In the days of yore, upon the rolling waves of the Mediterranean, there emerged a new power, one that had not been seen before. The Turks, once a land-bound people, had begun to conquer the coast of Anatolia, and with it, they set their sights on the great sea that lay beyond.
One such warrior was Tzachas, also known as Chaka Bey, a Seljuk commander who, with a small band of Oghuz warriors, conquered the city of Smyrna and established his own beylik in the Aegean region of Anatolia. With a navy of 40 ships, Tzachas easily captured the nearby island of Lesbos and posed a threat to the Byzantine Empire that had never been seen before.
The Byzantine Empire, perceiving the Turkish threat from the sea, attacked Tzachas’ navy in 1090 CE, but was defeated in the Mediterranean, marking the first Turkish naval victory in history. Though the Seljuks were unable to become a constant sea power due to their own political instability, Byzantine intervention, and the Mongol invasion, it was the Ottomans who would ultimately become the dominant sea power in the Mediterranean, using sea ghazis, which the Europeans refer to as corsairs (also known as sea wolves) to wage proxy wars with European states for centuries.
Among these sea ghazis, none were more successful than Khayr al-Din ibn Ya’coub, aka Barbarossa, who rose to become the ruler of Algiers and eventually the chief admiral of the Ottoman Empire during the reigns of Selim I and Suleiman the Magnificent. He was a man who not only put fear in the hearts of any papist crossing the Mediterranean but also served as a valuable asset to the Ottoman Empire in their wars (and proxy wars) against the European states. And thus, the name of Khayr al-Din Barbarossa lives on in the annals of history as one of the greatest seafarers to ever sail the Mediterranean.
A Legend’s Early Beginnings
In the distant past, upon the shimmering waters of the Aegean Sea, there lay an island known as Lésbos. Though now a part of the grander nation of Greece, in times long past it was held under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire. It was upon this island that a man was born, a man who would come to be known by many names, but who would ultimately be remembered as Barbarossa (lit: Barba = beard; Rossa = red – Redbeard in Italian).
Khizr (or Khidhr in Arabic), also known as Hayreddin, Barbaros Hayreddin Paşa, and, in Arabic, Khayr al-Din, was born in the 1470s (an Arabic source mentions he was born in 871 A.H., or 1466 CE) in a village called Midilli (or Mytilene; in Lesbos) to a Muslim father of Albanian-Turkish origin and a Christian Greek mother, Katerina. He was raised with a strong foundation in Islamic teachings and principles by a devout Muslim family. His brother Ishaaq (pronounced Is-haaq) dedicated himself to the study of the Holy Qur’an and Islamic jurisprudence. Along with his brothers Ishaaq, Oruç, and Ilyas, Khayr al-Din was taught the ways of the sea by their father, a humble potter who sold his goods by ship throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Khayr al-Din and his three brothers also had two sisters. Khayr al-Din was a man of courage and conviction, an inspirational role model for the Muslim community, and a testament to the power of faith and dedication to Islam. He was a shining example of how Muslim values and principles could bring about great success and honor.
Their father, Yakup (or Ya’coub in Arabic; full Turkish name: Ebu Yusuf Yakub-ut Türkî), was a Sipahi cavalryman among the Ottoman forces who took part in the conquest of Lesbos in 1462, seizing the island from the Genoese Gattilusio dynasty who had held the title of Lord of Lesbos between 1355 and 1462. As a reward for his part in the military action, Yakup was granted the fief of the village of Bonova on the island. With this, he established himself as a potter, using his newfound wealth to purchase a boat which he used to transport his products to be traded. Over time, he became a successful and well-known trader, using his vessel as a means to transport his wares to distant ports.
As they grew, the brothers took to the sea, working as merchants and corsairs. They were greatly vexed by the naval terrorism of the Knights Hospitaller (aka the Knights of St. John), a medieval cult based on the island of Rhodes, who disrupted their business. And so, they decided to take up the sword and become corsairs themselves, striking back against the Knights and their ilk. Two of the brothers, Oruç and Ilyas, operated between Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt while Khidhr operated around the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea; he based his operations mostly in Thessaloniki. Ishaaq, the oldest brother of the four, remained in their hometown of Mytilene and was involved with the financial affairs of the thriving family business.
Khayr al-Din – the Man
As a leader, Khayr al-Din was a man of many talents and many names. He was a clever and bright youth, known for his impressive way of speaking and his bold manner. As a young man, he was noted for his bravery and prudence, and strong will. As he grew to adulthood, he became a successful commander, renowned for his cleverness and his speed of comprehension.
He was a man who took care to educate his subordinates, several of whom became some of the most famous admirals in the history of the Mediterranean, not only the Ottoman Empire. He treated his colleagues kindly and was loved by all. In private, he was cheerful and elegant, a teller of jokes, and a very humble Muslim. With a loving sense of humor, Khayr al-Din once publicly complimented his subordinate Turgut Reis, saying: “Turgut is more advanced than I.” With this, he showed fine traits of humility and nobility.
Physically, Khayr al-Din was tan-skinned, of average height, and had a massive bone and body structure. His hair, beard, eyebrows, and eyelashes were luxuriant, and his eyebrows touched each other. Both Oruç and Khayr al-Din were men of many languages; they were fluent in Greek, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, and French, and he was said to have been an admirer of music.
Thus was the man known as Khayr al-Din, the scourge of the polytheists, the King of the Sea, a man who stood tall against the invaders, a true warrior of the Mediterranean.
Khayr al-Din’s Standard
The Arabic calligraphy at the top of Khayr al-Din’s standard reads:
“نَصرٌ مِنَ اللَّـهِ وَفَتحٌ قَريبٌ وَبَشِّرِ المُؤمِنينَ يَا مُحَمَّد”
“Victory from Allah and an eminent conquest; and give good tidings to the believers, O Muhammad.”
