The Ottoman ‘Discovery’ of the Indian Ocean in the Sixteenth Century: The Age of Exploration from an Islamic Perspective

Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 and the foundation of the Portuguese Estado da India in the following decades has long been identified as a development of enormous global significance, marking as it did the beginning of direct and continuous contact between the civilizations of Western Europe and the Indian Ocean.  Much less well known to modern scholarship, by contrast, is the rival and contemporaneous expansion of the Ottoman Empire into the lands of the Indian Ocean littoral, a process which began with Sultan Selim I’s conquest of Egypt in 1517, and which would continue throughout the rest of the sixteenth century.  Because the Ottoman state and the merchant communities of the Indian Ocean shared the same religion, most modern scholars have simply assume that they enjoyed a kind of de facto familiarity with one another as well.   In reality, the early sixteenth century Ottomans were in many ways even less aware of the geography, history and civilization of the Indian Ocean than were their contemporary Portuguese rivals.  The subsequent development of direct contact between the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim principalities and trading communities of the Indian Ocean thus represents a kind of Ottoman ‘discovery’ of an entirely new part of the globe, and one which corresponds in many ways to the much better documented European discoveries of the same period.

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Like its Western counterpart, the Ottoman discovery of the Indian Ocean included economic, military and diplomatic components that are all subjects in need of further in-depth research.  Due to limitations of time and space, however, the present study will focus only on the cultural and intellectual characteristics of Ottoman expansion during this period.  Specifically, this paper argues that the growth of Ottoman intellectual interest in the Indian Ocean during the course of the sixteenth century closely mirrors, both qualitatively and chronologically, developments in Europe at the same time.  Before addressing this issue directly, however, let us briefly compare the state of Medieval Western and Islamic geographical knowledge of the Indian Ocean before the voyages of exploration, and consider how the Ottomans fit into this overall picture.

European and Islamic Geographic and Cartographic Science as a Background to Ottoman Discovery:

 To a large extent, both the civilizations of the Medieval Christian West and the Islamic Middle East originally shared a similar basis for their body of knowledge about the Indian Ocean: the geographical traditions of the Greco-Roman world, and in particular its synthesis embodied in Ptolemy’s Geographia.  During the centuries following the first Muslim conquests, however, geographers in the lands of Islam were able to improve significantly on this body of knowledge.1  In part, this was achieved thanks to a number of technical advances that improved the accuracy of land surveys,2 but by far the most important factor in this process was the emergence, beginning in the eighth century, of a vast Muslim trading network that spanned the entire length of the Indian Ocean.  Given the heavy traffic along these routes, travelers soon began authoring a variety of works about the places they had visited, while pilots and ships’ captains compiled itineraries and other navigational guides for practical use on the sea lanes.3  Furthermore, although the earliest such works date back as far as the ninth and tenth centuries4, their production would continue virtually uninterrupted right up to periods contemporary with early Ottoman history.  Well known examples of such latter works include Ibn Battuta’s celebrated fourteenth century travel narrative5 as well as the famous sailing book of Ibn Mjd, a guide to navigation composed only a few years before the first Portuguese voyages around the Cape of Good Hope.6  Thus, on the eve of the European discoveries, Islamic geographers had access to a large and constantly expanding body of literature dedicated specifically to the Indian Ocean and its border lands, and enjoyed a much deeper understanding of and familiarity with this vast world area then their predecessors from the ancient world ever could have.

In Europe, by contrast, the state of geographic knowledge during the Middle Ages seems to have developed in almost exactly the opposite direction.  For example, the Medieval mappaemundiwhich have come down to us, although based in principle on precedents from the classical Greco-Roman world, seem to have served more as an ideal representation of the cosmic order of the medieval Christian universe rather than an attempt to represent the world realistically.7  Such maps display a profound ignorance of the Indian Ocean or indeed any region of the world east of Jerusalem. To a large extent, the same can also be said of the portolan charts which first emerged in the late thirteenth century.  Although technically much more sophisticated than the mappaemundi, and of obvious practical use to navigators, portolan charts were even more circumscribed geographically, making no attempt at all to depict the world outside the familiar confines of the Mediterranean basin.8  Collectively, they serve as perhaps the most graphic representation of the characteristically inward looking and isolated state of Western civilization during this period.

This situation changed somewhat after the year 1375, when a new type of world map began to be produced, first on the island of Majorca and then throughout Mediterranean Europe, in which Asia and the Indian Ocean started to appear in a somewhat realistic and recognizable form for the very first time.9  In the earliest of these, the influence of Arab geographers is obvious, and they may even have provided the inspiration for the creation of this new kind of map in the first place.  Over the course of the 1400’s, however, the authority of Islamic geography was progressively undermined by the growing influence of Italian Humanism, an intellectual movement committed to advancing knowledge through the recovery of texts from the ancient world.

