As the powerful, but loaded fleet of Barbarossa approached the city of Tunis, the locals greeted him with open arms. His forces suddenly and surprisingly disembarked, then quickly gained control of La Goulette; Khayr al-Din led his army to conquer further inland. With a force of 5,000 cavalrymen, he seized the castle and marched south to the sacred city of Kairouan before returning to the capital, Tunis. On Safar 6, 941 A.H. (August 16, 1534 CE), the Hafsid sultan Abu Abdullah Moulay al-Hasan was forced to flee the city, and those who dared to resist were arrested and imprisoned inside the castle.
The exiled Hafsid sultan, however, consumed by his love for worldly power and his golden throne, sought the help of Charles V in reclaiming his rule. Charles V, on the other hand, feared the military might of the legendary Khayr al-Din and did not dare to take revenge without enormous planning beforehand.
Khayr al-Din, knowing the nature of these worldly-loving, power-hungry, and cowardly rulers, prepared his defenses for any retaliation. He was well aware that they would stop at nothing to regain their golden seats. With his unmatched military prowess and strong faith in whatever fate God would decree upon him, Khayr al-Din stood ready to defend this land from any internal or external threat.
As the warm seasons approached, the unstoppable Barbarossa departed from his usual routine and sent his fleet to strike the Spanish coasts with a bold and cunning preemptive attack. He aimed to disperse the enemy’s freedom of subsequent peace and to constantly weaken their defenses. The daring raid on the coasts of Sardinia proved successful as well, as his fleet returned triumphantly with a bountiful haul of twelve thousand ducats of gold, four hundred and seventy-five prisoners, and numerous other spoils.
A Challenging Escapade
In the year 1535, Charles V dispatched one of his most trusted agents to offer the venerable Barbarossa the esteemed lordship of North Africa in exchange for his allegiance to the Christian kingdoms; the same agent was instructed to assassinate him should he refuse. However, the offer was met with disdain and disrespect, as Barbarossa, with the swiftness of a lion and the strength of a warrior, unsheathed his scimitar and struck down the emissary, beheading him with a single blow.
The Holy Roman Empire, under the leadership of Charles V, mobilized an army of twenty thousand infantry and two thousand cavalries from various regions, in addition to various soldiers from the notorious Knights of Malta, who had infamously made a home in the “viper nest” of Malta ever since their expulsion from the island of Rhodes. These sea bandits, known for their terrorizing of Muslim shipping and attacks on the coasts of North Africa, were the very reason that the Muslim corsairs set sail in the first place.
Charles V, accompanied by a formidable fleet of several hundred ships (some sources claim five hundred) which included both warships and troop carriers, set out from Barcelona on the 1st of Dhu al-Hijjah 941 A.H. (June 2, 1535, CE). He arrived in Tunisia seventeen days later, intending to seize the castle of La Goulette, which controlled the Gulf of Tunisia. Sinan Reis, a brave Muslim defender, held the castle with instructions to hold out for as long as possible until the arrival of the Ottoman fleet summoned by Barbarossa.
For this campaign, Charles V rallied all the resources he could muster; even 74 of his own galleys were rowed by chained Protestants from Antwerp. 300 of the ships that accompanied the expedition were sailing ships, including the mighty carrack Santa Anna and the powerful Portuguese galleon São João Baptista, the most formidable vessel of its time.
The expense of this campaign was great, equaling that of Charles V’s previous campaign against Suleiman the Magnificent on the Danube, or perhaps more. The majority of the funding came from the most expected source – the treasure galleons sailing in from the New World, bearing more than 2 million gold ducats extracted by the hellbound Francisco Pizarro in exchange for the release of the Inca king Atahualpa (whom he subsequently executed on 29 August 1533).
Despite a request for aid from Charles V, Francis I, the King of France, denied support for the expedition. He cited a three-year truce with Barbarossa following the 1533 Ottoman embassy to France, as well as negotiations with Suleiman the Magnificent for a combined attack on Charles V following the 1534 Ottoman embassy. However, Francis I did agree to Pope Paul III’s request that no conflict between Christians occurs during the expedition (in relation to the French merchants and military advisors who were residing in North Africa at the time).
As Charles V approached the gates of the castle, he ordered his formidable fleet of ships to relentlessly bombard the fortress. His army, armed with heavy artillery, then descended upon the castle and launched devastating attacks, one after the other. Despite the intense bombing, the castle stood strong for nearly a month. Sinan Reis, a brilliant commander, organized several swift counterattacks against the Spanish invaders, in which a staggering six thousand of their soldiers were killed.
While the siege was underway, the legendary Khayr al-Din Barbarossa held back from engaging the Spanish in battle. He wisely chose to bide his time in Tunis, waiting to see what the treacherous Hafsid Sultan would do next. Khayr al-Din knew that if he were to attack the Spanish, the cowardly sultan would use the opportunity to strike him from the south, trapping him between the enemy on two fronts.
Khayr al-Din, nonetheless, had a formidable force of 12,000 soldiers, half of whom were Bedouin volunteers with limited experience in battle. The Hafsid Sultan, meanwhile, had amassed a small army of 1,600 horsemen and 8,000 camels loaded with supplies.
As the fall of La Goulette seemed imminent, discontent and revolution began to brew throughout Tunis. Khayr al-Din’s memoirs reveal that many of the people had been swayed by the Hafsid Sultan’s propaganda, which claimed that he had made a deal with Charles V to save Tunisia from the Ottoman Empire and that there would be no bloodshed once they occupy the city.
In this hostile environment, Khayr al-Din and his men found themselves outnumbered and outmatched. Despite this, Sinan Reis, a true warrior, managed to lead his remaining Turkish sailors in a daring retreat to Tunis on July 14th, 1535. Khayr al-Din, meanwhile, stayed behind to defend the city for another six days, inflicting heavy losses on the Spanish troops who were now attacking Tunis after having taken over the castle which Sinan Reis retreated from.
With the addition of Sinan Reis and his skilled sailors, Khayr al-Din’s forces swelled to an impressive nine thousand seven hundred warriors, ready to defend the Muslims of Tunis and protect their land from the invading enemy army. But alas, their foes were formidable, with a staggering thirty thousand soldiers, equipped with hundreds of cannons and supported by the treacherous Hafsid Sultan who marched his army from the south. The odds were against them, and the situation seemed dire.
