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Janissary corps

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Janissary corps

For the Janissaries series of novels by Jerry Pournelle, see Janissaries series.

New Soldier
viziers as well as engineers, architects, physicians and scientists.
Active 1363–1826
Allegiance  Ottoman Empire
Type Infantry
Size 1400-1,000[1]




Headquarters Adrianople (Edirne), Constantinople (Istanbul)
Colors Red and Green
Engagements Battle of Kosovo
Battle of Nicopolis
Battle of Ankara
Battle of Varna
Battle of Chaldiran
Battle of Mohács
Siege of Vienna
and others
First Murad I
Last Mahmud II

The Janissaries (from Ottoman Turkish يڭيچرى yeniçeri meaning "new soldier", Greek: Γενίτσαροι, Italian: Giannizzeri, Albanian: Jeniçer, Hungarian: Janicsár, Croatian: Janjičari, Slovene: Janičarji, Romanian: Ieniceri, Serbian: Јањичари, Janjičari, Macedonian: Јаничари, Ukrainian: Яничари, Bulgarian: Еничари, Polish: Janczarzy) were infantry units that formed the Ottoman Sultan's household troops and bodyguards. Sultan Murad I created the force in 1383. It was abolished by Sultan Mahmud II in 1826 in the Auspicious Incident.[3] They were an elite corps whose internal cohesion was cemented by strict discipline and prevalent order.


The origins of the Janissaries are shrouded in myth, although traditional accounts credit Orhan I, an early Osman bey who reigned from 1326 to 1359, as the founder.[4] Modern historians such as Patrick Kinross date the formation of the Janissaries to around 1365, during the rule of Orhan's son Murad I, the first sultan of the Ottoman Empire.[5] The Janissaries became the first Ottoman standing army replacing forces that mostly consisted of tribal warriors (ghazis) whose loyalty and morale were not always guaranteed.[5]

From the 1380s to 1648, the Janissaries were gathered through the devşirme system which was abolished in 1638.[6] This was the recruiting of non-Turkish children, notably Balkan Christians; Jews were never subject to devşirme, nor were children from Turkic families. In early days, all Christians were enrolled indiscriminately. Later, those from Greece, Bosnia and Serbia were preferred.[7][8]

The Janissaries were kapıkulları (sing. kapıkulu), "door servants" or "slaves of the Porte", neither freemen nor ordinary slaves (Turkish: köle).[9] They were subject to strict discipline and were the first army to wear a uniform, but were paid salaries and pensions upon retirement and formed their own distinctive social class.[10] As such, they became one of the ruling classes of the Ottoman Empire, rivaling the Turkish aristocracy. The brightest of the Janissaries were sent to the palace institution, Enderun. Through a system of meritocracy, the Janissaries held enormous power, stopping all efforts to reform of the military.[6]

According to military historian Michael Antonucci and economic historians Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane, the Turkish administrators would scour their regions (but especially the Balkans) every five years for the strongest sons of the sultan's Christian subjects. These boys, usually between the ages of 6 and 14, were then taken from their parents and given to Turkish families in the provinces to learn Turkish language and customs, and the rules of Islam. The recruits were indoctrinated into Islam, and supervised 24 hours a day. They were subjected to severe discipline, being prohibited from growing a beard, taking up a skill other than soldiering, and marrying. As a result, the Janissaries were extremely well-disciplined troops, and became members of the Askeri class, the first-class citizens or military class. Most were non-Muslims because it was not permissible to enslave a Muslim.[6] This elite corps was second only to the sultan in the Ottoman Empire.

The janissary system was introduced in the 14th century. It was a similar system to the Egyptian Mamluks, creating a counterbalance to the tribal, ethnic and favoured interests which make a system imbalanced. The Janissary Corps was a trained and loyal group of slaves to the sultan. In the late 16th century, a sultan gave in to the pressures of the Corps and permitted Janissary children to become members of the Corps, a practice strictly forbidden for the previous 300 years. They also became rent-seeking and sought protection of their special rights and advantages. According to paintings of the era, they were also permitted to grow beards. Consequently, the formerly strict rules of succession became open to interpretation. While they advanced their own power, the janissaries also helped to keep the system from changing in other progressive ways.

“The Janissary Corps was most responsible for the political stagnation of Istanbul”[6]

Greek Historian Dimitri Kitsikis in his book Türk Yunan İmparatorluğu ("Turco-Greek Empire")[7] states that many Christian families were willing to comply with the devşirme because it offered a possibility of social advancement. Conscripts could one day become Janissary colonels, statesmen who might one day return to their home region as governors, or even Grand Viziers or Beylerbeys (governor generals).