This process began in the year 1400, when a version of Ptolemy’s geography was brought from Constantinople to Florence by the famous humanist Palla Strozzi.  With his encouragement and under the direction of the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysolorus, a translation of the text into Latin was completed in 1406, followed by the maps themselves a few years later.  By mid-century no less that four cartographers were engaged in multiplying copies of the Geographia and its maps, and in 1477 one of these versions became the first map to be published as an engraving.10  By the mid 1480s literally thousands of copies of Ptolemy’s maps were being printed and diffused throughout Europe, and such was the prestige and authority of these classical texts in the minds of Humanist scholars that they rapidly superseded and replaced maps of the “older” variety, even though these earlier versions, based on the work of Arab scholars, often contained much more recent and accurate information about the geography of Asia.11  As a result, the body of geographical and cartographical knowledge to which the Western European intellectual tradition had access on the eve of the discoveries, especially with regard to the Indian Ocean, was far inferior to its Islamic counterpart.12  The newly recovered classical texts contained information that was literally more than a thousand years old, and had been largely surpassed by the work of Muslim scholars centuries before.  Meanwhile, the West remained totally ignorant of more recently composed Arab accounts like those of Ibn Battuta and Ibn Majid until after the discoveries had already begun.

Ottoman Ignorance of the Islamic Geographical Tradition:

Since the Ottoman Empire conquered nearly the entire Muslim Middle East during the course of the sixteenth century and became, in some respects, the world Islamic state par excellence of the early modern period, most scholars have tended to assume that the Ottomans, in contrast to their European contemporaries, were well acquainted with the achievements of Islamic geographers from a very early date.13  However, given the almost total lack of detailed modern studies on the subject, such an assumption remains unsubstantiated by any empirical evidence.  To be sure, there is no lack of early works of Islamic geography to be found in the libraries and manuscript collections of Istanbul.  Many of these, in fact, are so old as to predate the founding of the Ottoman state itself by several centuries.  Yet until we know more about these manuscripts and under what circumstances they were acquired, it remains an open question how many of them were actually available to Ottoman scholars during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and how many were brought back from the Arab lands only much later, following the conquests of the 1500’s.

For the time being, what we can say with certainty is that, at least with reference to the Indian Ocean, the Ottomans were decidedly unfamiliar with the relevant Islamic corpus. A review of the inventories of the major Ottoman manuscript collections shows that a surprising number of well known and widely circulated Islamic works on the subject seem to have been completely unknown in Ottoman learned circles prior to the sixteenth century.14  There is no sign in any Ottoman collection, for example, of any of the most important early travel narratives or itineraries, such as those of Ibn Khurdadhbih, Abu-Zayd al-Hasan or Ibn Jubayr,15 while al-Biruni’s classic AÔvl al-Hind [The Conditions of India] exists only in a single, undated version from which no copies or translations seem to have ever been made.16 It also seems extremely unlikely that any Ottoman in this period ever read the early fourteenth century narratives of Ibn Battuta, even though this famous traveler is perhaps unique in having visited both India and the Ottoman lands during the course of his extensive journeys.17  Similarly, although Marco Polo and later Portuguese explorers reported having examined nautical charts of the Indian Ocean drafted by local Muslim navigators, we have no evidence that any such maps ever reached Istanbul.18  In fact, from the entire classical Islamic geographical corpus there are only a handful of works which we can confidently conclude were copied in large numbers and widely circulated among Ottoman learned circles prior to the sixteenth century, of which by far the most popular was Zakariyya al-Kazvini’s ΔAca’ib al-MaÕlª⋲āt[The Wonders of Creation], a thirteenth century Arabic encyclopedia of zoology, botany and cosmography of questionable authority and of extremely limited practical use as a geographical text.19  By contrast, Ibn Majid, the Arab mariner and contemporary of Vasco da Gama, tells us that he consulted more than forty different works in the compilation of his guide to navigation on the Indian Ocean.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, his text too was unknown to the Ottomans until the 1560’s.20

Further evidence for this trend can be measured by examining the rate at which relevant texts in Persian and Arabic were translated into Turkish, an important gauge of the breadth of audience a given work could reach.  Here the figures are stark indeed:  From the entire fourteenth century, just one such translation exists, from the fifteenth, only two, and all three of these were in fact translations of the very same work: al-Kazvini’s ΔAca’ib al-MaÕlª⋲ātmentioned above.21  The sixteenth century, on the other hand, witnessed the translation of literally dozens of different works, in addition to the creation of original compositions in Turkish that were based entirely or in part on these sources.  Thus, despite the lack of detailed research on this subject, all of the available evidence points to just one conclusion: with the possible exception of a very small circle of medrese scholars, the Ottomans had virtually no access at all to Islamic geographical information about the Indian Ocean before the sixteenth century. 22

Given this state of affairs, and considering the relative superiority of Islamic geographers during this period, one would expect the Ottomans to have been even less interested in contemporary Western works, but in reality quite the opposite seems to have been the case.  In fact, pre-sixteenth century maps in Ottoman collections are almost without exception of the principle types most characteristic of contemporary European production:  portolan charts, including one by the Majorcan master Johannes de Villadestes,23 Catalan-style world maps, including a fragment of an extremely early work dating from the 1370’s,24 and several versions of Ptolemy’s Geographia.  Of this last type, the oldest example is an undated Byzantine manuscript, probably from the late fourteenth century, from which the scholar George Amirutzes of Trabzon completed a translation into Arabic by order of Sultan Mehmed II in 1465.25   A later version, dated from 1481 and including 30 color maps, is a copy of the printed Italian edition by the Florentine Humanist Francesco Berlinghieri.26  It includes a personal dedication to Sultan Mehmet from Berlinghieri himself, although it seems not to have reached Istanbul until 1482, a year after the Sultan’s death.    

