The Preferential Treatment Of Christian Minorities In The Ottoman Empire

Courtesy: Arif Celebi

The Ottoman Empire was a majority Muslim nation. The Ottoman Empire lasted for five hundred years before its demise following World War I.[1] During the existence of the Ottoman Empire, multiple minorities who lacked political power experienced discrimination from the janissary under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. This paper will focus on the treatment of the Christian minority in comparison to other minorities who lacked political power inside the Ottoman Empire. The principal argument of this paper is that the Ottoman Empire gave preferential treatment to Christians and especially members of the devsirme, in comparison to other minorities lacking political power inside the Ottoman Empire.

Starting in the 1300s during the reign of Sultan Bayezit I, and conclusively established in the reign of Sultan Murat II.[2], the Ottoman Empire established a system of child recruitment for government and military service known as the devsirme. Members of the devsirme became the primary source for members of the sultan’s slave army and slave administrators known as the kul.[3] “In legal terms the devsirmes were the kuls of the sultan. Kul, though generally translated into English as slave, is a multifaceted word. …In a narrow sense, kuls were the servant-officers and soldiers of the sultan, whether they were genuine slaves or not.”[4] The word devsirme is derived from Turkish words that mean “to collect” or “to gather”.[5] The process of recruiting Christian boys into the devsirme began when specially appointed janissary officers were sent to Christian villages where janissary officers asked village priests for a list of baptized boys.[6] The village priest in most insistences did not contest the janissary officers’ collection of the list of baptized boy fully knowing what would occur to the Christian boys, this supports the argument that the devsirme was largely a positive impact on the Christian boys and their families. Children were taken by the Ottoman Empire, converted to Islam, taught Turkish languages, and customs, and trained as soldiers, and later as government administrators. It was predominantly the case that the Ottoman Empire recruited Serbs, Greeks, and Albanians for the devsirme. However, Kurds, Persians, and Turks could not become members of the devsirmes. The exclusion of these population could be explained by the strict shari’a prohibition against enslaving Muslims, but the exclusion of certain groups of non-Muslims such as Jews, and Gypsies from the devsirme is not as clear.[7] The constraints on the ethnic background of the boys recruited into the devsirme are perhaps an indication of whom the Ottoman Empire defined as the Ottomans and whom it rejected as non-Ottomans. Here the concept of the non-Ottoman is being fueled by the ethnic stereotypes of the time for example, many Ottomans considered Jewish people as unsuitable for warfare, or Gypsies are unreliable.[8] Serbs, Greeks, and Albanians were Christian minority populations in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire did not induct orphans into the devsirme because it was largely believed that orphans were greedy and lacked a proper upbringing.[9] Christian boys selected to join the devsirme were evaluated on multiple factors: “The candidates had to be between the ages of ten and eighteen or thereabouts, able bodied, good looking, clever, unmarried, and uncircumcised. It was forbidden to take the only son of a family or more than one boy from the same family, because the family would need at least one son to continue cultivating the land. Moreover, only one boy could be taken from every forty households.”.[10]

The Ottoman Empire inducted Christian boys into the devsirme through the process of being “stripped in the presence of the chief janissaries and examined for bodily defects. All were then converted to Islam, circumcised, and given Muslim names… This was also the point at which the most talented and handsome were selected and sent to the palaces.”.[11] After Christian boys completed the induction process they were now accepted members of the devsirme. The Ottoman Empire gave new members of the devsirme an allowance of seven to eight akces per day with allowances increasing to ten to twelve akces depending on the member of the devsirmes rank.[12]

As is explained in this paper the Ottoman Empire gave preferential treatment to the Christian minority compared to other minorities that lacked political power inside the Ottoman Empire through the education of its citizens. The Ottoman Empire provided education to the members of the devsirme, this education was one of the best in the Islamic world. The Ottoman Empire however did not provide an education to the members of other minority groups who lacked political power and lived inside the Ottoman Empire. Because the members of other minority groups who lacked political power inside the Ottoman Empire did not receive an education these populations were unable to achieve the same levels of success as the members of the devsirme. The members of the devsirme were educated in a system of schools known as the palaces. Education occurred in one of four palaces: Iskender Celebi, Galatasaray, Edirne, and Ibrahim Pasha. Members of the devsirme wore lightly clad red linen with caps of Prusa cloth to symbolize their status as students while teachers in the Ottoman Empire educated the members of the devsirme from sunrise to sunset in the use of a bow and arrow.[13] The Ottoman Empire’s education system aimed to produce obedience, along with high morals in the devsirme.[14] The average member of the devsirme spent fourteen years in the Ottoman Empire’s education system, with the preparatory period composing of seven to eight years of this time.[15] Many members of the devsirme continued their education in occupational school. Occupational school in the Ottoman Empire prepared most members of the devsirme for specialized roles in the military and government. However, not all members of the devsirme moved onto occupational school. Members of the devsirme were selected for occupational school based on their grades. Most devsirme who were denied acceptance to occupational school took lower positions in the kapikulu corps compared to their fellow devsirme who attended occupational school.[16] After the successful completion of the devsirme education, the members of the devsirme would request a position in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire would generally grant the request of the member of the devsirme if the position was available.[17] Other minorities who lacked political power inside the Ottoman Empire were not eligible to become members of the Devsirme, so were un-eligible to request and obtain positions in the Ottoman Empire that could aid themselves both financially and socially. Because of the devsirmes’ loyalty to the Ottoman Empire, the members of the devsirme would become guards, gatekeepers, scribes, pages, governors, soldiers, or prime ministers, depending on their academic merits and seniority.[18]

The janissaries used the devsirme as an important recruiting tool. Members of the devsirme received real world experience as janissaries, when the janissaries went off to war and so the members of the devsirme filled in by serving as night watchmen, firemen, and police within the city. When new soldiers were needed, selected members of the devsirme were enlisted in the kapikulu corps.[19] The kapikulu corps included the janissary. Janissaries were the most prolific fighters in the Ottoman Empire. The janissaries were divided into regiments and instructed under the same tutors while members of the devsirme.[20] The janissary held a high position in the society of the Ottoman Empire as “According to the prevailing paradigm, the devsirme were previleged vis-a-vis the masses and completely loyal to authority, enabling the autocratic regime of the sultan to be effective in all spheres of life.”.[21] Society in the Ottoman Empire existed as a strict system of hierarchies which put the janissaries as one of the main powers in control as often overstepped its power without consequence as a result.

The Ottoman Empire gave many special rights and privileges to the new members of the janissaries because of their loyalty as members of the devsirme enjoyed the privilege of being members of the imperial household.[22] Janissaries were paid salaries, exempted from taxes, and allowed to own property, including all types of slaves of their own.[23] As the “servants of the sultan”-the true Ottomans-janissaries earned privileges that distinguished them from the subjects of the Ottoman Empire.”[24] The Ottoman Empire did not offer these privileges to other members of society, or minority groups that lacked political power. By giving these privileges only to the janissary, the janissary (formerly Christian boys) were able to gain an economic advantage over other minorities that lacked political power in the Ottoman Empire. “The ocak [janissary] had great benefits denied to the ordinary citizen. As soldiers, the janissaries were exempt from the taxes which weighed heavily on the peasants and townspeople; their privileged status gave them an advantage in all business dealings. Although their power was most evident in the capital, where the janissaries deposed and elevated sultans at will, or murdered officers or officials who opposed them, they dominated the provincial cities as well.”[25] Janissary established strong economic connections between other janissaries through regiment waqfs which were a form of pious endowments.[26] Janissaries were able to collectively benefit by pooling resources that could be loaned out with the intention of returning a profit. These regiment waqfs were funded by fees assessed to every member of the regiment according to a certain percentage of his salary each year. These regiment waqfs were used to support janissaries in times of need, such as in assisting the families of dead janissaries. These regiment waqfs were also used as a source for lending money that would be paid back with interest later on.[27] Many janissaries used the regiment waqfs as sources of capital to start new businesses which the profits were ultimately used to benefit their Christian families from birth. “Already by the end of the 15th century, we have evidence of Janissaries joining guilds. They owned businesses, offered ‘protection’ services to get a cut of other business owners’ profits, and were shopkeepers in the towns where they were “stationed.” Sometime between the 1570s and 80s they were granted permission by the Sultan to marry and enlist their descendants in the corps. Many put their children on the payroll ridiculously early, well before they could even conceivably be helpful or do any actual work. We’re talking like 3-year olds getting a paycheck. And this was just when they got permission to start doing this; as evidenced by [Sokollu] Mehmed Pasha, there were plenty of devsirme ‘recruits’ who were taking some kind of wife or lover on the side, having children with her, and then putting those children into the ranks of the Janissaries without permission of the sultan.”.[28] While marriage for a janissary was largely illegal without the permission of the sultan in the Ottoman Empire,[29] the sultan allowed it to occur with any prosecution, this is direct evidence that the Ottoman Empire gave preferential treatment to the Christian minorities living inside the Ottoman Empire in comparison to other minorities that lacked political power. In addition businesses were started by the members of the janissaries before the 16th century, it was illegal for a janissary to start a business during this time however it is well known that the janissaries opened small businesses and entered guilds from the mid-sixteenth century.[30] “Cemal Kafadar notes that the ruling elite and the janissaries were involved in production and exchange even before the sixteenth century. Kafadar gives examples of various pashas involved in commercial enterprises and mentions that contrary to what Kavanin-i yeniceriyan law requires, the janissaries were shopkeepers in cities. He even gives an example of janissaries who leased shops from the Ayasofya foundation under Bayezid II, which indicates that janissary entrepreneurialism was permitted at the higher state ranks.”[31] The sultan forbid the janissary from marriage and business because a janissary’s sole duty was to protect the Ottoman Empire and the sultan. However, society in the Ottoman Empire required that a person earn their honor through hard work and dedication. This however did not seem to apply to the members of the janissary as their dishonest and illegal behavior was not looked down upon by other levels of society in the Ottoman Empire as the janissary remained at the pinnacle of society. “Among the Turks, therefore, honours, high posts, and judgeships are the rewards of great ability and good service. If a man be dishonest, or lazy, or careless, he remains at the bottom of the ladder, an object of contempt; for such qualities there are no honours in Turkey!”[32]

