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"Devshirme" (book illustration from Topkapı Palace Museum.)

Devşirme[a] (literally "collecting" in Turkish), also known as the blood tax or tribute in blood, was chiefly the annual practice by which the Ottoman Empire sent military to abduct boys, sons of their Christian subjects in the villages of the Balkans and Anatolia.[1] They were then converted to Islam[2] with the primary objective of selecting and training the ablest children for the military or civil service of the Empire, notably into the Janissaries.[3]

Started by Murad I as a means to counteract the growing power of the Turkish nobility, the practice itself violated Islamic law.[4] Yet by 1648, the practice was slowly drawing to an end. An attempt to re-institute it in 1703 was resisted by its Ottoman members who coveted its military and civilian posts. Finally in the early part of Ahmet III's reign, the practice of devşirme was abolished.


  • History 1
  • The life of the devşirme 2
  • Ethnicity of the devşirme, and exemptions 3
  • Decline 4
  • The response of society 5
  • See also 6
  • Annotations 7
  • References 8
    • Sources 8.1
  • External links 9


The Devşirme arose out of the kul system of slavery that developed in the early centuries of the Ottoman Empire and which reached this final development during the reign of Sultan Bayazit I.[5]The origin of the kuls was mostly prisoners of war or hostages or slaves purchased by the state.

The Ottoman Empire, beginning with Murad I, felt a need to "counteract the power of (Turkic) nobles by developing Christian vassal soldiers and converted kapıkulları as his personal troops, independent of the regular army."[6] The elite forces, which served the Ottoman Sultan directly, were divided into two main groups: cavalry and infantry.[b] The cavalry was commonly known as the Kapıkulu Süvari (The Cavalry of the Servants of the Porte) and the infantry were the popular Yeni Çeri (transliterated in English as Janissary), meaning "the New Corps".

At first, the soldiers to serve in these corps were selected from the slaves captured during warfare. However, the system commonly known as devşirme was soon adopted: in this system children of the rural Christian populations of the Balkans—particularly Albanians, Serbs, and northern Greeks—were conscripted before adolescence and were brought up as Muslims. Upon reaching adolescence, these children were enrolled in one of the four imperial institutions: the Palace, the Scribes, the Religious and the Military. Those enrolled in the Military would become either part of the Janissary corps, or part of any other corps.[7] The brightest were sent to the Palace institution (Enderun), and were destined for a career within the palace itself where the most able could aspire to attain the very highest office of state, that of Grand Vizier, the Sultan's immensely powerful chief minister and military deputy.

The life of the devşirme

The ideal age of a recruit was between 7 and 10 years of age,[8] although they recruited much younger boys. The devşirme system was locally resented[9] and was resisted, even to the point of disfiguring their sons.[10][11] On the other hand, as the devşirme were recruited to rise up to the grand vizier status (the second most powerful man in the empire), Christian parents in Bosnia were known to bribe scouts to take their children.[12] "The children were taken from their families and transported to Istanbul. Upon their arrival, they were converted to Islam, examined, and trained to serve the empire. This system produced infantry corps soldiers as well as civilian administrators and high-ranked military officials."[13]

Although the influence of Turkic nobility continued in the Ottoman court until Mehmet II (see Çandarlı Halil), the Ottoman ruling class slowly came to be ruled exclusively by the devşirme, creating a separate social class.[14] This class of rulers was chosen from the brightest of devşirme and hand-picked to serve in the Palace institution, known as the Enderun.[15] They had to accompany the Sultan on campaigns, but exceptional service would be rewarded by assignments outside the palace.[16] Those chosen for the Scribe institution, known as Kalemiye were also granted prestigious positions. The Religious institution, İlmiye, was where all orthodox Muslim clergy of the Ottoman Empire were educated and sent to provinces or served in the capital.[17]

Suleiman the Magnificent[19]). By the 1650s there were more than 50,000 Janissaries who lived as homosexuals and practiced strict military discipline.[20][21] Recruits were sometimes gained through voluntary accessions, as some parents were often eager to have their children enroll in the Janissary service that ensured them a successful career and comfort.[22]