In short, on the eve of the great discoveries of the sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire was in a singular position.  An Islamic state on the verge of a series of conquests that would bring it for the first time into contact with the Muslim civilization of the Indian Ocean, it was nevertheless almost totally ignorant both of this civilization itself and of any of the Islamic works dedicated to it.  Meanwhile, it remained extremely well informed about the latest advances in Western geography that remained, despite its dynamism, equally ignorant of the outside world, and particularly of Asia.  As we shall see, this parallel development of the expanding cultural and intellectual horizons in the West and the Ottoman Empire would continue throughout the next century.

First Contact: The Conquests of Selim the Grim and the Beginnings of Ottoman Exploration:

Just as it did for contemporary Europeans, the Ottomans’ discovery of the Indian Ocean began at the start of the sixteenth century, and was made possible by a series of unprecedented military successes.  In this process, the primary protagonist was undoubtedly Sultan Selim I who, in addition to orchestrating the crucially important conquest of Egypt in 1517, was also an avid collector of maps and geographical texts.  Like his grandfather Mehmet II, Selim sponsored local scholars while at the same time actively seeking out the latest productions from Western Europe, and seems to have been particularly interested in works relating to the world outside the familiar confines of the Mediterranean basin.  Examples from his collection include a Venetian planisphere (no longer extant), 27 and the ²itaynāme of Ali Akbar, a first-hand account of a voyage to China by an Ottoman merchant. 28  By far the most important geographer to emerge under his patronage, however, was the Mediterranean sea captain Piri Reis.29

Ironically, Piri Reis’ world map of 1513, his first known work and the one that has received the most attention from modern scholars, has come down to us only in fragmentary form, and the portion which included the Indian Ocean is regrettably no longer extant.  Nevertheless, the connection between this map’s creation and the prospect of future Ottoman expansion in the Indian Ocean is explicit, as it was presented by its author to the Sultan in Cairo just a few short weeks after Selim’s victorious entrance into the city, and diplomatic records reveal that Selim subsequently entered into negotiations with Sultan Muzaffar Şah II of Gujarat about a possible joint strike against the Portuguese in Goa.30  This has led at least one modern scholar to speculate that the missing portion of the map may have even been separated intentionally, so that Selim could make more convenient use of it in planning future military campaigns in that direction.31

Such plans, if they did exist, died with the Sultan in 1520, but Piri Reis was to continue his work under the patronage of the powerful Ibrahim Pasha, Grand Vezier to Selim’s son and successor Suleyman I.  Ibrahim, like Selim, was know for his interest in geography32 and was also introduced to Piri while on his way to a military campaign in Egypt.  The work that he commissioned, an expanded edition of Piri Reis’s Mediterranean atlas, the Kitāb-ı BaÔriye, included as an introduction the first written text in Ottoman Turkish to contain specific and detailed information about the geography of the Indian Ocean.  It appears to have been based on a combination of both Western and Islamic sources, but the relative importance of the former is clear, and a great deal of the text is also devoted to explaining the navigational techniques of the Portuguese, as well as the history of Vasco da Gama’s circumnavigation of Africa and its significance.  Composed in rhyming verse and written in clear, easy-to-understand language, the work seems above all designed to convey to a wider audience the author’s intellectual excitement about the geographical advances generated by the discoveries.  In reference to his earlier world map, for example, he writes: “Before this IÄmade maps in which I was able to show twice the number of things contained in the maps of our day, having made use of new maps of the Chinese and Indian Seas which no one in the Ottoman lands had hitherto seen or known.  In the same way the information presented here is a summary.”33

Both as a whole and individually, the works of Piri Reis are undoubtedly masterpieces of Ottoman geography.  At the same time they are, despite their obvious originality, completely in keeping with a by now long established Ottoman geographic tendency.  It is most definitely not the case, as more than one modern scholar has argued, that there was something incongruous or extraordinary about Piri Reis’s openness to Western geography, or that he was shunned by the conservative Ottoman establishment because of the originality of his ideas.34  As we have seen, Piri Reis’s works were consistently commissioned by no less than Grand Veziers and the Sultan himself, and there was certainly nothing new about his use of European sources.  In fact, the Ottomans had relied primarily on Western intermediaries for their information about the outside world at least since the time of Mehmet the Conqueror, and the principal difference of Piri Reis lies not in the nature of these intermediaries, but in the vastly improved breadth and accuracy of information with which they could supply him.

