Hidden History: Janissaries, the Ottoman Empire’s elite army

Mon Oct 29, 2018

Following the 1453 conquest of Constantinople (later renamed to Istanbul) and subsequent ending of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire would become one of the world’s longest lasting empires, united by Islamic traditions and a single ruling family for over seven centuries. The empire would reach as far as the gates of Vienna before reaching its turning point at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto and diminishing until its total collapse after World War I (WWI). Among elements such as state-run education, religious unity, and merit-based bureaucracy, the Ottoman Empire also incorporated an element that sets it apart from other major world powers of the time: the first standing army in Europe.

Known as the Janissaries (from Ottoman Turkish for “new soldier”), this elite infantry corps served as the personal troops and bodyguards of the Ottoman ruler, known as the sultan, from approximately 1363 until 1826. Likely established during the reign of Sultan Murad I (1362-1389), the Janissaries began as his spoils of war. At the time, the Ottoman Empire upheld a tax system wherein one-fifth of all slaves taken as prisoners from a war were made the property of the sultan. It is likely that, from this pool of slaves, Murad I established the Janissaries as his personal army, loyal only to the sultan.

For approximately 300 years, the ranks of the Janissaries were made up through the system of devşirme, wherein non-Muslim boys from across the empire were kidnapped, converted to Islam, and forced into the corps. The vast majority of these kidnapped boys were Anatolian and Balkan Christians. These boys would then be sent to a Turkish family to learn Turkish, Islamic traditions, and various other Ottoman customs and social rules.

After this period, the boys would be sent to school, where they would be trained and assigned to different areas based on their individual strengths, including engineers, artisans, riflemen, archers, etc. The Janissaries were held to strict discipline standards, regularly practicing hard labor, being forced to remain celibate, and only being allowed to grow mustaches. This strict discipline led to the Janissaries being famed around the world for their internal cohesion and unbreakable loyalty to the sultan.

While the reality is still that these soldiers were slaves taken from their homes and families, they had the unique distinction in Ottoman society of being kapıkulları (“door servants”), a sort of middle ground between being free and enslaved. Under this designation, the Janissaries were still held to strict standards and life restrictions but were also paid regular salaries and even given pensions upon retirement.

As the first standing army on the European continent, the Janissaries were also among the first armed forces to make extensive use of firearms. In addition, the Janissaries marched to one of the world’s oldest military marching bands, the mehter, which was noted for its powerful percussion and shrill winds. Supposedly, the music of Janissary formations would go on to influence European classical musicians such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, noted composers of the Turkish style.

The unique position of the corps in Ottoman society led to them becoming a more and more powerful class in Ottoman society, to the point that they were increasingly seen as a threat to the empire’s stability. The decline in their connection to the sultan over time further expedited this process. In what came to be known as the Auspicious Incident in 1826, Sultan Mahmud II quelled a revolt by the Janissaries, setting their barracks ablaze and inciting heavy combat in the streets of Constantinople with his own private European mercenaries. By the end of 1826, all captured Janissaries were executed by decapitation in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, at a site ironically known today as the White Tower.

While the concept of a private army comprised of the captured children of religious minorities, loyal only to the head of state should HOPEFULLY register as draconian, the story of the world’s first major standing army and extensive users of firearms is, if nothing else, interesting. Many of the institutions that shape modern-day society have less-than-clean origins, and organized military is definitely one of those.



Image courtesy of Harvard College



Appears in
2018 - Fall - Issue 8