The last two words (“O Muhammad”) were conjoined to the end of the text, which is from the 13th verse of Surat al-Saf of the holy Qur’an. The whole Sura goes:
﴾وَأُخْرَىٰ تُحِبُّونَهَا ۖ نَصْرٌ مِّنَ اللَّهِ وَفَتْحٌ قَرِيبٌ ۗ وَبَشِّرِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ﴿
The four crescents held the names of the first four caliphs, from right to left, beginning at the top right – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. These rulers would come to be known as the Rashidun Caliphs, and their authority and governance would be marked by a symbol of strength and unity – Dhu’l-Fiqar, a two-bladed sword. To the left of the sword’s hilt rested a small hand, while a six-pointed star, known as the Seal of Solomon, was marked between its two blades. This star was an important symbol to the Muslim world and was adopted by many Islamic rulers, including the Beyliks of Anatolia and the Jandarids in the 14th century.
The star was also used to decorate mosques, adorn coins, and was featured on personal flags of pashas. The Karamanids also adopted this symbol, with the Catalan Atlas of 1375 noting that the flag of the Karamanids consisted of a blue six-edged star. As the symbol of the Seal of Solomon grew in popularity throughout the Middle East, it served to unify and strengthen the bond of those living within its four crescents.
Brother to the Rescue
Oruç, now a very successful seaman, along with his brother Ilyas, set out on a journey to the land of Tripoli in Lebanon. But little did they know, fate had other plans for them. Their expedition was brutally ambushed by the nefarious cult of the Knights of St. John, leaving Ilyas dead and Oruç gravely wounded. Their father’s boat was captured, and Oruç was taken as a prisoner and held captive in the formidable Bodrum Castle for several years.
But his brother Khayr al-Din did not abandon him; he sought out Oruç’s location and tried all he can to effect his escape. At first, upon hearing the news of his brother’s capture, Khayr al-Din, along with his “friend” Grego, set out to Bodrum to secure Oruç’s release. He believed that Grego’s connections with the vile Knights would aid in the ransom, but his hopes were cruelly dashed when Grego frauded and betrayed him for chump change, informing the Knights about the brother’s intentions and sharing insight on the brothers’ wealth and background. The Knights of Rhodes, knowing of Oruç’s wealth and seafaring experience, intensified their cruel treatment of him, refusing to release him despite Khayr al-Din’s tireless efforts to secure his brother’s freedom.
Oruç was eventually transferred to a galley ship bound for Antalya where he was forced to work as a slave along with the rest of the hapless rowers. At one point, the galley he was on headed towards Ottoman territory where the foul Knights met with Şehzade (aka prince) Korkut, the son of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II. The prince was responsible for ransoming Turkish prisoners from the Knights; however, due to his perceived value and worth, Oruç was not included in the list of prisoners to be released, even as the prince paid for the freedom of one hundred other Turkish slaves, which the Ottoman State usually does once every month.
Oruç’s determination and resourcefulness, nonetheless, proved to be one of his greatest strengths as he eventually managed to break his chains in the middle of a voyage and swim safely towards the Anatolian shorelines, whereby he ended up in a Turkish village. Within ten days, Oruç made his way to Antalya where he met Ali Reis, a ship captain who traded between Antalya and Alexandria. Oruç joined Ali Reis as a second captain, and it was during this time that he was able to send a message to his brothers informing them of his escape. It was estimated that he spent a total of three (or so) years in captivity from the moment he was taken to Rhodes until his escape.
After some time, Oruç went to the city of Antalya where he was given 18 galleys by Şehzade Korkut, an Ottoman prince, and governor of the city, with the task of battling against the wretched Knights of St. John who were causing great damage to Ottoman shipping and trade.
And so, Oruç took to the sea, a determined corsair, striking fear into the hearts of Christian seafarers, and earning fame and wealth for himself and his crew.
Princes of the Mediterranean
While Prince Korkut was the governor of Manisa, he gave Oruç a larger fleet of 24 galleys at the port of İzmir and ordered him to participate in the Ottoman naval expedition to Apulia in Italy, where Oruç attacked several coastal castles and captured two ships.
In the year 1503, Oruç set his sights on greater conquests and seized three more ships, making the island of Djerba his new base of operations in the Western Mediterranean. His brother Khayr al-Din joined him in this endeavor. It should be noted though that Oruç was usually the leader amongst the seafaring brothers; however, Khayr al-Din too had a significant voice in matters of leadership.
In 1504, the brothers sought the aid of Abu Abdallah Muhammad IV al-Mutawakkil, ruler of Tunis, and requested permission to use the strategically located port of La Goulette for their operations. Their request was granted on the condition that they give one-third of their spoils to the sultan.
With his small galliots, Oruç captured two gigantic papal galleys near the island of Elba. Later, near Lipari, the brothers captured a Sicilian warship, the Cavalleria, with 380 Spanish soldiers and 60 Spanish knights from Aragon on board, who were on their way from Spain to Naples.
Plea of the Andalusians
Back in 1492, the kingdom of Granada fell to the armies of Spain, marking the end of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula. This sparked a wave of terror against Muslim and Jewish minorities throughout the region, and many sought refuge in North Africa. The Barbarossa brothers, moved by compassion, aided in the transportation of these refugees to the Maghreb; sources stated that the brothers began their early days of refugee transporting missions sometime around the year 1504 (or perhaps before that date). According to Khayr al-Din’s memoirs:
“The Islamic city of Granada had recently fallen into the hands of the Spanish. The Spanish were committing great atrocities against the Muslims, many of whom worshiped Allah in secret mosques that were built underground (after the conquest). The Spanish destroyed and burned all the mosques they could find, and every time they found a Muslim praying or standing, they would expose him and his children to punishment or burning.”