In this respect, perhaps the most original Ottoman work on the geography of the Indian Ocean to be produced during this period came not from Piri Reis, but instead from his much less well known contemporary, Selman Reis.35  Although his origins are obscure, Selman, like Piri, seems to have made his start as a Muslim corsair in the Mediterranean, but later entered the service of the Mamluk Sultan Kansuh Gawri, who sent him to the Red Sea with a fleet of ships in order to protect Jeddah and the Muslim holy sites from the incursions of the Portuguese.  He was still there when the Mamluks were overthrown by Sultan Selim, and it was almost certainly during this period, in which he lived more or less as a buccaneer and soldier of fortune, that he gathered information for the report that he presented to Ibrahim Pasha in Egypt in 1524, just a little over a year before Piri Reis, also at the request of Ibrahim Pasha, was to present the expanded fine copy of his Kitāb-ı BaÔriyeto Sultan Suleyman.

This report, Selman Reis’ only known composition of any length, is the first eye-witness account of the Indian Ocean and its geography composed by an Ottoman author.36  Although concise (106 lines of text), it describes, in varying detail, all of the major areas of the Indian Ocean littoral, from the Swahili Coast and Yemen, to Hormuz, Diu, and Goa, to Ceylon and Malacca, although it is doubtful that Selman could have visited all of these places personally.  It also includes estimates of the strength of Portuguese military garrisons, and makes careful note of the economic resources in various regions, the general level of technology and military strength, and the ease with which particular areas could be conquered and held.  It is in this sense strikingly similar to contemporary Western accounts of the discoveries, and can thus be seen as the product of a genuine Ottoman voyage of exploration.  With the delivery of this document, the Ottoman Age of Discovery had truly begun.

Ottoman Military Expansion in the Indian Ocean:

In its essence, the report sent by Selman Reis is a “policy paper,” informing the Ottoman administration of conditions in the Indian Ocean and advising the central authorities on the possibilities for future involvement in the area.  Although we have no direct evidence as to how the document was received by his superiors or how influential it was in their thinking, the next three decades would witness rapid and almost continuous Ottoman expansion into the north-western littoral of the Indian Ocean.  Military campaigns included the occupation of Aden, Mocha, Basra, the coasts of Sudan and Eritrea, the destruction of the Portuguese fortress in Moscat, and less successfully, abortive sieges of Bahrein, Hormuz and the Portuguese stronghold of Diu in northwestern India.37

Ironically, this period of determined Ottoman military expansion did not correspond with a comparable rise in Ottoman geographical production, which for the most part was confined to campaign reports whose circulation seems to have been limited to the most restricted government circles.  By the early 1550’s however, the largest of these campaigns came to an end and something approaching a new modus vivendi was achieved with the Portuguese.  Trade between the Ottoman Empire and India expanded to unprecedented levels, travel between the two regions became routine, and as a result, a new generation of Ottoman scholars turned their interest towards the Indian Ocean as they never had before.  Their activities included the importation on an increased scale of the latest works of European cartography, the distribution of new editions of previously unknown or untranslated Arabic and Persian texts, and the compilation of entirely original Ottoman works based on a combination both of these sources and of first-hand accounts of travel in the Indian Ocean.  Furthermore, although Imperial patronage continued to play, as in times past, a significant role in this process, the real driving force appears to have been a genuine and wide-spread growth of interest in the Ottoman learned classes, curious about what was for them an entirely new and unfamiliar world area.

Ottoman Scholarship on the Indian Ocean 1550-1600:

Of all of the works to appear during this period, those with the most explicit Western influence are for the most part maps.  Some of these are in fact quite conservative in design, although often a visible attempt has been made to include new information about the discoveries into what is a very traditional form.  One such example is the beautifully drawn map of El Hajj Ebu’l °asan,38which dates from mid-century and is in essence a standard portolan chart, in Arabic, with one surprising innovation: the bottom margin has been extended to show the coast of Africa in its entirety, including the Cape of Good Hope and the southern Swahili coast.  In order to fit the traditional contours of a portolan chart, the form of the African continent has been distorted significantly, the Horn of Africa has been truncated, and many of the meticulously labeled place names along the southern coast are hard to identify and possibly imaginary.  Clearly of little use as a guide to navigation, the chart instead serves a didactic purpose: to demonstrate visually the opening of the Mediterranean world and the existence of new geographical knowledge about the circumnavigability of Africa that could not be adequately expressed by traditional cartographic forms.

As a result, a large number of entirely new maps soon began to appear which completely abandon these older forms.  In fact, several of these conform so closely to the highest standards of contemporary European mapmakers that it remains unclear whether they were produced in Europe for sale to Ottoman clients or made directly by Ottomans based on European prototypes. One such example, taken from the relatively recently discovered Atlas-ı Hômāyūn,39 features a map of the Arabian peninsula and the northern half of Africa which is quite similar in conception to the chart of El Hajj Ebu’l °asan discussed above, although noticeably more accurate in its topography and of obvious practical use in navigation.  Another remarkable chart, from the Walters Deniz Atlası, is a depiction of the entire Indian Ocean that, although obviously based on recent European sources, has no direct parallel in any known contemporary European atlas.40  Since both of these examples are taken from Ottoman atlases of Europe and the Mediterranean which conform very closely to Western models, the addition of these original maps of the Indian Ocean, which by contrast have no Western parallel, clearly shows the particular importance this new world area held for purchasers of maps in the Ottoman market.

The enthusiastic importation of the latest Western cartography was accompanied by an equally marked interest in the work of Islamic geographers.  This resulted not only in the translation of a large number of Arabic texts, such as Istahri’s Mesālik al-Memālik41 or Ibn Zunbul’s Œanªn al-Duny­42, but also the creation of synthetic works by Ottoman scholars, like Mahmud Sipahizade’s Evzah-ôl-mesalik ilā ma’rifet-il memālik43 and Mehmet Aşık’s Manazır ôl-avālim, whose bibliographies reveal a deep and unprecedented familiarity with the accomplishments of classical Islamic geographers.44  Interestingly enough, this movement also has a parallel in the intellectual development of the contemporary West, for it was during precisely the same period that European scholars began to publish systematic compilations of the new geographical knowledge gained from the discoveries,45 and to a surprising extent, the systems they devised for organizing this information were inspired by examples from classical Islamic geography. The Venetian Giovanni Battista Ramusio, for example, openly advocated adopting the Arab geographers’ method of cataloguing information, which he described in the preface to his famous Navigationi as an “ordine verament bellissimo.”46

Ultimately, all of the texts discussed to this point were translations or syntheses based primarily on foreign sources.  But this period of intense and expanding economic and diplomatic ties with the Indian Ocean also saw the production of a large number of works much more focused on specific Ottoman interests and based on information garnered from the Ottomans’ own experiences.  First among these is certainly the AÕbār al-Yemanī, an historical narrative of the Ottoman penetration of the Yemen, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea completed in the year 1580.  Authored by Kutbeddīn Mekki, the son of a Muslim immigrant from Gujarat and a prominent member of Mecca’s religious establishment who was intimately familiar with the political world of the western Indian Ocean, the work remains even to this day the most comprehensive account of the exploits of Ottoman military and naval commanders in the area.47   Of similar significance is the monumental Munşaāt as-Salā¥īn, completed in 1575 by Feridun Beg, then head of the Ottoman chancery.  This work, an enormous compendium of primary documents of importance to various aspects of Ottoman history, is also the first to include verbatim copies of all the diplomatic correspondence between the Ottoman Sultans and political leaders throughout the Indian Ocean, including the Mughals and the Sultans of Gujarat and Aceh.

Works like these, which were commissioned and authored by Ottoman officials with privileged access to government documents, complemented a number of more popular treatises intended for wider audiences and based on verbal accounts from merchants and other travelers.  One such a work is Seyfī ‰elebi’s history of Asia, composed in 1582.  Written in accessible language and organized geographically, it includes several chapters dealing specifically with the recent political history of India and gives a brief description of the most important contemporary rulers on the subcontinent, in Ceylon and on Sumatra.48  Also of note is Mustafa b. Ali al-Muvakkit’s I∆lām al-∆Ibād fī A∆lām al-Bilād, a curious little work that simply presents a list of one hundred important cities between Morocco and China, and gives their geographical co-ordinates and their distances from Istanbul.  In its introduction, the author provides an excellent, if anecdotal, illustration of the general cultural atmosphere in which this work and others like it were produced.  He writes:”Among the common people, the number of days and months it takes to travel between Istanbul and the various cities of the world has become a common topic of conversation, and even if some of the things that are said on this subject are correct, the vast majority are known to be untrue, since some people are inclined to intentionally exaggerate distances, and others simply make them up off the top of their heads.” 49

The author, as he explains, is thus writing to set the record straight about this important topic of contemporary debate.

Original Ottoman Travel Narratives from the Indian Ocean:

Given this cultural milieu, in which interest in the outside world was expanding, and travel to and from the Indian Ocean was becoming commonplace, one would naturally expect to find a large number of original accounts of Ottoman travel in the Indian Ocean, in addition to the various other kinds of works already discussed.  Surprisingly, quite the opposite is true, and this relative dearth of first-hand travel narratives is especially frustrating since, in many cases, it is certain that they must once have existed.  We know from references to it in other works, for example, that the merchant Ahmed b. Ibrahim al-Tokadi wrote an account of his voyage to India and back during the sultanate of Murad III, although no copies of the original text have yet been recovered.50  Similarly, frequent references in the Môhimme Defterleri make it clear that Ottoman officials stationed in Yemen and Basra kept themselves informed about events through contacts in the traveling merchant community, and regularly sent back reports of their findings to the central government.  Alas, these reports too seem to have disappeared over the course of the intervening centuries.