But Khayr al-Din was a warrior of great courage and determination. Despite the loss of forty heavy cannons to the Spanish in La Goulette and the betrayal of the Bedouin volunteers who turned against him, he refused to give up. He knew that the fate of his people, his land, and his faith was at stake. He rallied his remaining seven thousand two hundred soldiers, and with the help of his trusted commanders Aydin Reis and Sinan Reis, they launched a final major attack on the enemy.
The battle was fierce and brutal, and with the scorching heat of summer adding to the difficulty of the fight, Khayr al-Din and his men fought with all their might, felling down one ungodly enemy after another, causing many of them to falter. The Muslim braves broke through the enemy lines, and with the utmost courage and determination, they made their way to Annaba, where fourteen warships were waiting for them.
By the time the papist coalition caught up with them, Barbarossa, using his intuition, had already set sail into the Tyrrhenian Sea well before their arrival.
Though thousands of his soldiers were martyred in this heroic battle, Khayr al-Din and his brave sailors, along with Aydin Reis and Sinan Reis, weren’t harmed. Aydin Reis, however, met his end before the fleet set sail, for he died of natural causes and drowned. The mighty Aydin was known as “Cachidiablo” to the Spanish and “Cacciadiavolo” to the Italians (lit. “The Devil in Disguise”), a testament to his cunning brilliance and maneuverability on the high seas.
Not so long after Barbarossa’s tactical retreat, Charles V then unleashed a monstrous genocide upon the Muslim population. Even though the Hafsid king had entered the city before him and had promised the people safety and security for their lives and property, His Most Hypocrite Majesty and his ungodly forces embarked on a brutal campaign of slaughter and destruction. More than 30,000 innocent Muslims were brutally murdered, while over 10,000 women and children were taken as slaves. Mosques, schools, and even cemeteries were razed to the ground by the ruthless Spanish invaders, and the contents of homes and palaces were plundered and looted. Countless precious manuscripts and books were also burned to ashes.
The renowned Tunisian historian Ahmad ibn Abi Diyaf recorded that nearly one-third of the entire population of Tunisia was either killed or captured, and the city was left in ruins. In the end, the Hafsids were forced to surrender their territories of La Goulette, Bizerte, and Annaba to the Spanish, and they were forced to pay an annual tribute of twelve thousand golden ducats – so much for bending the knee and kissing the foot. Alas, with the withdrawal of the great Muslim leader Khayr al-Din and the fall of Tunisia into the hands of the ruthless Charles V, the Hafsids were reduced to submission like dogs, and Muley Hasan, the loyal puppy, was restored to his former position – it seems he got his golden seat after all. However, the southern regions of Tunisia and its eastern coasts remained under the control of the fearsome and respected Barbarossa.
It was also noted that the Spanish discovered cannonballs with the French fleur-de-lis mark at the ruins, confirming the Franco-Ottoman alliance. It is also said that because of how vile the smell of the corpses was, staying there for a minute was so unbearable that Charles V moved his camp to Radès. This defeat for the Ottomans prompted them to cement their alliance with France against the Habsburgs. As a consequence, Jean de La Forêt was sent to Konstantiniyye to become the first permanent ambassador at the Ottoman court and negotiate treaties.
A Hastily Revenge
Not so long after, the illustrious Khayr al-Din Barbarossa set sail with 32 ships from the port of Annaba in Algiers. His fleet, a tempest upon the waters, swept through the western Mediterranean, striking fear into the hearts of the Christian realm. The coastal towns of Spain trembled at the mention of his name as he razed the ports of Majorca and Menorca, capturing and liberating Muslim slaves from the clutches of the Spanish and Genoese.
It was then on the night of the first of September, 1535, that Khayr al-Din’s fleet descended upon the city of Mahón. Disguised as Spanish ships returning from the conquest of Tunisia, they infiltrated the port, catching the Franciscan friars Bartomeu Genestar and Francesc Coll unaware. The city, realizing the true identity of the invaders, shut its gates and prepared for battle.
The defenders sent a relief column of 300 men, led by the governor, to defend the city, but they were no match for the superior numbers and tactics of Khayr al-Din’s men. The column was annihilated, and the governor along with 100 of his knights was killed in battle. The morale of the besieged population was broken, and when the wall was breached, they sought terms of surrender with Khayr al-Din.
On the fourth of September, the city officially surrendered, with the condition that the leaders and their houses would be spared during the plunder. The following night, however, was a night of horror for the inhabitants of Mahón, as the Ottoman soldiers sacked the city, killing, raping, and enslaving the population – an eye for an eye. The leaders of the city sought refuge in Binimaimut, while Khayr al-Din took the booty, including thousands of slaves, back to Algiers (some sources say that more than 5,500 Christian slaves were taken from Mahon and Palma).
Afterward, Khayr al-Din’s fleet set sail again and went past the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Bay of Cádiz in southwestern Spain. There, they struck a powerful blow to the enemy by destroying the port of Faro in southern Portugal and capturing a grand Portuguese ship with seventy-six cannons and three hundred sailors on board, driven by the strength of hundreds of oarsmen. This ship, just returned from a long voyage from India, was laden with precious goods worth thirty thousand dinars, as well as 36,000 golden dinars in coin.
On his return, Khayr al-Din’s triumphs continued as he successfully defended Tlemcen against yet another Spanish attack. After a brief stay in Algeria, Khayr al-Din appointed his stepson, Hasan Agha, as his deputy, to continue the undying mission of holy jihad.
In the year 1536, Barbarossa was once again summoned to the majestic city of Konstantiniyye. Upon his arrival at the court of the Ottoman Sultan, Khayr al-Din presented a comprehensive account of his recent endeavors and made several state visits around the city. Eager to ensure the continued strength and modernization of the Ottoman Empire’s naval forces, he promptly made his way to the Konstantiniyye ship arsenal to oversee developments in his absence. Determined to expand and fortify the fleet, Khayr al-Din ordered the chief engineer to construct thirty additional galleys, to be ready for launch by a set departure date.
As tensions between the Ottoman Empire and Venice had been simmering for some time, the Ottoman Sultan accused Venice of providing covert assistance to Spain, and so, the stage was set for a decisive conflict. In 1537, the Ottoman Empire declared war on Venice, ending a peace treaty that lasted 35 years.