This rescue mission was a shining example of the Islamic spirit of compassion and brotherhood, as it saved countless helpless Muslims from certain death at the hands of merciless, bloodthirsty terrorists, and provided them with a new home and a new chance at life.
The Struggle Continues
By 1505, there raged a bitter struggle between the Moors and the Christians for control over the Maghreb region. The land had been won and lost many times over, but with the advent of the so-called Reconquista, the tide began to turn against the Emirs and the Ottoman Sultan. But some valiant braves would not let such things go by while sitting idly into the night; the two brothers, Oruç and Khayr al-Din, continued to take up the sword and carry on the sea jihad against the polytheist papists; the venerable seafarers struck back against the invaders under the direction of Şehzade Korkut, the son of the now-deceased Ottoman sultan Bayezid II.
In the same year, the brothers raided the coasts of Calabria and elsewhere. Their fame eventually grew, and they were joined by other well-known Muslim corsairs, including Kurtoğlu, known in the West as Curtogoli.
In 1508, they raided the coasts of Liguria, particularly Diano Marina. And in 1509, Ishaaq also left Mytilene and joined his brothers at La Goulette. Oruç’s fame increased as he transported Muslim Mudéjars from Christian Spain to North Africa, earning him the honorific name Baba Oruç (lit. Father Oruç), which eventually, due to the similarity in sound, evolved in Spain, France, and Italy into Barbarossa (meaning “Redbeard” in Italian).
In 1510, the three brothers raided Capo Passero in Sicily and repulsed Spanish attacks on Bougie (aka Bujaya, or Béjaïa), Oran, and Algiers. In August 1511, they raided the areas around Reggio Calabria in southern Italy.
At one time, on his return journey to Lesbos, Oruç stopped at Euboea, captured three galleons and another smaller ship, and upon reaching Mytilene with these captured vessels, he learned that Korkut, who was still seen as a threat to the new Ottoman sultan, Selim I, had fled to Egypt to avoid being killed by his paranoid brother.
When the Ottoman Sultan passed away in 1512, a struggle for the throne ensued between his sons Ahmed and Selim. Selim emerged victorious, but in his quest for power, he did not hesitate to eliminate anyone who he saw as a threat, including his own brothers Ahmed and the Barbarossa brothers’ close friend, Korkut.
Fearing trouble due to his well-known association with the now-exiled Ottoman prince, Oruç sailed to Egypt, where he met Korkut in Cairo and managed to get an audience with the Mamluk Sultan Qansuh al-Ghawri, who gave him another two warships and entrusted him with the task of raiding the coasts of Italy once more, in addition to other Christian-held islands around the Mediterranean. After spending the winter in Cairo, he set sail from Alexandria and operated along the coasts of Liguria and Sicily.
By 1513, Sultan Selim would eliminate both of his brothers and become the undisputed ruler over the whole Ottoman Empire.
As the spring of 1513 approached, Oruç set sail from Mytilene towards Alexandria, seizing seven ships along the way on the coast of Karpathos Island. With permission from the Mamluk Sultan, he embarked on a mission to invade nearby islands, making his way to the coasts of Cyprus before heading west to the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia.
But as Selim I solidified his rule and issued a strict ban on seafaring activities on the Anatolian coasts and neighboring areas, naval captain Iskander Pasha was tasked with enforcing the decree by harassing any seafarers, including the Barbarossa brothers, under the guise of them working for the Ottoman rivals, the Mamluk Sultanate.
From Djerba With Love
Upon hearing the news, Khayr al-Din decided to leave Mytilene, loading his ships with wheat and making his way to Tripoli (Lebanon) to trade the wheat for barley. He then traveled to an island opposite Preveza (aka Barouza) where he purchased a ship, before finally reuniting with his brother Oruç on the island of Djerba in Tunisia.
Together, the brothers Oruç and Khayr al-Din, alongside Yahya Reis, set their sights on the city of Tunis, the capital of the Hafsid state. They approached the Hafsid sultan of Tunisia, Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Mutawakkil, and made a request:
“We want to be granted a place to protect our ships as we engage in sea jihad for the sake of God. We will also sell our goods in the markets of Tunisia so that Muslims can benefit from the trade and the state’s treasury can be enriched. In return, we will be the ones in authority.”
Their request was granted and the brothers continued their sea jihad from their new base in Tunisia. With the Barbarossa brothers relocating to North Africa, they became essential in helping the local emirs in their struggles against the Spanish. Over the next three years, they would rise to prominence among the North African communities, preying on Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese shipping as independent corsairs.
Their daring raids upon the coastal towns and cities of Andalusia in the same year were nothing short of legendary. The capture of a galliot belonging to the powerful Lomellini family of Genoa, proprietors of the fabled Tabarca island, was but an appetizer to the many feats of bravery and cunning that you’re about to read throughout the remainder of this illustrious article.
Subsequently, landing upon the shores of Menorca, the brothers seized a coastal castle before setting their sights upon the rich and prosperous region of Liguria. There, in the shadow of the great city of Genoa, they captured four galleys of the powerful Genoese fleet. The Genoese, not content to suffer such an insult, dispatched a fleet of their own to reclaim their lost ships, but the brothers proved too formidable an opponent, whereas not only did the Barbarossa brothers humiliate them further, but they ended up capturing their flagship as well. In less than a month, the brothers had amassed a fleet of 23 ships, and with these, they sailed back to their base at La Goulette; there, they built three more galliots and a facility for the production of gunpowder.
This year also saw the Barbarossa brothers launch a raid upon the coastal city of Valencia, where they captured four ships before turning their attention to the nearby city of Alicante. It was there, near the port of Málaga, that they captured a large Spanish galley like no other, adding it to their growing fleet.