For the time being, the only first-hand account of such a voyage which we do have in our possession is a document in the collection of the Topkapı Palace archives and described in its catalogue as “a complaint by the Muslims in India about the [activities of] the Portuguese there,” although the document itself purports to be a message from the Padishah of Aceh to the Ottoman Sultan, and has been accepted as such by the few modern scholars who have consulted it.51  In fact, a close reading of the text suggests that it is neither of these things, but instead the work of an obscure Ottoman traveler, known only as “His Majesty’s Servant Lutfi,” who seems to have made a round-trip voyage to Sumatra and back, returning to Istanbul sometime in 1566.52   The contents of this document include, in addition to a lengthy description of the trials and tribulations that this Lutfi suffered during his journey (and a recommendation that he be appointed governor of Jeddah for his trouble!), a detailed geographic and ethnographic description of the Indonesian archipelago as well as an evaluation of the military strength of the Portuguese there.  It also describes the political orientation of the most important naval and economic powers throughout the region, and exhorts the Sultan to become more actively involved.  In its overall composition, the letter is in fact strikingly similar to the report of Selman Reis discussed above, although its focus on the eastern as opposed to the western Indian Ocean is an indication of the extent to which Ottoman interests and ambition had expanded during the intervening half century.  Furthermore, the document makes explicit reference to other Ottoman agents living in Aceh, whom it describes in glowing terms as “more valuable [to the local administration] than a mountain of precious jewels,” clear evidence that Lutfi was no isolated traveler, but part of a much larger movement of people, goods, and ideas.  With any luck, future research in the libraries and archives of Istanbul will reveal more detailed information about such Ottoman traders and adventurers in the Indian Ocean.

Finally, no discussion of Ottoman travel literature would be complete without making mention of the career and works of Seydi Ali Reis.  Scion of a distinguished family of Ottoman seamen, head of the Ottoman arsenal in Galata, expert in mathematics, astronomy and celestial navigation, distinguished man of letters and an accomplished poet, Seydi Ali was also the protagonist of one of the most remarkable travel adventures of the entire sixteenth century.  Sent originally by Sultan Suleyman I to Basra, where he was ordered to take command of the Imperial fleet and to bring it safely to Suez by means of the Arabian and Red Seas, Seydi Ali was ambushed by a Portuguese squadron while en route, then caught in a ferocious storm and eventually shipwrecked off the coast of Northwest India.  His ships destroyed, he determined to return to Istanbul by traveling overland, and when he finally reached his destination more than three years later, having traversed most of North India, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Iran in the process, he composed a narrative of his journey, the famous Mir’āt ôl-Memālik,53 in addition to presenting the Sultan with numerous letters from the various potentates he had come into contact with along the way.

During the course of his journeys, Seydi Ali also gathered source materials for the Kitāb al-MuÔīt, a handbook to navigation on the Indian Ocean that would be the greatest intellectual achievement of his career.  Based on a combination of his own experiences, personal interviews with local navigators, and a large number of contemporary works in Arabic previously unknown to the Ottomans,54 the MuÔītand its author are perhaps the most emblematic example of the accomplishments of a remarkable generation of Ottoman scholars.  In the space of just a few decades, they had moved from a state of almost total ignorance about the world of the Indian Ocean to a comfortable familiarity that was the product of both extensive first-hand experience and sustained intellectual commitment.  This development, which mirrored Western experiences during the same period, suggests that the Age of Exploration cannot be properly understood by focusing only on the narrow story of Europe’s engagement with the outside world.  Intellectually speaking, “discovery” was a process whose limits far exceeded the boundaries of Western Civilization.


1See Fuat Sezgin, The Contribution of the Arab-Islamic Geographers to the Formation of the World Map (Frankfurt, 1987).

2 The first of these surveys, carried out under the Caliph al-Ma’mūn in the 9th century C.E. apparently ranged from Morocco to Southeast Asia.  Also of importance was al-Biruni’s development in the late 10th century of a new method for accurately determining the relative co-ordinates of various locales through the use of spherical trigonometry.  Using this method, he was able to measure the coordinates of locales in his own survey that were accurate to within a few minutes of their modern measurements. Sezgin, pp. 20-23.

3 George Hourani, Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Medieval Times, (Beirut, 1963).

4 See for example Bozorg b. Shariyar. Livre des Merveilles de l’Inde, trans. M. Devic, (Paris, 1878).  Also the anonymous AÕb­r aø-‹īn wa’l-Hind À Relation de la Chine et de l’Inde, ed. & tr. J. Sauvaget (Paris, 1948).

5 Ibn Battuta visited both western Anatolia under the early Ottomans and the Indian Ocean.  His account of Malabar is one of the oldest by a Muslim, and of the Maldives the first by any author.  See C.F. Beckingham, Between Islam and Christendom: Travellers, Facts and Legends in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (London, 1983), pp.264-279.

6 G.R. Tibbetts. Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese, Being a Translation of the Kitāb al Fawā’id fī Usūl al BaÔr wa’l-qawī’id of AÔmad b. Mājīd al Najdī. (London, 1981).

7 See David Woodward, “Medieval Mappaemundi” in The History of Cartography Volume One: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, ed. J.B. Harley and David Woodward, (Chicago 1987), pp.286-370.

8 Later portolans did include more information about the Black Sea and the Atlantic Coast of Europe.  See Tony Campbell, “Portulan Charts from the Late 13th Century to 1500,” in The History of Cartography Volume One: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, ed. J.B. Harley and David Woodward, (Chicago 1987), pp.371-447.

