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Volume 43, Number 3May/June 1992

In This Issue

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A Muslim History Of The New World

Written by Paul Lunde

As a reward for his services as a naval officer and cartographer, the Ottoman sultan appointed Piri Reis grand admiral of Egypt, with responsibility for the security of the Red Sea, Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean - all areas threatened by the Portuguese. His first expedition, in 1547, was a success. He recovered Aden from the Portuguese, storming the fortress and leaving behind a strong garrison to guard this strategic harbor, which controlled access to the Red Sea.

His second expedition, four years later, was a disaster, and cost him his head.

Piri Reis set out with a fleet of 30 ships - galleys, galliots and gal­leons, as well as the huge fighting barges used by both the Otto­mans and the Portuguese. Caught in a storm off the south coast of Arabia, he lost several barges, but with the remainder of his fleet attacked and seized Mus­cat. He then besieged Hor­muz, but for some reason -some say he was bribed -lifted the siege and sailed up the Arabian Gulf to Basra, probably to refit.

He had already heard from a Portuguese cap­tain he had captured at Muscat that the Portu­guese fleet was expected in the Arabian Gulf at any moment. In Basra, he learned that it was approaching, and he decided to abandon most of his ships and escape from the Ara­bian Gulf before he was bottled up in it by the Portuguese. He set sail hurriedly, taking along three galleys which were his per­sonal property. He lost one of these off Bahrain, but with the remaining two - and the treasure from the conquest of Muscat - he made his way back to Suez.

Meanwhile, the governor of Basra had reported the failure of the expedition to the sultan, who rather pre­cipitously sent an order for Piri Reis's execution. Thus, when the admiral arrived in Cairo, he was beheaded. He was then over 80 years old; in the Ottoman service, the price of failure was high.

Piri Reis was temporarily replaced by the Sanjaq Bey of al-Qatif, who engaged the Portuguese in a bit­ter sea battle near Hormuz. The Ottomans were out­gunned by the Portuguese, and the surviving Otto­man ships were forced to return to Basra. The sultan then appointed a brilliant officer named 'Ali ibn Husayn, better known by his pen-name of Katib-i Rumi, to retrieve the situation.

'Ali's father and grandfather had both been gov­ernors of the Ottoman arsenal at Galata, and thus had
been intimately involved almost from the beginning in the creation of the Ottoman navy. They must have known Piri Reis; 'Ali himself had been present at the siege of Cyprus in 1522 and had sailed with the famous corsair Khair al-Din Pasha, the dreaded Barbarossa, as had Piri Reis himself. Like his older con­temporary, 'Ali knew the Mediterranean like the back of his hand, and he too had literary ambitions.

Expert in practical seamanship, 'Ali nevertheless felt the need to deepen his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, and he had been able to begin these studies in Aleppo in 1548. He had accompanied the sultan on his military expedition against Safavid Per­sia in that year, which was coordinated with Piri Reis's push against the Portuguese off the Arabian coast, for at this time the Portuguese were uneasy allies of the Safavids. 'Ali and the sultan established their winter quarters in Aleppo, and here 'Ali took lessons philosophy and astronomy from a local scholar, translating a Persian manual of astronomy into Turk­ish. He was able to spend another winter in Aleppo in 1553, during the third cam­paign against the Safavids. His studies were inter­rupted when Sultan Süleyman ordered him to go to Basra, rescue the remains of the Ottoman fleet, and convey the sur­viving ships to Suez.

'Ali went to Basra by way of Mosul and Baghdad, and when he arrived, he was informed that the governor, Mustafa Pasha, had sailed to Hormuz in a frigate to discover the movements of the Portuguese. A mes­senger from Mustafa then arrived with word that the Portuguese were approaching Hormuz with only four ships. 'Ali set sail and 40 days later, off the coast of Dhofar, he encountered the Por­tuguese fleet. Instead of four ships, however, it con­sisted of three large galleons, six guard ships, 12 gal­liots and four huge barges. Nonetheless, the two fleets immediately engaged. The battle raged fiercely all day and one of the Portuguese galleons was sunk. At nightfall, the Portuguese sounded the retreat and fled towards Hormuz, the Ottomans in pursuit.

Just off Muscat, a reinforced Portuguese fleet com­manded by the son of the Portuguese governor of Goa attacked the Ottomans. Hajji Khalifah describes the battle as more ferocious than the famous sea battle between Khair al-Din and Andrea Doria, the Genoese admiral who commanded the fleet of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Portuguese hand grenades, thrown from their war-barges, took a heavy toll. Three Turkish barges were driven ashore, but returned to the battle reinforced with local Bedouins anxious to join the fray. During the night a gale blew up and scattered the ships; the sailors were so exhausted from the bat­tle they could not man the oars. They were driven ashore at Makran, in present-day Pakistan, where the governor provisioned them. Setting sail again, they encountered a terrible storm off the southern coast of Arabia that lasted 10 days and drove the surviving ships all the way to India.

