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Piri Reis (1470-1554)

piri1_s.jpg (15376 bytes)We do not exactly know the date of his birth, but we presume it to be between 1465-1470. He was born at Gelibolu or Gallipoli as the Anglo-American world calls it, a lovely coastal town on the Marmara Sea, which was then used as a naval base. He was named Muhiddin Piri. His father was Hacı Mehmet, and his uncle, the famous admiral of the period, Kemal Reis. About the children born and brought up in this town, Ibni Kemal, the Turkish historian says: The children of Gelibolu grow up in water like alligators. Their cradles are the boats. They are rocked to sleep with the lullaby of the sea and of the ships day and night.

This Turkish boy, too, falling asleep with the sound of the sea in his ears spends eleven years of his life in his native town. Like other Turkish children of the time, he acquires his early notions about the world from the ideas at home and around him, and also from the elementary teaching he was given. After he is twelve, he joins the crew of his uncle, Kemal Reis. Thereafter he is no longer an unknown Turkish youth, but Piri, a careful observer, and a sea-hero whose name will be remembered in history. He starts his career under the vigilance of his uncle, and takes part in all kinds of naval activities for fourteen uninterrupted years. We can follow him at this period of his life through his book, Bahriye - On Navigation in which he recorded his experiences of the places he visited with his uncle, and the historical events of the time in a most vivid and delightful style. The first fourteen years of Kemal Reis' life is spent in piracy, as was the custom at the time. After becoming a considerable power on the sea through his own personal efforts, in 1494 Kemal Reis accepted official recognition and position from the Ottoman Government, along with his worthy and experienced crew.

Several sources confirm the indication - that Piri was with Kemal Reis before this date. For instance, during a period when his uncle was at Eğriboz, he says in a passage in the Bahriye, about the monasteries of Athos: The aforesaid place is a long cape, 8o miles in length; to the Tracian side lies a dried up channel. In his book, the Bahriye, he makes the following remarks about the ports on the coast of Athos on the Khalkidhiki peninsula: In front of the monastery of Alaviri stand native rocks, among which there lies a natural port. It can take only one boat at a time, but since the mouth of the port lies open to the north, the North and the East winds do much harm to the boat lying there. As we were lying in harbor the strong east-wind blew across to the north and damaged our boat, whereupon the monks from the monastery came to our rescue. They tied the boat down on all the four sides after which she could not move at all. Thus we were saved from the storm, and proceeded on our way.

The remarks refer to the coast of Athos. For the third peninsula he gives this information: There is a cape at Karaburun. People call it the cape of Kesendere. From this cape to Kumburnu it is all covered with Pine woods. Kumburnu is a low and sandy cape; at the point it grows quite shallow. On it, 100 miles to the north-west lies the city of Salonica. In another version of the book he says something different about the same cape: The coast of Kesendere as far as Kum Burnu is very shallow. Along the coast run tall Pine trees. But nobody knows where one can obtain drinking water. To the humble author of these lines Kara Hasan Reis showed the spot.

In 1494 the Moslem population in Granada in Spain asked for help from the Tunisian, Egyptian and the Ottoman Governments. It was just then that Kemal Reis was leading a life of piracy and used his ships to transport these Moslems over to Africa. From 1487 to 1493 Piri participated in various activities on these seas under the supervision of his uncle.

Piri Reis gives remarkable information about the western coast of the Mediterranean and the islands there, and says the following about the island of Minorea of the Balearie Isles: They call that port Portulano. It has a good harbor. As soon as you leave the harbor and turn along the eastern coast to the north you come upon a natural spring. It emerges from under a fig-tree. Around that spring you are sure to meet Arab and Turkish boats most of the time, for they obtain their water there. Further over it stands a fortress.

During six years of piracy around various islands and coasts on the Mediterranean, they fought against other pirates of the time, conquered ships and in bad weather spent the winter in favorable harbors. Kemal Reis stayed a long time along the African coast, in Algiers, Tunis and Bona, and formed friendly relations with the people there having an exceptionally good reception there. (Bahriye, 1935 Introduction). Thus while spending the winter months of 1490-1491 in the harbor at Bona they took part in the battle led by Kemal Reis against Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica.

One of these battles is recorded by Piri in this way: There are some shallow spots along the aforesaid bay of Resereno; Terranova is a fortress on a low ground. Terranova means "new town". Now, the fore part of the town is a beach, a good shelter in the summer. The vessels lie three to four miles away from the land across the fortress. In the aforesaid harbor we overcame three vessels this time. (Bahriye, p.493).

Thus each event is recorded with the correct dates. For the island of Corsica Piri wrote a new chapter (pp. 523-529) and added a map of the island with detailed explanations giving the contour of the island as 400 miles, and said: On this island stands a tall mountain rising from the north to the south. At this date I counted 25 peaks of this mountain in the eastern part of it. They looked just like the teeth of a saw. Every one of those peaks is covered with snow all through the year (p.524).

About the inhabitants he says: The aforesaid island of Corsica was a demesne of the Genoese, but later when the French conquered Genoa, among the others, this island, too, passed over to the French.

At the time, the ruling sultan was Bayezid II, son of Mehmet II, the Conqueror. After the death of his brother, Prince Jeni, in 1495 Bayezid started ruling the country without a rival. Aiming at greater conquests he endeavored to reinforce the territorial as well as the naval powers, and for that purpose brought under his banner the various units of Turkish pirate ships. He invited Kemal Reis to join the imperial fleet. He did so, with Piri Reis and Kara Hasan to help him. They all were experienced and trained sailors with good knowledge of the seas. In such a capacity did Piri Reis take part in the Mediterranean campaigns under Kemal Reis' supervision.

The first official acknowledgement of Piri's deeds is an account of the sea fights in the years 1499-1502. The actual commander-in-chief of the fleet belonging to the Supreme Admiral of all the Sea-Forces was Kemal Reis. In this fleet Piri was given official command of some of the vessels. His service in the battles (1500-1502) against the Venetians was remarkable. The great advantages that the Ottoman Empire acquired by the Treaty of Venice in 1502 were made possible mainly by the brave deeds of these seamen. After this date Piri works as an admiral of the fleet again, but at his uncle's death during a sea battle, Piri was deprived of his great protector. Because of some reason unknown to us, Piri had not taken part in that battle. There can be no doubt as to how deep a source of sorrow this loss was to Piri. The knowledge acquired in the tutorship of Kemal Reis and the accumulated experience during his life at sea had secured him fame and a firm position. After his uncle's death he left the openseas and started working on his first map of the world at Gelibolu. The portion of the map we now possess is a part of it.

Along with this map he arranged his notes for the book "Bahriye" which later turned out to be a kind of guide book on navigation. In 1516-1517 Piri was given command of several vessels taking part in the Ottoman campaign against Egypt. Under the command of Cafer Bey the fleet took Alexandria. With a part of this fleet Piri sailed to Cairo through the Nile, and later drew a map and gave detailed information about this area, too.

After Egypt was joined to the growing Empire, Piri had a chance of making the personal acquaintance of the ruling sovereign, Yavuz Selim; during the battle of Alexandria. He presented the map he had previously drawn to the Sultan. After the Egyptian campaign, during a period of relaxation at Gelibolu, he put his notes on "Bahriye" into book form.

The reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, who ascended the throne in 1520, is a history of successive victories. Piri's taking part in the Turkish fleet going to the campaign on Rhodes in 1523 is to be regarded as only natural.

Piri commemorates the royal command of Sultan Süleyman to him to act as a guide to Pargall Ibrahim Paşa, the Chief Vizir, in verse (pp. 549-550).

It was after this campaign that Ibrahim Paşa realized the importance of the "Bahriye" and urged Piri to put the notes into book form and copy them out again. Piri records that incident, too, at the end of the book in verse. Because of a storm at sea they cannot proceed on their way, and are compelled to take refuge at Rhodes. For Piri, however, this proves to be a good opportunity to make the Paşa's acquaintance.. Piri's frequent references does not fail to attract the Vizir's attention.

Encouraged by his words Piri rearranges the book to Gelibolu and copies it all out, and with the help of Ibrahim Paşa presents it to the Sultan. The date of the book is given in verse in the traditional way. From the final couplet one makes the date to be 1526 A.D. (923 by the Arabic Calendar).

In his preface to the book, Piri mentions the favorable reception it received from the Sultan. Later he draws another map and presents that, too, to Süleyman.

One can follow his life up to 1526 in this book. After this date, we deduce from the state records that Piri was appointed an admiral of ships in the south seas. He rendered many services to the government in this capacity, in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Arabian. Sea. Thus we find him growing old at the head of his ships. He died exactly 400 years ago in 1554, as an old man of 84. Mortal though he himself was, he left behind him immortal works and unforgettable services to the world of civilization.

With this ends the biography of Piri Reis. Most of it has been taken from his own memoirs on his experiences at seafaring. On the science of navigation, Piri was one of the most outstanding scholars of his time. Apparently, besides his native tongue, he knew Greek, Italian, Spanish and even Portuguese. He acknowledges his debt to various works in these languages, in drawing his map of the world.

A galley from the Turkish-Ottoman period. The flags have a crescent or a sword on red and blue. All these ships were built in Turkish docks and belonged to a powerful organization. Those serving in this fleet had to go through a strict course of training.