Janissaries (corrupted from Turkish yeni chéri, new troops), an organized military force constituting until 1826 the standing army of the Ottoman empire. At the outset of her history, Turkey possessed no standing army. All Moslems capable of bearing arms served as a kind of volunteer yeomanry known as akinjis; they were summoned by public criers, or, if the occasion required it, by secret messengers. It was under Orkhan that a regular paid army was first organized: the soldiers were known as yaya or piyadé. The result was unsatisfactory, as the Turcomans, from whom these troops were recruited, were unaccustomed to fight on foot or to submit to military discipline. Accordingly in 1330, on the advice of Chendéréli Kara Khalil, the system known as devshurmé or forced levy, was adopted, whereby a certain number of Christian youths (at first 1000) were every year taken from their parents and, after undergoing a period of apprenticeship, were enrolled as yeni chéri or new troops. The venerable saint Haji Bektash, founder of the Bektashi dervishes, blessed the corps and promised them victory; he remained ever after the patron saint of the janissaries.
At first the corps was exclusively recruited by the forced levy of Christian children, for which purpose the officer known as tournaji-bashi, or head-keeper of the cranes, made periodical tours in the provinces. The fixed organization of the corps dates only from Mahommed II., and its regulations were subsequently modified by Suleiman I. In early days all Christians were enrolled indiscriminately; later those from Albania, Bosnia and Bulgaria were preferred. The recruits while serving their apprenticeship were instructed in the principles of the faith by khojas, but according to D’Ohsson (vii. 327) they were not obliged to become Moslems.
The entire corps, commanded by the aga of the janissaries, was known as the ojak (hearth); it was divided into ortas or units of varying numbers; the oda (room) was the name given to the barracks in which the janissaries were lodged. There were, after the reorganization of Suleiman I., 196 ortas of three classes, viz. the jemaat, comprising 101 ortas, the beuluk, 61 ortas, and the sekban, or seimen, 34 ortas; to these must be added 34 ortas of ajami or apprentices. The strength of the orta varied greatly, sometimes being as low as 100, sometimes rising considerably beyond its nominal war strength of 500. The distinction between the different classes seems to have been principally in name; in theory the jemaat, or yaya beiler, were specially charged with the duty of frontier-guards; the beuluks had the privilege of serving as the sultan’s guards and of keeping the sacred banner in their custody.
Until the accession of Murad III. (1574) the total effective of the janissaries, including the ajami or apprentices, did not exceed 20,000. In 1582 irregularities in the mode of admission to the ranks began. Soon parents themselves begged to have their children enrolled, so great were the privileges attaching to the corps; later the privilege of enlistment was restricted to the children or relatives of former janissaries; eventually the regulations were much relaxed, and any person was admitted, only negroes being excluded. In 1591 the ojak numbered 48,688 men. Under Ibrahim (1640-1648) it was reduced by Kara Mustafa to 17,000; but it soon rose again, and at the accession of Mahommed IV. (1648), the accession-bakshish was distributed to 50,000 janissaries. During the war of 1683-1698 the rules for admission were suspended, 30,000 recruits being received at one time, and the effective of the corps rising to 70,000; about 1805 it numbered more than 112,000; it went on increasing until the destruction of the janissaries, when it reached 135,000. It would perhaps be more correct to say that these are the numbers figuring on the pay-sheets, and that they doubtless largely exceed the total of the men actually serving in the ranks.
Promotion to the rank of warrant officer was obtained by long or distinguished service; it was by seniority up to the rank of odabashi, but odabashis were promoted to the rank of chorbaji (commander of an orta) solely by selection. Janissaries advanced in their own orta, which they left only to assume the command of another. Ortas remained permanently stationed in the fortress towns in which they were in garrison, being displaced in time of peace only when some violent animosity broke out between two companies. There were usually 12 in garrison at Belgrade, 14 at Khotin, 16 at Widdin, 20 at Bagdad, &c. The commander was frequently changed. A new chorbaji was usually appointed to the command of an orta stationed at a frontier post; he was then transferred elsewhere, so that in course of time he passed through different provinces.
In time of peace the janissary received no pay. At first his war pay was limited to one aspre per diem, but it was eventually raised to a minimum of three aspres, while veterans received as much as 29 aspres, and retired officers from 30 to 120. The aga received 24,000 piastres per annum; the ordinary pay of a commander was 120 aspres per diem. The aga and several of his subordinates received a percentage of the pay and allowance of the troops; they also inherited the property of deceased janissaries. Moreover, the officers profited largely by retaining the names of dead or fictitious janissaries on the pay-rolls. Rations of mutton, bread and candles were furnished by the government, the supply of rice, butter and vegetables being at the charge of the commandant. The rations would have been entirely inadequate if the janissaries had not been allowed, contrary to the regulations, to pursue different callings, such as those of baker, butcher, glazier, boatman, &c. At first the janissaries bore no other distinctive mark save the white felt cap. Soon the red cap with gold embroidery was substituted. Later a uniform was introduced, of which the distinctive mark was less the colour than the cut of the coat and the shape of the head-dress and turban. The only distinction in the costume of commanding officers was in the colour of their boots, those of the beuluks being red while the others were yellow; subordinate officers wore black boots.
The fundamental laws of the janissaries, which were very early infringed, were as follows: implicit obedience to their officers; perfect accord and union among themselves; abstinence from luxury, extravagance and practices unseemly for a soldier and a brave man; observance of the rules of Haji Bektash and of the religious law; exclusion from the ranks of all save those properly levied; special rules for the infliction of the death-penalty; promotion to be by seniority; janissaries to be admonished or punished by their own officers only; the infirm and unfit to be pensioned; janissaries were not to let their beards grow, not to marry, nor to leave their barracks, nor to engage in trade; but were to spend their time in drill and in practising the arts of war.
