Hayreddin Barbarossa: Lion of the Mediterranean

Published 17.10.2019 18:31
Updated 20.12.2019 01:06
An image believed to depict Hayreddin Barbarossa.
An image believed to depict Hayreddin Barbarossa.

Born on Lesbos island as the third of the Barbarossa brothers, Hayreddin Barbarossa made a name for himself as an Ottoman admiral who commanded a powerful naval fleet

Turks were not seafarers before they conquered the Aegean coast of Anatolia, the first sign that they would make the Mediterranean “a Turkish lake” centuries later. Tzachas, aka Chaka Bey, a Seljuk commander, conquered Smyrna (now İzmir) with a small troop of Oghuz warriors after he was held in captivity by the Byzantine Empire for two years. Following the conquest of Smyrna, Tzachas founded a separate beylik (principality) of his own on the Aegean region of Anatolia. Since the Beylik of Tzachas had a sea border with Constantinople (Istanbul), Tzachas had a navy built with 40 ships and easily conquered Lesbos island close to Smyrna.

Perceiving the Turkish threat coming from the sea unlike the usual territorial attacks of the Seljuk armies, the Byzantine Empire attacked Tzachas’ navy and was defeated in the Mediterranean in 1090, which was celebrated as the first Turkish naval victory in history.

On the other hand, the Seljuks were unable to become a constant sea power because of the ups and downs of their politics, Byzantine intervention and Mongol invasion. The honor to be a sea empire belongs to the Ottomans, who both ran the strongest navy in “seven seas” and hired Mediterranean corsairs from time to time for their own benefits as well. Corsairs, who have been also called as “the pirates” or “the privateers,” operated in the Mediterranean between the 16th and 19th centuries. Sometimes they worked on their own and terrorized the seafaring traders in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic. However, most of the time, they were linked to the European states and the Ottoman Empire. In other words, the Ottomans and the Europeans kept proxy sea wars for centuries by using those “sea wolves.”

Hayreddin Barbarossa was the most successful corsair of Mediterranean history since he managed to become the ruler of Algiers, and then the “Kaptan-ı Derya” (chief admiral) of the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Early life

Hayreddin Barbarossa was born “Khizr” sometime between the late 1470s or early 1480s in the Palaiokipos village of Lesbos under Ottoman rule. His father Yakup was a converted Muslim sipahi (contracted soldier) possibly of Albanian origin, who took part in the conquest of Lesbos by the Ottoman navy, while his mother was a Greek lady of Lesbos. Khizr was the third of their four sons, namely Ishak, Oruç, Khizr and Ilyas, all of whom would become famous corsairs. One should also note that the seafarers of Turkey, mostly living in the Black Sea region, have always liked to give Khizr and his brothers’ names to their sons.

Yakup was a potter, who used to operate a boat in order to sell his goods around the island and beyond, which helped his sons to learn sailing as a part of their family business. All four Barbarossa brothers, “Barbarossa” being an alias for Khizr and Oruç because of their orange-colored beards, sailed for years as sea traders before they turned corsairs in the Mediterranean to conduct counterattacks against the privateering Knights Hospitaliers based on Rhodes. The four brothers shared the business and operated on different parts of the Mediterranean.


The leader of the Barbarossa corsairs was Oruç, who was often referred to as “Baba Oruç” (Oruç the father) since he helped the Muslim refugees fleeing from the Christian butchering in Andalus escape to North Africa with his fleet. The Christians heard the “Baba Oruç” name as “Barbarossa,” another reason for the nickname of Oruz and Khizr.

After the “Reconquista,” the Portuguese and the Spaniards began to attack the coastal cities of Muslim North Africa to get even more, which motivated the Ottomans and the North African emirs to deliver payback. Şehzade Korkud, the son of Bayezid II, hired Oruç and Khizr to disrupt Portuguese and Spanish shipping in the western Mediterranean. However, Selim I executed Korkud after he was crowned in 1512; therefore, Oruç and Khizr fled to their North Africa base, where they could save themselves from the hostile policy of the Ottoman government. They cooperated with the local emirs and fought hard against the Spaniards.

The Barbarossa brothers attacked Algiers and took it from the Spanish government in 1516, becoming the actual rulers of the region. This situation led the Ottomans to make a new deal with the Barbarossa brothers, then the most prominent corsairs of the Mediterranean. Thus, the Ottoman Empire made Oruç as the bey (the authorized governor) of Algiers, while Khizr was named chief sea governor of the Western Mediterranean, which would help him to become the most powerful sea lord of the 16th century.


Unfortunately, Khizr lost his brother Oruç in a Spanish attack. After Oruç’s death, Khizr took on both the Algiers beylik and the name Barbarossa. After two years, Selim I died and his only son Suleiman (the “Lawgiver” for his fellow Turks and the “Magnificent” for the Europeans) was crowned. Barbarossa offered for the young sultan to utilize his corsair fleet in the Ottoman warfare against the Spanish. This was a great move, showing the organizational and political genius of Barbarossa, because the Ottomans would defeat the Spanish by using the corsairs as their authorized sea power, while Barbarossa himself became the “Kaptan-ı Derya” (chief admiral) of the Ottomans.

For two decades, Barbarossa enhanced his power in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic. He had both fleets of privateers and a land army. He attacked the coast of Southern Europe and seized Spanish ships coming from America with gold.

Pope Paul III organized a sea crusade against Barbarossa in 1538. The pope’s “Holly League” combined the sea powers of Papal States, Spain, the Knights of Malta, and the Genoa and Venice Republics to confront the Ottoman Navy under Barbarossa’s command in Preveza (now in Greece). The Holly League’s fleet assembled 157 galleys under Adm. Andre Doria’s command, while Barbarossa's navy had only 122 galleys. Hayreddin Barbarossa smashed the Holly League navy on Sept. 28, 1538, in Preveza.

The Ottomans sank 10 of the Holy League's ships, captured 36 more and burned three, without losing a single ship themselves. They also captured about 3,000 Christian sailors, at a cost of 400 Turkish dead and 800 wounded. The following day, despite urging from the other captains to stay and fight, Doria ordered the survivors of the Holy League's fleet to withdraw.

Barbarossa continued on to Istanbul, where Suleiman received him at Topkapı Palace and promoted him to Kaptan-ı Derya (Chief Admiral) of the Ottoman Navy, and beylerbey, (Governor of governors) of Ottoman North Africa. Suleiman also gave Barbarossa the governorship of Rhodes. In the following years, Barbarossa captured Tunis and Tripoli, too.

Hayreddin Barbarossa retired to his palace in Istanbul in 1545 leaving his position in Algiers to his son. He died only a year after that. His grave is in Beşiktaş on the European side of the Bosporus. The widest boulevard of Beşiktaş district was named after him like many educational and cultural institutions, neighborhoods, streets and mosques all around Turkey. Next to his tomb in Beşiktaş, a majestic statue of him stands facing the sea.

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