Seventeenth Century Ottoman Worldview From PîRî Reis to Kâtip Çelebi

Prof. Dr. Mustafa Kaar

The Ottomans emerged on the stage of history in the fourteenth century and before long had reached the Mediterranean. By the sixteenth century the Mediterranean had become a Turkish sea, and for their voyages the Ottomans felt a much greater need for geography and cartography than their predecessors had. They made use of works by contemporary Muslim and Christian European cartographers to produce maps for the use of Ottoman seamen in accord with the portolano technique of the period. These maps are also historical works of visual culture showing the rulers, flags, and flora and fauna of continents and oceans, climes, countries and cities.

In the sixteenth century the empire the Ottomans founded became the largest in the world, and they were curious about the rulers, the oceans and geography, the animals and vegetation of their neighbors and of more distant lands. It is always debatable whether the classic works of geography encompassed the knowledge required in this regard.

Cartography consisted in recreating “Wonders of Creation”-style geographical works in the form of maps. Maps of the potolano type had no mathematical basis and they provided no lines of latitude and longitude. The maps were not accurate, and there was no standard for their practical application; their success depended directly upon the experience and observations of the user.

The most important sixteenth-century works the Ottomans possessed in the field of navigation and cartography were the world maps of Piri Reis and his Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation), which he presented to Sultan Suleyman the Lawgiver in 1526. While traditional in style, the portolano maps of Piri Reis were made in the light of maps from East and West as well his personal experiences and observations. Although they have no lines of latitude and longitude, their projection centers and corrected trajectories make them as accurate for practical purposes of navigation as modern scientific maps.

The most important work of geography written after Piri Reis was Cihannüma (Displaying the World). The seventeenth-century luminary Katib Çelebi (1609-1657) made use of several western works of geography while writing it, and it opened a new horizon in Ottoman cultural life. Displaying the World changed the direction of classic Ottoman geography, which had been built upon the Islamic geographical tradition, and made possible the founding of a new school.

In his bibliographic work Keşfü’z-zunun (Discovery of Error), Katib Çelebi wrote that Displaying the World consisted of two parts; the first dealing only with seas, rivers and islands, the second with continents and in alphabetical order, cities and the countries discovered after the fifteenth century.

Although the introduction to Displaying the World, begun in 1648, stated that it would be a book of general geography, the work is limited to the regions of Asia up to the eastern borders of Turkey (the province of Erzurum in the north and Iraq-Mesopotamia in the south).

Katib Çelebi planned a book of geography encompassing all regions of East and West, but at first despaired when he was confronted with the inadequacy of the sources at hand. For that reason this first version of Displaying the World dealt with a restricted amount of territory.

In 1654 he wrote Levâmiü’n-nûr fi Zulumati Atlas Minör (Flashes of Light upon the Darkness of Atlas Minor) with the help of Shaykh Mehmed Efendi İhlasî, a geographer of French origin who had knowledge of Latin. At that point he was able to consult Theatrum orbis terrarum by Abraham Ortelius and the atlas of Mercator, and began rewriting Displaying the World. While working on the new version of the work he also consulted Introductio geographica vetera quam nova by Philipp Clüver and L’univesale fabrica del mondo overo cosmografia by Giovanni Lorenzo (Venedik 1582).

Many manuscripts of Katib Çeleb’s work stored in various libraries around the world have been expanded with supplements added by geography-enthusiast copyists. While there are some incomplete manuscripts, there are also copies which contain a great number of additions (A. Adıvar, s. 124-125). Such works are less copies of Katib Çelebi’s Displaying the World than works written in the same style which themselves “display the world.” Adding to Katib Çelebi’s work became a tradition which continued until the advent of modern Western cartography and its study in educational institutions in the nineteenth century.