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Jewish Pirates of the Mediterranean

Sinan: The Great Jewish Pirate


ewish pirates have existed since ancient times.  Josephus writes about Jewish pirates in his book, Wars of the Jews: “They also built themselves a great many piratical ships, and turned pirates upon the seas near to Syria, and Phoenicia, and Egypt, and made those seas unnavigable to all men”1Josephus, The wars of the Jews, book 3, Chapter 9, section 2. During the Judean revolt against Rome, it appears that many Jews took to piracy as a way of combating the mighty Roman Empire, and were quite successful.  Many centuries later, Jewish refugees from the Spanish expulsion turned to piracy as a form of revenge on the country that had brought terrible atrocities and suffering upon them.

This is the first in a series on some of these daring figures and their exploits.

Sinan Reis

The man destined to become known as “the Great Jewish Pirate” was born in Smyrna, Turkey sometime in the early 1500’s to parents who were Spanish exiles.  Growing up on tales of the atrocities committed by the Inquisition, young Sinan Reis joined the Barbary corsairs, Muslim pirates who attacked Christian ships.

These pirates were extremely ruthless, killing their victims indiscriminately, and enslaving Christian men to row in their oared galleys.  Some Barbary corsairs were privateers, meaning pirates who are licensed by a particular kingdom, to attack enemy shipping.  It was one of these Corsair groups, licensed by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to attack Spanish vessels, which Sinan Reis joined.  Working his way up the ranks, he became a captain of his own ship.  During this time he earned the title  “the great Jew,” by the Portuguese governor of India in 1528.  Later on in 1533, the ambassador of King Henry VIII, stationed in Rome, informed his king that “the famous Jewish pirate had prepared a strong fleet to meet the Spanish galleys…”2They took to the Sea; by Samuel Tolkowsky, London 1964 Trading Nations: Jews and Venetians in the early modern Eastern Mediteranean; EJ Brill, New York p 181.

Sinan’s actions also came to the attention of Barbarossa, Grand Admiral of the Ottoman empire, and the latter appointed him vice admiral, making Sinan second to him ,and third in line from the Sultan himself! Furthermore, although Barbarossa was officially head of the Ottoman navy, in reality he was more of a soldier than a sailor, and therefore preferred to leave most of the operations of the navy to his assistant, so that in reality, Sinan served as the acting head of the Ottoman navy.

Siege of Tunis

Sinan’s first action as admiral came in August 1534, when he led a fleet of 100 ships into the harbor of Tunis, Tripoli and captured it from Spain.  Tunis was a strategically located city on the North African coast, midway along the Mediterranean shore, dividing the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea from its western side.  Thus, the capture of Tunis from Spain meant that Spanish vessels could no longer pass safely to the Western Mediteraanean, which was not an especially appealing development to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and reigning monarch of Spain.

Charles began to strategize on how to recover the city.  After a failed attempt to win over Barbarossa to his side,3Charles sent a messenger offering Barbarossa the title “Lord of North Africa” if he would surrender Tunis and change sides. Barbarossa responded to the job offer by personally decapitating the messenger. King Charles assembled a fleet of 400 ships with a force of 30,000 men to storm the city.  Sailing into the Tunis harbor on June 15, 1535, the armada began a barrage on a large fort defending the entrance to the city.  For two weeks, Barbarossa and Sinan held out in the fort.  Finally the fortress walls came tumbling down after having been battered incessantly by hundreds of cannons.  Sinan and Barbarossa were forced to evacuate the fort into the city, and Charles captured the harbor, along with Sinan’s 87 galleys.4Correspondence and Itinerary of Charles V.

During the next day, as Charles prepared his army for an assault on the city, an enraged Barbarossa decided to murder the 20,000 Christian slaves imprisoned in Tunis’ dungeons.  Sinan managed to dissuade Barbarossa from doing so, telling him with classic Jewish compassion: “To stain ourselves with so awful a massacre, would place us outside the pale of Humanity forever.”5Sea Wolves of the Mediterranean: The grand period of the Muslim Corsairs; E Hamiton Currey, New York 1914,

Unfortunately this merciful act proved to be their undoing.  Defecting Muslims hoping to win favor with the besieging forces freed the slaves, who then seized the city arsenals and threw open the gates to the invaders.  The conquerors swarmed in and a fierce struggle ensued.  Charles had a horse shot from under him, and Barbarossa reportedly killed “several dozen men with the keen blade of his scimitar.” But the city was lost.  Barbarossa and Sinan escaped into the desert with 4,000 men.  The conquering army then proceeded to viciously massacre the civilian population of Tunis, including its Jewish community.6A history of the Jews in North Africa; HZ Hirshberg (2nd edition)   Yet Sinan would return to fight another day.

At the Battle of Prezeva7See Wikipedia entry “Battle of Prezeva”

Sinan’s next major action came a few years later in 1538.  The year before, Barbarossa had captured a number of islands in the Aegean sea, from the republic of Venice.  He then proceeded to ravage the Calabrian coast in southern Italy, which at the time belonged to Spain.  Faced by this threat, Pope Paul III assembled a fleet to attack the Ottomans.  The navies clashed in the gulf of Arta, off of Prezeva, Greece.  The Christian navy attacked first, and Barbarossa trounced their fleet, sinking ten ships, and killing around 30,000.

Sinan continued his war against Spain following this tremendous victory by seizing the gulf of Cattaro on the Dalmation coast (present day Serbia and Montenegro) from the Spanish in 1539.  It was there, though, that he was met by personal misfortune.  Sinan’s son, who was journeying to meet him, was captured by Spanish imperial forces He was delivered to the lord of the isle of Elba,8This island achieved historical fame for a different reason. Napoleon Bonaparte was sent into exile there after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. where he was baptized and raised as a Christian.

Several times, Barbarossa tried to ransom the child, but without success.  In 1544, while sailing near the island, he sent an envoy to recover the boy, but was told by the authorities that the “ruler’s religious scruples did not allow him to surrender a Christian child to an infidel.” Enraged by this response, Barbarossa landed troops who proceeded to sack a village and blow up a fort on the island.  The lord of Elba then wisely decided to surrender the child, and be spared of any further wrath.  Barbarossa returned him to his father, whom at this point was at Suez. 9Elba and the Tuscan Archipelago; Christopher and Jean Serpell London, 1977

Sinan rises in rank   

Sometime after this, Sinan was appointed Pasha (or governor) of Algiers.  He remained there until 1551, when he led a fleet in capturing the city of Tripoli from the Spanish.  The defending forces included a contingent of the knights of Malta, which was a famed Christian order that ruled the island of Malta.  Sinan took these captives with him to Istanbul, where he proudly showed them off to the sultan.  After doing so, he again displayed Jewish mercy: Rather than slaughtering his prisoners,- as Charles’s forces were wont to do, he set them free.

Image Information:
Title: Sinan Coefut
Source: graphic from the book Fürstlich Waldeckschen Hofbibliothek Arolsen
Author: Théodore de Bry  (1561–1623)
Date: 1590

His last years

Sinan’s final recorded actions took place in 1553, when he sailed down the Dardanelles Straits with 150 ships, ravaging Southern Italy and Sicily.  He also performed a mission for the king of France, by expelling the Genoese from the island of Corsica.  After this, Sinan returned to Istanbul, where he lived his last few years in peace.

Sinan passed away in 1558, which, curiously, is the same year in which his arch-nemesis Charles V also died.  Sinan is interred in the Jewish cemetery in Istanbul.  Inscribed on his gravestone is the following: “Towards his friends, Sinan was another Joseph, his enemies dreaded him like a dart.  Let us pray to Heaven for Sinan, may Hashem cause his soul to rejoice.  The Kaptan Pasha has entered the realm of divine mercy.”10They took to the Sea.