On the 11th of May, 1537, Khayr al-Din set sail with a formidable fleet of 280 naval vessels, manned by 30,000 oarsmen and tens of thousands of navy soldiers, accompanied by 4,000 Janissaries, 600 heavy cannons, and several thousand cavalrymen. The Adriatic Sea, controlled by Venice from its shores down to the mouth of the Adriatic, was a crucial theater of war in this conflict. The fleet’s objective was to conquer the strategic island of Corfu, west of Greece, which overlooked the Strait of Otranto, and to secure the naval blockade, transport troops, and provide support to the mainland army.
Six days later, on the 17th of May, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent joined the army via land. On July 11, the Ottoman fleet entered the Gulf of Avalonia, two days ahead of the Sultan’s arrival by land. They then passed through the Strait of Otranto, the gateway to the Adriatic Sea.
Under Khayr al-Din’s command, the Ottoman navy successfully secured the naval blockade and transported troops to support the mainland army’s efforts. The island of Otranto was occupied on July 23, 1537, remaining under Ottoman control for a month. It was a decisive victory, and a testament to the skill and strategic acumen of the Ottoman navy, under the leadership of the illustrious Khayr al-Din Barbarossa.
Despite the Ottoman-French alliance’s efforts to blockade and conquer the island of Corfu, however, their attempts were met with fierce resistance from the formidable defenses of the Venetian-held island. However, Khayr al-Din’s valor and tactical prowess shone through in a subsequent battle at sea. As he navigated the Adriatic, he caught sight of a formidable Venetian fleet approaching, and without hesitation, launched a bold attack. The Ottomans emerged victorious, drowning 14 Venetian galleys, capturing 16, and sending the rest fleeing in disarray.
The initial plan was for the Ottomans to invade Italy from the south and the Adriatic, while the French attacked from the northwest. However, the French campaign was plagued by poor performance and they were swiftly defeated by the strong Genoan defenders. The Ottoman Sultan, recognizing the futility of continuing with the original plan, decided to return to Konstantiniyye by land.
Khayr al-Din, determined to continue the conflict at sea, left Corfu at the head of 60-70 ships and set his sights on new targets. He invaded the island of Kefalonia, west of Greece, and then attacked the island of Kythira between Crete and Morea, capturing valuable spoils. He then laid siege to several islands in the Gulf of Aegina for three days before successfully taking possession of them.
Barbarossa led his fleet on a relentless assault, striking at key locations throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas. Island after island fell under Ottoman rule, as the Venetian defenders were no match for the skill and ferocity of Barbarossa’s braves. Some of the captured islands include the islands of Syros, Aegina, Ios, Paros, Tinos, Karpathos, Kasos, Gyaros, Kythira, Antiparos, the Cyclades islands, Astypalea, Naxos, and many more islands between Crete and Morea.
In the same year, Barbarossa, with his mighty fleet, attacked the island of Corfu again and laid waste to its agricultural lands while enslaving the majority of its population. Despite the old fortress of Corfu being well defended by a 4,000-strong Venetian garrison with 700 guns, Barbarossa’s forces were not deterred, and several attacks were launched against the fortifications. However, his fleet was eventually forced to reluctantly re-embark and once again raid Calabria.
With each victory, the Ottoman Empire grew stronger and the Republic of Venice weaker. The islands of the Aegean and Ionian seas became an Ottoman stronghold, a bastion of Islamic power and culture in the heart of the Mediterranean. As indicated in his memoirs, the total number of islands and castles that Khayr al-Din seized in this frenzy was twenty-eight islands and seven castles belonging to Venice. In each island and castle, a garrison was positioned to secure the newly-captured holding for the glory of the Ottoman Empire. The remaining two Venetian strongholds in the Morea, Monemvasia, and Nafplio, were also captured afterward.
On 18 June 1538, Francis I signed the Truce of Nice with Charles V, thereby temporarily abandoning the Franco-Ottoman alliance, while ending hostilities with the Habsburgs, leaving Turin in French hands without any significant change in the map of Italy.
The League of Hypocrites
These victories prompted Venice to seek the aid of Pope Paul III in organizing a “Holy League” against the Ottoman Empire. The league was comprised of the Papal States, Habsburg Spain, the Republic of Genoa, the Republic of Venice, and the Knights of Malta, to confront the Ottoman fleet that was under the command of the mighty Barbarossa.
In the summer of that year, Barbarossa’s fleet numbered 122 galleys and galliots, while the Holy League’s fleet comprised 300 galleys and galleons (55 Venetian galleys, 61 Genoese-Papal, 10 sent by the Maltese Knights, and 50 by the Spanish), with Andrea Doria, the Genoese admiral in the service of Emperor Charles V as the overall commander of this so-called Holy League. In his memoirs, however, Khayr al-Din reported that the papists had more than six hundred ships, of which three hundred and eight were warships and one hundred and twenty large ships carrying sixty thousand troops onboard.
Consequently, the revered Ottoman forces under the brilliancy of Khayr al-Din Barbarossa were tested as they faced off against a Holy League aiming to subjugate their land. Gathering its vast fleets, the coalition of devout European kingdoms, led by the Papal forces of Admiral Marco Grimani, Patriarch of Aquileia, and Venice’s Vincenzo Capello, sought to overwhelm the Turkish forces near the island of Corfu. But upon the arrival of the Spanish-Genoese fleet, commanded by the illustrious Andrea Doria, upon the 22nd of September 1538, Sultan Suleiman quickly made his way from the Aegean Sea to the Gulf of Arta and the coastal fortress of Preveza.
Aided by the cunning of his trusted lieutenant Sinan Reis, the Sultan proposed the idea of landing forces at Actium, near Preveza, to support his fleet with artillery fire from afar. But the Christian forces of the Holy League were too fearful of a defeat on land and so, instead, attempted twice to land their forces near the fortress of Preveza in a bid for domination. However, each attempt was met with fierce resistance and courage by the Ottoman forces commanded by the revered Murat Reis, and the Christian coalition was ultimately repelled by the sheer might and courage of the Turkish soldiers.