9 Crone, G.R. Maps and their Makers: An Introduction to the History of Cartography. (London, 1964) pp.39-46.

10 Crone, pp.68-75.

11 Sezgin, pp.40-46.

12 Robert Finlay, “Crisis and Crusade in the Mediterranean: Venice, Portugal and the Cape Route to India (1498-1509),” Studi Veneziani 28 (1994): 45-90.  Also Jacques Le Goff, “The Medieval West and the Indian Ocean: An Oneiric Horizon” in Facing Each Other: The World’s Perception of Europe and Europe’s Perception of the World, ed. Anthony Pagden, (Burlington, 2000) pp.1-19.

13 See for example Marshall Hodgson’s essay “The Unity of Later Islamic History” in Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam and World History (Cambridge, 1993), p.203.

14 There are two principle catalogues of the major Islamic geographical works available to the Ottomans.  The first is Cevdet Tôrkay’s İstanbul Kôtôphanelerinde Osmanlılar Devrine Ait TôrkÐe-ArapÐa-FarsÐa Yazma ve Basma Coğrafya Eserleri Bibliografyası (Istanbul, 1958), which includes all geographical works in Turkish, Arabic and Persian available in the libraries and manuscripts collections of Istanbul.  The second, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, Osmanlı Coğrafya Literatôrô Tarihi (Istanbul, 2000) includes a much wider range of libraries not only in Turkey but throughout Europe, North America and the Middle East, but is limited specifically to works of Ottoman origin.  There is no comparable guide for Ottoman map collections, and even the catalogues for the most important libraries are incomplete in this respect.  See Karamustafa, Ahmet. “Military, Administrative and Scholarly Maps and Plans of the Ottomans,” in The History of Cartography Volume One: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, ed. J.B. Harley and David Woodward, (Chicago 1987), p.209.

15 In the nineteenth century, scholars did uncover a single, very ancient copy of Bozorg b. Shahriyar’s collection of sailors’ lore in the Hagia Sophia library, but no information is available about how or when this manuscript reached Istanbul.  See Devic, p.9.

16 Kprôlô Kôtôphanesi no.1001.

17 Only a handful of manuscripts of Ibn Battuta’s travels are to be found in Istanbul, and none of them dates conclusively to the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries.  See Cevdet Tôrkay, for the extant manuscripts.

18 The first Ottoman scholar to have had access to such maps seems to have been Piri Reis, discussed below.  See G.R. Tibbetts, “The Role of Charts in Islamic Navigation in the Indian Ocean,” in The History of Cartography Volume One: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, ed. J.B. Harley and David Woodward, (Chicago 1987), p.256-262. 

19 A. Adnan Adıvar, Osmanlı Tôrklerinde İlim, 6th printing, (Istanbul, 2000).  See Ihsanoğlu, Coğrafya, p.xxxv.

20 G.R. Tibbetts, Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese, Being a Translation of the Kitāb al Fawā’id fī Usūl al Bahr wa’l-qawī’id of Ahmad b. Mājīd al Najdī. London: The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1981. (Reprint of 1971 edition)

21 Ihsanoğlu, pp.1-13.

22 Even within the medreses the study of geography was limited by the fact that it was not included as one of the fields of the traditional Islamic curriculum.  Ihsanoğlu, Coğrafya, p.xxxvi. This may in fact help explain why the diffusion of works of Islamic geography seems to have been so much less marked than the diffusion of works in other fields of Islamic science during the early centuries of Ottoman history.

23Topkapı Saray Môzesi Kôtôphanesi G.I.27.   For a color facsimile see Rispoli, Adelia, ed. İstanbul Topkapı Sarayı Môzesi ve Venedik Correr Môzesi Koleksiyonlarından XIV-XVII Yôzyıl Portolan ve Deniz Haritaları / Portolani e Carte Nautiche XIV-XVIII Secolo dale collezioni del Museo Correr-Venezia e Museo Topkapı-Istanbul, (Istanbul, 1994), pp.44-45.

24 M. Destombes, “Fragments of Two Medieval World Maps at the Topkapı Saray Library.” Imago Mundi 18 (1964): 244-44.

25 Adivar, Ilim, pp.34-37.  Ptolemy’s work had already been translated into Arabic several times as early as the 9th century, but these had gradually been discarded as they were surpassed achievements of Islamic geographers.  The fact that Mehmed ordered his own translation of the work is yet further evidence of Ottoman isolation from Islamic geographical traditions.

26 Topkapı Saray Môzesi Kôtôphanesi G.I.84.  For facsimile see Rispoli, pp.52-53.

27 Antonio Fabris, “The Ottoman Mappa Mundi of Hajji Ahmed of Tunis,” Arab Historical Review for Ottoman Studies 7-8 (1993): 31-37.

28 Yih-Min, Lin. “A Comparative and Critical Study of Ali Akbar’s Khitaynama with References to Chinese Sources.” Central Asiatic Journal 27, 1-2 (1983): 58-78.  The work was originally composed in Persian and translated into Turkish later in the sixteenth century.

