Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ottoman Janissary Corps

The Ottoman Janissary Corps
By Paul Allen
            The Ottoman Empire originated from small beginnings, starting with the migration of Turkish tribes into the Middle East. Turks were a nomadic people and migrated into Anatolia. They made a major push into the Anatolian region with the defeat of the Byzantines at the battle of Manzikert in 1071. After Manzikert, the Byzantines had a difficult time keeping the Turks out of their Anatolian territories. By the fourteenth century, Turkish tribes ruled most of the eastern part of Anatolia and the Ottomans rose from a particular tribe led by Osman I. Osman ‘s territory resided near Byzantine lands and Constantinople, the Byzantine capital itself. Osman’s tribe seemed as just another Turkish tribe to the Byzantines but he gained significant power in the region with the defeat of the Byzantine Emperor in 1301.[1]  Osman’s victory gave him and his people a foothold in western Anatolia, marking the beginning of the Ottoman state.
            The growing power of the Ottomans in western Anatolia created a power shift in the region. The close proximity to the Byzantine capital gave the Byzantines an uneasy feeling towards the Ottoman state.[2] Osman and his successors continued to expand and conquer territories in Anatolia and also southeastern Europe. The growing conquest of the Ottoman state created an environment that birthed a new military institution. The Ottoman Sultan and descendant of Osman, Murad I, can be credited with creating what would eventually become the Ottoman Janissary Corps. On Murad’s campaigns in the Balkans, he would capture his Christian enemies and make them into body guards for the Sultan.[3] The formation of the Janissary institution came later under the rule of Murad II to create an elite corps for the Ottoman military. Even though the Janissaries answered to the Sultan and their lives resided in his power, they served as military elite, administrators, and made an impact in Ottoman government. The Ottoman Janissary Corps had been originally established to serve the Sultan and the Ottoman state, however over time the Janissaries sought to gain power for themselves and fulfill their own interests.
            The early Ottoman Sultans made major expansions to the Ottoman state that eventually turned it into an Empire. The Ottoman Empire’s growing expansion formed the right conditions for the formation of the Janissary Corps. Most powers of Europe and the Middle East did not maintain standing armies in the Middle Ages. Most armies consisted of men that were serfs or loyal followers of their Lord or noble that led them. The Ottomans wanted to create a standing army for the Empire that would be paid and maintained.[4] The Janissaries would serve as the core of the new Ottoman standing army. Their name Janissary, in Turkish is “yeni ceri” which means “new soldiers.”[5] Janissaries were a new concept to Europe and the Middle East and the soldiers that made up the new corps would be unlikely expectations for a Muslim, Turkish military institution.  
An elite corps had been originally made from enemy captives to serve as a body guard to the Sultan Murad I. Taking prisoners and making them slaves was not a new idea for Muslim societies and had been around for centuries. The heart of the Janissaries came from the recruitment of Christian-born, non-Muslim boys taken from conquered territories.[6]  Ottoman policies did not allow Muslim-born, Turkish boys and men to become Janissaries. Taking Christian boys from their homes and making them into elite Ottoman soldiers sounded like an interesting idea that could have been dangerous to the Empire. However, the concept behind putting Janissary recruits into positions of power and military training under the ultimate rule of the Sultan prevented a hereditary elite from forming under Turkish nobility.[7] Recruiting Christian born youth provided an opportunity for them to no longer serve as serfs for a Lord or noble but become a part of an ordered Ottoman military.[8] 
Involvement into the Janissary Corps was not voluntary for just anyone that was not Turkish or Muslim. Murad II started a program for the recruitment of Janissaries called devsirme. The first mention of using devsirme comes from the Balkans in 1438.[9] This system of procurement served as the sole means of attaining Janissary recruits. Janissaries would pick the best Christian boys from a conquered village or town and take them as new recruits.[10] Once the new conscripts had been taken from their homes, they were sent to the major Ottoman cities like Edirne and Istanbul. The new recruits took Ottoman culture first by being circumcised and converting to Islam.[11] Janissary training also consisted of learning multiple languages including Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. They also took on archery horsemanship, and fire fighting skills.[12] After their training finished, the men were assigned to their divisions and companies; the number and symbol of their company would be tattooed on them to make them permanent members of the Janissary Corps and property of the Sultan.[13]