In the early hours of the 27th of September 1538, the mighty Barbarossa sailed his fleet southwards along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to attempt deploying his fleet in a formidable fighting position; he was determined to engage the Christian forces commanded by Venetian Admiral Andrea Doria. As night fell, Doria’s vessels took post at Sessola, close to the island of Lefkada, and considered their options for the ensuing battle. But to their surprise, in the early morning light of the 28th, they saw that the Muslims had also set sail and were heading in their direction.
As the two fleets approached one another just miles off the coast of Lefkada Island, the Ottoman fleet formed the shape of a crescent. Barbarossa himself took command of the middle wing, flanked by his son Hasan and his stepson, Hasan Agha. The skilled Sinan Reis, Jaafar Reis, and Shaaban Reis led the middle wing, while the right wing was commanded by Salih Reis and the left wing by Sidi Ali Reis. In the rear, Turgut Reis (aka Dragut) stood ready as reserves, with Murad Reis, Sadiq Reis, and Quzlja Muhammad under the direct command of Khayr al-Din.
Unprepared for such a bold move by the numerically inferior Turkish vessels, Doria was uncertain how to proceed; it took him three hours to ready his ships for battle.
The Christian fleet was formidable, with large sailing ships carrying thousands of soldiers lined up in the front. But Khayr al-Din was not intimidated; he knew that a frontal assault would be futile, so he ordered his fleet to attack with artillery from a distance. The Ottoman admiral Kamal Reis had developed cannons that had a range greater than any that existed at that time, and these proved to be a decisive advantage.
With the wind at their backs and the sun rising higher in the sky, the Ottoman fleet fought with determination and courage. They had faith in God, in their leader, Khayr al-Din Barbarossa, and in the justness of their cause.
With a keen strategic mind, Khayr al-Din positioned his fleet in such a way that the missiles from his ships could decimate his opponent’s, while the coalition’s artillery, with a shorter range, could not reach the Ottoman fleet. Doria, the enemy commander, attempted to outmaneuver Khayr al-Din by approaching from the rear, but Khayr al-Din was not easily fooled. He realized the plan and took measures to counter it.
The two fleets ultimately clashed in the Gulf of Arta near Preveza, where Doria’s lack of wind put his forces at an immediate disadvantage, and the Venetian flagship Galeone di Venezia became trapped four miles from land and ten miles from Sessola; surrounded by the enemy, her guns roared into action during a prolonged and bloody battle. Meanwhile, the Christian navy desperately tried to come to her rescue, only managing to do so when the wind began to pick up. At the left wing of the combined fleet, Ferrante Gonzaga, Viceroy of Sicily, led the charge, while the Maltese Knights held the right wing.
In this desperate moment, the ships commanded by Barbarossa, his son Hasan Reis, Seydi Ali Reis, Salih Reis, Turgut Reis, Murat Reis, Güzelce Mehmet Reis, and Sadık Reis, were lined up in a Y-shaped formation. In opposition, Doria had placed four of his swiftest galleys under the command of his nephew Giovanni Andrea Doria and had formed a long line, flanked by the Papal and Venetian galleys of Grimani and Capello, with the Venetian galleons under the command of Alessandro Condalmiero, the Spanish-Portuguese-Genoese galleons under Francesco Doria, as well as barques and support ships.
As the battle raged on, Khayr al-Din made a bold move and deliberately changed the direction of his ships, striking the coalition ships from the side. When Doria attempted a reverse maneuver, Khayr al-Din’s fleet moved in response, leaving no opportunity for attack. Doria had been using the large ships in his first echelon as a shield, but Khayr al-Din launched a surprise attack from the sidelines, targeting the galleys in the second echelon of the coalition fleet. This caused a rift in their ranks and allowed the Ottoman reserve force to move in and attempt to surround the coalition fleet once more.
The Ottomans eagerly engaged the Venetian, Papal, and Maltese ships, but Doria hesitated to bring his center into action against Barbarossa. As a result, much maneuvering ensued but little fighting occurred. Barbarossa, taking advantage of the lack of wind which prevented the Christian barques from moving, made these an easy target for the Turks. They boarded the barques from their more mobile galleys and galliots. Doria’s attempt to trap the Ottomans between the cannon fire of his barques and galleys was to no avail; he was completely losing control of the situation.
As the winds of fate blew fiercely, the Catholic alliance fleet found themselves in a state of disarray. But ironically, it was these very winds that ultimately saved them from being fully eaten by the Ottoman fleet led by the formidable Khayr al-Din. With the wind at their back, the Christians swiftly turned their ships and fled the battlefield.
This last Ottoman attack greatly stunned Doria and the leaders of the coalition, causing their ships to collide with one another and resulting in heavy losses. Realizing that the tide of battle had turned against him, Doria formally ordered a retreat. Khayr al-Din and his fleet had emerged victorious, their skill, determination, and faith in Allah having led them to triumph over their enemies. Despite being heavily outnumbered by the Christian forces by more than 3 to 1, the Ottomans were victorious in this memorable naval battle, a feat that has been praised by historians for centuries to come.
By sunset, the Muslims had successfully sunk, destroyed, or captured 128 ships and taken about 3,000 prisoners. Although the Muslims did not lose a single ship, they sustained 400 valiant casualties and 800 wounded in the fierce battle. The impressive Venetian flagship, the Galeone di Venezia under the command of Alessandro Condalmiero, had put up a heroic fight, but ultimately the gallant Ottoman forces triumphed.
As the night began to settle, the shrewd Doria seized the opportunity and ordered his fleet’s lamps to be extinguished to effect a successful escape from Turgut Reis, who was still chasing him ever since he fled the battlefield. In the darkness, Doria was able to make a daring escape, though not without loss. Despite the efforts of the fierce Turgut Reis, who had been ordered to give chase by Khayr al-Din, several ships were hit by artillery. The following morning, with a favorable wind, the Christian forces completed their retreat to Corfu, much to the despair of the Venetian, Papal, and Maltese commanders who had begged Don John of Austria to stay and fight.
This remarkable victory secured Ottoman dominance in the Mediterranean until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Khayr al-Din immediately sent his trusted protégé and stepson, Hasan Agha, to relay a message of victory to Sultan Suleiman. Upon meeting the sultan Hasan Agha relayed the news of Khayr al-Din’s triumphs and Suleiman, filled with pride and admiration, ordered the declaration of victory in various Ottoman provinces and bestowed upon Khayr al-Din a generous reward of one hundred thousand coins of silver.