With La Goulette serving as a vital stronghold in the western Mediterranean, the valiant Islamic seafarers worked tirelessly to fortify and strengthen its position. They quickly came to understand the strategic importance of Tunisia and its port, as it controlled the Gulf of Tunisia and served as a gateway to the rich and powerful European countries in the western basin of the Mediterranean Sea. As the brothers spent the winter of 1513-1514 at La Goulette, they prepared for their upcoming sea raids in the spring.
Their efforts were rewarded as they set sail and successfully captured a pirate ship with 150 prisoners on the island of Sardinia. They also seized a ship loaded with wheat that had been abandoned by the pirates and fled on their boats. The next morning, they captured two more ships, one loaded with honey, olives, and cheese, and the other with iron. These successful raids solidified La Goulette’s importance as a base for Islamic sailors. Furthermore, sources state that the Barbarossa brothers even captured two significant ships belonging to Pope Julius II between the islands of Corsica and Elba, which were much larger compared to their own vessels. This only further exemplifies the Islamic sailors’ prowess and growing dominance in the Mediterranean Sea.
For quite some time now, the lands of Algeria have been in turmoil and despair. The once-powerful Hafsid dynasty, which rules over Tunisia and the eastern parts of Algeria, is hanging on to whatever power they have left; in the wake of their recent reign, injustice, banditry, and poverty are widespread throughout Algeria. The people of these regions were forced to abandon their homes and towns, seeking refuge from the endless cycle of suffering.
But amidst the chaos, two brothers, Oruç and Khayr al-Din, saw an opportunity to rise and restore order to the land. They knew that in order to do this, they would have to conquer Jijel and eventually all of Algeria.
The fall of Andalusia was a catalyst for the Barbarossa brothers to rise up in defense of their faith. The kingdom of Andalusia, a shining symbol of Muslim power in Granada, had been brutally conquered by the Christians in 1492. This loss was felt deeply by the Muslim community, as they had called Andalusia home for over seven centuries. But the Barbarossa brothers saw beyond this tragedy and recognized the potential of Algeria as a base for their corsair activities. With the ongoing persecution and expulsion of Muslims in Iberia, the brothers saw the opportunity to not only provide a safe haven for their displaced brothers and sisters but also to strengthen their ranks with the influx of new fighters. The brothers were determined to defend the honor of Islam and reclaim what had been lost in Andalusia.
Furthermore, the Christians had already occupied many cities along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, including Melilla. At the instigation of the papacy, they had set their sights on expanding further towards capturing strategic locations throughout North Africa as a precaution against the return of Muslims to Andalusia.
In the past five years alone, the Christians were in control of several cities in Algeria, including al-Mersa al-Kabir, Oran, Arzew, Mostaganem, Cherchell, Algiers, Béjaïa, and Annaba. Their rule extended even to Tripoli (Libya) under the governorship of the nefarious Knights of St. John. The Christians were ruthless in their treatment of the local statesmen and the people alike, deeply interfering in the internal affairs of their North African holdings.
With their expansion towards the North African coast, the Spanish quickly established themselves as the dominant force in the western Mediterranean. Their strategy was to constantly keep a watchful eye on the coasts of North Africa, as they feared the slightest resurgence of Muslim power in Andalusia, where a significant Muslim community remained despite the brutal persecution and expulsion by the Catholic church.
The Spanish emperor, with his vast empire spanning from Iberia to Italy, to northern Europe, to the Americas, was the wealthiest and most powerful Christian monarch of the time. However, the only force that stood in opposition to the Spanish and other Crusader forces in the western Mediterranean was the Barbarossa brothers. Despite their limited resources, they bravely bore the burden of facing off against the likes of the Italian states and the evil Knights of Malta. This was because other Muslim powers were either preoccupied with internal conflicts, or cross-border ambitions or engrossed in their own court intrigues. Other Muslim rulers were simply not bothered with jihad and have fallen in deep love with worldly affairs (harems, building more palaces, etc.).
Oruç and Khayr al-Din, however, were determined to put an end to this growing tyranny, this malignant cancer that has been spreading further east over time while the Muslim rulers have fallen asleep and fallen victim to decadence. The Barbarossa brothers knew that in order to restore peace and justice to the land, they would have to take this fight to new levels and the first step is to reclaim Algeria for the Muslims. And so, with the help of their brave and loyal followers, they set out to conquer Jijel and eventually all of Algeria, determined to restore the glory of Islam and bring hope to the people of North Africa.
Although the Barbarossa brothers faced their duty with courage and responsibility, when it comes to facing the wealth and might of the Spanish Empire, the brothers knew that they were not a match for a country head-on. As a result, the Muslim seafarers turned to the tactic of raiding European coasts and ships, whether they were commercial or military. This led the Europeans to label them as pirates, in an effort to tarnish their reputation in history. However, what the European history books fail to mention is that this very piracy was something that European countries had been doing for centuries on the Islamic coasts. The Barbarossa brothers, and many other corsairs, were only driven to this method of resistance as a response to the murder of their innocent brother Ilyas and the capture of one of them by the terrorizing Knights of St. John. Their actions were not just piracy, but a form of retaliation against the unjust treatment they faced at the hands of the colonizing Europeans.
Over the next two years, the brothers would engage the Spanish fleet on several occasions, moving their base of operations to the coastal town of Cherchell, east of Algiers.
The Battle of Bougie brought great fame to the Barbarossa brothers and particularly to Oruç, as they faced off against ten massive Galley ships sent by the Spanish crown with the intent of capturing them alive. But the will of Allah was on the side of the brothers, and with the winds not in favor of the Spanish, they were forced to redirect to the Algerian coast. So, the Spaniards landed at the Castle of Bougie where they kept searching for the Barbarossa brothers but to no avail. The brothers were corsairing around Genoa at the time, and when word reached out to them about a sizeable Spanish invasion force in Bougie, they set out to root this danger out from their lands.
