The Turkish Janissaries


Elite corps in the service of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). It was composed of war captives and Christian youths pressed into service; all the recruits were converted to Islam and trained under the strictest discipline. It was originally organized by Sultan Murad I in 1326 and called the Yengi-tscheri (new corps). It was blessed by Hadji Bektash, a saint, who cut off a sleeve of his fur mantle and gave it to the captain. The captain put the sleeve on his head, and from this circumstance arose the fur cap worn by these foot-guards. The Janissaries gained great power in the Ottoman Empire and made and unmade sultans.

“There were two classes of Janizaries, one regularly organised … and the other composing an irregular militia.’

The Ottoman army was mainly divided into three classes:

a) Kapikulu soldiers were professionals who acted directly under the strict command of the sultan. They were not even allowed to marry. They did not have any connection to the land holding system as they worked for salaries. Ulufe was the name given to their salaries which they received every 3 months. The majority of these Kapikulu soldiers consisted of janissaries. There were both foot-soldiers and cavalrymen.

b) Eyalet soldiers were Dirlik-holding soldiers. The majority of the Ottoman army were Eyalet soldiers. They were the front line soldiers and like Kapikulu soldiers they were divided into both foot-soldiers and cavalrymen.

c) Reinforcements were soldiers who came from annexed rulers.

The Janissaries.—Two notable institutions created by the Ottoman sultans were the military organization of the Janissaries and the civil service. These institutions evolved from the practice by the Ottoman leaders in Anatolia of employing captured prisoners as mercenary troops. Later on, during the conquest of the Balkans, the Turks, with the religious sanction of the grand mufti, took as tribute from the Christian population a percentage of the male children. These became the “slaves” of the sultan. Completely severed from their Christian families, these children were brought up as Moslems and imbued with religious devotion to Islam and loyalty to the sultan. The more able were enrolled in the palace corps of pages and trained to become administrators and officials in the state bureaucracy, the Ruling Institution. The remainder were given a military education and became members of the famous Janissary corps, recognized in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the best trained and most effective soldiers of Europe.

With a military force and a bureaucracy thus recruited from the non-Turkish and non-Moslem subjects, the earlier Ottoman sultans secured effective control over the empire. This they were able to maintain until the forces of corruption inherent in a military state based essentially on exploitation undermined the integrity of the Ruling Institution and changed basically the structure of the Janissary organization.

The Janissaries were closely associated with the religious order of the Bektash Dervishes, whose agha, or chief, held a commission as colonel in the Janissary organization. Dervishes were attached to all the military units of the Janissaries in their barracks and to the troops in the field. Thus the Janissaries closely affiliated with the Moslem Institution of ulemas, muftis, and cadis acquired elements of political power which threatened that of the sultans.

Growing weakness of the sultans in the seventeenth century resulted in the granting of more privileges to the Janissaries, whose officers became a class exempted from the burdens of taxation which even the Moslem population bore. Although Janissaries held a very special position in the empire and their officers had many opportunities to enrich themselves, the rank and file frequently found themselves without pay when the government was in financial difficulties. Gradually, the very structure of Janissary organization was changed. Because of the opportunities open to the officers, many Turks sought to have their children enrolled in the Janissary corps, and by the last quarter of the seventeenth century the Janissaries ceased to be recruited from Christian families. Meanwhile, many ill-paid Janissary privates engaged in crafts and commercial activities, becoming prominent in so-called “corporations,” which were comparable to the craft and merchant guilds of medieval Europe.