North Africa Recognizes Ottoman Suzerainty Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The individual independent states of the North African coast found themselves unable to resist Christian encroachments in the region. Gradually, they looked to the Ottoman Turks for defense, becoming nominal vassals of the Ottoman Empire.

Summary of Event

From the rise of Islam in the seventh century until the sixteenth century, North Africa came under various levels of political control either by distant imperial regimes or by locally initiated dynasties. Often at question was the religious legitimacy of those who claimed, if not direct political rule, some form of suzerainty. During the heyday of the ՙAbbāsid Caliphate in Baghdad (751-1258), the Fāṭimids of Syria migrated to the Aurès Mountains (in modern Algeria) and fostered an anti-Caliphate based on Shīՙite principles. By the mid-tenth century, however, Fāṭimid control in North Africa, which at its height ran from modern Tunisia to western Algeria, had been reduced when the dynasty returned eastward and made a new capital at Cairo. Ottoman Empire North Africa Süleyman the Magnificent Charles V (1500-1558) Barbarossa Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Selim I Barbarossa ՙArūj Selim II

The next major period of religious and political consolidation in North Africa was associated with the Berber Almohad Dynasty, with its capital in Marrakech. As the Almohads extended their claims to an actual empire, they also utilized the banner of Islam, again in opposition to what were by then only the remnants of ՙAbbāsid caliphal authority in Baghdad. To do this, the Almohads needed to extract some acknowledgment of their governing legitimacy from the many different tribal groupings living in hinterland areas. In more settled areas, in particular wherever coastal port conditions could sustain trade (either with other Islamic ports or with European merchants), more formal governmental authority was installed. Thus, port cities like Mahdia, Tunis, and Bona (Annaba) were assumed (in theory if not in practice) to fall under the control of appointees of distant Almohad “rulers.” As Almohad imperial power declined after about 1225, this situation inevitably led to claims by local dynasts to govern extensive regions in their own name. This process created three significant North African successor states that survived into the sixteenth century: the Ḥafṣids Ḥafṣid Dynasty[Hafsid Dynasty] , the Zayyānids in Algeria, and the Marīnids in Morocco.

In the centuries when major Islamic empires like the Fāṭimids and the Almohads held sway and then lost control over North Africa, Christian powers in Europe could not really affect developments one way or the other. After about 1400, however, the situation changed, as the various successor states that replaced the Almohads showed signs of weakness. The fall of Constantinople to Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in 1453 was followed by wider clashes with the Holy Roman Empire. Constantinople, fall of (1453) These clashes intensified during the reigns of two famous sovereigns: Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who also ruled Spain as Charles I. Muslim-Christian conflict over North African territory began in a context separate from Ottoman-Habsburg rivalries, but it eventually came to affect both empires directly.

When the Spanish Reconquista Reconquista defeated the Naṣrid Naṣrid Dynasty[Nasrid Dynasty] kingdom of Granada in 1492, a series of Spanish outposts, both for trade and for possible continuation of a crusade, grew up along the African coast. Small states like the Ḥafṣids were not able to muster sufficient military strength to stop Spanish incursions. By the time Sultan Selim I’s forces invaded Syria and Egypt and took the holy city of Mecca in 1517, however, there were unofficial naval forces crossing the Mediterranean to confront Christians in North Africa.

Although the term “Barbary corsair” is usually associated with pirate Privateers;Barbary attacks on European and American shipping early in the nineteenth century, the danger of privateer raids to both Christian and Muslim shipping was a fact of life by 1500. Attacks by Barbarossa and his brother ՙArūj were apparently aimed at gaining footholds in small port areas in Muslim-held territory. In the context of the Spanish incursions, the relationship of Barbarossa and ՙArūj to the Ḥafṣids was complex. While the brothers attacked Christian raiders and no doubt indirectly defended the coast from European influence, they also gained control of the port of Halq al-Wadi, right next to Tunis. The control of this strategically vital port by unpredictable corsairs left the Ḥafṣids more vulnerable than ever to Spanish attack. The Ḥafṣids ultimately entered into protectorate alliances with the Spaniards, forcing corsairs to look elsewhere for safe havens.

By the 1520’s and 1530’, several developments would lead to overlaps between these specifically North African conditions and the larger Muslim-Christian rivalry between the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Empire. A key issue, beyond Süleyman’s increasingly aggressive military campaigns, was the fact that the thrones of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were united under Charles V. When Süleyman marched his forces to the gates of the empire’s capital of Vienna in 1529, therefore, they succeeded in provoking two empires at once. Charles sought out weaknesses in the Ottoman Empire, and he struck back with both his imperial forces and Spain’s renowned armada.

