the Mediterranean.

Ottoman Sphere of Influence in the 16th century

Not surprisingly, Piri Reis was made Admiral of the Indian Fleet in 1547 when the Portuguese pushed up the Red Sea and attacked Jeddah and Suez. With the Holy Sites of Mecca and Medina unprotected, the Turks had to act. As the Lords of Egypt they were the Defenders of the Faith and could not let the Portuguese dominate the space.

After assuming command, Piri Reis built a small fleet of galleys in Suez. The building material was carried on camels’ back from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Within a year, he counterattacked. He was able to push the Portuguese out of the Red Sea and conquered Aden in Yemen, then removed them from Muscat (Oran) and the Persian Gulf. However, he was not able to eliminate them from their strong positions in Hormuz, Diu and Goa and lost several engagements at sea. His Mediterranean galleys were not match for the Portuguese Carracks, sturdy ships with lots of sail and 20 guns on stable platforms. The decision made in 1520 not to develop the technology for open sea sailing fired back. There were some impressive diplomatic successes though – if you are ever in Aceh in Indonesia, you can still see the Turkish guns he sent there. But the Ottomans’ push into the Indian Ocean faltered even before the Dutch and the English arrived.

Whilst a powerful Ottoman Empire was able to dominate the old sources of wealth they did not participate in the building of the new Atlantic world. Not only did they miss out on the development of new technology and markets, their capital accumulation also suffered as trading profits now accrued in Amsterdam and London. Maybe Andrea Doria can add even one more achievement to his impressive record. His skills prevented the Ottomans from braking into the Atlantic. The world may be different otherwise.

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