لو كانوا خيراً لنا لأبقاهم الله معنا.
If they were good for us, God would keep them with us.

Ottoman Military: Janissaries

Suggested by: deer-chaser, haruspicus, kirkendauhl, dolphingoeswoof

Slavery

Before you judge them too harshly you must first keep in mind that at this time slavery was quite common and even prevalent in some places. The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) was well known for its great quantity of slaves, Muslims (Arabs and Turks) and those who inhabited the Balkans, mainly Serbians and Bulgars, were the most numerous. The Bulgars and Serbs are both part of a linguistic grouping called Slavic, a word which has links to the word slave. The holy crusaders known as the Hospitallers (were known to simply kill Turkish prisoners and the Catalan company (mercenaries) were known to have killed all Turks over 10 years old.

The Turks followed the Islamic practice of not harming any prisoners of war who were under the age of 20 but this didn’t prevent them from enslaving them. The Turks instituted the Islamic practice Khums (“tax of a fifth”) which allotted the Sultan one fifth of all profit. After the conquest of Gallipoli in 1354 AD, Candarli Kara Halil proposed to the Sultan the pencik: the Sultan’s claim to one fifth of all human captives and/or a tax of one fifth of each slave sold.

All members of the Birum () were known as kul (“slave, servant”) though in reality many were free and could rise to very high ranks within the government as well as marry and have children. Zakat (“that which purifies”), one of the five pillars of Islam, is a charity tax which would go towards those in need and the worthy of charitable support (the freeing of slaves, the poor and those who were in debt).

“Zakat expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect (zakāt) and for bringing hearts together and for freeing captives (or slaves) and for those in debt (or bonded labor) and for the cause of Allah and for the (stranded) traveler - an obligation ordained by Allah. and Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom.” - Surat At-Tawbah [9:60]

Yaya-Piade

[Yaya, Piade or Piyade]

Osprey - Men at Arms: Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774 - [Left] Yaya

The Yaya first appeared during the reign of Orhan as Marines but soon took on the role of foot archers. These volunteer soldiers were paid daily during campaigns but could leave at any time but later on, to stay in control of newly conquered lands (the Balkans especially) they became garrisoned troops. Payment was replaced with the giving of land in return for military service, this was done so they could not only maintain Ottoman control of lands but so these garrisoned troops could protect and maintain roads and bridges.

Made up of both Christians and Muslims alike, these peasant volunteers would use a variety of weapons like axes, swords and spears; with those skilled in archery or hunting being armed with bows and crossbows. At the Battle of Maritsa in 1374 AD the Ottoman Yaya-Piade used archer fire to lure the Serbian heavy cavalry forward and upon their clash the Ottoman light cavalry swooped in and disposed of them.

Devsirme

Murad’s grand vizier Kara Khalil Candarli instituted the Devşirme (“collecting”)  a system in which Christian subjects were made to give their children to the Ottomans to be converted to Islam and trained for civic or military positions within the Ottoman Empire. At first these would be made up primarily of slaves and prisoners of war but as time passed and more Balkan nations were subdued this came to cover youths given as tribute by vassal realms. One could become part of the famed military infantry corps known as the Janissaries [“new corps”]) or the mounted Kapikulu.

"The conquered are the responsibility of the conqueror, who is the lawful ruler of them, of their lands, of their goods, of their wives, and of their children. We have a right to do, same as what we do with our own; and the treatment which I propose is not only lawful, but benevolent. By enforcing the enrolling them in the ranks of the army, we consult both their temporal and eternal interests, as they will be educated and given better life conditions.”

It is said by some that this was instituted to counteract the power of the Turkish nobility which had grown in strength, renown, and unreliability in the eyes of the Ottomans. Other Muslims were against this, seeing it as a gross violation of rights of the sultan’s non-Muslim subjects. Ottoman legal experts tried to justify the devsirme on the grounds that those recruited were not ‘protected people’ because their ancestors were conquered.