The Janissary Corp became a major part of the Ottoman military but it did not make up a large part of the army.[14] Their involvement in the military served as an elite corps for the Sultan. In the early part of the Empire, the Janissaries only consisted of a few thousand and took up the latest modern weapons for their arsenal. In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the corps would utilize early flintlocks, cannons, and handguns. They would learn and take these modern military innovations from their enemy counterparts.[15]  The firearms would be issued by the state but would be personal to each soldier and the weapons were usually decorated and personalized.[16] On the battlefield, Janissaries would use noise, instruments, and yelling to terrify their enemies as a scare tactic. The early weapons like flintlocks could also be used to create terrible noises on the front.[17] An example of the Janissary role in conquest could be shown in Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople. Near the end of the siege, a force led by Janissaries took a tower on the inner wall of the city. They hoisted the Ottoman flag of the star and crescent. This became a rally point for the Turkish forces and the Janissaries created an opening for the rest of the army to come into Constantinople.[18] Ottoman troops flooded into the city and the Byzantine Emperor made his last stand with his soldiers. The Emperor was killed and a Janissary severed his head, which he brought to Mehmed II.[19]This elite corps could make their impression on the battlefield and demonstrate their capability as specially trained soldiers.
The corps did not only have roles on the battlefield but also in the government and positions in the Ottoman state. They became involved in maintaining order in cities and towns throughout the Empire.[20] Janissaries would serve as police and make sure fair trade occurred in markets and bazaars. Not only did they do this in the large cities like Istanbul and Edirne but also small towns and cities throughout the Empire. Justification of their authority came from the power of the Sultan through their judgment.[21] One major role of the Janissaries was to serve as fire fighters. They had been trained and readied to defend towns and cities from the spread of fires that could destroy a lot if not under control.[22] Even though their duty was to put out fires, they sometimes could use fires in political battles. If the Janissaries were in disfavor of certain people that suffered from fire, they could let it burn and allow looting and destruction.[23] However, this is a small instance of the Janissaries using their power for their own interests. As the corps continued to influence Ottoman politics, they began to lean more toward their own goals and take power from those that they had been made to serve.
The Janissaries first major disagreement with the Sultan came under the early rule of Mehmed II. Mehmed’s father, Murad II, had just abdicated the throne and retired early to leave the Ottoman Sultanate to his son. Mehmed was young at this time and had little experience knowing what to do ruling as Sultan. Mehmed attempted to debase the Ottoman currency so that more currency could be made to pay the state’s debts. The debasement however also lowered the value of Ottoman coinage and upset the Janissaries in the process. The corps received less pay because the value of the currency had dropped. Janissary troops stationed in Edirne became angry with the Sultan’s new policy concerning the currency and staged an uprising against Mehmed. The Sultan realized his own elite troops were revolting and his father Murad II came back to Istanbul to regain order. The debasement was repealed and he increased Janissary pay to cool their anger and prevent further revolt.[24]
After this incident, the Sultanate learned that the Janissaries could not be angered or they would turn on the state if their way of life and position became threatened. Ottoman officials could not afford a main contingent of the Ottoman military revolting against them so they appeased the Janissaries. Another instance of revolt from the corps happened in 1589 against Murad III who tried to debase the currency again.[25] This was not an isolated event and demonstrated that the Janissaries valued their pay from the state. The Sultan retained power over the corps, however these events of revolt illustrated that the Sultan’s authority over the Janissaries was not absolute as intended.