After the battle of Preveza, Khayr al-Din sailed to capture the island of Kefalonia, where he remained for fifteen to twenty days before departing for his next conquest.
It should be noted that this momentous battle was the largest naval conflict in the Mediterranean since the Battle of Thaat Al-Sawari (Battle of the Masts) in 654 CE after centuries of land-based crusades had largely replaced traditional sea-based warfare. By achieving such an impressive feat, Barbarossa and his Muslim forces had proven that they were capable of standing against the might of the combined Christian superpowers of the Mediterranean. This was a crucial achievement that would embolden Muslims for many years to come, and one that would forever cement Barbarossa’s place among history’s greatest military and naval commanders.
With the island of Kefalonia captured and the Western coasts of Greece secured, Khayr al-Din and his fleet set sail for Konstantiniyye to spend the winter. The Ottoman Sultan, recognizing Khayr al-Din’s achievements and his unwavering devotion to the cause of Islam, bestowed upon him the title of al-Ghazi (aka the Mujahid), the highest honor in the Ottoman Empire, given to leaders who achieve impressive victories.
Master of the Sea
In the summer of 1539, Khayr al-Din Barbarossa embarked on a series of daring and successful military campaigns, capturing the islands of Skiathos, Skyros, Andros, and Serifos, and reclaiming the strategically important Castelnuovo, which the Christian coalition had seized it after their defeat at the Battle of Preveza. He also successfully laid siege to the Castle of Risan and, accompanied by the skilled and respected Sinan Reis, launched a fierce attack on the Venetian fortress of Cattaro and the Spanish fortress of Santa Veneranda near Pesaro. Through his valor and strategic acumen, Barbarossa succeeded in eliminating any remaining Christian outposts in the Ionian and Aegean Seas.
The Republic of Venice, recognizing the might and power of the Ottoman Empire, ultimately signed a peace treaty with the great Sultan Suleiman in October 1540, agreeing to acknowledge the Ottoman territorial gains and to pay the substantial sum of 300,000 gold ducats in tribute.
The grand and mighty Ottoman Empire had a strategic vision for the eastern Mediterranean, one that involved not the destruction of Venice, but rather the imposition of their control over the waters of the region. They understood the tremendous potential for trade and commerce between Egypt and the Levant and saw Venice as a valuable partner in this endeavor. However, as the threat of war loomed ever closer, the Venetians came to realize that their alliance with the Ottomans was proving to be a disaster for them. They knew that if they did not break away from this alliance, the Ottomans would only continue to impose harsher terms upon them. Despite this, the Ottomans never wavered in their belief that a prosperous trade relationship with Venice was in the best interest of both parties in the long run.
Still, in the same year, the fearless Barbarossa led a crew of 2,000 brave warriors and captured the town of Gibraltar, ransacking it and taking 75 prisoners, decimating the population, and leaving the town barren of a generation of its inhabitants.
Poor Charlie Tries Again
Emperor Charles V, recognizing Barbarossa’s formidable talents, sent a delegation via Andrea Doria who then contacted the Ottoman admiral once again to offer him the position of Admiral-in-Chief of the Holy Roman Empire’s entire navy, as well as the position of ruler of Spain’s territories in North Africa, but the honorable and loyal Barbarossa refused the offer, remaining steadfast in his fear of God, devotion to the Ottoman Empire, and loyalty to the cause of Islam. The delegation was arrested and Charles V’s efforts failed.
As the year 1540 came to a close, the entire continent of Europe was in turmoil, but none more so than the mighty Charles V. Despite his efforts, the Venetians had repeatedly turned their backs on him, and most recently, formed a commercial agreement alongside a peace treaty with the Ottomans. Charles V’s dreams of conquest in the Mediterranean, particularly in Algeria, seemed to be slipping away; he simply refused to accept defeat. In his mind, the occupation of Algeria was crucial to achieving his ultimate goal of a Catholic coastline along the Maghreb.
With determination in his heart, Charles V rallied the remaining ships of the holy league and set out to amass an enormous fleet. Over 450 transport ships were gathered to carry 24,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalries, along with support troops from the Pope. The fleet was led by the Pope’s grandson and was declared a holy crusade, deceiving the common people into believing that their sins would be forgiven if they participated in the expedition.
On the 28th of Jumada al-Akhira 948 A.H. (1541), Charles V’s fleet set sail and landed in the Gulf of Algeria, to the left of Wadi al-Harash. The mighty armada paraded in front of the city for two days, seeking to intimidate the people. But the valiant leader Hasan Agha and his army of 6,000 fighters refused to surrender. They rallied the tribes and swore to defend their land until the last drop of blood. They formed mobile cavalry units to strike at the flanks and rear of Charles V’s army as they marched forward.
As the siege came to a close, a fierce storm swept over the land, catching the invading army off guard. They had not yet lowered their cannons or taken down their tents, arrogant in their belief of victory. But the rain fell like a curse upon their gunpowder, drenching their weapons and leaving them vulnerable.
As dawn broke and the Muslim call to prayer echoed through the land, the tribal defenders, led by the brave Haji Bakr, launched a surprise attack on the Italians on the left wing of the enemy. Their fierce determination was too much for the invaders, who were quickly scattered and driven from their positions.
The gates of the city were suddenly opened, and the defenders rushed inside for shelter. The gates were closed once more, trapping the attackers outside and leaving them at the mercy of the defenders who now held the high ground. From the walls, the Muslim warriors rained down gunfire and artillery upon the enemy, causing heavy casualties and crushing their morale.
Charles V, desperate to save face, ordered a general attack, but it was doomed to failure. His army’s morale was broken, their gunpowder was wet and useless, they lacked the artillery to breach the walls and cover the attack, and the storms made it impossible for ships to approach the coast. And this was the Battle of Bab al-Wad (or Bab El Oued).
As the fleet of Andrea Doria set sail to the open sea, they were met with ferocious storms that lasted for days. Despite their efforts to avoid collision with the coast, the tempest destroyed one hundred and fifty transport ships, along with their cannons and supplies. Fortunately, the Muslim slaves who were chained in the rowing ships also revolted, causing sixteen galleys to lose control and crash against the perilous shoreline, setting a whole bunch of the oarsmen free.