Osprey - Janissary - devrisme

On average every five years the Ottomans would be given one youth out of every 40 households which throughout the entirety of its use it is believed that between hundreds of thousands to 5 million children were taken into the devsirme system. Aged between 8 and 18 / 20, the youths chosen would’ve been from rural peasant families in Rumelia (the Balkans); they wanted these recruits to be both healthy and relatively uneducated which is why they avoided recruiting Greeks being that a good portion dwelt in either cities, ports or islands. Those with certain occupations were granted immunity, like miners and those living on strategic routes or passes being that they served a purpose and could also provide defensive protection over the general area. Families with only one son were excused, as were Jews and orphans.

The most skilled youths were taught Islam, languages, music, science, literature (Arabic, Persian and Turkish), horse riding, javelin throwing, archery, wrestling and an art of their choosing, They would attain high administrative, religious or military positions; the best of these Ic Oglan (Ic Oglanis, ‘pages’) were sent to the Sultan’s palace and the others were sent to become a part of the Kapikulu cavalry.

The other youths who didn’t become Ic Oglans became Acemi Oglans (apprentice, beginner, rookie, recruit). Taught Islam, to speak Turkish, mathematics and most of all, received military training. The most skilled would eventually become Bostanci (gardeners), Baltaci (woodcutters), armorers, gunners, work in kitchens or dockyards, or became marines or janissaries. Although this may seem barbaric and cruel, the devsirme provided the lower classes with a way to progress in the ranks. Peasant families are reported to have openly volunteered their children and went as far as bribing recruiters.

Osprey - Elite Series - Janissaries
Front Center - Acemi Oglan Trainee, Left - Sergeant of Janissary recruits, Right – Falakaci Bashi (‘head of punishment’)

It began to decline as admittance into the devrisme became more open and it was eventually abolished completely, pretty much allowing any one to join, despite religion, ethnicity or nationality. Officially the only Muslims that were allowed into the Janissaries were subjugated Balkan converts but after 1582 even free men joined the Janissary corps. From 1568 an onward the sons of Janissaries were allowed admittance and soon the majority of the corps were made up primarily of these families. By 1594 recruitment was open to all Muslims, even those of non-Balkan descent were allowed to join. The janissary corps became filled with men who bought their way in, known by now as an army of corrupt, militarily inexperienced and untrained youths. 

Conversion and religion

Catholic Medieval Europe was far more brutal towards non-Catholics than the Ottomans were to non-Muslims (ie. the Spanish inquisition). Though the Ottomans didn’t force Christians and Jews to convert they pressured them by granting Muslims more rights and benefits than them. Ottoman religious tolerance helped them keep control over their diverse empire. This tolerance also lead to their easy conversion of their subjects to Islam Even Jews under the Ottomans who converted to Islam were able to enter into the elite, something that they couldn’t do under Christian rule. The predominant faith followed by the Ottomans and more closely, by the Janissaries, was that of the Bektasi order of Sufi Islam.

Osprey - Janissary - Religious support: [Left] Bektasi Dervish 

Interesting to note is that the Bektasi faith was tolerant of other faiths and some elements of it were inspired by them (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Turkish tribal paganism, Sunni and Shia Islam); different concepts like that of the trinity, initiation rituals with the sharing of wine and bread (muhabbet), as well a as an annual confession and the absolving of sins, Conversion to Islam was made easier to the former Balkan Christians as the faith allowed them to maintain some of their earlier traditions and rituals. Military training, discipline and religion were some of the driving forces behind the morale of the Janissaries; some were said to have carried around pieces of the Christian gospel with them for luck.

“We are the Moths of the Divine Flame. We are a company of wandering dervishes in this world. We cannot be counted on the fingers, we cannot be destroyed by defeat.” - Huseyin (1822)

Janissary

Janissaries (yeni ceri, “new soldiers”) lived by a code like that of the knights of Europe; they valued self-control, discipline, obedience, piety, responsibility, respect, manners, honestly and loyalty.  

“Those who’ve left a famous name never died,
Those who’ve left no trace never lived.
Surely this is why you came to earth,
That men should recall your worth,
May I not die! Say you of noble birth?”

- Iskander Nameh by Ahmedi

A drawing of a Janissary by Gentile Bellini (15th-century)

During campaigns the destruction of property would result in the janissaries being punished as well as having to pay the victims back; deserting would result in execution by strangling and failing to abide by some of these values could result in being imprisoned or more commonly have the soles of your feet beaten. They would then have to show obedience and discipline to his commander by kissing his hand.

“They are diligent and get up early in the morning. They are frugal when on the road and live on only a little food, a little badly baked bread and some raw meat, dried a little in the sun, or some curdled or otherwise- prepared milk, some cheese or honey or grapes or fruit or grass, or a handful of flour which they make porridge for six or eight men a day.” - Bertrandon de le Broquiere

Attire, Weaponry and Symbolism 

Their uniforms were mostly made of wool, boots were made from red leather (yellow for senior officers), and the belts (and sashes) indicated status. The edges of an officer’s jacket were made of fur; usually from smaller animals like foxes, squirrels, lynxes, martens and weasels. 

The cloth in the back of the hat (Katche, Bork) is said to have imitated the sleeves of the Baktashi dervishes who placed their hand over the heads of the Janissaries to bless them. This was the most commonly known hat associated with the Janissaries; there are many other different hats which displayed rank.

Asci Usta (”master cook”) Janissary attire inspired by cook’s costume 

The names of Janissary Orta ranks had culinary orientated names: the colonel or Corbaci (jorbaci, “soup maker”), NCOs or Asci Usta (Ashji Usta ”master cook”) and Junior officers or Bas Karakullukcu (Bash Karakullukju, “head scullion”). The Kazan (copper cooking pot) was an important symbol for the Janissaries being that their meal of the day was cooked therein, they would sit down together around it and the loss of this item meant that they would be disgraced and wouldn’t be allowed to march in parades. Although it may seem strange to some for something as simple as sitting down to eat with each other would warrant such symbolism but as most of you known families that do so are more likely to have closer bonds, even the Spartans under Lycurgus’ reforms would eat together at mess-halls (Syssitia, ”eating-together”) for the same reason (even their kings).

The sultans were known by them as “the father who feeds us”. 

Each Janissary group had a large tent which would be used as their barracks, it would’ve been embroidered with the groups symbol or emblem. They are also said to have had this emblem tattooed to their hands, arms and/or legs.

Janissaries were trained in archery and musketry, practiced by shooting at clay pots. They were skilled enough that many noted their ability to shoot over long distances, shoot accurately with one hand and even at night under the light of the moon. They relied upon the skill of the individual and so they were said to have never shot in volleys (line of men firing in unison) and the most skilled would receive badges and feathers. 

During sieges the best Janissaries would be picked for special forces missions and given heavy armor and shields, these Zirhli Nefer (armored soldiers) were tasked with assaulting breaches in the walls and strong points. Because of the dangerous nature of their missions they may have been called the Serdengeçti (‘ç’ pronounced ‘j’; “head riskers”), being that these were often seen as suicide missions (survivors of a mission would be given  bonus pay, food and medals).

Osprey - ‘Elite’ series - Janissary - Janissary Soldiers - [Left] Zirhli Nefer

They had a range of weapons in their arsenal: swords, rapier, sabers, maces, axes, spears, glaives, halberds, daggers, javelins, slings, bows, crossbows and later firearms, grenades and hand cannons (Abus gun: ‘howitzer’). Despite the will of the Pope the English and Dutch continued to trade with the Ottomans, most importantly in their exporting of gunpowder and weapons (arquebuses: matchlocks). The Ottomans would also reuse weapons captured from their European opponents (European weaponry evidently influenced the Ottomans which can be seen in the naming of many of their weapons). Even though they adopted muskets they still employed archers into their armies being that the firearms took long to reload.


