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Don Joseph Nasi - Duke of Naxos

Don Joseph Nasi - Duke of Naxos

(circa 1505-1579; 5265-5339)

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The story of Don Joseph Nasi is a very fascinating one. It is rich in adventure, courage and endurance, but it also brings to our mind the tragic way in which Jews lived in those days, towards the end of the dark Middle Ages.

Joseph was born in Spain at the time when the cruel Inquisition was in power. Jews were not permitted to worship according to the faith of their fathers. Most of those who wished to remain loyal to their faith openly-and they included most Spanish Jews-had been expelled (1492). A few families, however, had feigned acceptance of Catholicism, and were permitted to stay. They were called Maranos. Secretly, and in constant dread of the Inquisition, they practised and observed the Jewish customs and faith. Among these was also the family of Nasi, who had changed its name to Mendez.

The family consisted of three brothers. The youngest was Joseph's father. He died when Joseph was still very young. The orphan was brought up by his two uncles who had assumed Spanish names, Francesco and Diego. Finding life in Spain unbearable, the two brothers escaped to Lisbon, Portugal, taking their young nephew with them. They had also managed to save their huge fortune. Here too they had to pretend that they were not Jews. But they fervently clung to their faith in secret, and brought up that way their handsome and brilliant young nephew Joseph. The boy learned how great were his ancestors, and together with his uncles he cherished the hope that one day they would be able to throw off their hateful disguise and openly return to the faith of their fathers devote his whole life to helping his poor and defenseless brethren living in a friendless world.

The Mendez family were bankers of world repute. They had opened a branch office of their banking house in Antwerp with the help of a member of their family, Rabbi Abraham Benveniste. Life was somewhat easier for the Jews in Antwerp, and the Mendez family thought that they might have to seek refuge there one day. This day was not slow in coming. The dreaded Inquisition began to work in Portugal too, and made life unbearable for the Maranos. The Mendez family decided to move to Antwerp. In the meantime Francesco, the oldest of the brothers, died. His clever and famous wife Donna Gracia took over the management of the family fortune and banking house. Under her care and affection, young Joseph grew up as a man of high education, excellent manners and graceful poise.

Soon after settling in Antwerp, the last of the Nasi-Mendez brothers Diego also died. Don Joseph Nasi-Mendez was now old enough and able to take over the management of the great banking house, which had a world-wide reputation. In the course of his business, Don Joseph came in contact with the highest nobility and even royal houses of many European lands. His personal charm and wisdom stood him in good stead. The king of France borrowed a large sum of money from the Mendez banking house. Another customer was Queen Mary, regent of the Netherlands (sister of Emperor Charles V) who bestowed many honors upon Don Joseph.

You might think that Don Joseph Nor was his aunt. The Inquisition had long arms. Its agents were active in Belgium too, holding the Maranos in terror. The Mendez family hated the masquerade. Secretly they had established their own Synagogue and supported the unfortunate refugees from Spain and Portugal.

In the course of their business the Mendez family had an opportunity to learn of the way. Jews lived in many lands. They found that in the Ottoman empire, under the rule of Mohammedan princes, the Jews lived better than in other lands. Jews were among the close advisers of the Sultan, and Jewish merchants enjoyed greater freedom. Donna Gracia and Don Joseph Nasi decided to move to Turkey, where they would be permitted openly to return to the faith of their fathers.

It was not easy to carry out this decision. It took them several years to arrange their business affairs so as to be able to leave Antwerp without ruining themselves financially. Neverthelss it cost them a goodly part of their fortune before they were able to leave for Venice in 1549. They had kept their plans in strict secrecy, but somehow Charles V had become suspicious. He was about to seize the entire Mendez fortune, when Don Joseph and his aunt succeeded in escaping from Antwerp in the dark of night, taking with them a great deal of their valuables and funds.

They reached Venice safely under the assumed names of Juan Miguel and Beatrice de Luna. Here they tried to help their unfortunate Jewish brethren to buy one of the neighboring islands of the Venetians. But through a careless remark of a relative of Donna Gracia their identity became known. It was no longer a secret that the Nasi-Mendez familv secretly practiced Judaisim and Donna Gracia was seized and imprisoned and all their wealth was confiscated. Don Joseph with the rest of the family, however, succeeded in escaping to Ferrara which was ruled by the kind and noble Duke D'Este.

There was quite a stir in the high circles of many lands when the story of Donna Gracia and Don Joseph becarne known. The king of France who owed the Mendez banking house a huge sum of money declared his debt void; he had borrowed from "Christians," he said, not from Jews. Other notables who had received loans from the Mendez banking house did the same shameless thing.

