In 1929, a German scholar was examining documents and antiques in the Topkapi Palace library in Istanbul when he discovered something puzzling. The theologian had found a map printed on gazelle skin parchment, which was created in the early 16th century. What was remarkable was that the mysterious map shows part of South America, as well as the earliest cartographic record of Christopher Columbus’s oceanic voyages. However, the map has been the center of controversy for a long time as there are some who believe it depicts things no one of the time should have known about. So what does this detailed document actually show?
What is the Piri Reis map?
The Piri Reis map was compiled in 1513 by an Ottoman navigator and cartographer called Hajji Ahmed Muhiddin Piri, better known as Piri Reis. It is a portolan chart – sometimes referred to as harbor-finding charts, compass charts, or rhumb charts – which were used for navigation during the Middle Ages. These charts specifically lay the courses from one harbor to another using radiating rhumb lines. This particular chart is extremely detailed, but it is damaged – only one-third of it has survived to the modern day.
According to a handwritten note found with the ancient document, Piri Reis compiled it using multiple other maps and charts as primary sources. These included eight Ptolemaic maps, four Portuguese maps, one Arabic map, and one drawn by Christopher Columbus.
The map depicts Europe, Africa, and the two American continents. And while much of the Atlantic coasts of Africa and South America seem to be accurate, there are distortions and mistakes in the depiction of the Caribbean and parts of North America. For instance, some of the Caribbean islands are missing, but a mythical one called Antillia has been included.
Ever since it was discovered, the map has garnered a lot of attention for some other unusual features. Chief among them is the appearance of a landmass that some people identify as Antarctica, which, if this is the case, was mapped by Reis about 300 years before it was actually discovered. More concerningly, if it is the southern continent, then it also depicts it as being free of ice, which has not been the case for over 6,000 years.
According to traditional accounts, Antarctica was not discovered until the early 19th century (though scholars debate who the first person to spot it really was). So if the Piri Reis map does depict this landmass, then it would suggest that its creator had insights that subsequent explorers did not. For some, this is evidence of a lost advanced civilization who were capable of mapping the world with extraordinary detail long before anyone else, while others believe it is a sign that aliens created the map while examining the planet from space.
The idea that it depicts Antarctica was made popular by Professor Charles Hapgood in his 1965 book Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, who studied the map along with several of his students. For Hapgood, the appearance of Antarctica was a sign that the map was based on something far older than any known map. The idea suggests that a pre-historic civilization had the technological and navigational skill to chart the seas in incredibly accurate ways.
Hapgood even believed that this lost civilization would have also needed to view the continent from the air, given the details that appear on the map. So, they were a hitherto unknown civilization that could navigate the seas and also the skies. Of course, despite there being no actual evidence to back up any of this speculation, many have now become convinced of its realities.
In reality, it is more likely that the landmass is not Antarctica at all. One explanation is that the anomalous continent is actually one that was hypothesized to exist there – a continent called Terra Australis Incognita. Many contemporary maps are filled with mythical territories that were assumed to exist in reality. These include the Garden of Eden, El Dorado, and the lands of Prester John.
Critics of the more outlandish theories have pointed out that the representation of South America is pretty good, so if the mysterious continent is Antarctica, it would have once been joined to South America at Uruguay. Moreover, at the time of map’s creation, Argentina did not seem to exist. This alone makes it difficult to believe that some ancient civilization or alien influence mapped Antarctica so long ago.
What we can conclude from this map is that, despite what is often popularly assumed, the Ottomans had access to contemporary navigational knowledge and charts and were likely able to explore the seas just as well as the Europeans.