The battle on the coast was nothing short of a fierce and intense struggle as the brothers’ ships were met with relentless fire from the coastal artillery. The Spaniards had brought with them long-range cannons, which they had unloaded from their ships and positioned strategically across the shore. Though the Spanish ships were equipped with heavier and more advanced artillery, the brothers, under the wise leadership of Oruç, employed a brilliant stratagem that made the enemy believe they had retreated. Oruç then ordered a surprise attack on the Spanish ships, resulting in a stunning victory as they captured the lead ship and three others, while the remaining ships panicked and fled.
Despite this success, there was a difference of opinion among the Barbarossa brothers on the matter of attacking the fortress and the capture of the ships. Oruç, with his unwavering determination, wanted to attack the fortress and castle, while Khayr al-Din, with his cautious and wise approach, advised him to return to Tunis and be content with the four ships they had just captured. Oruç, however, did not listen to his brother’s advice and ordered an attack on the heavily guarded fortress of Bougie.
Oruç, the elder brother, was a natural leader of men, a fierce warrior, and a true believer in the cause of Islam, just like his brother Khayr al-Din. Driven by his unwavering, but stubborn conviction that as the elder brother, his plan was the most viable one, he was determined to attack the fortress. But Khayr al-Din, the younger brother, saw things differently. He knew that continuing the battle would put too many great lives at risk. Furthermore, he knew that the ships they had already captured were a great victory on their own and that returning home would be the smart move. And so, the brothers inevitably proceeded to attack the castle.
During the attack, the Muslim sailors faced heavy losses, with sixty of their men martyred and many others injured. Just as they were about to seize the fortress, Oruç was struck by a cannonball in his left arm. Seeing this, the Spanish opened the gates of the fortress and launched an immediate counterattack. Khayr al-Din, upon seeing his brother’s injury, was filled with concern and led a fierce attack with three or four hundred of his men, and they were able to reach the gates of the fortress before the Spaniards rushed outside; the Muslim braves slaughtered three hundred Spanish soldiers and capturing one hundred and fifty others. This victory was a testament to the bravery and valor of the Muslim brothers, and their unwavering faith in the Almighty.
In the end, Khayr al-Din’s wisdom and quick thinking proved to be the key to victory. He captured the fortress and saved many lives in the process. This story illustrates the importance of listening to others and the dangers of being overly ambitious (and stubborn).
Despite the loss of life on the Muslim side, the Barbarossa brothers ultimately emerged victorious. This victory struck fear into the hearts of all who dared to oppose them. Oruç, the elder brother, earned a new nickname: Gümüş Kol, aka Silver Arm, in reference to the silver prosthetic device he used in place of his missing limb. But despite his injury, he remained a formidable foe not to be reckoned with either on sea or land.
Even More Glory
As the year progressed, Abu Bakr Al-Hafs and the city of Qusantina (aka Constantine) found themselves under siege by the Spanish occupation. In a desperate plea for aid, the scholars and leaders were sent to the neighboring city of Bujaya (aka Béjaïa or Bougie) to beg for assistance from the mighty Barbarossa brothers.
Oruç and Khayr al-Din heeded the call and summoned their men, tribal leaders, and voluntary fighters to meet near the walls of Bujaya. With a force of three thousand strong, they set out to defend their Muslim brothers and sisters.
Upon arriving at Constantine, the brothers were met with the daunting sight of 15 huge Spanish ships that were sent to invade the city. Despite their inferior numbers, the brothers refused to back down. They devised a clever strategy, pretending to retreat and drawing the Spanish ships into the open sea where their Muslim naval defenses lay in wait.
The Spanish ships fell into the trap and were met with fierce firepower. The Barbarossa brothers seized one ship and sank others, with the remaining ships fleeing in large numbers. This was yet another pivotal moment in the Islamic resistance against Spanish occupation, as the Muslims were able to successfully defend their land and repel the invading forces.
The valiant Barbarossa brothers set out to Lesbos to spend the winter among their families and loved ones. Khayr al-Din, in his memoirs, recounts a dream that his brother Oruç had, in which a wise and venerable sheikh appeared to him, bringing the news of salvation and promising great conquests, honor, and glory in the west.
The brothers, guided by their faith, used the wealth they earned to help the needy and equip their ships. As winter approached, Khayr al-Din granted permission for his men to spend the season with their loved ones in Anadolu and Rumelia. But as spring drew near, the youthful flotilla of the famous brothers gathered once again on the island, ready to resume their duties as warriors of Islam.
With ten ships at their disposal, the brothers set off from Lesbos and captured fifteen or sixteen vessels along the way, receiving the best of them and sinking the rest. Their spoils included five ships laden with olive oil, one with agarwood, and the rest filled with money and various goods. The total number of captives included over 400 women alongside a greater number of men.
After some time, the mighty Barbarossa fleet arrived at the port of Halq Al-Wadi in Tunis where they sold their booty and presented lavish gifts to the Tunisian ruler. They were warmly welcomed by him in his palace and were presented with decorated horses, and honorary turbans with a feather on them, and even their seafaring warriors were honored.
In 1514, with 12 galliots and 1,000 fighting men under their command, they laid siege to and destroyed two Spanish fortresses near Bougie. When a Spanish fleet, under the command of Miguel de Gurrea, viceroy of Majorca, arrived to reinforce the besieged defenders, the brothers sailed west towards Ceuta and raided the city before returning eastward to capture Mahdiya in Tunisia.
Their raids then continued upon the coasts of Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands, and the Spanish mainland, capturing three large ships along the way. In the same year, as the spring blossomed into summer, the Barbarossa brothers set sail toward Napoli; it was there that they encountered a grand vessel en route to Spain, manned by hundreds of Christian fighters. Without hesitation, the brothers launched a fierce attack on the ship. Though they suffered heavy casualties, with 150 brave Muslims martyred and 68 injured, they were ultimately victorious in capturing the ship. Among the 525 souls on board, 298 were taken as captives, while the rest, including a prominent Spanish figure, were killed in the intense battle.
