Struggle for the Strait of Hormuz

The Ottomans sought to displace the Portuguese from the entrance to the Persian Gulf, a key point for Middle Eastern trade. Three engagements by the Ottomans failed, however, and the Arabian Sea remained in Portuguese control until the coming of the Dutch in the seventeenth century.

Summary of Event

Having secured a headquarters for the Portuguese Empire of the East (Estado da India) at Goa in 1510, Governor Afonso de Albuquerque moved to secure the strategic emporia cities of trade across the Indian Ocean for the Portuguese in an attempt to control trade and effect a monopoly. Hormuz, Ottoman attempt to control Strait of
Ottoman Empire
Pirı Reis
Murad Reis
Seydi Ali Reis
Noronha, Dom Afonso de
Meneses, Dom Fernando de
Albuquerque, Afonso de
Turan Shah
Muḥammad Shah (ruler of Hormuz)
Noronha, Dom Afonso de
Castro, Dom João de
Reis, Pirı
Reis, Murad
Reis, Seydi Ali
Meneses, Dom Fernando de

The fortress of Hormuz was one of these strategic emporia, or key points (pontos chaves), as it stood on the strait that led into the Persian Gulf. Control of the Kingdom of Hormuz after the fortress had surrendered to Albuquerque’s fleet in 1515 was not difficult, and its rulers either readily accommodated the Portuguese or were assassinated, as happened to Turan Shah at the beginning of the 1520’. Turan Shah’s removal allowed younger, more pliant members of the royal family, such as Muḥammad Shah, to take their places.

The situation was complicated, however, by Ottoman designs on the Indian Ocean and its customs revenues beginning around 1515, as letters in the Topkapi archives show. Campaigns of the mid-1530’s yielded the Ottomans two Iraqs: Iraq-l Ajem (Persian Iraq) and Iraq-l Arab (Arabian Iraq). The Ottomans had entered Basra in 1546. Amicable overtures were then made to the Portuguese by an Arab merchant sent to the governor of Hormuz, Manuel de Lima, but the merchant’s attempted intervention was ineffective, as Portugal was determined to control trade routes to Basra.

In 1550, the Arabs of Katif (Al-Qaṭif) yielded their Persian Gulf fortress to the Ottomans. With some of the local Arab chieftains now seeking the intervention of the Portuguese, Dom Afonso de Noronha, the Portuguese governor of India, sent a force of twelve hundred men and seven galleys to move against the Ottoman Turks, calling upon the ruler of Hormuz to supply an additional three thousand men. The Ottoman garrison in Katif surrendered after eight days, and Noronha was diverted from moving against Basra only because the beylerbey of Basra managed to sow misinformation in Noronha’s camp.

From the mid-1540’, the Ottomans had worked on building up their Red Sea fleet. The son of Vasco da Gama had been sent to sail up the Red Sea and attack the Ottoman naval base at Suez in 1541, but the mission failed. Heightened tension in the area again broke out during the governorships of Dom João de Castro (1545-1548) and Afonso de Noronha. Command of the Ottoman fleet was given to Pirı Reis, appointed in 1547 to the post of admiral of the newly created Indian Ocean fleet. Pirı Reis’s first step in early 1548 was to retake Aden, which had lapsed into the hands of local sheikhs since the Ottomans first occupied it in 1538. The sheikhs, however, had invited the Portuguese in 1547 to ally with them.

A Portuguese expeditionary force under Dom João de Castro’s son, which was sent to preempt the Ottomans, failed, in part because of a lack of initiative shown by the Portuguese representative already in Aden. After Basra came under direct Ottoman control, the Ottomans could launch annual expeditions against the Portuguese into the Indian Ocean. It was in this period that distant Islamic potentates in the Indian Ocean world—in Sumatra, for example—allied with the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman government) and pooled their resources to resist the Portuguese.

The buildup in tensions between the Ottomans and the Portuguese served as a backdrop to the events of 1552. Pirı Reis set sail from Suez with twenty-five galleys, four galleons, and one other ship carrying 850 soldiers. His forces captured the Portuguese fort at Maskat and proceeded to Hormuz. The Turks managed to take the city, but they then withdrew to the neighboring island of Qeshm. There are various theories about why the Turks disengaged, including that Reis came to appreciate the superior strength of the Portuguese, the Ottomans started to run short of munitions, and, having been informed that the richest merchants of Hormuz resided on Qeshm, Pirı Reis preferred to move off and seek loot. Pirı Reis’s political enemies sought to impute that he had been bribed. In any event, full with plunder—which Portuguese chroniclers assess at “more than a million of gold”—Pirı Reis sailed for Basra.