Warfare

At the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 AD the Franco-Burgundian army charged the Ottoman center where the Ottoman Akinci light cavalry stood. When they neared them the Ottoman Akinci horse archers shot of a flurry of arrows and then rushed out of the way so the French army rushed and stopped before the slope and spotted a wall of wooden stakes above. 

The Ottoman archers that lay uphill shot off volleys of arrows: “Hail nor rain does not come down in closer shower than did their shafts.“ To avoid dying a cowards death by arrow fire the men moved forward and attempted to take down the stakes under showers of arrows. “Some [Ottoman Azaps] held in their hand a spear, the others a sword, striking relentlessly the blue armour of their foes, while others brandished daggers.”

They broke through the stakes and fought off the infantry as well as the Ottoman Akinci cavalry, continued uphill before being flanked and defeated by the arrival of the Sipahis (mounted knights). The Hungarian reinforcements arrived and most routed seeing that the loss was inevitable, those that stayed defeated the infantry before clashing with the sipahis. The Serbians who were under Stefan Lazarevic (allied with the Ottomans) led an ambush out from the cover of trees which ended any chance of victory for the enemy.

Osprey - ‘Elite’ series - Janissary - Commanding Officers

At the Battle of Ankara in 1402 AD, the Ottoman army under Beyezid I clashed with the Turko-Mongol Persianate of the Timurids under the famed Tamerlane (Timur the lame). Here the Janissaries formed up the center of the Ottoman army, the Turkish sipahis (knights) and the Tatars deserted while others betrayed the Ottomans and joined the Timurids. 

Osprey – ‘Men At Arms’ series – The Age of Tamerlane
Art: Timur’s Cavalry c.1400 by Angus McBride

The Ottoman akinci Serbian cavalry fled as well, leaving only the Janissaries, Azaps and Sultan Beyezid, which held out until sundown, repelling advances from the Tatar cavalry, but they too were eventually overtaken. This was a heavy loss for the Ottomans as their army was destroyed, their Sultan Beyezid was captured and his sons fought against one another in a civil war for the right of succession. Janissaries and the Azaps had proven to be more loyal and braver than their Turkish and Balkan forces so when Murad II won the throne he increased the power and influence of the kapilulu.

Osprey - ‘Elite’ series - Janissary - Junior Officers

At the Battle of Varna in 1444 AD the Ottoman cavalry lured the enemy force close enough to fall victim to the arrows and cannon-fire of the Janissaries who were later charged by the cavalry of King Władysław III of Poland. The Polish king fell into a pitfall where he was killed and beheaded by Murad II’s Janissary bodyguards. At the Siege of Constantinople (1453 AD) the brave Janissaries would rather die than leave the body of a comrade at the gates of the city.

Siege of Constantinople

“From the twelfth day of April until the eighteenth day of the same month there was little movement by sea or by land, except the usual bombardment by day and by night, and some skirmishing which the Turks engaged in regularly with those on the walls of the city.

They found the Turks coming right up under the walls and seeking battle, particularly the janissaries, who are soldiers of the Turkish Sultan; none of them are afraid of death, but they came on like wild beasts, and when one or two of them were killed, at once more Turks came and took away the dead ones, carrying them on their shoulders as one would a pig, without caring how near they came to the city walls.

Our men shot at them with guns and crossbows, aiming at the Turk who was carrying away his dead countryman, and both of them would fall to the ground dead, and then there came other Turks and took them away, none fearing death, but being willing to let ten of themselves be killed rather than suffer the shame of leaving a single Turkish corpse by the walls.

Osprey - ‘Men at Arms’ series - Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774
16th cent Janissaries

Before the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 AD the Ottomans under Selim I marched against Isma’il the Shah (“king”) of the Safavid empire (of Persia), having little time to prepare for battle Shah Isma’il employed scorched earth tactics (a policy in which all crops and settlements are destroyed so the enemy cannot use them). The Ottoman army was running short on provisions, was exhausted and was leaning towards mutiny (arguing over whether it was right that they’re fighting fellow Muslims) to the point that the Janissaries fired their guns at their Sultan Selim’s tent out of discontent. At the Battle of Mohács in 1526 AD the Hungarians were pummeling the Ottomans until the Janissaries arrived and with musket fire and cannon bombardments they turned the tide of the battle.   

