SEMIOTIC ASPECTS OF THE BOOK ENTITLED DONNA GRACIA NASI OF BEKI
BAHAR: OTTOMAN CONQUEST OF CYPRUS
SENIOR LECTURER DERYA AGIS
GIRNE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
DEPARTMENT OF TRANSLATION AND INTERPRETING
E-MAIL: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
In this study, I intend to analyze ‘Donna Gracia Nasi,’ the play of two acts written by the Turkish
Sephardic writer Beki Bahar, from a cognitive semiotic perspective. I wish to examine the
symbolic family relations of Donna Gracia Nasi, a descendent of a Spanish Jewish family, who
converted into Catholicism, and as a consequence, became a Marrano. However, she continued to
practice Judaism. Through a detailed analysis of the historical names of the places and linguistic
metaphorical descriptions of the places where she lived, I wish to discover the Sephardic famous
woman’s ideas on the desire of Joseph Nasi, her nephew to conquer Cyprus. Joseph Nasi
contributed to the conquest of the island of Cyprus by the Ottomans who had to defeat the
Venetians, the previous inhabitants of the island. Consequently, in my study, I apply the theory of
Cognitive Pragmatics developed by Anna Wierzbicka in the 1990s in order to understand the
symbolic cultural emotions of Donna, or Dona Gracia Nasi who lived also in Venice, and decipher
the metaphorical expressions, i.e. names of historical places in the book written by Beki Bahar.
This study demonstrates the importance of the conquest of the island of Cyprus by the Ottomans via
the help of a Sephardic Jew, who became a Marrano for surviving, and had relations with the
Venetians by deciphering the metaphors used in the biographical play narrating the life of Dona
Gracia Nasi, who lived in-between various cultures like her nephew.
KEY WORDS: Cognitive Semiotics and Pragmatics, Ottoman Cyprus, Sephardic Culture, Dona
Gracia Nasi (La Senyora), Joseph Nasi as the governor of the Ottoman Cyprus
This study investigates the emotions involved in the political and personal affairs of Dona Grasya
Nasi, the aunt of Joseph Nasi within the linguistic cognitive pragmatic point of view of Anna
Wierzbicka’s Cognitive Pragmatics.
The biographical book “Donna Grasya Nasi” was written by the Turkish Sephardic female writer
Beki Luiza Bahar, and it was published in Istanbul in 1993 by Isis Press. The book consists of a
historical play of two acts.
Before our analyses, a brief history of Sephardim is given in the next subsection. Consequently, we
will talk about the lives of Dona (Donna) Grasya Nasi and Joseph Nasi before beginning to analyze
the whole play from a cognitive pragmatic perspective.
1. 1. History of the Sephardim in Ottoman Lands
Spanish Jews began to immigrate into the Ottoman Empire, since in 1492, the Catholic monarchs of
Spain, Queen Isabella of Castille, King Ferdinand of Aragon, and their Prime Minister Torquemada
expelled from Spain the Jews, who had rejected to be converted into Christianity (Gerson - Şarhon,
n. d., para. 1). These Jews settled in Istanbul, Safed, Salonika, Jerusalem, and Cairo: the
communities were divided into groups in accordance with their origins, i.e. Cordova, Aragon, Leon,
etc. (Gerson - Şarhon, n. d., para. 3). They assumed the name ‘SEPHARAD’, which means Spain
in Hebrew, and they called themselves ‘SEPHARDIM’ (‘Sepharads’) (Gerson - Şarhon, n. d., para.
The Jews who were expelled from Portugal in 1497 and from Navarra in 1498 (Gilmer, 1986, p. 16)
also came to the Ottoman Empire. Many Sephardim settled and lived in the Ottoman Empire.
Shaw (2002) states, “the Ottoman Empire had for centuries provided a safe haven for Jewish
refugees from Europe” (p. 246). The Jews could settle wherever they wanted to live and practice
each profession freely in the lands of the Ottoman Empire (Levy, 1992, p. 19).
1. 2. The Life of Donna Grasya Nasi
If we are required to present you Dona (Donna) Grasya Nasi, below is some information, regarding
Gracia Mendes Nasi (Gracia is archaic Portuguese or Spanish for the Hebrew
Hannah, also known by her Christianized name Beatrice de Luna Miques, 1510-
1569) was one of the wealthiest Jewish women of Renaissance Europe. She
married into the eminent international banking and finance dynasty of Mendes, and
was the aunt of Joseph Nasi, who became a prominent figure in the politics of the
Dona Gracia was born in Lisbon, Portugal, into an ancient, venerable family of
marranos, originally from Aragon, that could flee to Portugal when the Catholic
Monarchs expelled the Jews in 1492 (see Alhambra decree and History of the Jews
In 1528 Gracia and Francisco Mendes married in a public Catholic wedding and
then in a Crypto-Judaic ceremony with the signing of a ketubah (“Gracia Mendes
Nasi,” 2007, para. 1, 2, 3).
Her husband, Mendes was working with his brother Diego; they had an important trading company
and a bank (“Gracia Mendes Nasi,” 2007, para. 4). The daughter of Mendes and Dona Grasya Nasi
was called Reyna; she married Joseph Nasi; “the House of Mendes probably began as a company
trading precious objects, but, with the boom in spice trade following the Portuguese explorations
leading to the sea route to India, they became important spice traders” (“Gracia Mendes Nasi,”
2007, para. 5). Besides, his brother Diego established a branch of their bank “in the Habsburg
Netherlands city of Antwerp with the help of a member of their family, Rabbi Abraham
Benveniste;” consequently, Dona Grasya Nasi moved to Antwerp to work with Diego (“Gracia
Mendes Nasi,” 2007, para. 5). After the death of Diego, she assumed the responsibility of the
Mendes commercial empire (“Gracia Mendes Nasi,” 2007, para. 6). Besides, “it is believed she was
the driving force in the publication of the Ferrara Bible from Sephardic source texts; the second,
public printing of this document was dedicated to her” (“Gracia Mendes Nasi,” 2007, para. 7).
Under Dona Gracia, the House of Mendes dealt with Henry II of France, Henry
VIII of England, Charles V of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, Maria of
Austria, Regent of the Low Countries, Popes Paul III and Paul IV, and Suleiman
the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. These dealings involved
commercial activities, loans, and bribes. Payments to the Pope delayed the
establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal.
In 1544 she fled to the Republic of Venice. In 1551, a bubonic plague epidemic
broke out, and the Jews, who were blamed for causing it, were forced out of the
city. She tried to help those evicted but she was arrested once her sister denounced
her as a Jew. After she was freed she moved to Ferrara, where she lived openly as a
Jew for the first time in her life. At that time she adopted her Jewish name, Gracia
Nasi (“Gracia Mendes Nasi,” 2007, para. 8 - 9).
Additionally, “in 1556 the Pope sentenced a group of Marranos who had returned to Judaism in
Portugal to death by fire. In response, Dona Gracia organized a trade embargo on the port of
Ancona in the Papal States. She built synagogues, yeshivas and hospitals. One of the synagogues is
still standing in Istanbul and is named after her (La Señora)” (“Gracia Mendes Nasi,” 2007, para.
10). She died in a place close to Istanbul (“Gracia Mendes Nasi,” 2007, para. 11).
1. 3. The Life of Joseph Nasi
Regarding Joseph Nasi, we can cite the following about his life: “Turkish statesman and financier;
born in Portugal at the beginning of the sixteenth century; died at Constantinople Aug. 2, 1579. His
father, a younger brother of Francisco and Diogo [Diego] Nasi-Mendez, and a member of the
Marano (sic. [Marrano]) family Nasi which had fled to Portugal from Spain during the persecutions
at the end of the fifteenth century, died at an early age” (my correction included; Singer &
Schloessinger, 2002, para. 1). Joseph Nasi settled in Istanbul in 1554; he became known as Yasef
Nasi after his brit mila in Istanbul (Yanarocak, 2008, p. 9).
Concerning the importance of Joseph Nasi for the Ottoman Empire, the following explanation
should be given:
All the Maranos in Venice were banished in the year 1550. It was probably at this time that
Joseph asked the republic of Venice for one of the neighboring islands where the exiles
might find refuge and whither the heavy emigration of Portuguese Jews might be diverted.
His request, however, was refused. When Gracia, in consequence of the incautious
statements of her aunt (who bore the same name), was imprisoned on the charge of relapse
into Judaism and her property was confiscated by the republic, Joseph appealed to Sultan
Sulaiman II. (1520-66) at Constantinople, and through the influential court physician Moses
Hamon he succeeded in attracting the attention of the sultan to the commercial and financial
advantages which Turkey would gain if the Nasi family and other rich Jewish houses
should settle in the country. The sultan thereupon sent an ambassador to Venice with the
command to release Gracia and her property. Two years, however, elapsed before the
negotiations with the republic were completed and Gracia was able to proceed to
Constantinople. She was followed the next year (1553) by Joseph. Here at last he could
openly profess Judaism. He adopted his family name, Joseph Nasi, instead of his Christian
one of João Miguez, and married Reyna, the beautiful, much-courted daughter of Gracia.
Through his letters of introduction Joseph soon gained influence at the court of Sultan
Sulaiman. In the struggle for the throne between Sulaiman's two sons, Salim, prefect of the
province of Kutaya, and Bayazid, the younger but far more talented, Joseph from the first
adopted Salim's cause and succeeded in influencing the sultan in his favor. In the decisive
battle at Konia between the two rivals, Bayazid was defeated. He escaped to Persia, and
was there murdered with his four sons. After this success Salim made Joseph a member of
his guard of honor, while Sulaiman gave him Tiberias in Palestine and seven smaller places
in its vicinity as his property, to be used exclusively for Jewish colonization (Singer &
Schloessinger, 2002, In Turkey, para. 1). .
Moreover, “Salim made Joseph a duke and gave him the islands of Naxos, Andros, Milo, Paros,
Santorina, and the other Cyclades, which had hitherto belonged to the regent of Naxos” (Singer &
Schloessinger, 2002, Duke of Naxos, para. 1). .
Furthermore, the most important issue regarding Joseph Nasi is the following:
In Sept., 1569, a great fire broke out in the arsenal at Venice. Nasi learned of this almost
immediately, and at once urged Salim to carry out his long-cherished plan for the conquest
of Cyprus. Salim finally allowed himself to be involved in a war with the Venetians and
deprived them of Cyprus in 1571. There is a story that Salim in a fit of drunkenness
promised Joseph the title of King of Cyprus, and that Joseph had already placed in his
house the armorial bearings of the island, with his own name beneath them (Singer &
Schloessinger, 2002, Political Influence, para. 2).
Nasi had secret agents in Venice and learnt that Venice became weak before deciding to invade
Cyprus; the Ottoman army obtained Nicosia in 1570 and Famagusta in 1571; however, due to the
influence of Sokollo, he could not become the king of Cyprus (Yanarocak, 2008, p. 9).
2. Cognitive Pragmatics
Kövecses (2000) explains the theory of Wierzbicka in the following way:
Wierzbicka’s mental predicates include “want” and “feel.” “Want” can be seen
corresponding to my “desire,” while “feel” corresponds to the category of “emotion.”
Wierzbicka’s action, event, movement includes the three primitives “do,” “happen,”
and “move.” We can take “happen” to correspond to my “passivity” aspect. The
primitives “there is, live” for existence, life may be regarded as the counterpart of my
“existence” dimension. The evaluators “good” and “bad” have the obvious function of
my “positive – negative evaluation.” Finally, Wierzbicka’s intensifier category has
“very, more,” which can be seen as corresponding to the aspect of “intensity.”
Here is a list of Wierzbicka’s and Harkin’s (2001) primitives in accordance with Wierzbicka’s
theory of cognitive pragmatics:
Substantives: I, YOU, SOMEONE (PERSON), SOMETHING
(THING), PEOPLE, BODY
Determiners: THIS, THE SAME, OTHER
Quantifiers: ONE, TWO, SOME, MANY / MUCH, ALL
Attributes: GOOD, BAD, BIG, SMALL
Mental predicates: THINK, KNOW, WANT, FEEL, SEE, HEAR
Speech: SAY, WORD, TRUE
Actions, events, movements: DO, HAPPEN, MOVE
Existence and possession: THERE IS, HAVE
Life and death: LIVE, DIE
Logical concepts: NOT, MAYBE, CAN, BECAUSE, IF
Time: WHEN (TIME), NOW, AFTER, BEFORE, A
LONG TIME, A SHORT TIME, FOR SOME
Space: WHERE (PLACE), HERE, UNDER, ABOVE,
TOUCH (CONTACT), BELOW, FAR, NEAR,
Intensifier, Augmentator: VERY, MORE
Taxonomy, partonymy: KIND OF, PART OF
Table 1. Wierzbicka’s and Harkin’s (2001) universal hypothetical conceptual primitives for
Moreover, Pavlenko (2002) observes Wierzbicka’s proposals (1992, 1998, 1999) that the
relationship between emotions and the body is encoded and stressed in Russian to a higher degree
than that in English, and that in emotion discourse, English defends the adjectival pattern, whereas
Russian the verbal one. She tested 40 monolingual Russians and 40 monolingual Americans, and
found that the expressions with the body are culturally, socially, and linguistically specific, as
Our study will apply the theory of Wierzbicka originally to a play of two acts, depicting a historical
event via the biography of Dona Grasya Nasi.