Meanwhile, Goa had also heard of the impending Ottoman threat, so Afonso de Noronha decided to sail to Hormuz with more than eighty ships. It was heard in Diu, a Portuguese territory in India, that the Ottoman fleet had sailed to Basra, so the Portuguese sent another force led by Noronha’s nephew.

On the arrival of Pirı Reis in Basra, the beylerbey of that province sent the sultan a report to the Porte, which was apparently critical of Pirı Reis. Pirı Reis sailed back to Suez without the imperial fleet. Despite his notability as a geographer, cartographer, and expert seaman, he was arrested and later beheaded for his failure to take Hormuz.


The struggles for the Strait of Hormuz in 1552 did not mean the end of Ottoman attempts to gain control of the Persian Gulf. The Ottomans were faced with the predicament of having a small fleet positioned at Basra that was cut off from the main body of the Ottoman navy in the Red Sea. Thus, attempts were made by the new kapudan (admiral), Murad Reis, to sail the fleet through the strait, but this attempt, too, failed because of the intervention of the Portuguese who inflicted considerable damage to the fleet.

His successor as admiral, Seydi Ali Reis (no relation), the well-known Turkish geographer with a few naval successes to his credit, was then enlisted to fulfil the same regrouping exercise as his predecessor. Working from good intelligence, the Portuguese took the initiative under commander Dom Fernando de Meneses and engaged the Turks in 1554 in a naval battle near Khawr Fakkān, on the coast of Oman. In an account of his fortunes, Seydi Ali Reis relates that although the first encounter went well for the Ottomans, a second one made them suffer heavy losses. Forced to abandon ship and to return to the Ottoman domains over land after an extended sojourn in Gujarat, Sind, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, Seydi Ali Reis died in 1562.

Thereafter, despite sporadic engagements, the status quo remained. The island of Bahrain continued to serve as a buffer, although Ottoman control was strengthened on the northwestern shores of the Persian Gulf, where the beylerbeylik of Lahsa had just been created. Ottoman naval activity in the Indian Ocean remained limited to single, short-lived battles.

Further Reading

  • Brumitt, Palmira J. Ottoman Seapower and Levantine Diplomacy in the Age of Discovery. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Attempts to confront the Ottoman “economic mind” of the sixteenth century, and demonstrates that the Ottoman Empire was not purely a reactionary entity intent on territorial conquest. Chapter 6 details the commercial rationale for Ottoman expansion into the Indian Ocean.
  • Salih, Ozbaran. “The Ottoman Turks and the Portuguese in the Persian Gulf, 1534-81.” Journal of Asian History 6 (1972). A definitive account of the circumstances leading up to the struggle for Hormuz between 1552 and 1554, with a focus on the role of Bahrain in the larger picture.
  • Salih, Ozbaran. “Two Letters of Dom Álvaro de Noronha from Hormuz. Turkish Activities Along the Coast of Arabia, 1550-1552.” In The Ottoman Response to European Expansion. Istanbul, Turkey: Isis Press, 1994. A reproduction of and comment on two letters written by Dom Álvaro de Noronha in 1550 and 1552 that report on Turkish movements along the coast of Arabia and into the Persian Gulf and the Portuguese reaction to these movements.
  • Serjeant, R. B. The Portuguese Off the South Arabian Coast. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1963. A sourcebook of South Arabian notices of Portuguese incursions into their world. There is a worthwhile introduction detailing the political divisions within the Islamic world.
  • Seydi Ali Reis. Mirat ul-Memalik: The Travels and Adventures of the Turkish Admiral Sidi Alī Reis in India, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Persia, During the Years 1553-1556. Translated, with notes, by A. Vambéry. 1899. Reprint. Lahore, Pakistan: 1975. A sensibly abridged edition of the original, published in 1557, this account enjoys the privilege of being firsthand. It illustrates the Ottoman’s policy in Muslim Asia and starts with a recap of events under Pirı Reis.

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