Some of the most famous Janissaries include George Kastrioti Skanderbeg an Albanian, who defected and led a 20‑year Albanian revolt against the Ottomans, and Sokollu Mehmed Paşa, a Bosnian Serb who became a grand vizier, served three sultans, and was the de facto ruler of the Ottoman Empire for more than 14 years.[11]


The Janissary corps was distinctive in a number of ways. They were the first regular army to wear unique uniforms, to be paid regular salaries for their service, to march to music (the mehter), to live in barracks and to make extensive use of firearms. Those aspects can be seen as precursors of the modern military system. A Janissary battalion was a close-knit community, effectively the soldier's family. By tradition, the Sultan himself, after authorizing the payments to the Janissaries, visited the barracks dressed as a Janissary trooper, and received his pay alongside the other men of the First Division.[13] They also served as policemen, palace guards, and firefighters during peacetime.[14] The Janissaries also enjoyed far better support on campaign than other armies of the time. They were part of a well-organized military machine, in which one support corps prepared the roads while others pitched tents and baked the bread. Their weapons and ammunition were transported and re-supplied by the cebeci corps. They campaigned with their own medical teams of Muslim and Jewish surgeons and their sick and wounded were evacuated to dedicated mobile hospitals set up behind the lines.[13]

These differences, along with an impressive war-record, made the Janissaries a subject of interest and study by foreigners during their own time. Although eventually the concept of a modern army incorporated and surpassed most of the distinctions of the Janissaries and the corps was eventually dissolved, the image of the Janissary has remained as one of the symbols of the Ottomans in the western psyche. By the mid-18th century they had taken up many trades and gained the right to marry and enroll their children in the corps and very few continued to live in the barracks.[14] Many of them became administrators and scholars. Retired or discharged Janissaries received pensions and their children were also looked after. This evolution away from their original military vocation was the major cause of the system's demise.

Recruitment, training and status

The first Janissary units were formed from prisoners of war and slaves, probably as a result of the sultan taking his traditional one-fifth share of his army's plunder in kind rather than cash.[4] Initially the recruiters favoured Greeks and Albanians.. As borders of the Ottoman Empire expanded, the devşirme was extended to include Bulgarians, Croats, Serbs, Armenians and later, in rare instances, Romanians, Georgians, Poles, Ukrainians and southern Russians. The Janissaries first began enrolling outside the devşirme system during the reign of Sultan Murad III (1574–1595). According to economic historians Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane the system of devşirme recruitment declined rapidly after 1827 under the rule of Mahumd IIc and the slaughter of thousands of Janissaries in their barracks.[6]

After this period, volunteers were enrolled, mostly of Turkish origin.[13] By 1683, Sultan Mehmet IV abolished the devşirme, as increasing numbers of originally Muslim Turkish families had already enrolled their own sons into the force hoping for a lucrative career.[13]

The prescribed daily rate of pay for entry-level Janissaries in the time of Ahmet I was three Akches. Promotion to a cavalry regiment implied a minimum salary of 10 Akches.[16] Janissaries received a sum of 12 Akches every three months for clothing incidentals and 30 Akches for weaponry with an additional allowance for ammunition as well.[17]


When a Christian boy was recruited under devşirme system, first he would be sent to selected Turkish families in the provinces to learn to speak Turkish, rules of Islam and customs and culture of Ottoman society. After completion of this period, acemi (rookie) boys would be gathered to be trained in Enderun "acemi oğlan" school at the capital city. At the school, young cadets would be selected for their talents in different areas to train as engineers, artisans, riflemen, clerics, archers, artillery, etc. Janissaries trained under strict discipline with hard labour and in practically monastic conditions in acemi oğlan ("rookie" or "cadet") schools, where they were expected to remain celibate. Unlike other Muslims, they were expressly forbidden to wear beards, only a moustache. These rules were obeyed by Janissaries, at least until the 18th century when they also began to engage in other crafts and trades, breaking another of the original rules. In the late 16th century a sultan gave in to the pressures of the Janissary Corps and permitted Janissary children to become members of the Corps, a practice strictly forbidden for 300 years. They also became Rent-seeking and made goals to protect their special rights and advantages. Consequently succession rules, formerly strict, became open to interpretation. They gained their own power but kept the system from changing in other progressive ways. “The Janissary Corps was most responsible for the political stagnation of Istanbul” [6]

For all practical purposes Janissaries belonged to the Sultan and they were regarded as the protectors of the throne and the Sultan. Janissaries were taught to consider the corps as their 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 24 or 25. The Ocak inherited the property of dead Janissaries, thus acquiring wealth. Janissaries also learned to follow the dictates of the dervish saint Haji Bektash Veli, disciples of whom had blessed the first troops. Bektashi served as a kind of chaplain for Janissaries. In this and in their secluded life, Janissaries resembled Christian military orders like the Knights Hospitaller. As a symbol of their devotion to the order, Janissaries wore special hats called "börk". These hats also had a holding place in front, called the "kaşıklık", for a spoon. This symbolized the "kaşık kardeşliği", or the "brotherhood of the spoon", which reflected a sense of comradeship among the Janissaries who ate, slept, fought and died together.[6]