29 Hess, Andrew G. “Piri Reis and the Ottoman Response to the Voyages of Discovery.” Terrae Incognitae 6 (1974): 19-37.

30 J-L. Bacqué-Grammont, “Une Lettre d’Ibrahim Pacha a Charles Quint” in Comité Internationale D’études Pré-Ottomans et Ottomans, VIth Symposium, Cambridge 1st – 4th of July 1984, ed. J.L. Bacqué-Grammont and Emeri Van Dunzel, (Istanbul: 1987), pp.33-47.

31 Michael M. Mazzaoui,”Global Policies of Sultan Selim 1512-1520″ in Essays on Islamic Civilization Presented to Niyazi Berkes, ed. by Donald P. Little (Leiden, 1976), pp.224-243,

32 Nicolas Vatin, “Sur Quelques Propos Géographiques d’Ibrahim Pacha, Grand Vezir de Soliman le Magnifique (1533)” in Comité Internationale d’études Pré-Ottomans et Ottomans, VIth Symposium, Cambridge 1st – 4th of July 1984, ed. J-L Bacqué-Grammont and Emeri Van Dunzel, (Istanbul: 1987).

33 Piri Reis, Kitāb-ı BaÔriye. (Ankara,1988), v.1, p.43.

34 See for example Svat Soucek, “Piri Reis and Ottoman Discovery of the Great Discoveries.” Studia Islamica 79 (1994): 121-142.

35 “Reis” is a title meaning “ship’s captain,” not a surname.  There is no evidence that Piri Reis and Selman Reis were related.

36 Salih ƒzbaran, “A Turkish Report on the Red Sea and the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean (1525),” Arabian Studies 4 (1978): 81-88.

37 The only comprehensive study of Ottoman military expansion in the Indian Ocean during this period is, unfortunately for Western scholars, in Turkish.  See Salih ƒzbaran, “Osmanlı İmperatorluğu ve Hindistan Yolu: Onaltıncı Yôzyılda Ticaret Yolları Êzerinde Tôrk-Portekiz Rekabet ve İliskileri.” Tarih Dergisi 31 (March 1977): 66-146.

38 Topkapı Sarayı Môzesi Kôtôphanesi H.1822.  For a color facsimile see Rispoli, Adelia, pp.92-93.

39 Goodrich, Thomas. “Atlas-ı Hômayun: A Sixteenth Century Ottoman Maritime Atlas Discovered in 1984.” Archivium Ottomanicum 10 (1985): 84-101

40 Goodrich, Thomas. “The Earliest Ottoman Maritime Atlas: The Walters Deniz Atlası.” Archivium Ottomanicum 11 (1986): 25-44.

41 Cevdet Tôrkay, Osmanlı Tôrklerinde Coğrafya (Istanbul, 1959), pp.20-23.

42 Topkapı Saray Môzesi Kôtôphanesi no. R.1639.

43 The author wrote the original of this work in Arabic and later translated it himself into Turkish.  See Adıvar, p.93.

44 Adıvar, pp.93-94.

45 See W.D.C. Randles, “La diffusion dans l’Europe du XVIe. siúcle des connaissances géographiques dues aux découvertes portugaises” in La Découverte, Le Portugal et L’Europe Actes du Colloque de Paris les 26,27 et 28 mai 1988 (Paris, 1990), pp.269-278.

46 From the preface to the second volume of the Navigationi.  See Justin Stagl, “The Methodising of Travel in the 16th Century: A Tale of Three Cities” in Facing Each Other: The World’s Perception of Europe and Europe’s Perception of the World, ed. Anthony Pagden (Burlingon, 2000), pp.123-150.

47 For a French translation, see de Sacy, Silvestre. “La Foudre du Yémen, ou conqu¡te du Yémen par les Othomans.” Notes et Extraits des Manuscrits de la Bibliothúque Nationale 4 (Paris 1788):412-504.

48 Matuz, Joseph. L’ouvrage de Seyfi ‰elebi (Paris, 1968).

49 Topkapı Saray Môzesi Kôtôphanesi, K.893, f.91a.

50 Ihsanoğlu, pp.72-73.

51 For a transcription of the text of the letter, see: Razaulhak Şah, “AÐi Padişahı Sultan Alāeddin’in Kanunī Sultan Sôleyman’a Mektubu.” Tarih Araştırmaları Dergisi 5, no.8-9 (1967): 373-409.  To my knowledge the only modern scholars to have cited this text are Halil Inalcik, An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1914 (Cambridge, 1994), p.329, and Naimur Rahman Farooqi, Mughal-Ottoman Relations: A Study of Political and Diplomatic Relations Between Mughal India and the Ottoman Empire 1556-1748 (New Delhi, 1989), p.171.

52 A detailed study of this text will appear as part of my PhD dissertation, currently in progress.

53 Sidi Ali Reis. The Travels and Adventures of Sidi Ali Reis in India, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Persia During the Years 1553-1556. Tr. A. Vambery  (London, 1899).

54 M. Guadefroy-Demombynes, “Les Sources Arabes du MuÔit Turc,” Journal Asiatique, 2nd series, v.20 (1912):347-350.