In time of peace the state supplied no arms, and the janissaries on service in the capital were armed only with clubs; they were forbidden to carry any arm save a cutlass, the only exception being at the frontier-posts. In time of war the janissaries provided their own arms, and these might be any which took their fancy. However, they were induced by rivalry to procure the best obtainable and to keep them in perfect order. The banner of the janissaries was of white silk on which verses from the Koran were embroidered in gold. This banner was planted beside the aga’s tent in camp, with four other flags in red cases, and his three horse-tails. Each orta had its flag, half-red and 152 half-yellow, placed before the tent of its commander. Each orta had two or three great caldrons used for boiling the soup and pilaw; these were under the guard of subordinate officers. A particular superstition attached to them: if they were lost in battle all the officers were disgraced, and the orta was no longer allowed to parade with its caldrons in public ceremonies. The janissaries were stationed in most of the guard-houses of Constantinople and other large towns. No sentries were on duty, but rounds were sent out two or three times a day. It was customary for the sultan or the grand vizier to bestow largess on an orta which they might visit.
The janissaries conducted themselves with extreme violence and brutality towards civilians. They extorted money from them on every possible pretext: thus, it was their duty to sweep the streets in the immediate vicinity of their barracks, but they forced the civilians, especially if rayas, to perform this task or to pay a bribe. They were themselves subject to severe corporal punishments; if these were to take place publicly the ojak was first asked for its consent.
At first a source of strength to Turkey as being the only well-organized and disciplined force in the country, the janissaries soon became its bane, thanks to their lawlessness and exactions. One frequent means of exhibiting their discontent was to set fire to Constantinople; 140 such fires are said to have been caused during the 28 years of Ahmed III.’s reign. The janissaries were at all times distinguished for their want of respect towards the sultans; their outbreaks were never due to a real desire for reforms of abuses or of misgovernment, but were solely caused to obtain the downfall of some obnoxious minister.
The first recorded revolt of the janissaries is in 1443, on the occasion of the second accession of Mahommed II., when they broke into rebellion at Adrianople. A similar revolt happened at his death, when Bayazid II. was forced to yield to their demands and thus the custom of the accession-bakshish was established; at the end of his reign it was the janissaries who forced Bayazid to summon Prince Selim and to hand over the reins of power to him. During the Persian campaign of Selim I. they mutinied more than once. Under Osman II. their disorders reached their greatest height and led to the dethronement and murder of the sultan. It would be tedious to recall all their acts of insubordination. Throughout Turkish history they were made use of as instruments by unscrupulous and ambitious statesmen, and in the 17th century they had become a praetorian guard in the worst sense of the word. Sultan Selim III. in despair endeavoured to organize a properly drilled and disciplined force, under the name of nizam-i-jedid, to take their place; for some time the janissaries regarded this attempt in sullen silence; a curious detail is that Napoleon’s ambassador Sebastiani strongly dissuaded the sultan from taking this step. Again serving as tools, the janissaries dethroned Selim III and obtained the abolition of the nizam-i-jedid. But after the successful revolution of Bairakdar Pasha of Widdin the new troops were re-established and drilled: the resentment of the janissaries rose to such a height that they attacked the grand vizier’s house, and after destroying it marched against the sultan’s palace. They were repulsed by cannon, losing 600 men in the affair (1806). But such was the excitement and alarm caused at Constantinople that the nizam-i-jedid, or sekbans as they were now called, had to be suppressed.
During the next 20 years the misdeeds and turbulence of the janissaries knew no bounds. Sultan Mahmud II., powerfully impressed by their violence and lawlessness at his accession, and with the example of Mehemet Ali’s method of suppressing the Mamlukes before his eyes, determined to rid the state of this scourge; long biding his time, in 1825 he decided to form a corps of regular drilled troops known as eshkenjis. A fetva was obtained from the Sheikh-ul-Islam to the effect that it was the duty of Moslems to acquire military science. The imperial decree announcing the formation of the new troops was promulgated at a grand council, and the high dignitaries present (including certain of the principal officers of the janissaries who concurred) undertook to comply with its provisions. But the janissaries rose in revolt, and on the 10th of June 1826, began to collect on the Et Meidan square at Constantinople; at midnight they attacked the house of the aga of janissaries, and, finding he had made good his escape, proceeded to overturn the caldrons of as many ortas as they could find, thus forcing the troops of those ortas to join the insurrection.
Then they pillaged and robbed throughout the town. Meanwhile the government was collecting its forces; the ulema, consulted by the sultan, gave the following fetva: “If unjust and violent men attack their brethren, fight against the aggressors and send them before their natural judge!” On this the sacred standard of the prophet was unfurled, and war was formally declared against these disturbers of order. Cannon were brought against the Et Meidan, which was surrounded by troops. Ibrahim Aga, known as Kara Jehennum, the commander of the artillery, made a last appeal to the janissaries to surrender; they refused, and fire was opened upon them. Such as escaped were shot down as they fled; the barracks where many found refuge were burnt; those who were taken prisoner were brought before the grand vizier and hanged. Before many days were over the corps had ceased to exist, and the janissaries, the glory of Turkey’s early days and the scourge of the country for the last two centuries, had passed for ever from the page of her history. (1)
Notes and References
- Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)
M. d’Ohsson, Tableaux de l’empire ottoman (Paris, 1787-1820); Ahmed Vefyk, Lehjé-i-osmanié (Constantinople, 1290-1874); A. Djévad Bey, État militaire ottoman (Constantinople, 1885).