Sinan, the pirate-turned admiral-turned Kaptan Pasha, lived a tumultuous, adventurous life.  To the Jews, he was a hero in an era in which they suffered severe oppression.  To the Ottomans, he was a loyal and successful commander, who greatly aided them in the expansion of their empire.

In the next issue of Kankan, we will learn about the life of the Pirate Rav.  Yes, that’s how he was known…

When the “Night of Bavel” Occurred

We do not yet know, on which date “the Night of Bavel” occurred.  If we can discover the exact date that Nevuchadnezzar succeeded to the throne, we would automatically know when the “Night of Bavel” took place.

We find a clue in the Midrash, when it discusses the fact that the only time we fast at night is on Tisha B’Av.  We also fast at night, of course, on Yom Kippur, but it could not have been Yom Kippur, as that would contradict the verse mentioned in the Midrash that Daniel went to his fast, to seek out compassion regarding the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.  Yom Kippur night is not the time to mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.

Was the Night of Bavel, then, on Tisha B’Av eve?

The Feast That Took Place on the Fast

Our sages do not tell us when Nevuchadnezzar was crowned.  However, Divrei HaYamin LeMalchai Bavel – the histories of the Babylonian kings, provides a date.

In the Jerusalem Chronicle it says:

For twenty-one years Nabopolassar had been King of Babylon, when, on 8 Abu [Av] he went to his destiny; in the month of Ululu [Elul] Nevuchadnezzar rturned to Babylon and on 1 Ululu [Elul] he sat on the royal throne in Babylon.11

The above-mentioned Nabopolassar, according to the chronicle, is the father and predecessor of Nevuchadnezzar.

The chronicle clarifies the date of Nabopolassar’s death, and this identifies the date of the beginning of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign to be the 8th day of Av.

Therefore, Belshazzar’s feast, which was on the 70th anniversary of this date, was also on the 8th day of Av, at midnight.  According to Jewish law, that is the night of Tisha B’Av!

Tzafoh HaTzafis, Aroch HaShulchan

Let us revisit the scene that took place in Babylon,
on Tisha B’Av at midnight, 3391 AM. 

It is the 70th anniversary of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign. 
52 years have passed since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.

Daniel is wandering the dark roads of Bavel, and his Jewish brethren are on the lookout for him.  Most probably, he is going home after reading the Eichah.

“Hey! There he is! Rabbeinu Daniel, all the bad and harsh prophecies which Yirmiah the prophet prophesied have already come upon us.  The one good prophecy which he prophesied has yet to come about!”

They ask him, “Rabbeinu Daniel, where are you going?”

He is surprised.  Don’t they know? He answers, “To fast, it’s Tisha B’Av, isn’t it!?”

Moments later, the Chaldeans spot him, since they too are on the lookout for him. 

“Hey! There he is! Belteshazzar [Daniel], you are coming with us.  The King has ordered your presence!”

His Jewish brethren call out to him, “Rabbeinu Daniel, where are you going?”

He answers, “To the feast, I guess.  History is about to happen! The prophecy of Yeshaya the prophet is about to be fulfilled!”

What does Yeshaya the prophet foresee for that very night?

“Tzafoh hatzafis, aroch hashulchan – set up the watch, set the table.”12Yeshaya 21:5. This refers to Belshazzar’s feast, for Yeshaya prophesied that Bavel would fall at the time of the feast.

As the verses continues, “And there they come, mounted men – horsemen in pairs!”

“Then each spoke up and said, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon! And all the images of her gods have crashed to the ground!”

“That very night, Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed, and Daryavesh the Mede received the kingdom.”13Daniel 5:30–6:1.

We now understand what the Midrash means by the “Night of Bavel”.  We also know the date of the fall of Babylonia.  That was the night on which both a fast and a feast took place, and a most pivotal night in the making of Jewish history.

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