How a 16th century naval genius changed the maritime borders of three continents, inspiring Turks for generations to come.
Known as the lion of the Mediterranean, Barbaros Hayreddin Pasa displayed a remarkable seamanship as the grand admiral of the Ottoman navy in the early 16th century.
Under Hayreddin Pasa's supervision, the Ottoman naval strength increased by many folds, and so did the maritime conquests.
Fast forward to the 21st century, Hayreddin Pasa still commands immense respect in Turkey, so much so that during the Blue Homeland naval drill in 2019, Turkish warships offered a salute at his grave, the Tomb of Barbaros, by sounding the foghorn three times as they sailed off the coast of Istanbul's Besiktas district.
Prior to the naval drill, the tomb was open to visitors for half a day a week. It's now open for five days a week, a change in timings that reveals how strong an inspiration Hayreddin Pasa has been in modern Turkish life.
The Turkish government has even named its premier sea drilling vessels after Barbaros Hayreddin Pasa and other legendary Ottoman figures: Fatih, Yavuz and Kanuni.
With Turkey recently discovering a major gas reserve in the Black Sea, historic icons like Hayreddin Pasa, who made the Ottomans a great naval power on the global stage, have once again triggered curiosity among ordinary Turks who want to know more about the celebrated admiral.
Born on the Island of Lesvos in what is today modern Greece, in 1478, Hayreddin Pasa's real name was Khizr or Khidr. He was nicknamed as ‘Barbarossa’ because of his red beard. Ottoman Sultan Selim I gave him the honorary name ‘Hayreddin’, which means 'best of the faith'.
On his death in 1546, the Ottoman Empire announced: "the leader of the sea is dead".
As the youngest of four brothers, he began trading activities between Lesvos, Thessaloniki and Euboea of present Greece with a ship that he had built.
His brother was known as Baba Oruc (Oruc the father) because he helped Muslim refugees fleeing from the Christian crusaders in Andalus. He ferried them to North Africa with his fleet.
Hayreddin Pasa was clever and bright as a youngster, though he had a tendency to mock his contemporaries. When he was a young man, he was noted for his firebrand rhetoric. He was brave but prudent. He was strong-willed, but with an innate fighting instinct.
Following his successes in the Mediterranean as a commander of his fleet, he ensured he invested in his subordinates by educating and treating them respectfully. He was widely loved and respected by the seamen community.
He was multilingual and spoke all the main Mediterranean languages, such as Greek, Arabic, Spanish, Italian and French.
After rescuing his brother Oruc from the prison of Knights of Rhodes, the siblings declared loyalty to Ottoman Prince Sehzade Korkut, who was the brother of Selim I.
In 1504, Hayreddin and his brother engaged in a struggle for naval dominance against Spain, Genoa and France in the Mediterranean. They eventually emerged as victors.
The Barbarossa brothers then attacked Algiers and took over the country from the Spanish state in 1516. He offered the conquered land to Selim I and Algeria became part of the Ottoman state.
Hayreddin Pasa maintained security of sea routes by ending the Venetian hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.
Despite some sources calling the Barbarossa brothers former corsairs of the Mediterranean, a history professor at Istanbul University, Idris Bostan, previously told Anadolu Agency that Barbaros was an admiral harmonising the navy.
He was experienced like an architect and engineer of a ship. There are attempts to underestimate him by calling him a 'pirate', Bostan said, but such claims are out of step with authentic Ottoman history.
The professor also added that Barbaros participated in many operations in the Mediterranean. He knew all the Mediterranean ships because he saw them occasionally at the coast of Algeria, examined them and attached them to his forces.
Following the death of Selim I, his son Suleiman (the “Lawgiver” for Turks and the “Magnificent” for Europeans) was crowned as the sultan of the vast empire. Suleiman made Hayreddin Pasa the chief admiral of the empire. At one point in the 16th century, historians say he was the most powerful sea lord, commanding both fear and respect from both friends and foes.
In about two decades, he expanded his influence 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.
Following the rising power of the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean, which was about to become an ‘Ottoman lake’, Pope Paul III organised a sea crusade against the top Ottoman admiral in 1538.
The pope’s naval crusade was led by Andrea Doria, who was a Genoese statesman. Doria led the fleet of almost 250 galleys, while Hayreddin Pasa’s navy had only 122 members.
In the war of September 28, 1538, in Preveza, the Ottoman navy - under the command of Hayreddin Pasa - sank ten of the Christian alliance ships, capturing more than thirty of them without losing a single ship. Almost three thousand soldiers of the Christian alliance were captured where the Ottoman Navy lost 400 of its soldiers.
Thanks to Hayreddin Pasa’s victory against the alliance raise by Pope Paul III, Ottoman supremacy in the central and eastern Mediterranean was enabled and expanded in the following years.
After the huge victory, he went to Istanbul and received by Suleiman the Magnificent at Topkapi Palace where he was promoted to Kaptan-i-Derya (Chief Admiral) of the Ottoman Navy, and beylerbeyi (Governor of governors) of Ottoman North Africa.
He was also given the governorship of Rhodes. Hayreddin Pasa also captured Tunis and Tripoli.
He opened navy schools and his teachings guided many Ottoman sailors and commanders - this even centuries after his demise and following his death on July 4, 1546, in Besiktas, Istanbul. Many educational and cultural institutions, neighbourhoods, streets and mosques were named after him.
His tomb is located in Istanbul’s Besiktas district where a majestic statue stands facing the tomb.