Albertus Bobovius wrote in 1686 that diseases were common among the devşirme and strict discipline was enforced.[23]

The BBC notes the following regarding the devşirme system: "Although members of the devshirme class were technically slaves, they were of great importance to the Sultan because they owed him their absolute loyalty and became vital to his power. This status enabled some of the 'slaves' to become both powerful and wealthy."[24] Yet this system was clearly illegal according to Islamic law, sharia.[25] Halil İnalcık writes that the devşirme were not actually considered to be slaves.[26]

According to Cleveland, the devşirme system offered "limitless opportunities to the young men who became a part of it."[27] Basilike Papoulia wrote that "...the devsirme was the 'forcible removal', in the form of a tribute, of children of the Christian subjects from their ethnic, religious and cultural environment and their transportation into the Turkish-Islamic environment with the aim of employing them in the service of the Palace, the army, and the state, whereby they were on the one hand to serve the Sultan as slaves and freedmen and on the other to form the ruling class of the State."[28] Accordingly, Papoulia agrees with Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb and Harold Bowen, authors of Islamic society and the West, that the devşirme was a penalization imposed on the Balkan peoples since their ancestors resisted the Ottoman invasion.[29] Vladimir Minorsky states, "The most striking manifestation of this fact is the unprecedented system of devshirme, i.e. the periodic conscription of 'tribute boys', by which the children of Christians were wrung from their families, churches, and communities to be molded into Ottoman praetorians owing their allegiance to the Sultan and the official faith of Islam."[30] This system as explained by Çandarlı Kara Halil Hayreddin Pasha, founder of the Janissaries, "The conquered are slaves of the conquerors, to whom their goods, their women, and their children belong as lawful possession".[31]

Ethnicity of the devşirme, and exemptions

The devşirme were collected once every four or five years from rural provinces in Balkans, and with a few exceptions, only from non-Muslims. The devşirme levy was not applied to the major cities of the empire, and children of local craftsmen in rural towns were also exempt, as it was considered that conscripting them would harm the economy.[32]

According to Bernard Lewis, the Janissaries were mainly recruited from the "Slavic and Albanian populations of the Balkans".[33] According to the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Encyclopaedia of Islam, in the early days of the empire all Christians were enrolled indiscriminately. Later, those from Albania, Greece, Bosnia, and Bulgaria were preferred.[34] Well known examples of Ottomans who had been recruited as devşirme include Skanderbeg, Sinan Pasha and Sokollu Mehmed Pasha. The early Ottoman emphasis on recruiting Greeks, Albanians, and south Slavs was a direct consequence of being centred on territories, in northwestern Anatolia and the southern Balkans, where these ethnic groups were prevalent. [35]

Jews were exempt from this service and until recently Armenians were thought to have also been exempt.[36][37] However, Armenian manuscript colophons from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and foreign travelers of the time indicate that Armenians were not spared from the devşirme.[38][39]

What is certain is that devşirme were primarily recruited from Christians living in the Balkan Christians, particularly Albanians, Greeks, and Slavs. However, Bosnian Muslims were also recruited and sent directly to serve in the Palace (rather than the military), under groups called "potor".[32][40] However, modern Turkish-nationalist inspired scholarship in particular often downplays the role of Greeks in the devshirme and Ottoman Empire in general, in contrast to other Balkan Christian groups, because Greece and Greeks are seen to embody Christian Orthodoxy itself and also to represent a real military and cultural threat to the Turkish nation: to acknowledge the important role of Greeks in the Ottoman government and military establishment in particular is to undermine the very Turkishness of the Ottoman Empire and its achievements.[41]