Despite the violent weather, however, the valiant Algerian defenders did not give up hope; they fought bravely and managed to save around 1,400 Muslim galley slaves from certain death.
Despite this initial setback, Charles V persisted in his crusade but soon realized that it was an abject failure. The depletion of the army’s supplies and the harsh conditions of the four-day march in which they had to slaughter horses for food only added to the crusaders’ exhaustion. Day and night, the raids of the unwavering tribesmen further drained the crusader army.
In the face of such dire circumstances, Charles V could not find anything to draw himself closer to God except to order the gathering of the Jews from the city of Béjaïa. He then proceeded to kill some of them and enslave the rest.
These actions, along with the countless atrocities committed by the crusaders in the past against the Morisco Muslims, including the Inquisition courts, and against the people of the Maghreb countries, such as the massacre in Tunisia in 1535, resulted in the crusaders gaining a wicked reputation. This led to popular solidarity with the Ottoman government and a fierce determination to resist the Spanish no matter the cost.
The failed crusade of Charles V and his army was a decisive moment in history, one that forever changed the course of events in the western Mediterranean. Led by the legendary Khayr al-Din, the defenders of Algiers stood tall against the invading forces, repulsing them after just twelve days of fierce battles. Despite the staggering loss of life and material, the crusaders were ultimately defeated, their fleet decimated and their dreams of conquest dashed.
But Khayr al-Din was not content to simply sit back and celebrate his victory. He knew that the enemy would not give up easily, and so he set sail to engage the remaining crusaders. Though he arrived too late to catch them, he made his presence felt along the Spanish and Italian coasts, sending a clear message that the Ottoman Empire would not tolerate any attacks on its dominions.
The impact of this campaign was far-reaching. The so-called holy alliance of the Catholics was broken, and Charles V was forced to abandon his ambitions of Maghrebi invasion and domination. The Mediterranean came to be known as the Ottoman Lake, and the influence of the Spaniards in North Africa was forever diminished. The people of Tlemcen declared their loyalty to Khayr al-Din, and the cities of Béjaïa and Oran were reduced to isolated outposts. This was the beginning of the end for the Spanish presence in Algeria, and a new era of Ottoman dominance was born.
With a heart full of pride and steadfast determination, the Ottoman Empire, led by the magnificent Sultan Suleiman, stood tall as a beacon of hope and righteousness in the face of Charles V’s tyranny and aggression. As the German Protestant princes banded together against the so-called Holy Roman Empire, Charles V’s condescending and brazen behavior reached new heights. But the French monarch, Francois I, was not one to back down in the face of this looming threat. He resumed the war against Charles V in northern Italy, determined to put an end to Charles’ attempts to consolidate his reputation through his failed military campaigns in Algeria.
Relations between France and Charles V reached new lows with the killing of French envoys traveling through northern Italy, on their way to Venice and Kostantiniyye. Francois I turned to the Ottomans for support. The Ottoman Empire, under the leadership of Sultan Suleiman, did not disappoint. Khayr al-Din, at the helm of a mighty fleet of 210 ships (70 galleys, 40 galliots, and 100 other warships) carrying 30,000 soldiers, navigators, and oarsmen, set sail towards Marseille.
This was no ordinary naval campaign, but a grand display of military might and solidarity as Khayr al-Din, along with a contingent of the Ottoman army, journeyed to aid France in her war against Charles V’s hegemony. Along the way, Barbarossa tried to capture Reggio Calabria but was met with resistance by Diego Gaetani, the governor, which resulted in the death of three of the admiral’s sailors after the governor fired a cannon shot toward the Muslim fleet in response to Khayr al-Din’s request, asking them to submit. In response, Barbarossa laid siege on the city, and upon capturing it, he continued further south. The fleet then anchored on the coasts of Campania and Lazio, all the while, Francis I assured the people of Rome that the war was solely directed at Charles V and that their city would not be touched.
From there, Barbarossa turned his attention to the western Mediterranean islands and settlements, launching raids on a number of Italian and Spanish territories. Finally, on July 5th (or 10th), 1543, Khayr al-Din and his fleet reached Toulon before making their way to Marseilles on the 21st of the month. The Ottoman Empire, with its strong alliance with France, stood as a shining example of the power of unity and the importance of standing up against tyranny and oppression. At this time, however, the French forces weren’t prepared at all; meanwhile, Barbarossa visited the harbor of Toulon a few days later whereby he was received with honors at the harbor of Marseille, where the mighty Ottoman forces finally joined the French forces under Marseille’s governor, François. The Franc-Ottoman fleet departed Marseille in the first week of August.
Nice at the time was under the control of Charles III, Duke of Savoy, an ally of the Habsburgs. Despite Nice being a French protectorate for more than a century, Francis I, with the assistance of the Ottomans, launched an attack on the city due to the duke’s allegiance with the Habsburgs, which had already angered the French king. The surprise attack led by François de Bourbon had previously been repulsed by Andrea Doria, yet Barbarossa along with the Franco-Ottoman forces was determined to conquer Nice and bring it into their fold. This siege was a part of the Italian War of 1542–46 in which Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent allied against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VIII of England.
On the 22nd of August, the Ottoman fleet combined with 50 French ships, under the orders of King Francis I and the guidance of the Ottoman admiral, proceeded to attack the city of Nice. Despite the fierce resistance from the defenders of the city, the Franco-Ottomans eventually succeeded in taking the city on the same day. However, the allies’ ambition of conquering the citadel of Cimiez was thwarted because the thrifty French didn’t (or couldn’t) supply sufficient gunpowder to their Ottoman allies, who were consuming enormous amounts from the large number of cannons they had across their fleet of 210 ships.
Undeterred, the Ottoman forces launched another attack on the castle on 8th September but were eventually forced to retreat upon learning that one of Charles V’s armies was marching toward them. Facing overwhelming odds, Barbarossa and his troops plundered the city, burned parts of it, and took 5,000 captives before finally leaving the city. Nonetheless, a relief army was soon transported on ships by the Italian admiral Andrea Doria and successfully made its way to the Nice citadel.
During the campaign, Barbarossa is known to have complained about the state of the French ships and the inappropriateness of their equipment and stores, saying, “Are you seamen to fill your casks with wine rather than powder?” Despite this, Barbarossa displayed great reluctance to attack Andrea Doria when his ships were caught in a storm, which led some to believe that some kind of agreement had been made between the two admirals.