Janissary corps

The corps was organized in ortas. An orta (equivalent to a battalion) was headed by a çorbaci. All ortas together comprised the Janissary corps proper and its organization, named ocak (literally "hearth"). Suleiman I had 165 ortas and the number increased over time to 196. While the Sultan was the supreme commander of the Ottoman Army and of the Janissaries in particular, the corps was organized and led by a commander, the ağa. The corps was divided into three sub-corps:

  • the cemaat (frontier troops; also spelled jemaat), with 101 ortas
  • the beyliks or beuluks (the Sultan's own bodyguard), with 61 ortas
  • the sekban or seirnen, with 34 ortas

In addition there were also 34 ortas of the ajemi (cadets). A semi-autonomous Janissary corps was permanently based in Algiers.

Originally Janissaries could be promoted only through seniority and within their own orta. They could leave the unit only to assume command of another. Only Janissaries' own commanding officers could punish them. The rank names were based on positions in the kitchen staff or the royal hunters, perhaps to emphasise that Janissaries were servants of the Sultan. Local Janissaries, stationed in a town or city for a long time, were known as yerliyyas.

Corps strength

Even though the Janissaries were part of the royal army and personal guards of the sultan, the corps was not the main force of the Ottoman military. In the classical period, Janissaries comprised only one tenth of the overall Ottoman army, while the traditional Turkish cavalry made up the main battle force. According to David Nicolle, the number of Janissaries in the 14th century was 1,000 and about 6,000 in 1475. The same source estimates the number of Timarli Sipahi, the provincial cavalry which constituted the main force of the army at 40,000.[1]

Documentation from the 1620s and 1630s recording troop mobilization levels for two middle sized campaigns suggest that at a time when full Janissary membership in the Istanbul barracks amounted to some 30,000 men those actually deployed at the front ranged between 20,000 and 25,000.[18]

A roll call held in Hungary in 1541, reflecting the actual deployed strength of the Ottoman regular army forces participating in campaign, registered 15,612 men as present. Of these approximately 6,350 were Janissaries, 3,700 were Sipahis and another 1,650 were members of the Artillery corps. The remaining one quarter (roughly 4,100 men) were mostly non-combatatants. Information for the year 1660 when the only active front was in Transylvania (siege of Varat/Oradea in July/August) indicates 18,013 actives out of a total Janissary enrollment of 32,794. It does not follow from the fact that 18,000 Janissaries were present for salary distributions in the field that even they took a very active role in the fighting.[19]

Year 1400 1514 1523 1526 1564 1567–68 1574 1603 1609 1660–61 1665 1669 1670 1680
Strength <1,000[1] 10,156[2] 12,000[2] 7,885[2] 13,502[2] 12,798[2] 13,599[2] 14,000[2] 37,627[2] 54,222[2] 49,556[2] 51,437[2] 49,868[2] 54,222[2]


During the initial period of formation, Janissaries were expert archers, but they began adopting firearms as soon as such became available during the 1440s. The siege of Vienna in 1529 confirmed the reputation of their engineers, e.g. sappers and miners. In melee combat they used axes and kilijs. Originally in peacetime they could carry only clubs or daggers, unless they served as border troops. Turkish yatagan swords were the signature weapon of the Janissaries, almost a symbol of the corps. Janissaries who guarded the palace (Zülüflü Baltacılar) carried long-shafted axes and halberds.

By the early 16th century, the Janissaries were equipped with and were skilled with muskets.[20] In particular, they used a massive "trench gun", firing an 80-millimetre (3.1 in) ball, which was "feared by their enemies".[20] Janissaries also made extensive use of early grenades and hand cannons, such as the abus gun.[13] Pistols were not initially popular but they became so after the Cretan War (1645–1669).[21]


The Ottoman empire used Janissaries in all its major campaigns, including the 1453 capture of Constantinople, the defeat of the Egyptian Mamluks and wars against Hungary and Austria. Janissary troops were always led to the battle by the Sultan himself, and always had a share of the booty. The Janissary corps was the only infantry division of the Ottoman army. In battle the Janissaries' main mission was to protect the Sultan, using cannon and smaller firearms, and holding the center of the army against enemy attack during the strategic false retreat of Turkish cavalry. The Janissary corps also included smaller expert teams: explosive experts, engineers and technicians, sharpshooters (with arrow and rifle) and sappers who dug tunnels under fortresses, etc.

