A Threadbare Tapestry – Weaving Together a Lost History by Marc Graham
9 October 1929 — Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey
Gustav Deissmann breathed deeply of musty air. For months he had picked his way through forgotten ruins of a failed empire, now a mere backwater republic among the dozens of republics that had sprouted from the ashes of the recent Great War.
“Such is the way of the world,” Deissmann muttered to himself. He flipped open his pen knife and cut through the hemp twine that bound a stack of cracked and crumbling parchments. “The mightiest lion may be brought down by a pack of dogs.”
His own native German Empire—now the emasculated Weimar Republic—had been allied with the late Ottoman Empire, a fact that made the current situation no more comfortable. Deissmann flexed stiff fingers, joints swollen by the damp air of the cellars of this sad remnant of a once-glorious palace. He began flipping through the worthless animal skins.
A pity, he mused. This city, this empire had been the heir to Rome itself. Steeped in learning and law and science when his own forebears had been illiterate pagans, sacrificing livestock and slaves and children to their rumbling thunder-gods in hope of a good harvest. If only the Byzantines had held fast to their faith. If only they had stood against the encroaching—
Gott im Himmel!
Deissmann flipped back to the parchment he’d almost summarily dismissed. The random scratchings and illegible text might have made this any common land deed, except for the ships scattered about the central portion of the chart. This was a seafarer’s map.
With trembling hands, he pulled a magnifying glass from his jacket pocket and looked more closely.
The upper right extremity of the chart depicted something resembling a smiling demon. But within its face was drawn a farmer, in its gullet a castle. Below these, across the small gulf between chin and distended belly, were drawn gardens and sultans and fortresses, ostrich and elephant.
The eastern landmass gave way to sea, and Deissmann shifted his focus to the western half of the map. A jagged coast debouched numerous rivers, its interior populated by flame-headed monsters, monkeys, tusked deer, and—unicorns? Numerous islands dotted the coastlines, but Deissmann focused on the landmasses.
Yes, that was Iberia and the Straits of Gibraltar. That, the great sweep of western Africa. Which must make this Brazil? And Panama? Might that be the Yucatan? Or Florida?
Deissmann carefully drew the parchment from the stack of moldering skins. He placed it in his leather folio and rose on trembling legs. He must show this to his comrade, Paul Kahle. While Deissmann took no small pride in his knowledge of the classical European scripts, Kahle’s knowledge of Near East Semitic scripts was unmatched. Perhaps he might make something of the numerous legends about the periphery of this map.
A cool wind swept down the stone-lined stairwell as Deissmann made his way from the cellar. He clutched the folio tight against his ribs as he climbed the ancient steps, their surfaces deeply grooved over the centuries by the countless footfalls of those who trod before him.
* * *
Or something like that.
There is little documentary evidence of the discovery of the Piri Reis map, and the above account is an extrapolation of the known facts. It was discovered by Gustav Deissmann in the newly founded museum of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It was initially translated by Paul Kahle, who identified the author as Piri Reis, an admiral in the Ottoman fleet of the sixteenth century. And the map was dated to 1513, a mere twenty-one years after Columbus’s first voyage to the New World.
But here’s the rub.
Piri Reis acknowledged his map as a compilation of earlier charts ranging from before the destruction of the Library of Alexandria to a hand-drawn map by Columbus himself. However, certain portions of the Piri Reis map—particularly as relate to longitudinal (east-west) coordinates and parts of the western coastlines of the Americas and Antarctica—show greater accuracy than any map for the next three centuries.
Thread number one.
My recent novel, Son of the Sea, Daughter of the Sun, grew out of the question of where Piri Reis found the raw material from which he crafted his map. Initially, I thought I might follow the story of some unknown sailor, an assistant who—having helped his admiral in the compiling of the ancient maps—may have desired to explore those unknown coasts for himself.
The realities of sixteenth century politics soon dismissed that idea. And so I drifted farther westward and backward in time. The Venetians or Genoans would certainly have stopped such a voyage from crossing their waters. Or, if such a mission were deemed profitable, they might have exploited it for themselves. In which case, Columbus—born of Genoa—would have sailed under the flag of his birth rather than having to seek the patronage of Spain.
And so the story evolved until a suitable candidate appeared. In Visigothic Spain of the seventh century arose Iudila. Unknown but for two ancient coins, this Iudila Rex Gotorum—King Iudila of the Goths—is lost to history. He appears in no official king lists. His name is nowhere in the chronicles of the many court and church proceedings conducted throughout seventh-century Spain, to which the coins date.
Why might this king have been excised from history? What might he have discovered and returned to Spain that so threatened the Church Regnant and the political powers of the time that his name was obliterated, save for two small coins that have somehow survived?
And is it coincidence that on the western side of Piri Reis’s map, the Central American realms of the Maya were at their cultural peak during this period? That the southernmost city-state of Xukpi—known today as the ruins of Copan in Honduras—reached its greatest development at a time when the elite of Europe thought the world flat?
Thin though they be, these are the threads that underlie Son of the Sea, Daughter of the Sun. Of course, few of the story events can be corroborated by conventional history, but that is the curse and the joy of the historical novelist: to weave a cohesive and unique tapestry of story from the barest scraps of the past.
How fascinating, Marc. A great combination of sleuthing, conjecture, and deduction!
Son of the Sea, Daughter of the Sun by Marc Graham ~~ A shipwrecked prince on a foreign shore and a young princess coming into her powers battle dark forces that would destroy her kingdom and their love. Nine hundred years before Columbus, a sailor with a mystical map and a vision of a glorious destiny is shipwrecked on the far side of the world. A prince of Visigothic Spain, Iudila finds his match in Chakin, daughter of a Mayan king. Can love span the gulf between them, or will they be cast apart by their different gods—or by the dark shaman who desires Chakin for himself?
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.