'Ali ibn Husayn was finally able to land in Gujarat. He and the survivors of the terrible voyage entered the service of the sultan of Ahmedabad and took part in a number of campaigns against the Portuguese-controlled ports on the western coast of India. It was here in Ahmedabad that 'Ali composed the Muhit, a comprehensive work on oceanography, with special reference to the Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf and Red Sea. This work, whose title of course means "The All-Encompassing Sea," preserves precious material from otherwise unknown works by Arab navigators, and its short fourth chapter is devoted to the Spanish and Portuguese discoveries in the New World. Much of the information it contains was probably derived from oral sources, presumably from interviews with Portuguese captives.

'Ali ibn Husayn was luckier than Piri Reis: He finally made his way back to Constantinople four years after setting out from Basra and, instead of los­ing his head, received his back pay and a raise. This may have been partly in recognition of the utility of his Muhit, and partly because of his extraordinary overland journey from Gujarat to Constantinople through Central Asia, which he described in a book called The Adventures of Sidi 'Ali. It may also have been due to his fame as a poet, for his vivid descriptions of the terrors of the sea were highly thought of not only in his own time, but by later generations as well.

By the time 'Ali ibn Husayn was writing, informa­tion about the New World was largely academic. Her-nan Cortés and Francisco Pizarro had conquered Mexico and Peru, respectively; the complicated admin­istrative system was in place that would prevail until the days of the South American liberator Simon Boli­var, some two and a half centuries later. There were still discoveries to be made, but the outline of the New World was broadly known. The great wave of cartog­raphic, historical, ethnographic and scientific information resulting from the discovery was in the process of being made accessible to the rest of Europe; Spanish books were being translated into most Euro­pean languages and were becoming increasingly widely available.

The Ottomans, during the 16th century, were fighting simultaneously on a number of fronts. Theoretical problems, such as integrating the Spanish and Portuguese discoveries into the system of geo­graphical concepts they had inherited from classical and medieval writers, could not have seemed very pressing. Though they must have been discussed - 'Ali ibn Husayn must have spoken of such things while studying in Aleppo, for example - the results of such discussions had not yet found their way into scholarly literature. It is significant that the first two Muslims we know of who concerned themselves with the New World - Piri Reis and 'Ali ibn Husayn - should both have been first and foremost practical seamen rather than scholars. Both the Kitab-i Bahriye and the Muhit were written by sailors, for sailors.

The first attempt to tackle these theoretical prob­lems took place slightly later in the 16th century, in 1583. This is the date given in the colophon of the ear­liest known copy of the Hadith-i Nev, or New History, which is usually known under the title of the printed edition as the Ta'rikh-i Hind-i Gharbi, or The History of the West Indies.

The author was probably Amir Muhammad ibn Amir Hasan al-Su'udi, as stated in the colophon, although the American scholar Thomas D. Goodrich, who devoted many years to the study of the book and its illustrations and published an English translation in Wiesbaden in 1990 under the title The Ottoman Turks and the New World, thinks Amir Muhammad merely revised and embellished the style of the book for pre­sentation to the sultan. Amir Muhammad, however, in a learned pun on the Arabic root of his name (s-'-d), which he shares with the famous 10th-century histo­rian al-Mas'udi, declares himself a "follower" of the latter - and indeed, the major authority in the first chapter of his book is al-Mas'udi. This would seem to indicate that al-Su'udi was responsible for the con­tents, as well as the final form, of the book. The pro­duction of two versions of the same book, one for royal presentation and the other for the public, was not unknown at the time; the Kitab-i Bahriye exists as both a presentation copy in a more elevated style and a sim­pler version for ordinary use.

There are at present 19 known partial or complete manuscripts of the Ta'rikh-i Hind-i Gharbi, including a Persian translation done in Moghul India. It was one of the first Islamic printed books, produced on the presses of Ibrahim Muteferrika in Istanbul in 1730 (See Aramco World, March-April 1981), and the first with figural illustrations; these are woodcuts of great charm, three, according to Goodrich, derived from European sources and the others either based on the text or derived from sources as yet unknown. Although the book has been known in Europe since the 17th century - the French Orientalist Barthelémy de Herbelot devotes a short article to it in his Bibliothèque Orientale , the first European encyclopedia of Islam, in 1697, and mentions an Arabic version, now apparently lost - it has aroused hardly any interest in academic circles. A French translation of the third chapter, the history of the conquest of South America by Cortés and Pizarro, was completed in the 18th cen­tury but never published. An Italian translation of the same chapter was made exactly 100 years ago, and published - to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America. But Goodrich - and this writer - seem to have been the only scholars to have taken any interest in it for the past hundred years.

