The Ottoman Explorer

One of the most esteemed navigators of the Ottoman Empire was also a great cartographer of his time, Piri Reis. Below is a map he drew on animal skin of the Nile River and delta around AD 92 for Sultan Suleyman.  It is a good example of ‘rudimentary’ yet artistic cartography and how the map-maker uses his own understanding and version of reality to depict symbols in the iconography of maps. The labels are in Arabic. But the source states that it is from south of Cairo (Egypt) downwards.

As we can see, a large part of the map is left blank, save from radial lines. This is said to represent exotic or uncharted territories. The author was a navigator, hence he might have only seen what he has chartered: those near bodies of water. Maybe there was nothing to see. Settlements are drawn as uniform stacks of houses viewed from an angle below.  But there are some large house-like figures that are drawn and painted differently. They most likely represented mosques and temples. Considering the level of detail he put into painting these structures, he seemed to strive for perfection. He even included some shading. Another thing worth noting is the presence of large coconut or palm trees near the banks of the river. There are some triangle shaped trees also. He might have drawn it for decorative purpose, but his choice of trees reflect some degree of preference. It is easy to theorize that the area should have had more trees but he opted to draw sparsely. He also drew boats and vessels in blue and red to add some color to the dark body of  water. He showed that the Nile River was thriving at that time, already a prime destination for navigators. Unlike other ancient maps, including most of his works, he did not feel the need to draw any humans and animals on this map, even with all the blank spaces. This may have served as a fancy reference map.The riverbanks are smooth and gently curved.

Perhaps the most striking part of the map however, is the intricately drawn compass near the center of the map. I can only assume that the orientation of the map is not perfectly northward. It was done to accommodate how he drew the parts of the delta and river, with its slanted orientation. Even then, it is evident that his nature as a navigator highly valued directions with his angular projections.

The map was aesthetically pleasing, it’s very hard to ignore and deny old-world charm. Since it was given as a gift and tribute to the sultan, not to be hauled around and man-handled by seafarers, its beauty has transcended centuries.

The Walters Art Museum. Book on Navigation. Retrieved January 5, 2012 from


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