The Hospitable Friend
Following the siege of Antibes and the Île Sainte-Marguerite near Cannes, the Ottoman captain landed at Toulon. In the eyes of Charles V, Toulon was a strategic city of great value to the Holy Roman Empire, and it hurt his eyes to see the city placed under the command of the great Khayr al-Din Barbarossa. As a gesture of goodwill and friendship, Francis I allowed Barbarossa and his entire fleet to winter there; the Lord Lieutenant of Provence granted the inhabitants a reprieve from the taille tax for 10 years, as a sign of his protection towards them (and to prevent them from complaining about the acceptance of a massive Ottoman army in their city for the whole winter). The inhabitants were also asked to leave the city to avoid conflict with the culturally-different Ottomans.
Additionally, the Toulon Cathedral was transformed into a mosque and the call to prayer echoed through the city five times a day, while Ottoman coinage became the currency of choice; the Ottomans indeed enjoyed the hospitality of King Francis I of France. An Ottoman slave market was established as well; Christian slaves were sold in Toulon during this period.
“Lodge the Lord Barbarossa sent to the king by the Great Turk, with his Turkish Army and grand seigneurs to the number of 30,000 combatants during the winter in his town and port of Toulon… for the accommodation of the said army as well as the well-being of all this coast, it will not be suitable for the inhabitants of Toulon to remain and mingle with the Turkish nation, because of difficulties which might arise.”
— Instruction of Francis I to his Lord Lieutenant of Provence.
During their stay in Toulon, the Ottomans were provided with 10 million kilograms of bread from French bakeries to help in their provisioning for the following summer’s campaign and return trip to Konstantiniyye. Though France faced criticism from other European powers for the alliance between them and the Ottomans, relations between the two remained tense and suspicious. The city of Toulon provided a convenient base for the Ottomans, where they could easily refit their ships at the expense of France and maintain an effective blockade of Christian shipping. Despite the Lord Lieutenant’s protests that Barbarossa was “emptying the coffers of France”, the admiral found the city to be highly pleasant and convenient.
Barbarossa was promised aid from the French should he set sail for Tunis, and with the blessing of Francis I, the Ottomans also used Toulon as a raiding base for regional corsairing activities. During this time, Admiral Salih Reis led the Ottoman forces in their attacks against the Spanish and Italian coasts, raiding and bombarding Barcelona, San Remo, Borghetto Santo Spirito, Ceriale, and other ports in Spain and Italy, in addition to defeating various Italo-Spanish naval attacks.
Barbarossa and his fleet of 110 galleys and 30,000 troops then set sail for Genoa, where negotiations led to the release of Turgut Reis. On the 23rd of May, 1544, the Ottomans, after a stay of 8 months, finally departed from their Toulon base. As a condition of their departure, Francis I had to pay 800,000 in coin and release all the Muslims that were rowing French galleys. To provision his fleet, Barbarossa pillaged five French ships in the harbor of Toulon.
Alongside Barbarossa’s fleet, the French galleys, under the command of Captain Polin, the Général des galères, set sail on a diplomatic mission to Sultan Suleiman. The French fleet accompanied Barbarossa during his raids on the west coast of Italy and in Sicily. He pillaged the cities of Porto Ercole, Giglio, Talamona, and Lipari and managed to take 6,000 captives. The French galleys eventually separated from Barbarossa’s fleet in Sicily and continued their voyage alone to Konstantiniyye.
This campaign would be one of the last major naval campaigns of Barbarossa before his death. Despite this, his exploits are still remembered as a testament to the power of his fleet and his command and mastery over the seas.
In the spring of 1544, the mighty Khayr al-Din Barbarossa, with his 210 ships, descended upon the coastal town of San Remo, striking it with full fury and vanquishing the hopeless defenders in a fierce battle.
Barbarossa’s conquests did not end there, as he pressed on to the towns of Borghetto Santo Spirito and Ceriale, where he once again emerged victorious over the Christian fleets. Barbarossa’s true objective, however, lay in the city of Genoa, where his trusted companion and fellow warrior, Turgut Reis, had been captured and enslaved by the Genoese. With the threat of an all-out assault on the city, the Genoese leaders invited Barbarossa to discuss the matter with their admiral, Andrea Doria, at his palace in Fassolo.
The two sides then negotiated the release of Turgut Reis in exchange for a substantial sum of three thousand and five hundred golden ducats. With Turgut Reis by his side once more, Barbarossa turned his attention to the southern coast of France, where he successfully repelled further Spanish attacks. He then made one final stop in San Remo, assaulting the city for the third time before sailing towards Vado Ligure. The Republic of Genoa, in a desperate attempt to save their cities from further destruction, offered him a substantial sum of gold to spare them from his wrath.
In the same expedition, the revered Barbarossa made his grand entrance before the island of Elba. With the power of his fleet and the might of his armies, he issued a stern warning to the city of Piombino, demanding the release of the son of the esteemed Sinan Reis, who had been captured and forcibly baptized by the wretched Spaniards in Tunis a decade prior. His demands were promptly met, and the young man was freed.
With his mission accomplished, Barbarossa set his sights on new conquests. He then led his fleet to the province of Grosseto in Tuscany, where he captured the cities of Castiglione della Pescaia, Talamone, and Orbetello. In these cities, he struck a blow against the enemies of the Ottoman Empire, destroying the tomb of the treacherous Bartolomeo Peretti, who had burned the house of Barbarossa’s father in Mytilene the previous year.
With these victories in hand, the Ottoman fleet moved on to Montiano, where they occupied Porto Ercole and the Isle of Giglio. They then set their sights on the city of Civitavecchia, but were met with resistance from the French envoy, Leone Strozzi. With his powerful persuasion, Strozzi convinced Barbarossa to lift the siege and move on to new conquests.
And so, the Ottoman fleet sailed on to the coasts of Sardinia, where they assaulted the cities of Ischia, Forio, and Procida before threatening Pozzuoli. Encountering a fleet of 30 galleys under the command of Giannettino Doria, Barbarossa displayed his superior naval prowess and forced the enemy to flee towards Sicily, seeking refuge in the city of Messina.