For the moment Don Joseph had more important matters to attend to than worry about his deceitful debtors. He sent word to his good friend Rabbi Moshe Hamon the personal physician of the great Sultan Suleiman, asking him to implore the Sultan to save Donna Gracia. Suleiman realized what a boon it would be for his country to have these noble Jews in its midst. He sent a special ambassador to Venice and threatened to take action if Donna Gracia and her wealth would not be released.

The Council of Venice released Donna Gracia at once, but it took more than two years until they returned the confiscated treasures of the Mendez family. Meanwhile the entire family openly returned to the Jewish faith, and threw off their assumed names. A great many other Maranos and their families who had gathered about them, followed their example. The liberal and upright duke protected them, and would not let the Inquisition carry on its infamous work in his domain. In 1552 the whole community of the erstwhile Maranos chartered their own ships and sailed for the hospitable shores of Turkey.

A new life began for Don Joseph in Trurkey. No longer Don Juan Miguel or Mendez as he was known before, but under his own Jewish name Joseph Nasi, the brilliant young banker was married to his cousin, the kind-hearted, pious and fair Reyna, the daughter of his aunt Donna Gracia. It did not take him long to pick up his International business which he had interrupted after his flight from Antwerp. Excellent letters of introduction, aided by his own charming personality, opened for him the doors of all influential people in Turkey, including the court of Sultan Suleiman.

Don Joseph Nasi had had enough of the risky business of banking, and converted his business to commerce. He developed a thriving importing and exporting trade between the countries of the old and new worlds. The Sultan soon realized the great genius of his new subject and favored him with much attention. Don Joseph used his influence with the Sultan to help his brethren who were suffering terribly under the persecutions encouraged by Pope Paul IV in Rome.

A devoted friendship developed between Don Joseph and prince Selim, oldest son of the Sultan. When Bayazhid, the younger son of the Sultan, began to plot for his succession to the throne, Don Joseph supported Selim. Moreover, he succeeded in persuading the Sultan that the cause of Selim was the just one. In the war that broke out between the two brothers, Bayazhid was defeated and be fled to Persia. There he and his sons were murdered, and the succession to the throne was thus decided while Suleiman was yet very much alive and in full control of his great empire.

The victorious Selim was grateful to Don Joseph and made him a member of his Guard of Honor. He persuaded his father the Sultan to grant Don Joseph a tract of land around Lake Tiberias in the Holy Land, which was under the rule of the Sultan.

Don Joseph who had always hoped to do something substantial for his persecuted brethren, now saw his opportunity. He decided to turn the gift of the Sultan into a haven of refuge for Jews in quest of a home. He sent his trusted friend Joseph ibn Adreth (a descendant of Rabbi Shlomoh ibn Adreth") to Tiberias to organize a Jewish settlement there. He sent out a call to all persecuted Jews to come to the new settlement and find a home there. He offered his own ships to transport them. A group of Jews from Campagna, where they had suffered persecution and exile, gladly responded. But although they suffered hatred, and one might have thought that their enemies would be glad to get rid of them, they were prevented from emigrating. Many of them, however, succeeded in getting on their way to the promised haven. But the dangers of travel for defenseless Jews in those days were very great. Piracy on the high seas was rampant, and many fell into the hands of pirates and were sold into slavery. This, for example, was the f ate of 102 Jews from Pesaro who were on their way to Tiberias but were captured by pirates and held for ransom. Don Joseph Nasi was able to free most of them, but the whole plan met these and other obstacles and was not very successful, One of the difficulties was to provide a means of livelihood for the new settlers. This, Don Joseph tried to overcome by a plan to develop a silk industry there, for which purpose mulberry trees (on which the silk worm feeds) were planted. Another difficulty was the violent animosity of a neighboring Arab Sheikh who preached that the establishment of the Jewish settlement would endanger Mohammedanism. For this reason and that, the project eventually failed.

The peak of Don Joseph's diplomatic and commercial career came when his friend Selim II became the Sultan on the death of his father. One of the first official acts of the new Sultan was to repay his faithful Jewish iriend for his services. He made Don Joseph the Duke of the isle of Naxos. Several other islands were granted to him as his own possessions. The islands were inhabited by Greek Christians, and Don Joseph was not anxious to make his residence among them. He delegated a friend of his to govern his islands, while he himself lived in the beautiful castle Belvedere in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman empire.

