Don Joseph Nasi (or Nassi; also known as João Miques/Micas and Dom João Migas Mendes in a Portuguese variant, Giuseppe Nasi in Italian, and as Yasef Nassi in Ottoman Turkish; 1524, Portugal – 1579, Constantinople) was a Jewish diplomat and administrator, member of the House of Mendes/Benveniste, and a nephew of Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi, and influential figure in the Ottoman Empire during the rules of both Sultan Suleiman I and his son Selim II. He was a great benefactor of the Jewish people.
A Court Jew, he was appointed the Lord of Tiberias, with the expressed aim of resettling Jews in Ottoman Syria and encouraging industry there; the attempt failed, and, later, he was appointed the Duke of Naxos. Nasi also brought about war with the Republic of Venice, at the end of which Venice lost the island of Cyprus to the Ottomans. After the death of Selim, he lost influence in the Ottoman Court, but was allowed to keep his titles and pension for the remainder of his life.
Joao Micas, Yosef Nasi was born in Portugal as a Marrano (practicing Judaism in secret), a son of the doctor Agostinho Micas (?-1525), a well known physician and professor at the University of Lisbon. A friend of Maximilian, nephew of the Habsburg King Charles I of Spain. He escaped to Portugal after Charles decided to confiscate the Mendes fortune, and, after the Holy Inquisition began operating against Portuguese Marranos in 1546, moved to Antwerp, in the Habsburg Netherlands, with his aunt, Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi. He studied at the University of Louvain, but had to flee the Inquisition in 1547. He then moved to France and later to Venice, before finally leaving for the Ottoman realm in 1554, where he married Brianda 'Reyna' Mendes, the daughter of his aunt Gracia Mendes Nasi.
When he arrived in Constantinople together with his aunt Gracia Mendes Nasi, Nasi made a fortunate decision in supporting the future sultan Selim II, against his rival Bayezid; as a result, he was favored by the Seraglio, and eventually became a high ranking diplomat and minister.
Due to his trading connections in Europe, he was able to exercise great influence on Ottoman foreign policy. Among his achievements were negotiating peace with Poland and influencing the new election of the Polish king. He was awarded the monopoly of the beeswax trade with Poland, and of the wine trade with Moldavia, and maneuvered in the latter country to keep princes favorable to his policies in power. In 1561, Nasi backed Ioan Iacob Heraclid to rule as despot, supported Alexandru Lăpuşneanu's return to the throne in place of Ştefan Tomşa (1564), and ultimately endorsed Ion Vodă cel Cumplit (1572); he was himself considered a suitable choice for hospodar of either Moldavia or Wallachia in 1571, but Selim II rejected the proposal.
During the war between the Ottomans and the Republic of Venice, Nasi's negotiations with the Jewish community in Venetian-ruled Cyprus were uncovered, and, as a result, the Jewish population of Famagusta (with the exception of Jews who were natives of the city) was expelled in June, 1568 (see History of the Jews in Cyprus). It is believed that he intended parts of Cyprus to be a Jewish colony and encouraged the Ottoman annexation of Cyprus in the war to that end; he was granted a coat of arms by Selim that indicated he would be given viceregal rank in that colony. Nasi's relative Abraham Benveniste (Righetto Marrano) was arrested in 1570, on charges of having set fire to the Venetian Arsenal on Nasi's instigation.
Maintaining contacts with William the Silent, Nasi encouraged the Netherlands to revolt against Spain, a major adversary of the Ottoman Empire (the rebellion was ultimately carried out by the Union of Utrecht, as the start of the Eighty Years' War). For this and other achievements, he was appointed by Selim to become the Duke of Naxos; he also later became the Count of Andros. Represented locally by one Francesco Coronello, Nasi mainly ruled the Duchy from his palace of Belvedere, where he also maintained his own Hebrew printing press, which was kept by his wife, Doña Reyna, after Joseph's death.
Joseph Nasi is best known to history for his attempt to resettle the towns of Tiberias and Safed in 1561. He was the first person to attempt to settle Jews in the cities of what was then Southern Syria by practical means, as opposed to waiting for the Messiah.
Nasi secured a grant giving ruling authority from the Sultan, and, with the assistance of Joseph ben Adruth, rebuilt the walls and the town. He also attempted to turn it into a textile (silk) center by planting mulberry trees and encouraging craftsmen to move there. Arrangements were made for Jews to move from the Papal States, but, when the Ottomans and the Republic of Venice went to war, the plan was abandoned.
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