Another instance of Janissary power in Ottoman politics can be seen in their support of one heir to the Sultanate over another. When Mehmed II died in 1481, he had two sons that both wanted the throne. Mehmed II’s Grand Vizier, Karamani Mehmed Pasha, favored Mehmed’s son Cem to become the next Sultan. However, Cem’s brother, Bayezid, had the support of the Janissaries to become Sultan. The Janissaries embarked for Istanbul to secure the throne for Bayezid but when they arrived outside the city walls, Karamani would not let them enter into the city. They grew angry, stormed the walls, and once inside killed the Grand Vizier. Bayezid II became the Sultan and he had his brother sent into exile under the supervision of European courts.[26] 
The same instance of ascension to the Ottoman throne occurred with Bayezid II’s sons, Ahmed and Selim. Bayezid was growing old and sent for his son Ahmed to come to Istanbul to prepare him to take the throne. Ahmed arrived outside Istanbul but the Janissaries shut him out and killed Bayezid II’s Grand Vizier that supported Ahmed’s ascension. The corps favored Selim over Ahmed and forced Bayezid, while he still reigned, to abdicate and hand over power to Selim. Selim’s youngest brother tried to sneak into Istanbul and proclaim himself Sultan by bribing the support of the Janissaries. The corps took the money but turned around and maintained their support for Selim I as Sultan.[27]
In both of these examples including Bayezid II and Selim I, the Janissaries picked their heir to the throne and supported him. Even if the reigning Sultan and Grand Vizier favored someone other than the support of the corps, they would ignore their authority and make whomever they wanted Sultan. Support of the Janissaries became essential to succession of the Ottoman Sultanate. They ultimately made Sultans in their own favor and fashion. The system had never been created to be this way and by this time the corps had gained so much power as to chose the next ruler of the Empire.
The Janissaries also became troublesome to Sultans they had put in power. Selim I began campaigns in the western frontier of the Ottoman Empire to fight the Safavids. Selim had 12,000 Janissaries accompany him and when marching grew tiresome and supply lines shortened, the elite troops grew angry with the Sultan. While camped, some Janissary troops fired on the Sultan’s tent with their firearms and showed their discontent. After meeting with the Safavids in battle, their anger cooled down. However, the Janissaries were very sensitive to deal with and if angered they would attempt to express it, including towards the Sultan.[28]
After the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Sultan’s power began to diminish. The court and favorites system arose in the Topkapi Palace and made a large influence on the Sultanate. Sultans became more involved in court politics.The Janissaries’ authoritative position gained them more power in the court system plus their military status.     
Osman II became the youngest Sultan to ever lead his armies on a campaign, however he disappointed his military officials with his successes. He came back to Istanbul and claimed he was going to embark on the Hajj.[29] As the Sultan prepared to set out on his journey, he was stopped by Ottoman cavalry elite and the Janissaries. They demanded the heads of his Grand Vizier and Chief Black Eunuch. Osman refused to meet their demands and in return they stormed the Topkapi Palace. The advisors of the Sultan were killed immediately and they found Osman’s mentally ill uncle, proclaiming him Sultan. Osman tried to barter with the elite but their resolve did not change. The Sultan was strangled to death and his uncle, Mustafa I, took the Sultanate.[30] This had never taken place, a Sultan had been killed at the hands of the Janissaries. Mustafa I came under the complete influence of the military elite and the Sultan had lost a large amount of his power as ultimate ruler. The Janissaries made it clear that they aspired for their own gains in the Empire.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Sultans had become aware of the power of the military elite and approached the situation delicately. The Janissaries had also by this time become less involved in military affairs and concerned about maintaining their positions and privileges. Sultans of the eighteenth century tried to create new reforms for the military because the Ottomans had fallen behind Europe in military advancement and they wanted  to diminish the power of the military elite.[31] By this time also, the Janissaries did not get their recruits from Christian-born, non-Muslims but instead started to accept Turkish, Muslims into their ranks. Their military training had also waned and did not retain the training they possessed in the early Empire.[32]
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Selim III ruled as Sultan. He attempted to create military reforms to modernize the Ottoman armies. The Janissaries of course felt threatened by these proposed reforms.[33]  The Sultan knew that the Janissaries had been delicate in this issue in the past and he approached it carefully. In the early 1790s, Selim formed a new branch of the military funded by the state and trained in the latest European style.[34] Ottoman officials and Janissaries did not like this new military contingent because it threatened their positions and Selim wanted it as the main Ottoman military force. The Janissaries lead an uprising that overcame the new army and marched on Istanbul. The city was stormed and Selim III removed from power by the Janissaries.[35] They seemed the ultimate rulers of Ottoman politics and when their positions became threatened, the corps took action to eliminate that threat.
