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Notorious Ottoman Pirate Barbarossa Was Half Greek

barbarossa pirate greek
The Ottoman pirate Barbarossa had Greek roots. Credit: Public Domain

The notorious pirate, Barbarossa, who eventually went on to be an Admiral in the Ottoman Navy, was surprisingly half Greek.

The pirate was extremely successful, and his many victories for the Ottomans in the 16th century helped them secure a wide territory in the Mediterranean.

Born in the village of Palaiokipos on the Greek island of Lesvos, which was under Ottoman control from 1462-1912, during the 1470s, Barbarossa was known by many names throughout his life, such as Khayr al-Din Barbarus, Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa, and Hızır Hayrettin Pasha. His real name is believed to be Khiḍr or Khizr.

Although he committed many atrocities against the Greeks, particularly on the Aegean islands, Barbarossa was himself half Greek.

According to Ottoman sources, the ferocious pirate’s father was either an Albanian or Turkish sihapi, or cavalryman, named Yakup Ağa. Barbarossa’s mother is believed to be a Greek Orthodox Christian woman named Katerina, who was previously married to a Greek Orthodox priest who had passed away.

After the couple married, they had six children—two daughters and four sons—Ishak, Oruç, Khizr, and Ilyas.

It is from his brother Oruç that the pirate received his nickname “Barbarossa,” which means “redbeard” in Italian. Originally, the name was used for his brother, but Khizr adopted the title, as well, and the pair were known as the Barbarossa brothers.

In fact, Barbarossa’s brother Oruç even helped him become a pirate. Oruç was the first in the family to take to the seas in search of fortune. During his adventures, the pirate’s older brother was captured by the Knights Hospitaller, a Christian order based on the Greek island of Rhodes and was kept as a galley slave for two years.

Ottoman pirate Barbarossa was half Greek

After he miraculously escaped, Oruç and his brother Khizr were able to meet up on the island of Djerba, which is just off the coast of Tunisia, which was famous for housing pirates from across the Mediterranean.

While there, the brothers gathered up a group of ferocious pirates and set sail across the Mediterranean in search of treasure.

The pirates were notorious for attacking ships from Christian lands, particularly Spanish ships and were able to amass a fortune from piracy.

They soon commanded a fleet of twelve ships that they used to attack Spanish fortresses and bases in North Africa with the help of the Ottoman leader in Algeria. In one such attack, Oruç lost his arm due to a musket shot.

Oruç always had aspirations of becoming a ruler and saw his chance when the Ottoman leader in Algeria requested that he and his brother expel some Spanish forces from an island fortress just outside of Algiers.

After removing the Spanish troops, Oruç claimed control over Algiers, and the ruler was conveniently drowned in the bath. The former pirate then became the sultan of the region.

Swift and decisive, Oruç then decided to expand his realm by taking control of a number of Algerian cities, such as Ténès and Tlemcen. His expansion in North Africa worried the Spanish King Charles, who was already aware of the Barbarossa brothers due to their piracy of Spanish ships years earlier.

Spanish troops were dispatched to Tlemcen, where they found Oruç hiding in a stable. The troops then beheaded him.

While his brother became a sultan, Barbarossa was able to rise in the ranks and become a chief of an Ottoman fleet. His incredible ability to conquer lands, which was aided by his brutality, made him a formidable figure in the Mediterranean.

The Spanish, who had control over much of the Mediterranean coastline at the time, were in constant fear of Barbarossa, who began to claim many of their lands for the Ottomans.

A Spanish source from the time wrote that, due to Barbarossa’s power, “The Turks lost their fear of our nation, which they had hitherto considered invincible.”

Barbarossa soon became famous across the Ottoman world and was even sent thousands of Janissaries, or enslaved non-Muslim warriors who usually were boys who had been taken as political prisoners or were prisoners of war, to lead on his attacks.

Barbarossa soon became the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman’s right-hand man, and was promoted to an admiral in chief of the Ottoman fleet after regaining control of Greek ports that were taken by the Spanish King Charles V’s admiral, Andrea Doria.

The pirate with humble beginnings then traveled across the Mediterranean, conquering and killing as he went and commanding over 150 ships.

He spent his time sacking Christian ports across the region and selling local populations into slavery if he spared their lives.

In a tragic example of his cruelty, Barbarossa took control of the Greek island of Aegina in 1537 and had the entire male population killed. He then sold the 6,000 surviving women and children into slavery. The devastation to the island was so massive that it had to be repopulated by people from other parts of Greece and the Ottoman empire.

During the last year of his life, Barbarossa settled in Istanbul where he wrote his own memoirs of his life. He died on July 4, 1546 and was buried in a mausoleum. The epitaph on his grave reads: “[This is the tomb] of the conqueror of Algiers and of Tunis, the fervent Islam soldier of God, the Capudan Khair-ed-Deen [Barbarossa,] upon whom may the protection of God repose.”

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