August 2, 1579, is the date on which Joseph Nasi – businessman, court Jew and proto-Zionist – died, at his palace at Belvedere, Turkey. Nasi was a figure of great charm and political acumen whose name turns up in a wide range of political and military episodes that transpired in the Eastern Mediterranean during the 16th century.
Joao Miques was born, probably in Portugal, in 1524, into a family of New Christians originally from Spain. When the Portuguese Inquisition began investigating the faith of converted Jews, Miques joined his aunt Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi in moving to Antwerp, in 1537. They had been preceded there by Dona Gracia’s brother-in-law, and Joao’s uncle, Diogo Mendes Benveniste. There, the family had established a large trading company and bank. Joao Miques studied at the University of Louvain, in Brabant.
When Diogo died, he left Dona Gracia control of the family holdings (her life is a subject unto itself). Among many other achievements, Dona Gracia established a network in Antwerp that helped Converso Jews safely flee Spain and Portugal. After some time in France, then Venice, where Dona Gracia was imprisoned for her “Judaizing” efforts, Joao Miques appealed on his and her behalf to the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman, to allow them to move their business empire to Constantinople.
In 1554, Joao Miques joined his aunt in Constantinople, where she had arrived a short time before. There he began to openly practice Judaism, had himself circumcised, and began calling himself Joseph Nasi. He married Dona Gracia’s lone daughter, his first cousin, Reyna.
Joseph became an influential figure in the court of Suleiman the Magnificent. When the sultan had to decide which of his two sons, Selim or Bayezid, was to succeed him, Joseph decided to take up the cause of Selim. Later, the brothers met in battle, and Selim was victorious, later arranging for his brother and his brother’s sons to be killed.
When Selim II ascended to the throne, Joseph, with extensive trading ties in Europe, became an influential confidant. He helped the Ottoman porte negotiate peace with Poland in 1562, and was given a monopoly on the trade of beeswax with that kingdom. Seven years later, he encouraged the Netherlands to revolt against Spain (what became the Eighty Years’ War), and promised Turkish support. He was involved in intrigues related to the succession of princes who ruled Moldavia (with which he had a monopoly on the wine trade), and he encouraged the sultan to annex Cyprus to the empire. Selim did indeed conquer the island in 1571. The sultan also gave him permission to take possession of one-third of the merchandise found on every French ship docking in Alexandria; this was meant to compensate Joseph for family property that had earlier been stolen by the king of France.
Selim appointed Joseph as Duke of Naxos, the principal island in an archipelago in the Aegean sea. He ruled his duchy from Constantinople. The sultan also gave him control of Tiberias and seven other towns in Palestine, knowing that Joseph was interested in establishing there a colony to which Jews could emigrate from Europe.
Joseph had the walls of Tiberias rebuilt, and he worked to establish industry and agriculture there, promising work to Jews who came. A plan was launched to bring Jews from the Papal States of Italy, and several hundred did eventually come. The plan was abruptly stopped, however, after war ensued between the Ottomans and the Venetians.
After Selim II’s death, in 1574, Joseph lost his main benefactor in Constantinople, and he spent the remainder of his years in semi-retirement at Belvedere. There he operated a Hebrew printing press, and had an important library of Hebrew literature. There is some evidence that he composed a book, later published in Hebrew as “Ben Porat Yosef,” intended to prove the superiority of the Torah to Greek philosophy.
Don Joseph Nasi died on August 2, 1579. Having had no children, his property was seized by the successor to Selim II, Sultan Murad III.