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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Story of The Janissaries – The Elite Corps of the Sultan

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The Janissaries (Ottoman ينيچرى(yeniçeri), meaning “new soldier”) were members of an elite corps in the army of the Ottoman Empire from the late 14th century till 1826. Bodyguards and household troops of the sultan were always led in to battle by the sultan himself and had a shear of the booty. They took active participation in all major campaigns, including the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the defeat of the Egyptian Mamluks and the wars against Hungary and Austria. The Janissaries were the first full-time trained army since the days of the Roman Empire. The unit was founded around 1365 by sultan Murad I. It was initially formed by Dhimmi (non-Muslims, that were granted safety in Islamic law in return for paying the capital tax), especially Christian children and prisoners of war. The reason for creating such a unit is not sure, but it might be because the sultan Murat distrusted the voluntary soldiers and wanted a corps of soldiers that will be loyal to him.

Characteristics of the Janissaries

The Janissaries were significant in a number of ways. They had their own uniform and were payed a regular salary in time of war and peace, including bonuses. Like I mentioned before, the Janissaries were the first standing army in Europe since the Roman Empire, so they have been linked to the Roman Praetorian Guard. There is a big difference between the Janissaries and the Christian armies of that time, where the feudal lords raised troops during war time. Those raised troops were usually villagers that work on the land of the feudal lord, and after the war they come back and continue to work there. This was not the case with the Janissaries. The soldiers’ families were the janissaries regiment; they lived in their barracks and served as policeman and firefighters during peacetime. Another difference is the regular payment, which was different from the contemporary practice of paying troops only during wartime. They were payed quarterly and even the sultan himself, after authorizing the payment of the salary, visited the barracks and received his salary as a regular trooper of the First Division.

The support system of the janissaries also set them apart from other military units. They waged war as a well organized military machine. The ottoman army had corps for preparing the roads, corps for locating and setting the tents ahead, corps that was in charge for food, etc. The cebeci corps was in charge for carrying and distributing weapons and ammunition to the battlefield. The Janissaries corps had its own internal medical auxiliaries- Muslim and Jewish surgeons who would travel with the corps and had organized methods of moving the wounded and the sick to traveling hospitals behind the lines.

Janissaries were expert archers, but they adopted firearms in 1440s, when such weapons became available and their making was very significant and effective. Firearms proved more effective then the cavalry equipped with swords and spears. Janissaries adopted firearms in the fifteenth century and by the sixteenth, the main weapon they used became the musket. Janissaries also made extensive use of early grenades and hand cannon such as the Abus gun. For melee combat they used axes and sabers. In peace time they could only carry clubs, unless they served in border troops.

The Janissaries were the first unit that used music when marching. They had a special corps, the Mehter similar to a modern marching band. They used this music as motivation before battle, but also to demotivate and scare the opponent. Their military music is characteristic because of its powerful, shrill sound combining davul (bass drum), zurna (laud oboe), naffir (trumpet), triangle and cymbals (zil). The Janissaries music influenced Europe classical musicians like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, both of whom composed marches in the Turkish style (Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A major (c. 1783) and Beethoven’s incidental music for The Ruins of Athens (1811) and the final movement of Symphony no. 9).

Strength and organization

The strength of the corps varied from time to time. Even thought they were the royal army and personal guards of the sultan, they usually were only one tenth of the overall Ottoman army. According to David Nicolle, a British historian, the number of the Janissaries in the fourteenth century was 1 000, and up to 6 000 in 1475, while the same source estimates 40 000 Sipahis, the provincial cavalry. After 1699, this number was reduced, but it was increased in the eighteenth century to 113,400 soldiers, but most are not actual soldiers and are accepted into the army through corrupt means and were only taking a salary.
The corps was organized in ortas (regiment), which were led by çorbaci. All ortas together made the proper Janissary corps and its organization named ocak (literally hearth). Suleiman I had 165 ortas but that number grew to 196. The sultan was the supreme commander of the Janissaries, but the corps was led by their supreme ağa (commander). Every corps was divided in to three sub-corpses: the cemaat (frontier troops) with 101 ortas, beyliks (the sultan’s own bodyguards) with 61 ortas and sekban with 34 ortas. There were additional 34 ortas of the ajemi (cadets).

Recruitment and training

The first Janissary units consist of war captives and slaves, selecting one in five for enrolment in the ranks. After the 1380s, sultan Mehmed I filled the ranks with taxation in human form, called devshirme, or blood tax. Children of none-Muslim families, usually Christian Balkan boys, were taken at a proper age, first at random, later by strict selection so they can be converted to Islam and trained. The Janissaries started accepting enrolment from outside the devshirme system for the first time during the reign of sultan Murad III (1574-1595) and completely stopped enrolling the devshirme system in the seventeenth century.
Janissaries trained under strict discipline with hard labour and in practically monastic conditions. They had to convert to Islam, as Christians were not allowed to bear arms in the Ottoman Empire until the nineteenth century. Unlike other Muslims, they were forbidden to wear beards, only a moustache was allowed. The Janissaries belonged to the sultan, carrying the title kapikulu (door slave). They were taught to consider the corps as home and family, and the sultan as their father. Only those who proved strong enough earned the rank of true Janissary at the age of twenty-four or twenty-five. They were not allowed to marry or to become merchants until the mid-eighteenth century when they had many trades and gained the right to merry and enrol their children in the corps. After this, very few continued to live in the barracks.

The disbandment of the unit

The importance of the Janissary was not unnoticed by them. Leaded by the desire for better life, they revolt for the first time in 1449, demanding higher wages, which they obtained. Similar scenarios happened again during the following centuries. As the Janissaries were getting more power and wealth, they turned into a corrupt and useless caste. In 1826, the sultan Mahmud II was ready for new reforms in the army organized and trained along modern European lines. The unit moved on to the sultan’s palace, trying to revolt against these reforms. In the fight, the Janissary’s barracks were set on fire by artillery fire, resulting in 4 000 Janissaries death. The survivors were either exiled or executed, and their possessions were confiscated by the sultan.
After Janissaries’ disband, Mahmoud II recruited 12 000 troops. The new army was formally named the Training Victorious Soldiers of Mohammed, or Mansure Army. By 1830 the army expanded to 27 000 troops.

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