3. Explanation of the Primitives in the Play
We can analyze the most important emotions in the book describing the life of Dona Grasya Nasi
by analyzing her sentences. We can start our analyses with the sentence with which Dona Grasya
Nasi introduces herself: “I am Beatrice Mendez De Luna Grasya Nasi whom those from Istanbul
like to call Senyora, I began to write my life to history this autumn evening at Bogaz in Ortakoy.”
In this sentence, the following Wierzbickan explanation will help us understand how Dona Grasya
Nasi is loved and respected.
Somebody is loved
Something bad happened
This person felt this
This person did something good for that bad thing
This person is loved
Meanwhile, in the work, the sounds of the Ottoman army and the appearance of a flag on a castle
metaphorically indicate that the life of Dona Grasya had been saved by the Ottomans. Additionally,
the background sound implies that all the Jews and Arabs have to leave Spain for living in the
Ottoman Empire if they do not accept to be Christians. However, as a savior, Yildirim Beyazit sent
canyons to take the Jews from Spain. This act is highly respected with the following Wierzbickan
Something bad would happen
Somebody would die
A person did something good
This bad thing did not happen in somewhere
When somebody moved there
Other Jews who did not come to the Ottoman Empire passed on foot to Portugal: Dona Grasya Nasi
says, “among them my mom, my dad, some of my close relatives” (Bahar, 1993, p. 3). The family
of Dona Grasya De Luna is among the thirty families that immigrated to Portugal from Spain with
Isak Abuab (Bahar, 1993, p.3). Some of them received a permanent residency permit, whereas
others received a residency permit for eight months; however, the king promised to send them to
another place; though, he did not do so, and sold them as slaves, and their children had been
expelled to the island of St. Thomé near Africa (Bahar, 1993, p. 3). These descriptions demonstrate
the bad side of the inquisitions in Spain.
Besides, the play indicates that Beatrice and Brianda are sisters; their brother takes them to the ball
of Marranos Mendes, not to the kingdom. Marranos are the Jews who were converted into
Catholicism. Therefore, in order to protect Judaism, Marranos were meeting within their
Meanwhile, the worries of the nanny who makes a cross with her hands as if she were a Christian
dominate the whole play as the worries of all Marranos. Her worries can be depicted with the
following primitives regarding her speeches about the Inquisitions:
Someone feels bad
Something bad will happen
Somebody will move to somewhere
Somewhere can be good
Because people will exist there
Somewhere can be bad
Because people will die there
These primitives imply that the inquisitions are the worst human errors. Other primitives indicating
the same terrible situation are the following:
Someone is a Jew
Another made this person a Christian
This person is a Marrano now
Some Marranos saw their families sad
They also became sad
Something bad happened
They saw something bad (their families being burnt)
Beatrice did so.
Dona Grasya Nasi utters these words in a sad manner, “I saw my parents being burnt in Spain in
1490.” (Bahar, 1993, p. 9).
According to Justinian, the emperor of Byzantium, returning to Judaism, after having been
converted into Christianity, will be that of being burnt in a place; Inquisitions were held for the
Jews in 1276 and 1278 in Toulouse and 1310 in Paris (Bahar, 1993, p. 9). All of these can be
explained with the following primitives:
Someone is good (a Jew)
Something bad happened to this person (This person became a Christian)
This person is a secret (a Marrano)
They thought that this person is bad
So, s /he has to be sad
Something bad will happen to her / him (Sadness is being burnt alive)
Moreover, the nanny warns the girls about not talking about religiously illicit acts, such as magic:
Brianda was calling her sister a witch, and saying that the books she read were about magic.