Revolts and disbandment

As Janissaries became aware of their own importance they began to desire a better life. By the early 17th century Janissaries had such prestige and influence that they dominated the government. They could mutiny and dictate policy and hinder efforts to modernize the army structure. They could change Sultans as they wished through palace coups. They made themselves landholders and tradesmen. They would also limit the enlistment to the sons of former Janissaries who did not have to go through the original training period in the acemi oğlan, as well as avoiding the physical selection, thereby reducing their military value. When Janissaries could practically extort money from the Sultan and business and family life replaced martial fervour, their effectiveness as combat troops decreased. The northern borders of the Ottoman Empire slowly began to shrink southwards after the second Battle of Vienna in 1683.

In 1449 they revolted for the first time, demanding higher wages, which they obtained. The stage was set for a decadent evolution, like that of the Streltsy of Tsar Peter's Russia or that of the Praetorian Guard which proved the greatest threat to Roman emperors, rather than an effective protection. After 1451, every new Sultan felt obligated to pay each Janissary a reward and raise his pay rank (although since early Ottoman times, every other member of the Topkapi court received a payraise as well). Sultan Selim II gave janissaries permission to marry in 1566, undermining the exclusivity of loyalty to the dynasty. By 1622, the Janissaries were a "serious threat" to the stability of the Empire.[24] Through their "greed and indiscipline", they were now a law unto themselves and, against modern European armies, ineffective on the battlefield as a fighting force.[24] In 1622, the teenage Sultan Osman II, after a defeat during war against Poland, determined to curb Janissary excesses and outraged at becoming "subject to his own slaves" tried to disband the Janissary corps blaming it for the disaster during the Polish war.[24] In the spring, hearing rumours that the Sultan was preparing to move against them, the Janissaries revolted and took the Sultan captive, imprisoning him in the notorious Seven Towers: he was murdered shortly afterwards.[24]

In 1804, the Dahias, the Jannisary junta that ruled Serbia at the time, had taken power in the Sanjak of Smederevo in defiance of the Sultan and they feared that the Sultan would make use of the Serbs to oust them. To forestall this they decided to execute all prominent nobles throughout Central Serbia, a move known as Slaughter of the knezes. According to historical sources of the city of Valjevo, heads of the murdered men were put on public display in the central square to serve as an example to those who might plot against the rule of the Janissaries. The event triggered the start of the Serbian revolution with the First Serbian uprising aimed at putting an end to the 300 years of Ottoman occupation of modern Serbia.[25]

In 1807 a Janissary revolt deposed Sultan Selim III, who had tried to modernize the army along Western European lines.[26] His supporters failed to recapture power before Mustafa IV had him killed, but elevated Mahmud II to the throne in 1808.[26] When the Janissaries threatened to oust Mahmud II, he had the captured Mustafa executed and eventually came to a compromise with the Janissaries.[26] Ever mindful of the Janissary threat, the sultan spent the next years discreetly securing his position. The Janissaries' abuse of power, military ineffectiveness, resistance to reform and the cost of salaries to 135,000 men, many of whom were not actually serving soldiers, had all become intolerable.[27]

By 1826, the sultan was ready to move. Historian Patrick Kinross suggests that Mahmud II incited them to revolt on purpose, describing it as the sultan's "coup against the Janissaries".[3] The sultan informed them, through a fatwa, that he was forming a new army, organised and trained along modern European lines.[3] As predicted, they mutinied, advancing on the sultan's palace.[3] In the ensuing fight, the Janissary barracks were set in flames by artillery fire resulting in 4,000 Janissary fatalities.[3] The survivors were either exiled or executed, and their possessions were confiscated by the Sultan.[3] This event is now called the Auspicious Incident. The last of the Janissaries were then put to death by decapitation in what was later called the blood tower, in Thessaloniki.

Janissary music

Further information: Ottoman military band

The military music of the Janissaries was noted for its powerful percussion and shrill winds combining kös (giant timpani), davul (bass drum), zurna (a loud shawm), naffir, or boru (natural trumpet), çevgan bells, triangle, (a borrowing from Europe), and cymbals (zil), among others. Janissary music influenced European classical musicians such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, both of whom composed mausic in the "Alla turca" style (Mozart's Piano Sonata in A major, K. 331 (c. 1783), Beethoven's incidental music for The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113 (1811), and the final movement of Symphony no. 9), although the Beethoven example is now considered a march rather than Alla turca.[28]

Sultan Mahmud II abolished the mehter band in 1826 along with the Janissary corps. Mahmud replaced the mehter band in 1828 with a European style military band trained by Giuseppe Donizetti. In modern times, although the Janissary corps no longer exists as a professional fighting force, the tradition of Mehter music is carried on as a cultural and tourist attraction.

In 1952, the Janissary military band, Mehterân, was organized again under the auspices of the Istanbul Military Museum. They have performances during some national holidays as well as in some parades during days of historical importance. For more details, see Turkish music (style) and Mehter.

Popular culture

See also




External links

  • History of the Janissary Music
  • Janissary section on German-language website about Ottomman empire (not yet exploited) (German)
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