Historians argue that the process of recruitment and induction for members of the devsirme was too brutal and so the benefits of being a member of the devsirme did not outweigh the benefits of economic mobility and social standing as a member of the devsirme and then as a janissary. However, this could not be farther from the truth. In fact, it was not uncommon for parents of Christian boys to volunteer their sons or even bribe the janissary officers to take their son/s in order to be exempted from certain taxes.[33] As is seen in this paper there are numerous examples of contemporaneous evidence that the Christian minority received preferential treatment from the Ottoman Empire this proves that many parents regarded the process rather as a privilege than as a burden.[34] The Ottoman Empire provided opportunities for economic success and social mobility through the devsirme and later the janissary as these members of the devsirme transitioned into the kul. The opportunity for economic success and social mobility was a great comfort for many parents to know in their time of personal sadness, this can be seen in the following quote “If the mother was heartbroken at being forced to take part with her best-loved son and see him take service with Moslems, she could console herself with the thought that it was wholly possible that he might someday attain to great wealth and power.”.[35] It has also been noted by historians that the non-Christian populations in the Ottoman Empire where aware of the preferential treatment that Christian received, as Muslim neighbors were known to exchange their sons with Christians in the hope that their son would attain a successful career.[36] The rules of Ottoman society disadvantaged traditional Muslims by removing their power and allowing Christians like the janissary to achieve the same status through hardwork and loyalty to the sultan. “Besides the two main factors, Islamic law and nomadic tradition, that made the devisrme possible, there is a third important one, the absolute character of the dynastic power. It functioned as a leveling instrument on the social status of all subjects and created the necessary institutional frame for the elevation of these slaves to the status of the ruling class for more than three centuries, discriminating to the detriment of the native Muslim element. It must be noted that no native Muslim rose above the rank of sanjakbey for a considerable time span.”[37]

The principal argument of this paper is that the Ottoman Empire gave preferential treatment to Christians and especially members of the devsirme, in comparison to other minorities lacking political power inside the Ottoman Empire. As explained in the paper the members of the devsirme received a world class education which later provided the opportunity to become a member of the janissary. The janissary were also granted many exclusive benefits like the right to the ownership of property, the right to marry, the right to own and run their businesses for personal gain while employing their own children for a tax benefit. These benefits were illegal under the laws of the Ottoman Empire, although the kul provided an exception by refusing to punish the janissary. These benefits paved the way for economic mobility and social uplift to the highest levels of society. Overall the Christian minority enjoyed preferential treatment from the Ottoman Empire in comparison to other minorities that lacked political power inside the empire.

Bibliography

Averill Earls, Averill, Ph.D., and Marissa Rhodes. “Devşirme: The Tribute of Children, Slavery and the Ottoman Empire.” DIG. September 02, 2018. Accessed November 14, 2018. https://digpodcast.org/2018/08/26/devsirme-the-tribute-of-children-slavery-and-the-ottoman-empire/.

Bostom, Andrew G. The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008.

Busbecq, Ogier Ghiselin. “Ogier Ghiselin De Busbecq: The Turkish Letters, 1555–1562.” Compiled by Paul Halsall. Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, July 1998. Accessed September 24, 2018. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1555busbecq.asp.

Campbell, Gwyn, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph Calder. Miller. “Becoming A Devsirme.” In Children in Slavery through the Ages, 119–34. Ohio University Press, 2009.

“Children and Youth in History.” WORLD HISTORY SOURCES. Accessed September 20, 2018. https://www.chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/items/show/464.

Ludlow, James M. “The Tribute of Children, 1493.” Edited by James S. Arkenberg. Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, 1998. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/islam/1493janissaries.asp.

McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1923. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.

Merriman, Roger Bigelow. Suleiman the Magnificent: 1520–1566, by Roger Bigelow Merriman, Cambridge: Mass., Harvard University Press, 1944. 145–81.