Don Joseph Nasi had a great influence over Selim 11, although the grandvizier Sokolli, a Bosnian of unscrupulous character, did his best to oppose everything be did and to disturb the Sultan's confidence in his Jewish adviser. The rulers of European lands soon realized the great importance of Don Joseph in the mighty empire of the Sultan and sought hi's friendship. Thus Emperor Maximilian 11 sought peace with the Sultan and instructed his ambassador to win Don Joseph's good graces. Not only did Don Joseph refuse all bribes, but he even gave the ambassador a personal loan.

Another monarch who established friendly relations with Don Joseph Nasi was King Sigismund of Poland. Thanks to this friendship, the king of Poland treated his Jewish subjects with kindness.

Don Joseph now tried to recover the money he had lent to the king of France. The latter had refused to pay it after Don Joseph openly returned to the Jewish faith. Sultan Selim gave Don Joseph permission to hold up all ships flying the French flag' and seize their merchandise. The enraged king of France instructed his ambassador to plot for Don Joseph's downfall. Grandchamp, one of the most unscrupulous diplomats, nearly succeeded, through bribery and deceit, to ruin Don Joseph. The frameup consisted in making Doti Joseph appear to be guilty of high treason and conspiracy against the Sultan. Fortunately, Don Joseph was able to prove all the accusations false, and his friendship with the Sultan did not suffer.

After the death of his friend Sultan Selim 11, Don Joseph's fortune changed. The new ruler was the cruel Murat, who was under the influence of Don Joseph's bitter enemy, Mohammed Sokolli. Doti Joseph's services were no longer required by the new Sultan, and Don Joseph retired to a peaceful life of study and good deeds in his beautiful castle of Belvedere.

Don Joseph supported the Yeshivah in Constantinople which bad been founded and maintained by his noble aunt Donna Gracia. He established a Hebrew press at his home which published many important works. His extensive library was open to all scholars. A great Many scholars were his constant guests and were fully supported by him.

Don Joseph wrote a defense of the Jewish religion in Spanish, which was translated into Hebrew by one of his protegos, under the title "Ben Poroth Joseph."

When Don Joseph Nasi, the Duke of Naxos, died in Constantinople in the summer of 1579, the whole Jewish world lamented his passing.

Only one man was pleased with the death of this great man. He was the Sultan. He confiscated all the wealth of the late statesman who had done so much not only for his brethren, but for his country at large. Even Don Joseph's widow, the generous and pious Reyna, had to leave the beautiful castle. The Hebrew press founded by Don Joseph collapsed.

Thus the death of Don Joseph put III end to his life-work, but the memory of his great deeds, and the honor which he enjoyed, lived on through the ages.

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Discussion (4)
June 29, 2014
Confiscation of Property
Upon death of an Ottoman subject, the treasury does confiscate most of the property given that no living heir is alive. In this case, since the property laws of Suleiman specifically prohibits the inheritance by distant relatives, the property was at large confiscated. However, the possessions of his aunt and the revenue from their banking practice was left for the relatives to pursue. Only the personal wealth of Yasef Nassi was confiscated.
Laws
New York
November 26, 2013
Me too!
We're probably related, somehow. My father was Joseph (Yosef) Nassi, and we too are direct descendants of Don Yosef. My family also fled to the U.S. around the same time. Today, my family is in Florida, Denver, and Northern and Southern California. My name is Isaac (Ike, Yitzhak), my son is Jason (also Yosef). We carry on that tradition, as my grandson is also Yitzhak.
Ike Nassi
Los Gatos, CA
July 3, 2011
Hello
I am a direct descendant of Joseph Nasi and I can tell you how our family is doing. We currently have a lot still in Turkey (Ankara Izmir and Constantinople), cousins that immigrated to Israel from Turkey. And then we have my branch of the family in the US and Venezuela. You see after ww1 my great grandparents wanted to escape conscription so in 1917 they decided to travel the world. I think they lived in Venezuela for a few years and then gave birth to a child, but then they returned to France 2 months later. This was 1929 (this is my great Uncle). It seemed as if he were the only one that was going to be from South America, but then my grandpa was born in Paris, and my great aunt. They all spoke French as a first language (even the one that was born in Venezuela). However by 1938 the family returned to Venezuela to avoid Nazi persecution (ww2 started in 1939). BY the time my mom was born in Venezuela, she left to the US, where I was born. :)
Daniel Edward Almeida Leon Nasi
Kendall, FL
December 9, 2009
Island of Naxos
Please tell me Is this the same Naxos which today forms part of the Greek Islands?
If so did Don Joseph have any family living on the Island of Naxos and is his house still on the island? If so By the Grace of G-D I have visited Naxos and am trilled to read Jews lived there!
Ilana
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