As the winds of fate blew strong, the armies of the Ottoman Empire were momentarily hindered in their quest to conquer the city of Salerno. But the determination of the great and illustrious Barbarossa would not be swayed; the Muslims landed at the nearby Cape Palinuro, and from there began their march of triumph, sacking the nearby region before returning to their ships.
Barbarossa’s fleet then sailed through the Strait of Messina and made landfall at the cities of Catona, Fiumara, and Calanna, near the great city of Reggio Calabria. He then continued his march, landing at Cariati and finally at Lipari, where he would make his final landing on the Italian peninsula.
The city of Lipari, however, refused to surrender to the might of the Ottoman Empire, and so Barbarossa unleashed his fury upon the citadel, bombarding it for fifteen days without respite. And in the end, the city was captured, and its inhabitants submitted to the fearsome Admiral.
One of the intended results of this whole campaign was to dedicate Khayr al-Din’s fleet as the long arm of the Ottoman Empire in the Western Mediterranean.
The Last Moments
After all these magnificent victories throughout the years, Barbarossa returned to the grand city of Kostantiniyye for a quick stop before departing again for his final naval expedition. He sailed west and bombarded the ports of the Spanish mainland before sailing towards the Balaeric Islands, landing at Majorca and Menorca for the last time. With his fleet at his back, he sailed back to Konstantiniyye, where he built a palace on the Bosphorus in the present-day quarter of Büyükdere in the Sarıyer district.
In 1545, Barbarossa retired in Konstantiniyye, leaving his son Hasan Pasha as his successor in Algiers. He dictated his memoirs to Sinan Reis, which consist of five hand-written volumes known as Gazavat-ı Khayr al-Din Paşa (Conquests of Khayr al-Din Pasha).
In 1546, Khayr al-Din ibn Ya’coub Pasha passed away in his seaside palace in the Büyükdere neighborhood of Konstantiniyye, on the northwestern shores of the Bosphorus. He was buried in a tall mausoleum (türbe) near the ferry port of the district of Beşiktaş on the European side of Konstantiniyye, which was built in 1541 by the famous architect Mimar Sinan, at the site where his fleet used to assemble. His memorial was built in 1944, next to his mausoleum, as a testament to his greatness and the enduring legacy of his conquests.
The End of an Exemplary Era
Khayr al-Din was a shining beacon in the annals of Islamic history during the first half of the sixteenth century CE. His impact on Algeria, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire as a whole was profound and long-lasting. Beginning his journey as a merchant, Khayr al-Din and his brothers were moved to take up the cause of maritime jihad in response to the piracy perpetuated by the wretched Knights of Rhodes/St. John and other Crusader forces in the Mediterranean. He taught himself the art of war and quickly rose through the ranks, commanding warships and eventually leading the Ottoman fleet. He was a masterful organizer, administrator, and politician, as well as a skilled strategist and tactician.
His charisma and distinguished personality drew great captains and administrators to his side, including his stepson Hassan Agha, his deputy over Algeria, and his son Hassan, who served as governor of Algeria three times. Other notable figures who graduated from Khayr al-Din’s hands include Turgut Reis, who served as the captain of the fleet and son-in-law, Sinan Reis, Piri Reis, Aydin Reis, Salih Reis, Kurtoğlu Reis, Deli Muhammad Reis, Zumrad Reis, and many others.
Though Khayr al-Din faced defeat a few times, his successes far outweighed his losses, for he was known for his tireless effort, perseverance, and hard work, always finding a way to turn defeat into victory. He was a brilliant planner and an even better implementer. Despite not being an artillery officer, he was a master of artillery and knew how to use cannons to his advantage in both defense and offense. As seen in the Battle of Preveza, he never allowed his enemy to gain the upper hand by dragging him into a field he was unfamiliar with. It was Khayr al-Din who deprived his opponents of the advantage by using faster, more maneuverable ships and tactics.
When the Ottoman fleet suffered defeat at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, it was primarily due to the stubbornness of its commander in refusing to take the wise counsel of his captains, who were all students of the incomparable Khayr al-Din Barbarossa. The governor of Algeria, Kilij Ali Pasha, and the commander of the fleet, Turgut Reis, both of whom were of the second generation of Khayr al-Din’s school of naval warfare, were steadfast in following the principles laid down by their master; through a series of expert maneuvers, they were able to destroy the Maltese Knights at Lepanto, while their own fleet remained intact. This led to the Ottoman sultan appointing them to the prestigious positions of commanding the Ottoman fleet and the governorship of Algeria after Khayr al-Din’s time.
It is also worth noting that it was Khayr al-Din who imbued Algeria with its distinct identity and modernity. Despite numerous internal and external threats facing Algeria, Khayr al-Din, with his visionary insight, recognized that the true danger lay in external enemies. Therefore, while working to unify and fortify Algeria internally, he also took great care to maintain a strong, well-trained fleet to protect the country and secure its independence. Together with his brother Oruç, Khayr al-Din founded this fleet, and for the next three centuries, it was the most powerful and essential institution in Algeria, safeguarding the country’s autonomy. Unfortunately, at the Aix-la-Chapelle Conference of 1818, European nations collectively conspired to eliminate Algeria. But it was not until 1830, after the complete defeat of the Algerian fleet at the Battle of Navarin in 1827, that the hellbound French were able to accomplish this. The battle was fought between the alliance of the Ottoman, Egyptian, and Algerian fleets on one hand and the alliance of the English and French fleets on the other.
For generations, the Serai point in Kostantiniyye served as a reminder of the greatness of Khayr al-Din Barbarossa; ships passing through the area would fire a salute in honor of his memory. This custom was forgotten in the Tanzimat period but was eventually revived in 2019 by the Turkish navy, which paid homage to the historical significance of Khayr al-Din Barbarossa’s contributions to the Ottoman Empire and the whole of the Muslim world.
Khayr al-Din’s legacy endured long after his death. His ambition, courage, and leadership were admired by all Muslims. Khayr al-Din Barbarossa’s legacy is still felt today, and his story continues to be told, inspiring people of all backgrounds to pursue their own ambitions and strive for greatness.
Such were the deeds of the great and noble Khayr al-Din ibn Ya’coub, the one they called Barbarossa, a hero of the Ottoman Empire and a shining example of courage and strength in the face of the bitter enemies and struggles of the Islamic faith.