Piri Reis’s Map – and other big dates in world history

I don’t remember much from my school days, to tell you the truth. I was a moderately successful student, but by no means a hardworking one. I attended French classes for five years, without ever learning to speak or do much else with the language. Perhaps that’s the reason I have some sympathy for my Turkish students as they struggle with the mysteries of definite and indefinite articles, and gender-specific 3rd person pronouns. One thing I do have a clear memory of, however, from those five years of French lessons, is a line from the novel ‘L’Etranger’by Albert Camus – ‘Je lui ai effleuré les seins.’ The main character, Meursault, is watching a movie at the cinema with a young lady he picks up on the day of his mother’s funeral, and he sneaks a quick feel of her breasts, which is what that line says in a slightly more romantic French kind of way.
Well, that may not seem a lot to have learned in five years of studying French, and my old teachers would perhaps be disappointed to hear it – but one thing it has subsequently taught me is never to underestimate the workings of the adolescent male mind. First, you can’t know what is going to stick in their febrile brains . . . And second, apart from the elite self-motivated few, if you want to get their attention, you need to keep in mind what sort of things make them tick.
Piri Reis, 16th century Ottoman cartographer
Now you may be wondering why this particular memory chose this particular moment to emerge from my mental synapses, and you may be attributing it to male dotage. However, I can assure you, there is a perfectly valid reason: had he lived, 2013 would have been the year Albert Camus celebrated his 100th birthday. Ok, maybe you’re still not with me. How do you know this? you’re asking, and why should we care? The fact is I paid a visit to the website of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and I read with interest a list of important historical dates to be observed around the world in the coming year.
For example, it will be 350 years since the death of Nzinga Mbande Ngola Kiluanji, Queen of Matamba-Ndongo in present-day Angola, an ‘emblematic figure’, so the UNESCO people assure me, ‘of the struggle against slavery and for women’s empowerment in Africa.’ Doctors in Iran and elsewhere will celebrate the1,000th anniversary of the compilation of ‘Kitab-al-Qānūn fī ţ-ţibb’by Abd Allah ibn Sina. If that name doesn’t mean much to you, you may know him by its Westernised version, Avicenna, the Persian polymath who published his ‘Canon of Medicine’ in 1013 CE.

Danish intellectuals, I suppose, and the international community of existentialists, will be gathering in smoke-filled rooms to commemorate the  200thbirthday  of Sören Kierkegaard, founding father of their movement – and I want to tell you, that happy fact brought back other adolescent memories. For some reason, those writers were in vogue in the days of my youth: Camus, Kierkegaard and close brethren like Jean Paul Sartre, Andre Gide and Samuel Beckett. A lot of them were French, interestingly, and if they weren’t, for some reason best known to themselves, they chose to write in that language – which you might think was a commercially poor decision. Another thing they had in common was a preoccupation with the absurdity of human existence – a concept exercising a strange attraction for my youthful male mind on odd occasions when it rose to higher levels of consciousness. Perhaps also, ‘absurd’ seemed an appropriate description of what we were expected to study at school at a time when the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Well, it was a few years before I gained a truer appreciation of what those philosophers were on about – that a gut experience of the absurdity of human existence was a stepping stone to personal awareness and ascribing meaning to an individual life – the so-called ‘leap of faith’. So maybe you can kind of see why it was important to me – but at the same time, you’re still left wondering why I visited that UNESCO website in the first place.
So let me tell you. I’d seen an article in a Turkish newspaper proudly announcing that 2013 would be UNESCO’s year of Piri Reis, the 16th century Ottoman cartographer, and I wanted to check it out. In fact, I haven’t been able to confirm that the United Nations is/are giving that much importance to Admiral Piri – but he’s definitely there on the list, and Turks are proud to claim him as their own. It seems that in 1513, the gentleman in question drew a map, at a time when that particular activity was still in its infancy.
Now, somewhere along the line Turks seem to have lost the art of cartography. In my personal experience, the giving of directions is not a national strong point, and the drawing of a map to help a visitor find their house, an arcane mystery to most. Getting your hands on a document in any way resembling a large-scale topographic map for the purposes of tramping the trackless wastes of Anatolia seems a virtual impossibility.
Nevertheless, there was Piri Reis, back around the turn of the 16th century, producing a book entitled Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation), and more especially, a map of the world showing the location of America with remarkable detail and accuracy. According to Wikipedia, ‘the historical importance of the map lies in its demonstration of the extent of exploration of the New World by approximately 1510, perhaps before others. It used ten Arabian sources, four Indian maps sourced from Portuguese and one map of Columbus.’
Hacı Ahmet Muhiddin Piri was born sometime in the late 1460s, following his Uncle Kemal into the Ottoman navy, where he seems to have had a long and distinguished career until a ripe old age, winning victories against the Spanish, Venetians and Genoese, helping to conquer Egypt and the Island of Rhodes, and even achieving some successes against the Portuguese around the Persian Gulf and Arabian Coast, in the days before Ottoman sea-power began to wane. After all that you might think a grateful Empire would have awarded a generous pension and sent him into a well-earned retirement, but apparently that was not the case. It is to be expected that a chap, even a naval hero of such stature, would be losing a little of his youthful vigour by the time he was in his 80s, but it seems Admiral Piri incurred the wrath of the Ottoman Governor of Basra by refusing to engage in yet another foray against the Portuguese – with the result that said governor had him beheaded in 1553. For sure, life wasn’t easy in those days!
But to return to the map, which, you will remember, was our main focus of attention. It seems the Turkish Government back in the 1920s had assigned a German philologist and theologian by the name of Gustav Adolf Deissmann to make a catalogue of non-Islamic items in the library of Topkapı Palace Museum. While engaged in this work, Deissmann turned up, in October 1929, a vellum document of some antiquity, subsequently confirmed to be a fragment of Piri Reis’s long lost world map. Knowing that the Ottoman cartographer had used a Columbus map as one of his sources, academics were excited by the prospect that Columbus’s original might also be lurking somewhere amongst the Topkapı collection. Sad to say, if it still exists, that source map has yet to be located. However, that was not the only excitement created by Mr Deissmann’s find.
Some of my older readers may recall Erich von Daniken, a Swiss gentleman who produced several books back in the late 1960s and early 70s raising the question of whether ‘God’ had actually been some kind of extra-terrestrial astronaut. Despite the fact that most of his evidence (involving Egyptian pyramids, ancient Peruvians and early Indian stainless steel) has been subsequently discredited, the books still sell well, and Erich von’s website claims that he is, in fact, the best-selling non-fiction writer of all time.
His pertinence to our current subject lies in his claim that the Piri Reis map depicted landforms in Antarctica and must have been sourced from documents mapped with advanced technology before the continent was buried under its vast ice sheet. Von Daniken and other ‘researchers’ of ‘palaeo-contact’ have made other claims about the map’s possible connection to ancient aliens, among them that it: shows the earth as seen from space, shows the sub-glacial topography of Greenland, and is aligned with the earth’s ‘energy grid’.
Well, I’m not here to discuss the likelihood of alien intervention in human affairs, and the only relevance 2013 has to Erich von Daniken is that it would have been the tenth anniversary of the opening of his theme park near Interlaken in Switzerland, though, unfortunately, it didn’t survive to see even its fourth birthday. However, if you’re at a loose end, and looking for a new Internet wave to surf, I can recommend that UNESCO list of big dates in world history.
Furthermore, if you do have an interest in UFOs and extra-terrestrial visitations, during my researches I stumbled across these sites which you may like to take a look at: World Mysteries.com and UFO Digest.

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