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The Janissaries

Janissary – An intriguing Ottoman Military

by Pomy

The Janissaries represent an intriguing subject for study due to their transformative role in Ottoman military and societal history. Several factors contribute to the fascination surrounding this formidable military force. This article delves into the circumstances that prompted the formation of the Janissary army, explores their role, examines their distinctive attributes as an elite military unit, and investigates the events that led to their eventual dissolution and abandonment.

The Janissaries were an elite corps composed of slave children forcibly converted to Islam. They were well-disciplined and loyal to the Ottoman Sultans. The Janissaries were among the first military units globally to utilize firearms. Over time, this military force gained significant  influence, occasionally intervening in politics. In the early 19th century, they faced dissolution after a series of revolts, strikes, and political upheaval.

The initial Ottoman army comprised nomads from Turkmenistan and Central Asia, compensated minimally, primarily through bounties. However, collaboration with nomads became challenging for Turkish rulers, as the nomadic soldiers preferred looting from their commanders and enemies. A proposal emerged to replace nomads with a consistently trained salaried army in response to these difficulties.

Origins and Evolution of Janissaries Over the Centuries

The establishment of the Janissaries dates back to the era of Murad I (1362–1389), the third ruler of the Ottoman Empire. In Turkish, the word Yeniçeri means “new soldier”. Janissaries were the first modern standing army equipped with firearms in Europe then. A standing army implies a permanent professional force. During peacetime, their duties included serving as a royal army, firefighters, and police officers.

The Janissary Corps, functioning as the exclusive infantry division of the Ottoman army, consistently occupied a prominent central position during military attacks, primarily entrusted with the protection of the Sultan. Janissaries adhered to certain restrictions, such as refraining from growing a beard, marrying, or engaging in trade before age 40.

The Ottoman Empire strategically employed the Janissary army in significant wars, most notably during the historic capture of Constantinople in 1453.

Unique Recruitment System – Devşirme

Janissaries were recruited through the devşirme system, which translates to the “tax on children” in Ottoman Turkish. This practice involved seizing children aged 7 to 20 from Balkan Christians in Eastern, Southern, and Southeastern Europe. These children were transported to Istanbul, converted to Islam through circumcision, and raised by Turkish families who taught them Islam, the Turkish language, and customs. Some view this process as falling within the realm of cultural genocide and forced Islamization. Subsequently, Janissaries were trained either to serve as part of the royal infantry or to undertake palace duties as slaves of the central government (Porte). Janissary status was exclusive to non-Muslims, as enslaving Muslims was prohibited. Jews, Gypsies, and Armenians were also excluded from recruitment due to perceived disloyalty to the Sultan.

Training and Expertise of Janissaries

Upon completing initial training, young Janissaries were sent to monastic-like cadet schools, where they abstained from marriage or involvement in sex. They received specialized training in various roles: technicians, skilled workers, infantry, ministers, archers, pastors, and more. By the early 16th century, Janissaries were highly skilled in warlike activities, utilizing advanced weaponry like massive trench guns, grenades, and small cannons. Turkish swords, called varsak or yatagan, were sophisticated war weapons.

Social Structure and Reforms within The Janissary

 The Janissaries were indeed a distinct social class within the Ottoman Empire. They were not enslaved people nor freemen but salaried servants. They received regular salaries and pensions upon retirement. The Ottoman system, grounded in meritocracy, provided opportunities for well-trained and disciplined Janissaries to achieve upward mobility within hierarchical positions linked to the economy and vested interests. The prospect of social advancement made the Janissary path appealing to Christian and even Jewish families.

Challenges and Decline of the Ottoman Empire

The number of Janissaries increased from the 15th to the 17th century, aligning with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Pressure from Janissaries led to reforms, abandoning the devşirme recruitment method by the end of the 17th century, making membership open to Muslims. By the mid-18th century, additional reforms allowed Janissaries to marry, engage in trade and commerce, and enroll their children in the military.

By the mid-16th century, Janissaries became more influential than Turkish nobility. The Sultan’s waning control over Janissaries resulted in the misuse of government machinery for their benefit, leading to corruption and nepotism within the administration. Janissaries supporting princes gained power through harem politics, causing mistrust and anarchy in society.

Economic difficulties for the Ottoman Empire emerged due to the establishment of new trade routes by Europeans and the influx of precious minerals and other resources from North and South America. It became challenging for the government to sustain these salaried Janissaries.

By the 18th century, the once-disciplined military force of the Janissaries began to weaken significantly as a growing number turned to commerce and trade. This shift in focus led to increased violent acts committed by Janissaries to safeguard their interests. As a result, the Ottoman Empire, undergoing expansion and diversification at that time, experienced decentralization and chaos.

