Ottomans freed Libya from Crusader occupation

Published 02.01.2020 08:27

The Ottoman Empire liberated Libya, which was invaded by the Spaniards in 1510, from the Crusaders in 1551 after decades of preparations and struggles

Libya, which had been a Muslim land since the early years of Islam, fell under the rule of Sicilian Normans. Afterward, the Almohad Caliphate (Muvahhidin) gained control over the region. In the following periods, it was captured by the Hafsid dynasty of Tunisia. After capturing Granada in 1492, the last Muslim state of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), the Spaniards began invading North Africa.

The Spaniards seized Mers el-Kebir in 1505, Vahran (Oran) in 1509 and Bicaye in 1510, in Algeria. The sultan of Tunisia accepted Spanish sovereignty out of fear of losing his throne. Under the command of Don Pedro Navarro, Count of Oliveto, the Spaniards captured Bicaye, got reinforcements and then seized Tripoli, Libya's current capital, in June 1510. Around 5,000 local people were killed and thousands more were taken as captives. Following the occupation, which caused great mirth in Europe, Spain handed over the region's administration to the Regency of the Kingdom of Sicily, a vassal kingdom, in 1511. The city was settled with Christians. The Knights of St. John from Rhodes had moved to different parts of the Mediterranean after Suleiman the Magnificent I (Kanuni) conquered the island in 1522. The Spanish ceded Tripoli to the knights in 1530, along with Malta.

Works by Ahmet Kavas and Abdullah Erdem Taş contain detailed information on the conquest of Libya.


Upon the Spanish occupation, Muslims of Tripoli took refuge in the castle of Tajura, some 20 kilometers to the east, and began to fight with the Crusaders. A group of Libyan Muslims came to Istanbul with a ship in 1519 to seek help from Kanuni. But rumor has it that they could not explain their problems since they could not find anyone speaking their language in Istanbul. Hadım Murad Ağa, a military official and courtier at the time, saw the Libyans on the shore trying to explain their problems. As he spoke the language of that region, he helped them contact Ottoman officials. Shortly afterward, the Ottoman administration sent Hadım Murad Ağa to Tajura with a fleet and 6,000 soldiers.

Murad Ağa settled in Tajura and launched a struggle to liberate the region from occupation. He secured good relations with tribes in the region and expanded his control. He engaged in public works and built a mosque and madrasah in Tajura. The mosque built on his order was constructed like a fortress to withstand attacks by Spaniards, including an independent water supply. Hadım Murad Ağa also had wells dug along the way to Tripoli. Though he personally laid siege to Tripoli, he could not capture the city due to the mighty fortifications of the castle. While serving in Tajura, Hadım Murad Ağa urged the Ottoman administration and Grand Adm. Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha to conquer Libya.


As Barbaros entered Ottoman service, Ottomans began to establish control over North Africa with the support of sea ghazis operating in the region. After Barbaros died, however, relations between the Ottoman administration and sea ghazis faltered from time to time. The Ottoman administration refrained from promoting Turkish sea ghazis in North Africa to higher positions because of their wayward actions and due to the jealousy of state officials.

Turgut Reis, also known as Dragut, the leading Turkish seaman at the time, was also given short shrift because of that. One of the greatest figures in Turkish naval history, Turgut Reis, was a Turk from Muğla. During his years as a corsair, Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha noticed how skillful a seaman Turgut Reis was and recruited him. Later on, Turgut Reis entered Ottoman service along with Barbaros. After Barbaros' death, Turgut Reis was not given a high position though he was a master sailor since he tended to have his own way and was regarded as a potential rival to Kaptanıderya Grand Adm. Sinan Paşa, brother of Grand Vizier Rüstem Paşa.

As relations with Spain deteriorated in that period, Kanuni ordered preparations to be made to seize Tripoli and liberate Muslims from occupation. He sent a Quran and a golden sword to Turgut Reis and requested help in the conquest of Tripoli. In 1550, Turgut Reis was appointed governor of Mahdia and of other places he had conquered. In the letter of appointment, he was ordered to cease operations in the seas in times of peace. It is also rumored that Turgut Reis was promised the governorship of the region after the conquest.

Tripoli, Benghazi and Fezzan, which belong to Libya today, were separate regions in the past. Benghazi was brought under Ottoman rule after the conquest of Egypt.


Joining up with Turgut Reis, an Ottoman fleet first moved to the Island of Malta. In July 1551, the island was battered with cannons and looted. The island of Gozo near Malta was captured. After Malta, the fleet headed to Tripoli. The Tripoli Fortress was besieged with the help also of Hadım Murad Ağa. When a large breach was opened in the walls of the fortress, the resistance was broken and the fortress surrendered in August 1551. The Fezzan region, which was sparsely populated, would be soon brought under control.

Kaptanıderya Sinan Paşa appointed Hadım Murad Ağa as governor. Hadım Murad Ağa became the first governor of the Trablusgarp Beylerbeyliği (the province of Tripoli). He ruled the region until his death in 1556 and left a legacy that lasted until today.


Kaptanıderya Sinan Paşa prevented the appointment of Turgut Reis as the governor of Tripoli province after the conquest of the region, though he was awaiting that appointment. Both because Pasha was afraid that Turgut Reis would become a rival and because Hadım Murad Ağa, governor of Tajura, had been operating in the region for 32 years, he had the latter appointed as the governor of Tripoli province.

Meanwhile, Mahdia slipped out of Ottoman control. Turgut Reis, who expected to take the governor's seat, was appointed as the Sanjak Bey (district commander) of Karlı-İli on Sept. 22, 1551. Turgut Reis continued to serve the state there. When Kaptanıderya Sinan Paşa died in 1554, the major obstacle to his appointment disappeared. Arriving in Istanbul soon after, Turgut Reis reminded Kanuni of his promise to appoint him as the governor of Tripoli. Following the death of Hadım Murad Ağa in 1556, Turgut Reis was appointed by the sultan as the governor of Tripoli province. Turgut Reis served as governor of Tripoli until his death in 1565 and was remembered by the Libyans with gratitude.

* Historian, chairman at National Defense University, Ankara

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter