Aruj – Historical Sultan of Algiers

Known in folk legends as Barbarossa, meaning Redbeard in Italian, Aruj (1474-1518) was an Ottoman Governor of Algiers and the Chief Governor of the Western Mediterranean region. He became known as Baba Aruj, meaning Father Aruj, for the role he played in transporting large numbers of refugee Moriscos from Spain to Ottoman Empire governed lands in North Africa, including Algeria and Tunisia, with some settling in Morocco. Morisco, meaning Moorish, was the term used at the time to describe inhabitants of Spain and Portugal who had converted from Catholicism to Islam.

While historians differ somewhat on the ancestry of Aruj – whether he was of Greek, Turkish or Albanian origin – it is known that he was born in 1474 on the island of Midilli in the Ottoman Empire – modern-day Lesbos in Greece. His father was Yakup Aga, a Turkish feudal cavalry knight who participated in the conquest of Midilli by the Ottomans against the Genoese in 1462. As a reward he was given control of a village on the island, he married a local woman named Katerina and produced four sons and two daughters. Aruj was the first of the sons to take to the seas, and was later followed by his younger brothers who all became privateers on the Mediterranean seas.

The profession Aruj had chosen presented many challenges, which he proved adept at overcoming. These included conflicts with the Knights of St John who threatened the shipping trade of the Ottoman Empire. One of the brothers, Ilyas, was killed in a skirmish with the Knights of St John. By 1516 the remaining three brothers played a role in the liberation of Jijel and Algiers from the control of the Spanish. Upon taking control of the region, Aruj declared himself to be the new Sultan of Algiers and immediately started to conquer inland territories, becoming renowned for his innovative manner of moving cannons through the Saharan desert by attaching sails to them. Among the Algerian towns conquered by Aruj and his forces were Miliana, Médéa, and Ténès.

Realizing that his newly claimed territory would be difficult to defend against Spanish forces, Aruj offered Algiers to the Ottoman Sultan. Upon accepting this offer, the Sultan appointed Aruj as the Governer of Algiers and Chief Governor of the West Mediterranean with the backing of the mighty Ottoman Empire. However, the Spanish forces were not easily deterred and prepared to attack Aruj via land. Learning of the plans for invasion, Aruj moved to attack Spanish-held Tlemcen, succeeding in capturing the city in 1517. With a force of 10,000 soldiers and thousands of Bedouins, the Spanish retaliated, retaking Tlemcen after a twenty-day battle in which Aruj and many of his Turkish and Moorish soldiers lost their lives.