(c. 1524 - 1579)
Joseph Nasi was born as a Secret
Jew in Portugal in 1524,
long after all Jews had been expelled. He escaped Portugal by following
his paternal aunt, Beatrice de Luna (Gracia
Mendes), when she went from Lisbon to Antwerp in 1537. After
studying at the University of Louvain, he entered the banking establishment
of Mendes and was responsible for settling the family's affairs when
Gracia left in 1545 for Italy.
He was very popular among the highest nobility in the Netherlands. Despite that,
he had to flee in 1547. The following years he spent in France, where
he became known to King Francis I, and later in Italy. Early in 1554
he joined his aunt, Gracia Nasi, in Constantinople, where he was circumcised and assumed the name of Joseph Nasi. In August he married her daughter
Reyna. This cemented his economic and political fortunes with her. In
1556 he joined her in organizing the blockade of the port of Ancona
to avenge the persecution of the Secret Jews there.
Joseph Nasi made a series of incredibly fortunate political
decisions. In the struggle for the succession to the Ottoman thrown between Selim and Bajazet, Joseph Nasi supported the former,
with the result that he received many favors from him, including a high
rank in the Ottoman court. Due to his intimate knowledge of European
affairs and statesmen, and his chain of agents throughout the Western
world, he exercised great influence on the foreign policy of the Ottomans,
taking a prominent part in the peace negotiations between Poland and Turkey in 1562.
In 1569 he encouraged the Netherlands to revolt against Spain and a letter of his, promising
Turkish support, was read out at a meeting of the Calvinist consistory
of Amsterdam. By then his influence at Constantinople had grown, due
to the accession to the throne of his friend Sultan Selim II, who esteemed
him as his favorite.
Immediately after this, he was granted a monopoly on
the import of wines through the Bosporus, said to have brought him a
net income of 15,000 ducats annually. In addition, he obtained important
trading privileges in Poland.
In 1568, in order to satisfy certain claims against
the king of France (who had
stolen the family property left in that country because Jews were not
permitted in France), Joseph Nasi obtained the sultan's authority to
confiscate one-third of the merchandise on French ships docking at Alexandria.
The French envoy, Grandchamp, launched an elaborate plot with Nasi's
former physician, Daoud, in the hope of disgracing him. The plot failed
and Daoud was excommunicated by the principal Jewish communities of
the Turkish Empire.
Soon after Selim's accession, he appointed Nasi duke
of the island of Naxos and the adjacent archipelago, whose Christian
duke had recently been deposed, and eventually he also became count
of Andros. He administered his duchy mainly from his palace at Belvedere
During the War of Lepanto (1570–71) Nasi's dominions
were re-conquered by the Venetians for the former duke, but Nasi's authority
was soon reinstated.
Joseph Nasi is best known for his attempts with his
aunt to establish an independent Jewish community in Tiberius.
As early as 1558 or 1559, Gracia Mendes had obtained from the sultan
various concessions in Tiberius.
The city on Lake
Kinneret was mostly ruins. She planned to found a yeshivah there.
In 1561 Joseph obtained confirmation and extension of this grant, giving
him ruling authority in Tiberias and seven nearby villages in consideration
of an annual payment.
In the winter of 1564–65 the rebuilding of the ruined
walls of Tiberius was completed,
ensuring a certain degree of physical security. This was the only practical
attempt to establish some sort of Jewish political center in Palestine
between the fourth and 19th centuries.
Joseph Nasi then tried to give Tiberius an economic foundation by investing there in both the wool and silk
industries. Several hundred families settled there. He then sent a circular
letter to the Jewish communities of Italy inviting them to move to Tiberius,
offering them stipends. Numerous families excitedly prepared to move.
Unfortunately, Turkey and Venice went to war. The Tiberias Plan failed.
to Jewish Heritage