The devşirme system declined in the 16th and 17th century due to a number of factors, including the inclusion of free Muslims in the system. After 1568 the "boy harvest" was only occasionally made. In 1632 the Janissaries attempted an unsuccessful coup against Murad IV, who then imposed a loyalty oath on them. In 1638[42] or 1648 the devşirme-based recruiting system of the Janissary corps formally came to an end.[43] In an order sent in multiple copies to authorities throughout the European provinces in 1666 a devşirme recruitment target of between 300 and 320 was set for an area covering the whole of the central and western Balkans.[44] On the accession of sultan Suleiman II in 1687 only 130 Janissary inductees were graduated to the Janissary ranks.[45] The system was finally abolished in the early part of Ahmet III's reign (1703–1730).[46]

After Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 there was a reform movement in Sultan Selim III's regime, to reduce the numbers of the askeri class, who were the first class citizens or military class (also called janissaries). Selim was taken prisoner and murdered by the Janissaries. The successor to the sultan, Mahmud II was patient but remembered the results of the uprising in 1807. In 1826 he created the basis of a new, modern army, the Asakir-i Mansure-i Muhammediye,[47] which caused a revolt among the Janissaries. The authorities kept them all in their barracks and slaughtered thousands of them.[48] This development entered the Ottoman history annals as the Auspicious Incident.

The response of society

The practice as to Janissary soldiers[49][50] was motivated by the desire to create an elite class of warriors loyal only to the Sultan, rather than to individual Ottoman nobles.

See also


  1. ^ Known simply as "collecting" (devşirme) Ottoman دوشيرمه‎. In other languages, it is known as: Greek: παιδομάζωμα/Paedomazoma - collection of children; Armenian: Մանկահավաք/Mankahavak′ - child-gathering; Romanian: tribut de sânge; Bosnian and Croatian: Danak u krvi, Serbian: Данак у крви/Danak u krvi, Macedonian: Данок во крв/Danok vo krv, Bulgarian: Кръвен данък/Kraven Danak - blood tax
  2. ^ More classifications, such as the artillery and cannon corps, miners and moat diggers and even a separate cannon-wagon corps were introduced later on, but the number of people in these groups were relatively small, and they incorporated Christian elements.