The Significant Event of 1826: Abolishment of Janissaries

 As previously mentioned, the Janissaries, seeking to preserve their power and status, resorted to violent revolts, one of which occurred during Mahmud II’s reign. On June 15, 1826, Mahmud II, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and Caliph of Sunni Islam made a pivotal and controversial decision that reshaped the empire’s trajectory. Confronted with growing resistance from the Janissaries, the longstanding defenders of the Sultan, Mahmud II commanded his European-trained soldiers to suppress the rebellion.                                                                         

Their military ranks were named after the kitchen model. For example, a high-ranking person was called ‘soup maker,’ then ‘baker,’ followed by ‘bread maker,’ and so on. link

At least 135,000 Janissaries had played a crucial role in Ottoman governance and military strength. Their discontent arose from the Sultan’s efforts at military reforms, echoing earlier unsuccessful attempts in 1808. As the Janissaries advanced on the palace, Mahmud II, well-prepared for the protest, issued a fatwa to garner religious support and deployed modern infantry and artillery. The ensuing clash at the Topkapi Palace resulted in a decisive triumph for Mahmud II, leading to the disbandment of the Janissaries and a series of reforms that marked a significant epoch in Ottoman history.

Remembered as the Auspicious Event, this event set the stage for subsequent reforms, challenging the traditional structure of the empire and influencing its evolution into the modern era.

The downfall of the Janissaries: Bloodshed and Severe Repercussions

As a consequence of the revolt, the Janissaries faced severe repercussions. Their properties were confiscated, and a number of them met grim fates, with some being hanged or beheaded in Thessaloniki in northern Greece. Others faced a different fate, being drowned in a Byzantine cistern.                 

Other Intriguing Facts of the Janissaries

  • The Janissaries, an elite Ottoman military corps, were sometimes presented with a Banquet (Safranpilav) by the Sultan. Acceptance of the meal by the Janissaries signified approval of the Sultan, while refusal served as a symbolic expression of disapproval. This distinctive practice is depicted in an Ottoman miniature painting from the Surname-i Vehbi (1720), currently housed at the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul. During a pivotal revolt on June 14, 1826, the night preceding the protest, the Janissaries declared their intention to revolt. They symbolically overturned their soup bowls in the messes of the Janissary kitchens. This symbolic act marked the commencement of the revolt, emphasizing their discontent.
  • The Janissaries strategically employed an army band known as the Mehteran. The Mehteran was an ensemble of military musicians associated with the Janissaries, consisting of various high pitched instruments such as drums, cymbals, horns, and wind instruments. With its robust and rhythmic compositions, the Mehteran played a crucial role in boosting morale, instilling a sense of pride, and energizing soldiers on the battlefield. Additionally, its unique soundscape had a lasting impact on Western composers, including Mozart, Richard Wagner, Beethoven, and Bizet, who drew inspiration from the distinctive characteristics of Ottoman army music in their own works. This cross-cultural influence highlights the enduring legacy of the Mehteran beyond its military role in psychological warfare.
  • The Janissaries, renowned Ottoman soldiers, were forbidden to marry, fostering unique dynamics within the army. This celibacy rule, aimed at preserving loyalty, has sparked historical intrigue, with evidence suggesting discreet same-sex relationships. While homosexuality wasn’t explicitly discussed or documented in the Ottoman Empire in the way it might be in contemporary terms, there is historical evidence suggesting the presence of same-sex relationships. What might be considered same-sex relationships in historical contexts might not align with contemporary definitions or labels.
  • The Janissaries, renowned Ottoman soldiers, donned distinctive uniforms that symbolized their elite status. Characterized by ornate details, including turbans, sashes, and specific colors, these uniforms reflected military identity and showcased the Janissaries’ unique cultural and historical significance within the Ottoman Empire.
  • The Janissaries had a structured military arrangement organized into 51 battalions called “orta”. Notably, they maintained close ties with the Sufi mystical order, particularly the Bektashi order, further enriching their cultural and spiritual dimensions. This affiliation contributed to the unique character of the Janissaries, blending military discipline with elements of Sufi spirituality. The Janissaries cultivated a robust camaraderie and brotherhood among their ranks, serving as a cohesive force that extended its influence throughout the broader army.

In summary, the Janissaries were a motivating force through their discipline, loyalty, battlefield effectiveness, symbolic strength, music, cohesion, strategic role, and the enduring legacy they left behind in Ottoman military history. The complex interplay of societal norms and the military environment adds a fascinating layer to the Janissaries’ unconventional lifestyle, showcasing the intricate intersections of cultural, religious, and military influences.

References:

  1. Khan Academy. “Ottoman Empire.” Link
  2. Britannica. “Janissary.” Link
  3. Britannica. “Ottoman Empire – Military Organization.” Link
  4. YouTube. “Janissary Music – Mehter.” Link
  5. Issendai. “Janissaries’ Uniforms in the 16th Century Istanbul.” Link
  6. Wikipedia. “Basilica Cistern.” Link
  7. Belleten. “The Janissaries.” Link
  8. Britannica. “Ottoman Empire.” Britannica, Link.
  9. Çelebi, Evliya. “In the Days of the Janissaries: Old Turkish Life as Depicted in the ‘Travel-Book’ of Evliyá Chelebi.” Translated by Alexander Anastasius Pallis. Hutchinson, 1951.
  10. Kinross, Lord. “The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire.” Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1977.
  11. Ágoston, Gábor, and Bruce Masters. “Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire.” Facts On File, 2009.

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