This lack of interest probably derives from the fact that this third chapter is entirely derived from Span­ish sources: more precisely, as Goodrich has made clear, from Italian translations of Spanish sources. Unlike the inscriptions on the Piri Reis map of 1513 or the same author's Kitab-i Bahriye, it contains nothing that cannot be found in the sources from which it is derived. But the way the author manipulates his sources is of considerable interest. The major source used by the author is Francisco López de Gómara's Historia General de las Indias, itself largely a compilation from earlier authorities. López de Gómara was chap­lain and private secretary to Cortés after his return to Spain, and never himself visited the countries whose history he describes.

The popularity of López de Gómara's work led to the spread of the story of the "Anonymous Pilot," which may originally have arisen - unless it is true - from an effort to deprive Columbus's heirs of their legal rights by impugning the singularity of his dis­covery. Be that as it may, it is curious that the three major Islamic versions of Columbus's life - Piri Reis's account, that of the author of the Ta'rikh-i Hind-i Gharbi and the one by Elias ibn Hanna - should all have given us variants of the "Anonymous Pilot" story. This is how the story appears in the Ta'rikh-i Hind-i Gharbi:

A man named Christopher Columbus was born in the milage of Nervi, in Genoese territory. He traveled many lands and many seas and knew the history and landmarks of the entire Mediterranean. He was famous for his maps and well-known for his written works. Intending to travel to the lands of Sind and Hind and visit the coasts and islands of the African Sea, he sailed beyond the Strait and went to live on the Island of Madeira, a possession of the Portuguese, men of evil repute.

A storm-tossed ship manned by a captain and two sailors was driven ashore by chance. When it reached the island, the two sailors died and only the captain survived, although very ill. Columbus took pity on him and took him to his house. He fed and cared for him for several days, and asked him for an account of his adventures.

"We were sailing off the North African coast," said the captain, "on a trading voyage. A head wind suddenly blew up and drove us into the Atlantic Ocean. Driven before it for some time, we sighted numberless islands and coasts. The wind finally turned and we made our way back. Most of the crew died by the sea's violence. You can see for yourself the condition I am in; the treacherous sea has made me a sorrowful grave."

The captain died two days later but his story affected Columbus profoundly and the idea entered his head of becoming famous by finding those lands....

The author's technique of translating, rearranging and selecting can be easily seen by comparing this passage to López de Gómara's original, which gives more information about Columbus's origins, boyhood and travels in the Levant, but does not mention his intention to travel to the East. The reference to "Sind and Hind" - though it literally means what is now Pakistan and India - is a poetic way of referring to the Far East in general. The author is apparently implying that at this early date Columbus had already formed the plan of reaching the Indies by sailing west. He retains the original's reference to Columbus's map-making activities, but adds "written works" to his achievements, which is not in the original. He doesn't mention Columbus's marriage, which is.

The next paragraph in the Ottoman version describes the voyage of the "Anonymous Pilot" in the Atlantic. The material comes partly from López de Gómara's previous chapter, where the number of the crew is given as "three or four," not two, and partly from the chapter he has just translated. The Ottoman author puts the pilot's story into the first person, in good novelistic fashion, and adds a few details that are not in López de Gómara. He also omits a great deal that is, in order to give a clearer and simpler narrative. He leaves out almost all of the political background and intrigues that are given in such detail by López de Gómara when he writes of the careers of Cortés and Pizarro. Instead, he chooses episodes that would appeal to a popular audience.

He several times interrupts the narrative to make rather unrealistic pleas for the sultan to carry the war against the Hapsburgs into the New World; although corsairs from the Moroccan port of Salé preyed on Spanish treasure ships returning from the New World, ships flying the Turkish flag never seem to have penetrated the Caribbean, as English, French and Dutch ships did. When telling the story of Co­lumbus's interview with King Ferdinand - Queen Isabella is not mentioned - during the siege of Gra­nada, the author takes the opportunity to interpolate a long passage lamenting the loss of that city and the Spanish capture of fortresses along the North African coast, and recalling the great days of Khair al-Din. He ends with a description of the Great Mosque at Cór­doba and its famous minbar, or pulpit, taken from ear­lier Arabic sources.

