Strange stories

The secret of the portolane

Old nautical charts indicate unknown civilizations

Published in GralsWelt 22/2002

 Do old nautical charts reveal the legacy of a sunken pre-civilization? A high culture that had great knowledge and where people traveled from pole to pole? At a time when the coasts of Antarctica were still free of ice? Here we investigate the “Secret of the Portolane” and show (as also especially in “Brief, Terse, Curious”) how many unresolved questions there are in our history. 

Portolane or Portulane are old nautical charts or boatman's manuals that contain descriptions of the coast and provide the navigator with information that he needs to safely steer his ship from port to port. Portolans have been recorded in multiple forms and passed on to our days. We know that they are based in part on traditions that can be traced back to ancient times.

It goes without saying that these documents were continually supplemented with new experiences in order to obtain the most precise information possible; Centuries ago, precise navigation was just as vital as it is today, and errors in determining the position could then, as now, lead to the loss of the ship and the death of the crew.

State secret nautical chart

However, in antiquity and the Middle Ages there were no maritime offices and no geographical institutes. Map drawing was an art entrusted to specialists, and documents for nautical charts or portolans were not infrequently treated as state secrets.

That began at the latest with the Phoenicians, who blocked the Strait of Gibraltar and knew how to prevent ships from other countries from sailing the Atlantic by all means. Only a few sparse reports about the seas beyond the "Pillars of Hercules" (the Strait of Gibraltar) - that is, across the Atlantic and the North Sea - reached the Greeks. One of them seems to have flowed into the Odyssey; In any case, scientists are of the opinion that a description of the way to Heligoland can be proven in the description of Odysseus' wanderings. (1, p. 54).

The secrecy of sea routes did not end with the destruction of the Phoenician sea power. Until well into modern times, navigational data and facts were treated as secrets.

The Portuguese tried to keep the sea route to India and on to the Moluccas and Japan secret; the Spaniards destroyed every foreign ship that entered the South American waters claimed by Spain, and Turkish seafarers kept their nautical charts as secret as their Christian adversaries.

Despite all the secrecy, old nautical charts have been preserved. Most of them are descriptions of the Mediterranean or sailing instructions for the Black Sea; but there are also representations of the oceans. European as well as oriental cartographers and seafarers tried again and again to represent the "whole world" and produced maps, atlases and even globes, which give us an insight into the respective geographical knowledge. Most of her works hardly contain any surprises, they only show contemporary knowledge.

Exceptionally, however, nautical charts appear which are of astonishing precision, indicate the position of places more precisely than could be measured at the probable time the maps were created; yes, some even contain coasts and lands that had not yet been discovered at the time these portolans were drawn. Ultimately, the impression even arises that projection methods were used to depict the curved earth on flat paper that were unknown before modern times.

Piri ‑ Re'i's enigmatic cards

One of the most mentioned of the enigmatic maps is a map of the world from 1513, handed down from the possession of Piri-Re'is, which was only discovered in 1929 in the old Sultan's Palace in Istanbul. Piri-Re'is was an admiral of the Turkish fleet. Like many great seafarers, he had started as a corsair, then made a career as a captain of warships, until in 1550 he was entrusted with the supreme command of the Ottoman fleet. On behalf of Sultan Selim I (1512-1520), he created a sailing manual of the Mediterranean, unique for the time, entitled "Marine" (Bahrriye), and also the famous map of the world, which unfortunately has not been preserved in its entirety. Later, his pirate past became his undoing. By paying a large bribe, he was induced to lift the siege of Gibraltar. For this he was executed by order of Sultan Soliman (1520-1566).

Piri ‑ Re'is itself never penetrated the Atlantic. So he was not an explorer who could draw a map of the world from his own experience. But he had valuable old maps, the details of which he summarized. They were probably originals from antiquity that have been lost. One can only assume that these originally came from Phoenician - or even earlier - times and came to Constantinople via Alexandria (the largest library and most important university of antiquity), where they fell into Turkish hands after the conquest of the Eastern Roman capital.

An examination of the map of the Piri ‑ Re'is drawn on the basis of these templates has revealed astonishing facts: First of all, the geographical longitudes are given with surprising accuracy. An exact time measurement is required to determine the exact length. The seafarers of the 18th century still had to struggle with this problem, and many developments and improvements were required before clocks were available in the 19th century that no longer made approaching a coast in poor visibility a life-threatening adventure. (Cf. “The fateful struggle for length” in “Short, concise, curious” page 188)

Medieval captains, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians could not solve this problem in any case, and only a few of their seafarers dared to go out to sea without seeing the land. So where did Piri ‑ Re'is get his knowledge from?

After careful analysis, Charles Hapgood comes to the following statement: “It stands to reason that Piri ‑ Re'is had map templates of Africa, Europe and the islands in the Atlantic, which were based on nautical charts that were originally drawn in a trigonometric projection that took into account the curvature of the earth. In the absence of other alternatives, we find ourselves compelled to ascribe the origin of this part of the map to a pre-Hellenic people - not Renaissance or medieval geographers, not even the Arabs, who couldn't cope with longitudes any more than anyone else, and neither did they Greeks. The trigonometric projection (or at least the information about the size of the earth processed in it) suggests Alexandrian geographers, but the obvious knowledge of longitudes suggests an unknown people, a nation of seafarers who had instruments for measuring length that the Greeks did not could dream once, and which - as far as we know - the Phoenicians did not have at their disposal either. "  (6, p. 49).

Hapgood has recently ceased to be a blatant outsider with this view; because the traditional maps speak such a clear language that the respected geologist and Antarctic researcher John Welhaupt from the University of Colorado speaks of the fact that between 2,600 and 9,000 years ago Bronze Age people found their way to Antarctica and were even able to do so Map this continent. (3, p. 280).

If one follows other sources (2), the Piri ‑ Re'is map still contains an exact picture of the coasts of North and South America as well as the Antarctic. This is not satisfied with the coastlines, but also includes mountain ranges.

Greenland is represented as a series of three islands; indeed, an ice-free Greenland would give this sight. Accordingly, the old templates would be the Piri Re'is card before the current glaciation of Greenland? So before the earth's poles shifted and today's climatic zones emerged?

An unknown civilization

Charles Hapgood studied other ancient nautical charts and came to almost unbelievable conclusions. First of all, with regard to the age of the lost, probably ancient, templates. The comparison of today's coastlines with representations on these old nautical charts led to the following impression: “Probably the most impressive example is the great bay on the Ibn Ben Zara map of Spain at the point where the Guadalquivir delta is today. It is advised that a delta thirty miles wide and fifty miles long has formed since the original map was drawn. There are also references (in the Ibn Ben Zara map) to a lower sea level. Contrary to the exceptional accuracy of this map, there are many islands in the Aegean Sea that no longer exist today, and many islands are larger than they are today. This could be bad cartographic work, but there is no need to take this inference. It is probably the same as with the references to the remains of Ice Age glaciers in Sweden, Germany, England and Ireland in the Benicasa and Ibri Zara maps as well as the map of Ptolemy of Northern Europe. Obviously both are related and point in the same direction - to a very old age for the beginning of cartography. " (6, p. 185).

The most convincing representations of the Antarctic continent must have been made at a time when, according to general opinion, nothing was known about this part of the world: “The most important indication of the age of the maps can be found in the representations of the Antarctic, especially in maps by Mercator, Piri ‑ Re'is and Orontes Finäus. All of these maps appear to show the continent at a time when there was a temperate climate. Geological indications, which were presented in the form of three drill cores from the sediments in the Ross Sea, give the impression that such a warm period could have prevailed there until 6000 years ago. " (6, pp. 185/186).

Another interesting observation from Hapgood: Even the oldest nautical charts seem to be based on the division of the circle into 360 degrees. Today we are of the opinion that this classification comes from Babylon, but Hapgood believes in a much older origin:

“The impression arises that the 360 ‑ degree circle and the division into twelve of the cardinal points were well known before the rise of Babylon and long before the Phoenicians built Tire and Sidon. Babylonian science was arguably the legacy of a much older culture. " (6, p.185).

When we pick up a compass today, measure an angle, or divide the hour into 60 minutes, we are therefore using one of the oldest definitions of mankind: An unknown but very ancient people made this definition many millennia ago, that of the Babylonians , Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs of modern times.

There are increasing references to an ancient culture that - at least as far as seafaring is concerned - cannot have been far behind 18th century Europe. Few traces of this unknown civilization have survived; in addition to myths and individual puzzling finds, especially maps of unknown origin.

These maps were preserved because they were passed on from seafarer to seafarer through the centuries, repeatedly drawn or copied, until they finally ended up in our museums as the legacy of a sunken pre-civilization.

This drifted culture had great seafarers whose accomplishments can be seen before the adventures of Columbus, Maghellan, and Cook: “It becomes clear that the old travelers traveled from pole to pole. As unbelievable as it may seem, we are convinced that very ancient peoples explored the coasts of Antarctica while they were free of ice. It is also clear that they had navigational instruments that would allow them to determine the longitude of a place with an accuracy far beyond the capabilities possessed by ancient, medieval, or modern peoples up to the second half of the 18th century . " (6, p. 1).


(1) Bartholomäus, Karl: "Odysseus came to Helgoland", Bild der Wissenschaft, issue 1/1977, DVA, Stuttgart.

(2) Charroux, Robert: “Fantastic Past”, FA Herbig, Berlin, 1966.

(3) Der Spiegel, Volume 38, No. 41 of October 8, 1984, Spiegel Verlag, Hamburg.

(4) Hagl, Siegfried: “The gap between science and truth”, publisher of the Grail Message Foundation, Stuttgart, 1986.

(5) Hapgood, Charles: "Earth's Shifting Crust", Pantheon Books, New York, 1958.

(6) Hapgood, Charles: "Maps of Ancient Sea Kings," Chilton Books, Philadelphia, 1966. (Book review of the German translation "The world maps of ancient seafarers" here under "Book and Film Reviews").