Interesting Histories: Janissaries

By Levni — Badisches Landesmuseum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2731274

The Ottoman Empire at its peak was one of the most powerful empires in the whole world. It was a great power, stretching from Europe, to Western Asia and down to North Africa. It was multinational, multiracial, multicultural and multireligious. It fought great battles, built great cities, made great works of art and greatly expanded philosophy and science. It was founded in 1301 and disappeared less than hundred years ago, in 1922. For all those years of existence it had one of the most colourful histories, although it is rarely exploited in literature or films these days. Although the Ottoman Empire was a Muslim state, one of its entities was built upon Slavic slaves. The Janissaries, elite fighters, personal slaves to Sultan, most loyal servants and the most feared infantry units on a battlefield.

The Janissaries were formed by Murad I in around 1380 as a sultan’s personal, and professional, army. Most of them were Slavic boys from Balkans, usually from Christian and Orthodox communities, but later also included Bulgarians, Armenians, Romanians, Ukrainians and Russians. Eventually a system called Devshirme was used to collect “blood tax or tribute in blood”, where villages were forced to give up a share of their boys between ages 8 to 18. The youth were converted to Islam and went through rigorous training, learning everything from art of war to science and finances. They were the cream of the crop, as only the best and the strongest could make it into the ranks of the Janissaries.

The Janissaries had their own special place in the Ottoman society. They were expected to remain celibate, although later when they gained quite a bit of political power that rule was changed to apply only to men currently in active service, and then abandoned all together. They were not allowed to grow beards and had to settle for moustaches, making them more easily recognizable. They led a Spartan lifestyle, living in barracks side by side with their comrades, training every day and always be ready to protect Sultan and the empire. The size of the Janissaries is debatable, but it was estimated that at one point in history it grew as high as 70,000 or even more. Depends on who do you include into the Janissaries, as corruption led to some men to simply collect salary rather than actually serve in the corp.

By Unknown, early 16th-century artist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Initially the Janissaries were elite archers, usually used as support to the regular Ottoman army that consisted mainly of cavalry. In a melee combat their used axe, kilijs or yatagan, and men who served in the sultan’s palace could carry long-shafted axe or halberds. In fifteenth century the Janissaries adopted firearms, which made them even deadlier force on a battlefield. With volleys of bullets they could cut down cavalry from a long distance away, before engaging their foes in a close combat. Alongside with their battle prowess, the Janissaries were also a well-organized military machine. They had support corps that prepared road, made camps, cooked food and took care of wounded.

During the Ottoman Empire rise and fall the Janissaries plaid a very important role in many wars. They were there when Constantinople fell, when mighty Mamluk armies were routed and when Hungarian cavalry were mowed down by rifle volleys. European feared the Janissaries and for a very long time could not find an effective countermeasure against them. The Janissaries carried the image of the “Terrible Turk”, and their devotion to war, disciple and effective strategies became a topic of legends.

Everything that goes up must come down and, sadly, that rule held up for the Janissaries. As their power grew so did corruption in their ranks. They took over the most important political offices, became landlord and craftsmen. They bullied Sultans or straight out removed them from the throne. They filled their ranks with troops that skipped on proper training, and failed to adapt to modern warfare. They led numerous revolts, demanding better pay, more rights, ability to marry or simply to carve out any possible opposition to their always growing power. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Janissaries slowly lost their edge on European battlefields and were blamed for many major defeats.

By the early nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire managed to reform their aging army and take control of their own military. Sultan Mahmud II decided to finally disband the corrupt and, by his time, very useless Janissaries. He did not want more revolts or to be killed by one of his own men, so in 1826 he ordered to surround the Janissary barracks and blow them to bits. The ones who survived the bloody ordeal were put to death in the Tower of Blood.

An interesting side note about the Janissaries is that they pioneered military bands. Their powerful sounds even influenced European musicians such as Mozart and Beethoven. Istanbul Military Museum organized the Janissary military band that to this day performances during national holidays and in parades of historical importance.

Sebastiaen Vrancx [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

For further references on The Janissaries read:

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