The rule of the Janissaries had spun out of control and no one could stop their lust for power, not even the Sultan. However, the oppression of the Janissaries became challenged by Sultan Mahmud II in the early nineteenth century. Mahmud attempted to reform the Ottoman military in 1826 and asked for the support of the Janissaries. The corps accepted the new proposal but with disdain. Within a month, the Janissaries rose up in insurrection in Istanbul to repeal the reform of the military.[36] However, the Sultan was at his summer residence and when he received news of the uprising, he made his way to the capital.[37] Mahmud rallied troops loyal to him and called on the people to join him in putting down the rebellious Janissaries. The Janissary revolt had been put down by the Sultan’s forces and the remaining corps surrendered or fled the city only to be pursued. [38] Mahmud ordered all Janissaries to be stripped of their positions and new government troops would have to take their place.[39] At last the tyranny imposed by the Janissary Corps over the Ottoman government and people had been eliminated. New reforms to modernize the state and military could be passed without much resistance from military elite.
The Janissary Corps established in the early part of the Ottoman Empire was originally created to serve the Sultan and trained to protect the Empire and its people. However, through the centuries up to the early 1800s, the corps gained immense power to the point that they controlled the military and political scene of the Ottoman state. They played a role in military reforms, choosing and ultimately killing their masters for their own interests. Many Sultans wanted to challenge the Janissaries but a large number of their attempts failed. Mahmud II would be the Sultan to finally rid the Empire of the scourge of power hungry military elite. The Janissaries began as a corps of foreign troops that served the Sultan but through time they became very influential in Ottoman politics and society.    

Agoston, Gabor, and Bruce Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Finkel, Caroline. Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923. New York: Basic Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2005.
Freely, John. Istanbul: The Imperial City. New York: Penguin Group, 1996.
Goodwin, Godfrey. The Janissaries. London: Saqi Books, 1994.
Michalowicz, Konstanty. Memoirs of a Janissary. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2010.

[1] Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire, s.v.”Osman I.”
[2] Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923 (New York: Basic Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2005), 8.
[3] Godfrey Goodwin, The Janissaries (London: Saqi Books, 1994), 27.
[4] Goodwin, The Janissaries, 29.
[5] Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire, s.v. “Janissaries.”
[6] Goodwin, The Janissaries, 27.
[7] Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire, s.v. “Janissaries.”
[8] Goodwin, The Janissaries, 29.
[9] Ibid., 27.
[10]Ibid., 34.
[11] Ibid., 37.
[12] Ibid., 39.
[13] Ibid., 40.
[14] Ibid., 65.
[15] Ibid., 69.
[16] Ibid., 80.
[17] Ibid., 82, 83.
[18] John Freely, Istanbul: The Imperial City (New York: Penguin Group, 1996), 176.
[19] Konstantin Mihailovic, Memoirs of a Janissary (Princeton: Marcus Wiener Publishers, 2010), 40.
[20] Goodwin, The Janissaries, 83.
[21] Ibid., 85.
[22] Ibid., 97.
[23] Ibid., 98.
[24] Finkel, Osman’s Dream, 46.
[25] Ibid., 177.
[26] Ibid., 82.
[27] Ibid., 101, 102.
[28] Ibid., 106.
[29] Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire, s.v. “Osman II.”
[30] Finkel, Osman’s Dream, 200-201.
[31] Ibid., 370.
[32] Ibid., 391.
[33] Ibid., 424.
[34] Goodwin, The Janissaries, 202.
[35] Ibid., 204, 205.
[36] Ibid., 219.
[37] Ibid., 221.
[38] Ibd., 224, 225.
[39] Ibid., 226, 227.


  1. thank you
    black magic

  2. Constantinople didn't become Istanbul until 1922 and the republic and yet you call it Istanbul during the sultanate. To me it sounds patronizing to your readers.