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JANISSARIES. In the late fourteenth century the government of the Ottoman Empire established an elite slave infantry known as “new troops” or Janissaries (Turkish, yenicen), differentiating them from the traditional levies of free Muslim warriors. Interpreting freely the ancient rules of Islamic warfare, by which a portion of enslaved prisoners taken in battle went to the ruler, the Ottoman government continued the enslaving process in peacetime. It instituted a quadrennial collection (devsirme) that selected approximately 20 percent of the young boys from conquered regions, particularly (but not limited to) the Christian Balkans.

All devsirme boys entered a complicated educational system in which each took a Muslim identity, learned Turkish, and practiced the arts of war and leadership. After being thoroughly examined, the most promising entered the palace school and eventually became the slave rulers of the empire. The majority, however, graduated as Janissaries, placed into companies of daily-wage, uniformed infantry-archers and later musketmen and artillerymen. The sultan personally appointed their commander, the agha, whose power ranked with the highest of imperial advisers; their spiritual needs were met by the dervish order of the Bektashis.

Thus the will of the sultan, through the power of the Janissaries, extended to all the empire, helping to control the free landholding Muslim warriors. The sultan could depend on Janissary loyalty: not only did the slave realize he must obey or be executed without trial, but that obedience also gave him enormous personal power and tax-exempt status. Janissaries gained great influence because they were responsible for enforcing the sultan’s law in the provinces and keeping peace between Muslims and non-Muslims. After the time of Sultan Mehmed II (d. 1481), they grew powerful enough to play the role of kingmakers in any sultan’s quest for the throne.

By the mid-seventeenth century, when Ottoman political expansion ceased and the central government weakened, police control of outlying regions increasingly fell into the hands of Janissary constabularies. Janissaries began to participate in local politics, joining with guilds, working with influential local ulema, and entering business. After about 1640 the enslavement of Christian boys ceased, and the Janissaries replenished their ranks with their sons and with free Muslims who bought their way into the privileged status. As their numbers grew, their demands for pay (often in arrears because of the weakening economy) led them to revolt, even against the sultans. They often determined regional public policy as well as holding extraordinary influence in Istanbul. By 1700 few sultans could muster the courage to contradict them, and in 1789 the reformer Selim III fell to their violence.

In 1826 Sultan Mahmud II, relying both on the power of his newly formed military force and on public contempt for Janissary tyranny, slaughtered most of the Janissaries at a muster in Istanbul and drove from power those remaining in the provinces. Historians often cite this “Auspicious Incident,” as it is known by the Turks, as essential to the beginning of Ottoman modernization.

[See also Military Forces; Ottoman Empire.]


Gibb, H. A. R., and Harold Bowen. “The Janissaries.” In Islamic Society and the West, vol. 1, pp. 56-66. London, 1950. Some details of Janissary organization within the general system of “The Ruling Institution.” See also Appendix A, “The Janissaries.”

Huart, Claude. “Janissaries.” In First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 19131936, vol. 4, pp. 572-574. Leiden, 1987. Standard, if dated, survey.

Itzkowitz, Norman. Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition. New York, 1972. Extremely useful, easily understood outline of the Ottoman ruling system and the Janissaries’ role.

Shaw, Stanford J. “The Ruling Class.” In The History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, vol. I, Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808. Cambridge, London, and New York, 1976. The essentials of the Janissary organization in the context of the imperial Ottoman story. See especially pages 113-117, 122-125.

Uzuncarsili, Ismail Hakkt. Osman Devleti teskilatindan kapukulu Ocaklart, vol. I. Istanbul, 1943. In Turkish, the most comprehensive monographic study yet available.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/janissaries/

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