Undeterred by their losses, the Barbarossa brothers continued their journey and captured yet another ship. They returned to their base to unload their cargo and heal their wounded before preparing for more daring escapades.
Honors of the Sultan
In the spring of 1515, the Barbarossa brothers, seasoned warriors and devout followers of Islam, set sail from Tunisia on a mission to raid a fortress in Sicily. With a fleet of twelve ships at their command, they captured nearly three hundred prisoners, distributing them among the ships like precious cargo. Among the captured was a docked merchant ship that was loaded with sweet sugar; it was seized by the up-and-coming Deli Muhammad Reis. The following day, they took possession of four more ships, two carrying a large number of succulent figs, one loaded with sturdy masts and flags, and the last one filled with a variety of valuable wares.
After thirty-three days at sea, the brothers returned to Tunisia where they began to establish themselves as powerful and respected leaders. Their fame and strength grew, and they felt it was safe to approach the Ottoman Sultan Selim, who had taken power through a ruthless takeover upon his father’s death a couple of years ago.
The brothers, led by the renowned Muhyi al-Din Piri Reis, set out to develop a relationship with the Sultan, sending gifts and a letter written by Khayr al-Din. Piri Reis and his fleet of six ships set sail from Tunisia, reaching Konstantiniyye on the twenty-first day of their journey. Upon his arrival in Konstantiniyye, Piri Reis was graciously welcomed by the Ottoman Sultan, who in turn offered his support to the legendary brothers, Oruç and Khayr al-Din. The Sultan also honored the delegation with a grand ceremony; it is said that upon reading the letter, Selim raised his hand in prayer and said:
“O Allah, bless my servant Khayr al-Din in this world and the hereafter. O Allah, break their enemies and support them on land and sea.”
The Sultan gifted the brothers two magnificent warships filled with the finest military equipment and ammunition to aid the brothers in their noble quest to liberate Andalusian Muslims from the oppressive rule of the evil Catholic monarchs. As a gesture of appreciation, the Sultan also presented the brothers with two magnificent swords, adorned with precious jewels, as well as two ornate royal robes and insignia. With the blessings of the Sultan and guidance of the Islamic faith, the Barbarossa brothers continued to thrive in their pursuits; they firmly solidified their position as powerful and respected leaders in the Muslim world.
While Piri Reis was staying in Konstantiniyye, the Barbarossas set sail to the Strait of Gibraltar to do some raiding and rescue as many Andalusian refugees as they can. Meanwhile, upon his return to Tunis, Piri Reis carried an official letter from the Ottoman Sultan to the Emir of Tunis, Abu Abdallah Muhammad al-Mutawakkel, warning him of the consequences of neglecting to offer any needed aid or assistance to the beloved Barbarossa brothers.
“To the Emir of Tunis: when my letter reaches you, this is what you must do, and beware of violating it, and be warned of neglecting any kind of support or aid for our dear subjects: Oruç and Khayr al-Din.” – Sultan Sultan I
The notables of Tunis gathered at a grand event to witness Piri Reis, dressed in the royal garments sent by the Sultan, emulate the heroic deeds of Khayr al-Din. Khayr al-Din himself later wrote in his memoirs that the Emir of Tunis, upon seeing the Ottoman Sultan’s unwavering support for the brothers, feared that they were gaining too much favor and may even be planning to take over his throne and turn Tunis into an Ottoman principality. The Emir’s attitude towards the brothers changed as a result, out of fear of losing his power and prestige.
The following year, joined by the famous Kurtoğlu, the brothers besieged the castle of Elba before heading once more towards Liguria where they captured 12 ships and damaged 28 others. The brothers’ exploits, both on land and sea, have passed into legend, their names forever etched in the annals of history as two of the most feared and respected privateers of their time.
Kings of the Middle Sea
With a burning desire for freedom and a steadfast determination to rid their beloved country of oppression, the brothers Oruç and Khayr al-Din were approached by delegations from cities across Algeria. These delegations were filled with passionate pleas for liberation from the tyrannical grip of the Spanish monarchs and their complicit, worldy-loving local emirs. One of these pleas came from none other than the grand city of Algiers, the very heart of the nation.
The delegation implored Oruç to journey to Algiers and lead the charge to expel the Spanish oppressors and reclaim the Fort of Al-Banion, also known as the Fortress of the Rock. Built in 916 A.H. (1510 CE) on a rocky island just 300 meters from the entrance to the port of Algiers, this stronghold had become a constant source of suffering for the people of the city. The Spanish, with their control of the fort, continuously harassed and imposed heavy taxes on the residents, causing immense hardship and distress.
But the words of the Algerian delegates were not in vain; Oruç and Khayr al-Din were moved by the plight of their fellow brethren and, with the support of hundreds of fearless warriors, made preparations to march towards the city of Algiers, ready to vanquish the oppressors and restore freedom to the land.
With a heart filled with courage and determination, Oruç set out on a journey to conquer the lands of Algeria. Leading a powerful force of eight hundred fighting men, he loaded sixteen ships with artillery and ammunition and sent them with half of his soldiers. Along the way, he was joined by an additional five thousand tribal fighters from the mainland; this was the beginning of a glorious and victorious campaign.
Some historical sources state that Oruç set out with a smaller force of eight hundred fighters and sent Khayr al-Din with eighteen ships carrying a thousand and five hundred fighters. However, these accounts contradict the memories of Khayr al-Din, who reported that he stayed in Jijel and that Oruç proceeded to capture Algiers on his own.
Oruç began his journey by first conquering the city of Cherchell (Sharshaal) and leaving a garrison to guard it. Some believe that his march to Cherchell was a strategic move to secure a safe haven in times of distress, or that he was waiting for the arrival of Andalusian immigrants to join his cause before he proceeded with additional fighting volunteers for the wider campaign. It is also possible that he was waiting for his brother Khayr al-Din to arrive with the necessary preparations before joining forces and launching a full-scale campaign.
When Oruç finally entered the city of Algiers in the year 921 A.H. (1516 CE), he was welcomed as a hero and savior by the nobles and notables, and the common folk. The warm reception he received was a testament to the strength of the Barbarossa brother’s cause and the power of their Islamic faith. For the time being, freedom and justice were brought to the lands and the people of Algeria, guided by the principles of Islam and the will of Allah. With the liberation of Algiers, the Spanish were forced to flee to Peñón island, whereby they sought the aid of Charles V to expel the Barbarossa brothers from this strategically-located city.
Before Oruç captured Algiers, tensions were already high between the Barbarossa brothers and the Emir of Tunisia, for he was filled with animosity towards the brothers ever since he received that tense letter from the Ottoman Sultan. One source states that Khayr al-Din was approaching Tunis and the Emir spotted Khayr al-Din marching with a sizeable force toward his capital. Desperate to save his own life, the Emir pretended to praise Khayr al-Din and apologized for his failure to provide the promised weapons for the mission. But Khayr al-Din was not fooled by the Emir’s empty words; he toured the city with the hypocritical Emir, pretending to be deceived, before returning to his ships and setting sail for Jijel with his brother Ishaaq.
Upon his return, Khayr al-Din rallied some of his most trusted sea chiefs, including the fearless captains Kurdoglu Musleh el-Din Reis and Dali Muhammad Reis, and sent them on a special mission with seven ships toward the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The sea chiefs spotted an imperial Ottoman fleet somewhere between Cyprus and Egypt, so they followed this fleet into the port of Alexandria where Sultan Selim I was camped after completing his conquest of Egypt in 1517 CE.
The great Sultan Salim honored and celebrated the renowned warrior, Muslih al-Din, bestowing upon him a vast army and an ample supply of war equipment for his return to Algeria. The strategic mind of Khayr al-Din was evident as he sent a portion of his fleet to allegedly attack the eastern Mediterranean, but in fact, it is believed that the Barbarossa brothers masterfully orchestrated the sending of these two accomplished captains to Egypt on purpose, in hopes of gaining critical support from the Ottoman Sultan for their ongoing jihad. They were also planning the possibility of ultimately liberating Tunis from the deceitful Emir, who can no longer be trusted. It is also possible that at this stage, one of their major goals was to fully annex Algeria, turning it into a bigger base than the ones in Tunis for launching further attacks on the western Mediterranean.
For all these possible ambitions, they needed a lot more war efforts to aid them in their further endeavors. These possibilities were also why Khayr al-Din made an unexpected, but a calculated visit to the untrustworthy Emir of Tunis.
Masters of Algiers
The Ottoman Sultan, seeing an opportunity to expand his own influence in North Africa, didn’t hesitate to offer Oruç and Khayr al-Din financial and military support and whatever else they needed, for they were the key tool towards Ottoman hegemony in that part of the Mediterranean. The brothers were also granted the nominal titles of Governor of Algiers (for Oruç) and chief sea governor of the western Mediterranean (for Khayr al-Din); despite this progress, however, the brothers were not yet full-fledged subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Among the support that was given to them by Sultan Selim I was a good number of fearsome janissaries, galleys, and the finest Ottoman-casted cannon.
Around this time, the Spanish Crown, ever vigilant in its quest for expansion and domination, dispatched its appointed puppet governor, Abu Zayan, to assert full control over the cities of Tlemcen and Oran. However, the shrewd and cunning Oruç foresaw this move beforehand, and so, he launched a surprise attack on Tlemcen, capturing the city and bringing an end to Abu Zayan’s rule there. Sheikh Buhammud, who was from the same dynasty as Abu Zayan, managed to evade capture by fleeing to Oran and beseeching the Spanish for aid.
Oruç now set his sights on expanding his control over the region; he marched his armies towards the cities of Miliana, Medea, and Ténès, conquering them with ease. He became renowned for his innovation in the field of warfare, outfitting his ships with sails to traverse the scorching deserts of North Africa.
The Glory of Martyrdom
In the same year of 1517, the brothers Oruç and Ishaaq set their sights once more on the coast of Italy, raiding the towns of Capo Limiti and Capo Rizzuto in Calabria. But their venture had to be cut short as Emperor Charles V, in a show of might, arrived in Oran in early 1518 with a formidable army of 10,000 Spanish soldiers, joined by treacherous Bedouin allies. As Oruç journeyed forth, he encountered yet another formidable force of three-thousand-foot soldiers and six thousand cavalrymen led by the infamous Zayani Sultan, also known as Abi Hamo Musa III.
Despite the overwhelming odds against him, Oruç emerged victorious and continued on his path until he reached Oran, where he declared himself ruler of Tlemcen. The Spanish, however, were not willing to let him keep his newfound power and mobilized an even larger army, which was later joined by the disgraced Sultan in an attempt to reclaim his puppet throne. Oruç, not deterred by his lack of numbers, bravely set out to face them.
According to Khayr al-Din’s memoirs, Oruç was presented with an offer by the deceitful Spanish: if he left the city of Oran in peace and returned to Algeria, they would spare him and his army and avoid confrontation. Tragically, when Oruç and his men left the city, the treacherous Spanish broke their promise and attacked, leading to a great battle at the Salt River (Spanish: Rio Salado) where Oruç fought valiantly. He was martyred on Jumada al-Awwal 924 A.H. (May 1518 CE) and his head was sent to the Spanish monarch, Charles V. His brother, Ishaaq, is reported to have also met his fate while bravely defending the Castle of Bani Rashid (Castle of the Castles) earlier that year, and he was martyred at the end of the month of Muharram (January) of the same year; it was said that he held out for as long as 20 days, but ultimately fell in combat to the numerically superior forces of Garcia de Tineo.
