The Janissaries (or janizaries; in Turkish: Yeniçeri, meaning New Troops) comprised infantry units that formed the Ottoman sultan's household troops and bodyguard. The force originated in the 14th century; it was abolished (and massacred) by Sultan Mahmud II in 1826.
Origin of the janissaries
Bey Murad I of the fledgling Ottoman Empire founded the corps around 1330. It was initially formed of non-Muslims, especially Christian youths and prisoners-of-war, reminiscent of Mameluks. Murad may have also used futuwa groups as a model. Such janissaries became the first Ottoman standing army, replacing forces mostly composed of tribal warriors whose loyalty and morale could not always be trusted. Besides, no self-respecting free warrior would have agreed to serve as a lowly infantryman.
Janissary training and way of life
The first janissary units comprised war captives and slaves. After the 1380s Sultan Selim I filled their ranks with the results of taxation in human form called devshirmeh. The sultan’s men would conscript a number of non-Muslim, usually Christian, boys – at first at random, later by strict selection – and take them to be trained. In later centuries they seem to have preferred Albanians, Serbs and Bulgarians. Usually they would select about 1 in 40 boys of ages 7-14 but the numbers could be changed to correspond with the need for soldiers. Later they would extend the devshirmeh to Greece and Hungary. Of course, residents could hardly appreciate the custom.
Janissaries trained under strict discipline with hard labour and in practically monastic conditions in acemi oglan schools, where they were expected to remain celibate and were at least encouraged to convert to Islam. Most did. For all practical purposes, janissaries belonged to the sultan. Unlike free Muslims, they were expressly forbidden to wear beards, only a moustache. Janissaries were taught to consider the corps as their home and family and the sultan as their de facto father. Only those who proved strong enough earned the rank of a true janissary at the age of 24 - 25. The regiment inherited the property of dead janissaries.
Janissaries also learned to follow the dictates of the dervish saint Haji Bektash who had blessed the first troops. Bektashi served as a kind of chaplain for janissaries. In this and in their secluded life, janissaries resembled Christian knightly orders like the Johannites of Rhodes.
In return for their loyalty and their fervour in war Janissaries gained privileges and benefits. Originally they received pay only in wartime and in mid-18th century they could work as law-enforcers or as tradesmen in peaceful conditions – although they always lived in barracks. Still, they enjoyed high living standards, exemption from taxes and respected social status. Many of them became administrators and scholars. Retired and invalided janissaries even received pensions.
The janissary corps
The full strength of the janissary troops varied from maybe 100 to more than 200,000. The corps was organized in ortas (literally "hearth" but equivalent to regiment). Suleiman I had 165 ortas but the amount increased to 196. The sultan was the supreme commander of the Janissaries but the corp was organized and led by the aga (commander). The corps was divided into three sub-corps:
- the jemaat (frontier troops), with 101 ortas
- the beuluks (sultan's bodyguard), with 61 ortas
- the sekban or seirnen, with 34 ortas
In addition there was also 34 ortas of the ajami (apprentices). Originally janissaries could increase in rank only within their own orta and only through seniority. They would leave the unit only to assume command of another. Only janissaries' own commanding officers could punish them. The rank names were based on positions in a kitchen staff and hunters, perhaps to emphasise that janissaries were servants of the sultan.
In the first centuries janissaries were expert archers, but they adopted firearms as soon as such became available (during the 1440s). In melee combat they used axes and sabres. Originally in peacetime they could carry only clubs or cutlasses, unless they served in border troops. Local janissaries, stationed in a town or city for a long time were known as yerliyyas.
The Ottoman empire used janissaries in all its major campaigns, including the 1453 capture of Constantinople, the defeat of the Egyptian mameluks and wars in Austria. Janissary troops were always led to the battle by the sultan himself, and always had a share of the booty.
Janissaries’ reputation increased to the point that by 1683 the sultan Mehmed IV could abolish the devshirmeh. Increasing numbers of originally Muslim Turkish families had already enrolled their own sons into the force. Every governor wanted to have his own janissaries.
The janissary revolts
Janissaries also became aware of their own importance and begun to desire better payment. In 1449 they revolted for the first time, demanding higher wages, which they obtained. After 1451, every new sultan was obligated to pay each janissary a reward and raise his pay rank. Sultan Selim II gave janissaries permission to marry in 1566.
In the aftermath of the Moldavian Magnate Wars (1595-1621) with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Habsburgs, culminating in the battles of Cecora and Ottoman defeat at Khotyn, Sultan Osman II died during the rebellion of janissaries in 1622.
By the early 18th century janissaries had such prestige and influence that they could dominate the government. They could mutiny and dictate policy and hinder efforts to modernise the army structure. They could change sultans as they wished through palace coups. They made themselves landholders and tradesmen. They would also limit the enlistment to the boys of former janissaries who did not have to go through the original training period in acemi oglan.
When janissaries could practically extort money from the Sultan and business and family life replaced martial fervour, their effectiveness as combat troops decreased. The northern borders of the Ottoman Empire slowly began to shrink southwards after the second Battle of Vienna in 1683. Janissaries resisted attempts to reorganise the army and in 1622 killed sultan Osman II when he planned to replace them. They also had support of the bektashie sect.
In 1807 the janissaries revolted and deposed Selim III, who had tried to create a more modern army with European instructors. His supporters failed to recapture power before Mustafa IV had him killed but elevated Mahmud II to the throne in 1808. When janissaries threatened to oust Mahmud, he followed suit and had the captured Mustafa executed and eventually came to a compromise with the janissaries. He spent more than a decade in securing his position.
In April 1810, janissaries burned 2,000 homes in Galata and in spring 1811 two regiments engaged in a gun battle in Istanbul. They fought in the Greek War of Independence.
Eventually Mahmud II had to get rid of the janissaries. One reason could have been that he had to pay the high salaries of 135,000 janissaries, many of which were not actually serving soldiers. Many may have been already dead or retired soldiers that were kept on the payroll to allow the commander to claim the money and speculate with the pay tickets.
In 1826 the janissaries noticed that sultan was forming a new army. Some have suggested that the sultan had incited them to revolt on purpose. On June 14 - 15 1826, janissaries in Istanbul revolted but this time most of the army and of the population at large turned against them. Spahis, the cavalry units loyal to the sultan forced them to retreat to their barracks. Artillery fired fifteen volleys into the barracks buildings and caused massive casualties. Survivors suffered execution or banishment and two years later Mahmud II confiscated the last janissary possessions. This event is now called The Auspicious Incident.
In the modern army of Turkey the Mehter Band and the troops that accompany them form the only remnant of the janissaries. The band plays at state, military and tourist functions.
The military march music of the Janissaries is characteristic because of its powerful, often shrill sound combining bass drums, horns (boru), bells, the triangle and cymbals (zil), among others. Janissary music influenced western classic musicians like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. The Janissary Music is still played at state, military and tourist functions in modern Turkey by the Mehter Band and the troops that accompany. For more details, see Turkish music (style).
- Godfrey Goodwin - Janissaries
- David Nicolle - Janissary
- 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica