The Ottoman Empire turned captured Christian children into Janissaries, their elite military force. They also planted the seeds of the Empire's decline.
During the late Middle Ages, the Janissaries emerged as the most powerful military force in the world. They numbered more than 200,000 at their height and were the most highly-trained fighters that Europe and the Middle East had seen since the days of the Roman Empire — every one of which was groomed from an early age to defend the political interests of the growing Ottoman Empire.
But that power also ensured that the political influence of the Janissaries would pose a constant threat to the sultan’s own power, eventually leading to the disbandment of this elite force following a mass rebellion in the late 17th century.
The Origins Of The Janissaries
The history of the elite Janissary dates back to the 14th Century when the Ottoman Empire ruled large swaths of the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Europe.
The Islamic empire itself was founded around 1299 by a Turkish tribal leader from Anatolia — now modern-day Turkey — named Osman I. Under the leadership of his successors, the Ottoman Empire’s territories continued to stretch from Asia Minor all the way to North Africa.
Among Osman’s successors was Sultan Murad I, who ruled over the kingdom between 1362 until 1389. Under his reign, a blood tax system known as devşirme, or “gathering,” was levied on the Christian territories conquered by the Ottoman Empire.
The tax involved Ottoman authorities taking Christian boys as young as eight years old from their parents, especially families in the Balkans, to work as slaves.
There are plenty of historical accounts of Christian families trying to keep their sons from being taken away by the Ottomans through whatever means possible. However, there was some advantage to be gained — especially for poorer families — if the kidnapped child was put in intensive training as an elite soldier of the empire’s Janissaries.
Not only were the Ottoman Janissaries a special branch of the empire’s military corps, they also wielded political power. Therefore, members of this corps enjoyed a number of privileges, such as an elite status in Ottoman society, paid salaries, gifts from the palace, and even political sway.
Indeed, unlike other classes of slaves gathered through the Ottoman’s devşirme system, the Janissaries enjoyed status as “free” people and were considered “the sons of the sultan.” The best fighters were commonly rewarded with promotions through the military ranks and sometimes secured political positions in the empire.
In exchange for these privileges, members of the Ottoman Janissaries were expected to convert to Islam, live a life of celibacy, and commit their full loyalty to the sultan.
The Janissaries were the Ottoman Empire’s crowning glory, defeating the kingdom’s Christian enemies in battle with shocking regularity. When Sultan Mehmed II took Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453 — a victory that would go down as one of the most historic military achievements of all time — the Janissaries played a significant role in the conquest.
“They were a modern army, long before Europe got its act together,” explained Virginia H. Aksan, professor emeritus of history at Canada’s McMaster University. “Europe was still riding around with great, big, heavy horses and knights.”
Their distinct war drums on the battleground struck fear into the hearts of the opposition and the Janissaries troops remained the most feared armed forces in Europe and beyond for centuries. By the early 16th Century, the Janissaries forces reached about 20,000 soldiers and the number continued to grow over the next two centuries.
Life Among The Janissaries
Once a child was taken by the Ottoman authorities and converted to Islam, they immediately underwent intense combat training to become part of the Janissaries. The Janissaries were particularly known for their archery but their soldiers were also well-versed in hand-to-hand combat which served to complement the Ottoman Empire’s advanced artillery.
Their light battle uniforms and slim blades allowed them to deftly maneuver around their Western opponents — often Christian mercenaries — who typically wore heavier armor and wielded thicker, heavier swords.
But life as a member of the Janissaries didn’t simply involve fighting bloody battles. The Janissaries were ingrained with a strong culture of food for which they would become almost equally famous.
The Janissary corps was referred to as the ocak which meant “hearth” and the titles within their ranks were derived from cooking terms, like çorbacı or “soup cook” to refer to their sergeants — the highest-ranking member of each corps — and aşcis or “cook” which were the low-ranking officers.
The head of the entire ocak was the yeniçeri agası or the “aga of the Janissaries,” who was considered a high dignitary of the palace. The strongest members often climbed up the ranks and filled higher bureaucratic positions at the palace, gaining political power and wealth.
When the Ottoman Janissaries weren’t battling enemies at the front lines, they were known to congregate at the city’s coffee shops — the popular gathering place for wealthy merchants, religious clergy, and scholars — or they would gather around their camp’s massive cooking pot known as the kazan.
Eating from the kazan was a way to form solidarity among the soldiers. They received an amply supply of food from the sultan’s palace, such as pilaf with meat, soup, and saffron pudding. During the holy month of Ramadan, the troops would form a line to the palace kitchen known as the “Baklava Procession” in which they would receive sweets as gifts from the sultan.
Indeed, food was so integral to the Janissaries way of life that the sultan’s standing with the troops could be deciphered through food.
Accepting food from the sultan symbolized the Janissaries’ fealty. However, rejected food offerings were a sign of trouble. If the Janissaries hesitated to accept food from the sultan it signaled the beginnings of mutiny, but if they flipped over the cauldron — often during important public ceremonies — then it pointed to an open revolt.
“The upsetting of the cauldron was a form of reaction, an opportunity to show power; it was a performance in front of both the authority and the popular classes,” wrote Nihal Bursa, head of the department of industrial design at Turkey’s Beykent University-Istanbul.
There were several Janissaries rebellion throughout the Ottoman Empire’s history. In 1622, Osman II, who planned to dismantle the Janissaries, closed the coffee shops they frequented and was killed by the elite soldiers. There was also Selim III who was dethroned by the Janissaries.
A Precipitous Decline
In a way, the Janissaries were a significant force in protecting the empire’s sovereignty but they were also a threat to the sultan’s own power.
The Janissaries’ political influence began to diminish in the early 17th Century. Devşirme was abolished in 1638 and the membership of the elite force was diversified through reforms allowing Turkish Muslims to join. Rules that were initially implemented to maintain their discipline — like the celibacy rule — were also relaxed.
Eventually, by the end of the century their numbers had ballooned from 20,000 to 80,000. Despite their huge growth in numbers, the combat prowess of the Janissaries took a bit hit due to the relaxing of the group’s recruiting criteria.
At the time, only about 10 percent of the Janissaries forces were still reliable enough to be called on to fight on behalf of the empire.
The slow decline of the Janissaries came to a head in 1826 under the rule of Sultan Mahmud II. The sultan wanted to implement modernized changes to his military forces which were rejected by the Janissaries soldiers. To verbalize their protest, the Janissaries overturned the sultan’s couldrons on June 15, signaling that a rebellion was brewing.
Yet, Sultan Mahmud II, anticipating resistance from the Janissaries, was already a step ahead.
He used the Ottoman’s strong artillery to fire against their barracks and had them mowed “down in the streets of Istanbul,” according to Aksan. Survivors of the massacre were either exiled or executed, marking the end of the formidable Janissaries legionaries.
Now that you’ve learned about the history of the Janissaries, the Ottoman Empire’s elite soldiers, read the terrifying true story of one of the empire’s greatest enemies: Vlad The Impaler. Then, meet the modern Kurdish women fighting ISIS.