Upon the tragic martyrdom of his beloved brother Oruç, the courageous warriors serving under the leadership of the Barbarossa brothers made the unanimous decision to entrust command to Khayr al-Din in the year 924 A.H. (1518 CE). Though deeply saddened by the loss of his brother and many of his bravest soldiers at the hands of the cowardly Spaniards, Khayr al-Din was also faced with a delicate and challenging situation. Not only had some of his fleet’s commanders deserted him, seeing him as unable to fill Oruç’s shoes, but regions in North Africa were also rising up against Ottoman rule in the wake of Oruç’s martyrdom, with the Zawawa tribe, in particular, rebelling under the leadership of Ahmad ibn al-Qadi. To make matters worse, the Tunisian ruler sought to exploit the situation by demanding that Khayr al-Din recognize his authority and submit to him, and there were also concerns that the Spanish would march to Algiers to eliminate Khayr al-Din after they had defeated his brother.
Despite these difficult circumstances, Khayr al-Din refused to be defeated or allow tyranny and injustice to prevail across Muslim lands. Though at this point he could have easily secured a comfortable retirement and a successful career in commerce with the wealth he had accumulated, his sense of self-worth and aspirations for a greater cause would not allow him to submit to defeat or abandon the sacred duty of jihad. He would rather die a thousand deaths than surrender to worldly pleasure, temptation, and comfort.
The historian Ahmed Tawfiq Al-Madani records that the esteemed scholars and leaders of the community in Algiers urgently called upon Khayr al-Din, asking him to take over the whole Algerian emirate after his brother’s death and to continue the holy jihad for the sake of Allah. But Khayr al-Din, a man of great wisdom and vision, respectfully declined their offer, stating his intention to wage his jihad on the seas and not on land. He announced his consideration to travel to Konstantiniyye and request a fleet from the Ottoman Sultan to launch a massive holy war against the papists and their puppets.
Meanwhile, during the Spanish invasion of Tlemcen, Ténès, and Cherchell, the people rose up against Ottoman rule, led by the deceitful Ahmed Ibn al-Qadi. He rallied the tribes and incited them to restore rule to the Zawawa tribe. In the face of this rebellion, the brilliant Khayr al-Din, a master of strategy, employed the time-honored tactic of divide and conquer. He dispatched his soldiers to Ténès and Cherchell to quell the uprisings, while wisely choosing to wait for more opportune circumstances to deal with the powerful tribes.
Amid the tumultuous political landscape of North Africa, Khayr al-Din found himself faced with a difficult choice. Surrounded by worldly-loving rulers driven by their own desires to sit on the golden throne at the expense of Muslim suffering, he searched for a worthy state he could truly call his own. It was then that the light of the Ottoman Empire shone brightest, offering him a chance to build a strong and dependable state in the Maghreb region which he had always dreamed of.
Khayr al-Din’s wise and just policies have always earned him the support of the scholars, who pledged to aid him in his noble mission of expelling the foreign invaders and their local collaborators alike from the country. His leadership inspired many to rally around him, laying aside their pitiful hostility amongst one another and embracing Ottoman rule should it be enforced by Khayr al-Din. Meanwhile, Abu Hamo al-Zayyani, who had regained his throne in Tlemcen after the tragic death of Oruç, extended his influence far beyond Algeria.
With a heart filled with devotion and loyalty to Allah’s cause, Khayr al-Din finally made up his mind and decided to turn to the Ottomans to offer his allegiance. He knew that their government was the best option for him to maintain a powerful and just jihad against the oppressive monarchs of Europe and their worthless puppets in the Maghreb. And so, he sent one of his most trusted advisors, Hajji Hussein Agha, to Konstantiniyye to meet with Sultan Selim I. The Sultan received him with open arms, honoring Khayr al-Din and his companions as true sons of the Ottoman Empire.
With this, Khayr al-Din has been officially proclaimed Beylerbey of Algeria and the province became a fully integrated part of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan presented Hajji Hussein Agha with a ceremonial sword, a golden robe, and the new emirate’s banner to give to Khayr al-Din as a symbol of his new position. As the ships of the Algerian fleet set sail, the Sultan ordered them to pass by the Topkapi Palace so that he could witness their procession and formally welcome them as the newest subjects of the mighty Sublime Porte.
Upon his return to Algiers, Hajji Hussein Agha shared the pleasant news with Khayr al-Din. With great respect, Khayr al-Din accepted the gifts bestowed upon him by the mighty Sultan Selim I. He immediately summoned his chiefs, followers, and the local people, and with great pride and conviction, officially declared his allegiance to the Ottoman Empire.
Sultan Selim I, recognizing the need for weapons in Algeria, wasted no time in providing aid. Shortly after Hajji Hussein Agha’s departure, the Sultan sent an impressive force of six thousand of some of the finest soldiers in his realm, including two thousand highly trained Janissaries armed with rifles and a good number of cannons. Additionally, the Sultan announced full financial support for any volunteers who wished to join the holy cause of jihad in Algeria, promising them the same privileges as the esteemed Janissaries. Some historians note that the number of additional volunteers sent by the Sultan may have been as many as four thousand men.
Khayr al-Din, known as a political genius and a man of unyielding courage and charisma, saw this as a golden opportunity and that this was the best course to take for the overall cause. With the crisis in North Africa looming, he knew that the time was ripe to take action and secure his position. He was a man of action, and once he had made a decision, he worked tirelessly to see it through to completion. He believed that the mission of jihad in the name of the Almighty was of the utmost importance and would leave no stone unturned in pursuit of this sacred goal.