Someone talks about something bad (magic)
Something is bad (Magic and witchcraft are bad)
A good person moves somewhere else
Because this bad thing does not exist there (A good Jew escapes from them, and s/he feels relieved).
As the nanny witnessed the fact that her mum and dad were being burnt in Spain in 1490, she is
much more worried about the Inquisitions (see Bahar, 1993, p.9).
After the analyses of these primitives on the badness of Inquisitions that made Sephardim be in-
between different religions at the same time, we pass to the analyses of the historical names of the
places and linguistic metaphorical descriptions of the places.
Something bad is a problem (Not being baptized is a problem)
Someone can kill you for this
This is sad
However, people can move to somewhere
Good things move them to somewhere good (canyons are saviors for people)
The place where these good things exist is good (Canyons belong to the Ottoman Empire, which is
a paradise for the Jews who were suffering).
Those who did not want to be baptized, escaped from Spain to Portugal, whereas others came to the
Ottoman Empire on canyons in the period of Inquisitions. Beatrice and her sister Brianda were
living in Lisbon during the Inquisitions (Bahar, 1993). These primitives govern the whole play:
Somewhere is bad (Portugal)
Another place is good (Ottoman Empire)
These primitives prevail in the speech of the nanny about the difficulties she encountered in her life:
After her wedding rehearsal, the parents of the nanny had been arrested; her fiancé escaped. She
went to a monastery to work in the kitchen. One day they sent her away: among the crowd who
knew her, she came to Portugal, changing her destiny, as Beatrice says (Bahar, 1993, p. 16 - 17)
The nanny has the surname of the Marrano author Fernando Rojas who denied some rules of
Christianity and Judaism, and he lived between 1476 and 1541; his work “La Celestina” is the first
picturesque play in the beginning of Renaissance in 1449, as Yohel mentions (Bahar, 1993, p. 17).
The behaviors of the nanny are similar to those of this figure, as she makes crosses all the time. The
escape of the nanny from Spain is depicted with the following primitives:
Someone is bad (hated)
Something bad (hate) makes this person move (escape)
Moving (escaping) is good (it leads to the change of this person’s destiny)
This is happy
Dona (Donna) Grasya Nasi became an important figure in Judaism, as she saved lives of Jews by
giving orders. Consequently, she was known as an highly respectable woman, a “Senyora.” These
primitives imply this respect towards her:
A person is good (Senyora is a woman respected like a queen)
Something good will happen because of this person everywhere
Besides, other primitives related to Antwerp, Ferrara, and Ancona are the following:
Somewhere is good
There are goods there (Antwerp)
Good people exist there (Ferrara)
Something bad will happen there (Ancona)
When nobody hears the good
People must move somewhere else (the Ottoman Empire)
Grasya Nasi made money in Antwerp, began to practice Judaism again in Ferrara, and tried to
intervene the massacre of Jews in Ancona, as previously explained in her life.
In fact, traders had to protest Ancona that wished that the Marranos who were practicing Judaism
should have been killed; the church and European countries were forcing Jews to be baptized (see
Bahar, 1993, pp. 102 - 112); otherwise, they would have been killed, as previously explained in the
life of Dona Grasya Nasi. Besides, in the sixteenth century, only the Ottoman Empire respected
minorities (Bahar, 1993, p. 84).
Furthermore, according to the nephew of Grasya Nasi, somewhere is strategically important;
besides, as the Venetians became weaker day by day, their lands in the Mediterranean should be
possessed by the tolerant Ottomans – this place is Cyprus:
Somewhere is good
Nothing bad will happen there
This will make everybody feel good (Cyprus)
To conclude, the life of Donna Grasya Nasi shows us how it is difficult to live hiding one’s own
identity by practicing Judaism secretly, being a Marrano. Besides, the life of Joseph Nasi is very
important, as he led Ottomans to settle in the strategic island of Cyprus. The cognitive pragmatic
theory of Anna Wierzbicka is useful in analyzing the emotions felt by Marranos within the circle of
friends of Donna Grasya Nasi.
In the future, other researches should be conducted on other literary or historical works using the
theory of Anna Wierzbicka in order to conduct interdisciplinary studies in Anthropology,
Linguistics, Literature, History, etc.
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