Concern for different types of Christian claims on Mediterranean territory, whether along the North African shore or islands held since the era of the Crusades, had already begun to increase when the Ottomans took Rhodes Rhodes, Siege of (1522) in 1522. From that point on, maritime clashes between the Ottoman navy and a Christian coalition, led symbolically by the Papacy and militarily by Charles V, became a common feature of Ottoman-Christian hostility. In the Mediterranean naval arena, several major struggles would be fought, beginning with the Battle of Préveza Préveza, Battle of (1538) (won by the Ottomans in 1538), including Süleyman’s failed bid to capture Malta in 1565, and ending with the defeat of the Ottomans at Lepanto Lepanto, Battle of (1571) in 1571. At each stage of naval conflict in the Aegean or central Mediterranean, both sides must have weighed the importance of having safe havens in North Africa for their respective fleets.

This need for secure naval bases induced Süleyman to grant Barbarossa military titles and reinforcements in return for his pledge of fealty to the Ottoman Empire. With this aid, Barbarossa was able to add Algiers to the empire in 1529. Four years later, Süleyman made Barbarossa admiral of the Ottoman navy, and in 1534, the new admiral retook Ḥafṣid Tunis, temporarily dethroning the Ḥafṣids. However, neither this de facto alliance of Ottoman and corsair forces nor a promise from Charles’s enemy Francis I of France to support the Ottomans was enough to hold Tunis for more than a year. Charles V came to Ḥafṣid aid in 1535, and he retook Tunis on the condition that the Ḥafṣids align themselves with the Habsburgs, forming a Muslim-Christian alliance.

Thus began a series of efforts by both the Ottoman and the Holy Roman Empires to hold the key ports of North Africa running west from Tunis. Charles V sent an expedition to Algiers in 1541 to try to dislodge Barbarossa’s successors from what had become the major base of Ottoman operations against both Christian and Muslim resistance. Primary among resistors were the Ḥafṣids, but also the fiercely independent Moroccan Saՙdīan sultanate. The latter ultimately became the last holdouts against Ottoman suzerainty in North Africa. Unlike Tripolitania, Tunis, and Algiers, Morocco never transferred its loyalty to Istanbul.

What the Ottomans did to establish their suzerainty in stages was to make Barbarossa the first so-called beylerbey (“Bey of the Beys”), representing formal imperial ties between Istanbul and Algiers. If Algiers could impose its will on lesser ports and hinterland areas like Bona or Oran, then its status as an Ottoman regency would in effect cover a whole province. Barbarossa died in 1546, but the Ottomans conquered Tripoli in 1551, wresting its control from the Knights of Saint John of Malta.

As the struggle between Christians and Muslims reached a zenith in 1571 at Lepanto Lepanto, Battle of (1571) and then receded, Süleyman’s successor, Selim II, was finally able to conquer Tunis decisively in 1574. With that victory, Ottoman suzerainty appeared to extend to the entire North African coast east of Morocco. In actuality, however, the nearly autonomous local regimes that soon emerged in Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers were never completely loyal to Istanbul, and the region was never fully integrated under central Ottoman control.


The later history of Ottoman North Africa illustrates the difficulties the Ottomans had in maintaining their vast empire. By 1574, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli were all vassal states of the empire. All three were governed by Ottoman governors, sent from Istanbul for that purpose, and policed or at least inhabited by Ottoman troops. In all three states, the Ottoman troops eventually rebelled against the governor of their province and took control of the state, beginning their own dynasties. Tunis Tunis was the site of the first of these rebellions in 1591, while Algiers followed suit in 1689. In 1711, the commander of Tripoli’s cavalry established himself as the ruler of a new dynasty as well. In the long term, then, the recognition or nonrecognition of Ottoman suzerainty in North Africa was less important than the quartering of Ottoman troops that took place there, as it was these troops, rather than the sultan of the empire, that ultimately shaped the political fates of the region’s nations.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin, Jason. Lords of the Horizons: The Ottomans. New York: Holt, 1999. A general history that places North African events in the broader context of Ottoman imperial history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heers, Jacques. The Barbary Corsairs: Warfare in the Mediterranean, 1480-1580. Translated by Jonathan North. Greenhill, Pa.: Stackpole, 2003. Translated version of a French history of corsair operations that contributed to, but did not end with, extension of Ottoman control to North Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolf, John. The Barbary Coast and Algiers Under the Turks. New York: Norton, 1979. A popular history of the peculiar relationship that developed between the North African “regencies” and the presumed central imperial authority of Istanbul.

May, 1485-Apr. 13, 1517: Mamlūk-Ottoman Wars

Beginning 1504: Decline of the Ḥafṣid Dynasty

1510-1578: Saՙdī Sharifs Come to Power in Morocco

1512-1520: Reign of Selim I

June 28, 1519: Charles V Is Elected Holy Roman Emperor

1520-1566: Reign of Süleyman

1525-1600: Ottoman-Ruled Egypt Sends Expeditions South and East

Sept. 27-28, 1538: Battle of Préveza

Oct. 20-27, 1541: Holy Roman Empire Attacks Ottomans in Algiers

1552: Struggle for the Strait of Hormuz

1566-1574: Reign of Selim II

Aug. 4, 1578: Battle of Ksar el-Kebir

1593-1606: Ottoman-Austrian War

Categories: History