  1. ^
  2. ^ The New Encyclopedia of Islam, Ed. Cyril Glassé, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 129.
  3. ^ Basgoz, I. & Wilson, H. E. (1989), The educational tradition of the Ottoman Empire and the development of the Turkish educational system of the republican era. Turkish Review 3(16), 15.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Halil Inalcik, "Ottoman Civilisation", p138, Ankara 2004.
  6. ^ Shaw 1976, p. 27.
  7. ^ Shaw 1976, pp. 112–129.
  8. ^
  9. ^ "...and point out that many Christian families were hostile and resentful about it—which is perhaps underlined by the use of force to impose the system.".
  10. ^ Yannaras, Christos, Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic self-identity in the modern age, (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006), 112.
  11. ^ S. Trifkovic. The Sword of the Prophet: Islam; History, Theology, Impact on the World. p. 97
  12. ^
  13. ^ A History of the modern middle east Cleveland and Buntin p.42
  14. ^
  15. ^ Shaw 1976, pp. 115–117.
  16. ^ Shaw 1976, p. 117.
  17. ^ Shaw 1976, pp. 132–139.
  18. ^ Tavernier. Nouvelle Relation de L'ınterieur du Serrial du Grand Seigneur. 1678, Amsterdam.
  19. ^ Shaw 1976, p. 121.
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ The preaching of Islam: a history of the propagation of the Muslim faith By Sir Thomas Walker Arnold, pg. 130
  23. ^ Nicolas Brenner. Serai Enderun; das ist inwendige beschaffenheit der türkischen Kayserl, residentz, zu Constantinopoli die newe burgk genannt sampt der ordnung und gebrauschen so von Alberto Bobivio Leopolitano. J. J. Kürner. 1667. Search under Bobovio, Bobovius or Ali Ulvi for other translations. French version exists, and fragments exist in C.G. and A.W. Fisher's "Topkapi Sarayi in the Mid-17th Century: Bobovi's Description" in 1985.
  24. ^
  25. ^ *Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, ed. Alexander Mikaberidze, 273;"This effectively enslaved some of the sultan's own non-Islamic subjects and was therefore illegal under Islamic law, which stipulated that conquered non-Muslims should be demilitarized and protected."[1]
    *The Rise of the Ottomans, I. Metin Kunt, The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 6, C.1300-c.1415, 860.
  26. ^ Halil Inalcik, "Ottoman Civilisation", p. 138, Ankara 2004.
  27. ^ Cleveland, William L. "A History of the Modern Middle East. 3rd Edition." p. 46
  28. ^ Some Notes on the Devsirme, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1966, V.L.Menage, (Cambridge University Press, 1966), 64.
  29. ^ Some Notes on the Devsirme, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1966, V.L.Menage, (Cambridge University Press, 1966), 70.
  30. ^ Shaykh Bali-Efendi on the Safavids, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1/3, 1957, V. Minorsky, (Cambridge University Press, 1957), p. 437.
  31. ^ Lybyer, Albert Howe, The Government of the Ottoman empire in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, (Harvard University Press, 1913), 63-64.
  32. ^ a b Shaw 1976, p. 114.
  33. ^
  34. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica. Eleventh Edition, vol. 15 and Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden Grill, 1967-97), vol. 4, art. 'Devshirme'. p 151.
  35. ^ Andrina Stiles, 'The Ottoman Empire: 1450-1700' (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), pp. 66-73.
  36. ^ Shaw 1976, p. 114: Shaw states that the reason for this exemption may have been the recognition of both People as a separate Nation (none of the Balkan ethnic groups were recognized as such) or that both Jews and Armenians lived mostly in the major cities anyway.
  37. ^ Albertus Bobovius, who was enslaved by Crimean Tatars and sold into the palace in the 17th century, reports that both Armenians and Jews were exempt from the devşirme levy. He writes that the reason for this exemption of Armenians is religious: That Armenian Gregorian church was considered the closest to Christ's (and therefore Muhammed's) teachings.
  38. ^ Kouymjian, Dickran (1997). "Armenia from the Fall of the Cilician Kingdom (1375) to the Forced Migration under Shah Abbas (1604)" in The Armenian People From Ancient to Modern Times, Volume II: Foreign Dominion to Statehood: The Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth Century. Richard Hovannisian (ed.) New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 12-14. ISBN 1-4039-6422-X.
  39. ^ (Armenian) Zulalyan, Manvel. "«Դեվշիրմեն» (մանկահավաքը) օսմանյան կայսրության մեջ ըստ թուրքական և հայկական աղբյուրների," [The "Devshirme" (Child-Gathering) in the Ottoman Empire According to Turkish and Armenian Sources] Patma-Banasirakan Handes 5-6/2-3 (1959): pp. 247-256.
  40. ^
  41. ^ Andrina Stile, The Ottoman Empire: 1450-1700 (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), pp. 166-167.
  42. ^ Hubbard, Glenn and Tim Kane. (2013). Balance: The Economics of Great Powers From Ancient Rome to Modern America . Simon & Schuster. P. 152. ISBN 978-1-4767-0025-0
  43. ^
  44. ^ Murphey 2006, pp. 44-45.
  45. ^ Murphey 2006, p. 46.
  46. ^ Murphey 2006, p. 223.
  47. ^ Kinross, pp. 456–457.
  48. ^ Hubbard, Glenn and Tim Kane. (2013). Balance: The Economics of Great Powers From Ancient Rome to Modern America. Simon & Schuster. P. 153. ISBN 978-1-4767-0025-0
  49. ^ Cragg, Kenneth, The Arab Christian, (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 120.
  50. ^ Sedlar, Jean W., East Central Europe in the Middle Ages, 1000-1500, (University of Washington Press, 1994), 242.


External links

  • "Devsirme" in "Encyclopaedia of the Orient"
  • Website on the Ottoman empire - original German version; here its Janissary page (to be further exploited)
  • Papoulia, B.D., Ursprung und Wesen der “knabenlese” im Osmanischen Reich. München, 1963 (in German, title means 'origin and nature of the 'boy harvest' in the Ottoman Empire)
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