Wheatcroft, Andrew. The Ottomans: Dissolving Images. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. 24+.

Woodhead, Christine. The Ottoman World. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2012.

Footnotes

*Both spellings of Devshirme and Devsirme are correct. Devsirme is used as the correct spelling for this paper because authors Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph Miller used this spelling in Children In Slavery Through The Ages which is an authoritative source of information.

[1] Christine Woodhead, The Ottoman World, (New York, Taylor & Francis, 2012), pg.1.

[2] Averill Earls, Ph.D., Marissa Rhodes, “Devsirme: The Tribute of Children, Slavery and the Ottoman Empire,” August 26, 2018, in Dig A History Podcast, podcast, MP3 audio, https://digpodcast.org/2018/08/26/devsirme-the-tribute-of-children-slavery-and-the-ottoman-empire/.

[3] Justin McCarthy, The Ottoman Turks, (New York, Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997), pg.55.

[4] Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph C. Miller, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, (Athens, Ohio University Press, 2009), pg.127.

[5] Averill Earls, Ph.D., Marissa Rhodes, “Devsirme: The Tribute of Children, Slavery and the Ottoman Empire,” August 26, 2018, in Dig A History Podcast, podcast, MP3 audio, https://digpodcast.org/2018/08/26/devsirme-the-tribute-of-children-slavery-and-the-ottoman-empire/.

[6] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.122.

[7] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.122.

[8] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.121.

[9] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.122.

[10] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.121.

[11] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.122.

[12] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.123.

[13] Islamic History Sourcebook, “Ogier Ghiselin De Busbecq: The Turkish Letters, 1555–1562.”, Accessed September 24, 2018. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1555busbecq.asp.

[14] WORLD HISTORY SOURCES “Children and Youth in History” Accessed September 20, 2018. https://www.chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/items/show/464.

[15] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.123.

[16] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.123.

[17] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.123.

[18] WORLD HISTORY SOURCES “Children and Youth in History” Accessed September 20, 2018. https://www.chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/items/show/464.

[19] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.124.

[20] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.124.

[21] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.119.

[22] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.127.

[23] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.127.

[24] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.127.

[25] Andrew Wheatcroft, The Ottomans Dissolving Images, (New York, Penguin Books, 1993), pg.90.

[26] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.125.

[27] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.125.

[28] Averill Earls, Ph.D., Marissa Rhodes, “Devsirme: The Tribute of Children, Slavery and the Ottoman Empire,” August 26, 2018, in Dig A History Podcast, podcast, MP3 audio, https://digpodcast.org/2018/08/26/devsirme-the-tribute-of-children-slavery-and-the-ottoman-empire/.

[29] Averill Earls, Ph.D., Marissa Rhodes, “Devsirme: The Tribute of Children, Slavery and the Ottoman Empire,” August 26, 2018, in Dig A History Podcast, podcast, MP3 audio, https://digpodcast.org/2018/08/26/devsirme-the-tribute-of-children-slavery-and-the-ottoman-empire/.

[30] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.125.

[31] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.125.

[32] Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, “The Tribute of Children, 1493.”, Published 1998. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/islam/1493janissaries.asp.

[33] Campbell, Children In Slavery Through The Ages, pg.122.

[34] Roger Bigelow Merriman, Suleiman The Magnificent 1520–1566, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1944), pg.152.

[35] Merriman, Suleiman The Magnificent 1520–1566, pg.152.

[36] Andrew G, Bostom, MD, The Legacy of Jihad (New York, Prometheus Books, 2005), pg.560.

[37] Andrew G, Bostom, MD, The Legacy of Jihad (New York, Prometheus Books, 2005), pg.557.

--

--

--

Son, Brother, Eagle Scout, Tar Heel, Runner, Social Scientist

Recommended from Medium

Soap is the symbol for “alternative facts”

The history of Northern Italy vs. Southern Italy — Separation and Unification

“Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” Book Review

READ/DOWNLOAD#= Vocal Wisdom: Maxims of Giovanni B

Boscombe Pier UFO in the Sky

Judaism, a psychopathology — Hervé Ryssen

The Singapore Sling, the Crabapple Connection, and the Return of the Kidd

Book 1, Chapter 3: Gandhi, Jinnah and introduction of religion into politics

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Heywood Williams-Tracy

Heywood Williams-Tracy

More from Medium

Have you ever danced with LAUSD + UTLA in the pale Moonlight?

Republicanism will not solve Britain’s Problems

A Future Where the Voices of Native Youth and the Voices of Black Youth Thrive — A Letter From Our…

Istvan Reiner: one of the many children murdered during the holocaust

young boy in striped shirt smiling to camera