Although López de Gómara is the principal source for the Ta'rikh-i Hind-i Gharbi, the author also referred to other works, including the Decades of Peter Martyr, the writings of Agustín de' Zárate and even, toward the end, to Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, the official historiographer of the Indies. From the lat­ter he derived the descriptions of unusual New World plants and animals with which the book closes; some of these are represented in the illustrations. This emphasis on "wonders" is reminiscent of the popular late-medieval "wonder books" that were characteris­tic of 13th- and 14th-century literature in both the Is­lamic world and Europe.

This is particularly evident in the first chapter of the Ta'rikh-i Hind-i Gharbi, which is a summary of medieval Islamic geographical knowledge, cast in the form of the 'Aja'ib al-Makhluqat (The Cosmography) of Zakariyya al-Qazwini, a sort of cosmological and geographical encyclopedia, written in the 13th century, which enjoyed a great vogue. Another important Arabic source for the first chapter is al-Mas'udi's Muruj al-Dhahab, or Meadows of Gold, The dimensions of the earth are given, its circumference stated as 24,000 miles, a figure going back to Ptolemy. The length of a degree is given as 56 miles, following al-Farghani; this is the famous "short degree" used by Columbus, who claimed to have re-calculated it (See "Al-Farghani and the 'Short Degree,'" in this issue). The seas, continents, mountains and rivers are enumerated. An island between the coasts of Yemen and Ethiopia has a mirac­ulous fountain, the waters of which clear the mind, improve the memory and make the drinker wise. There is a tree that grows on an island off Uman; its fruit is a cure for most illnesses. An old man who eats of its fruit recovers his youth.

The author is not uncritical, however. At one point in his first chapter he retells the old story of Alexander the Great and the Caspian Sea. This was a favorite with medieval Muslim writers:

Wishing to learn the extent of the Caspian Sea, Alex­ander equipped a ship and crewed it with men and women from the various peoples who inhabited the southern shore. He told them to sail the sea for a year and then return. They set sail, and exceeding Alexan­der's orders, sailed for 13 months without seeing any­thing but water. Then they met another ship, much the worse for a long voyage. They questioned the voyagers, but not having a language in common, were unable to communicate with them. So Alexander's sailors gave one of their women to the men they had met, and received a man in exchange. Then they returned to Alexander's encampment.

Alexander married the man to a woman from among his followers, and they had a child. When the child had reached the age of reason, he was able to interpret for his father, and thus Alexander learned of the lands that lay to the north. He discovered that these were ruled by a king even more powerful than himself, and that just as Alexander had done, this king had sent an expedition to learn of lands to the south, and that they had sailed for two years and two months before encountering Alexander's ship.

The author of the Ta'rikh-i Hind-i Gharbi points out that this story is ridiculous, for the length and breadth of the Caspian are well-known, and the sea can be crossed in a short time. He goes on to say, however, that the story would make sense of it originally applied, not to the Caspian, but to the Atlantic Ocean. "It is possible," he says, "that the ship that has been mentioned came from the New World." He is thus the first Muslim author to speculate on the possibility of pre-Columbian voyages!

But it is in the short second chapter of the book that the author breaks with tradition. He quotes al-Mas'udi to the effect that the All-Encompassing Ocean cannot be crossed, and that its boundaries are unknown, just as Ptolemy says. He retells al-Mas'udi's story of the Pillars of Hercules, inscribed with a warn­ing that there is nothing beyond, and no man lives there (See "Pillars of Hercules, Sea of Darkness," in this issue). He then tells of the voyage of Khashkhash, still quoting al-Mas'udi, quite aware that this contradicts what has immediately gone before. And then, a few paragraphs later, he says: "This poor author states that in the first years of the 10th century of the Hijra [about AD 1495] a number of brave men from Andalusia sailed the waters of that terrible ocean, far into its midst, and so overcame the talisman that protected this forbid­den treasure, and found the boundary of this bound­less sea."

With these words the 16th-century author of the Ta'rikh-i Hind-i Gharbi puts to rest the legend of the inviolability of the Atlantic Ocean - a legend that had gripped men's minds for more than 2000 years, and which had probably first been propagated by Phoenician sailors to protect their monopoly of Atlantic trade.

 Historian and Arabist Paul Lunde, author of the whole issue of Aramco World , is a frequent Contributor to the magazines with some 50 articles to his credit over the past two decades, including special multi-article sections on Arabic-language printing and the history of the Silk Roads. His immediate research for this issue was carried out in Seville, Rome, London and Cambridge, and he wrote from his base in Seville’s Barrio do Santa Cruz, a stone’s throw from the city’s cathedral—once a mosque—and from Alcázares Resales, the Moorish palace complex that remains today one of the residences of Spain’s Christian kings.

This article appeared on pages 26-33 of the May/June 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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