End of the Janissaries

As I’ve mentioned above, the Janissaries began to turn into a dangerous threat to the Ottomans. In order to stabilize the Ottoman Empire they spread the Janissaries among their provinces to quell them; in time they became comfortable in their new decadent positions. They were paid very well although almost all had little to no military experience, they began involving themselves in local businesses (which was against their order), married and fathered children (as well as getting their children into the Janissaries Corps without needing to go through the devsirme system) and became well known for their corruption and lack of loyalty for the Empire.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk wearing the traditional Janissary uniform.

At Chotim in 1621 AD (also called Chochim and Khotyn) the Ottomans were dealt a lethal blow, losing over 42,000 men while the enemy forces only lost 14,500. The humiliated Osman II returned to Constantinople, enraged with what he saw as a threat to the Ottoman Empire and military, he was intent in disbanding them. The Janissaries heard rumor of this, revolted, imprisoned and later killed Osman II. 

In 1797 AD Sultan Selim III (1789-1807) attempted to reform the Ottoman army with the creation of the Nizam-I Jedid (Arabic Nidhām al-Jadīd, the New Order), a new modernized infantry division made up of Anatolian (modern Turkey) peasants instead of the devsirme system that the Janissary’s were under (made up of Balkan youths). Besides the Janissaries, many others opposed this and so in 1801 AD the Janissaries look control of the Sanjak of Smederevo in Serbia. 

In 1804 AD the Janissaries under Dahija feared that the Ottoman Empire would turn the Serbian nobles (Knezes, “local dukes”) against them and so they decided to make a preemptive strike and slaughtered them, publicly displaying their heads in the central square (Slaughter of the Knezes [This massacre led to the First Serbian Uprising (part of the Serbian Revolution]), it was quickly dismantled and Selim III was assassinated.

The modern ‘White Tower of Thessaloniki’

It is believed that Sultan Mahmud II (ruled 1808-1839) incited a Janissary revolt by doing as Selim III did, he announced that he was going to form a new army and as he expected the Janissaries revolted in 1826 [Known as the Auspicious Incident]. They were killed while the survivors were exiled and more than 6,000 were executed and the last of the Janissaries were beheaded at the Thessaloniki Fort, known thereafter as the Kanli Kule or “Blood Tower” (now called the Beyaz Kule or “white tower”).

Sources:

For all my convert and sisters without a culture afraid to wear henna because they weren’t “invited” the prophet peace be upon him invited you to wear henna when told the women to wear henna.

Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu'minin:

A woman made a sign from behind a curtain to indicate that she had a letter for the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). The Prophet (ﷺ) closed his hand, saying: I do not know this is a man’s or a woman’s hand. She said: No, a woman. He said: If you were a woman, you would make a difference to your nails, meaning with henna.

Narrated Abu Huraira:

The Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) said,

“Beware of suspicion (about others), as suspicion is the falsest talk, and do not spy upon each other, and do not listen to the evil talk of the people about others’ affairs, and do not have enmity with one another, but be brothers. And none should ask for the hand of a girl who is already engaged to his (Muslim) brother, but one should wait till the first suitor marries her or leaves her.”

Saheeh al-Bukhari 5143, 5144

Oh darling what are we to do in this nation? This nation that dares not see its body in the mirror for fear of craving it? That dares not hear a woman’s voice on the phone for fear of being too impure to pray? What are we to do in this nation that knows all there is to know of the October Revolution, of the Zanj slaves who rose against the Caliph master of the Karmathians, who stood against the Caliph’s armies - and still keeps talking down to women like some Sheikh? What are we do in this nation [that lingers] between the works of Imam Ash-Shafi’i and the works of Lenin… between Qur'anic exegesis and Playboy magazines… between Mu'tazilism and the music of The Beatles? - Nizar Qabbani