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Military of the Ottoman Empire

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Military of the Ottoman Empire

March of the Turkish army near Belgrade (fourth quarter of the 17th-century), National Museum in Warsaw
The flag of the Ottoman Army from 1793 until dissolution in 1923

The history of military of the Ottoman Empire can be divided in five main periods. The foundation era covers the years between 1300 (Byzantine expedition) and 1453 (Fall of Constantinople), the classical period covers the years between 1451 (enthronement of Sultan Mehmed II) and 1606 (Peace of Zsitvatorok), the reformation period covers the years between 1606 and 1826 (Vaka-i Hayriye), the modernisation period covers the years between 1826 and 1858 and decline period covers the years between 1861 (enthronement of Sultan Abdülaziz) and 1918 (Armistice of Mudros).


  • Foundation of the Ottoman military (1300–1453) 1
  • Classical period (1451–1606) 2
    • Organization 2.1
      • Kapikulu 2.1.1
        • Janissaries
        • Household cavalry
        • Artillery corps
        • Armorer
        • Artillery wagoners
        • Bombardiers
        • Miners
      • Provincial army 2.1.2
        • Timariot cavalry
        • Frontier units
        • Azabs
      • Military band 2.1.3
  • Reform efforts (1606–1826) 3
  • Modernisation (1826–1858) 4
  • Ottoman navy 5
  • Ranks 6
    • In modern period 6.1
  • Conscription 7
  • Ottoman Army Strength, 1299–1826 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Foundation of the Ottoman military (1300–1453)

The earliest form of the Ottoman military was a steppe-nomadic cavalry force.[1] This was centralized by Osman I from Turkoman tribesmen inhabiting western Anatolia in the late 13th century.

These horsemen became an irregular force of raiders used as storm troops, armed with simple weapons like bows and spears. They were given fiefs called timars in the conquered lands, and were later called timariots. In addition they acquired wealth during campaigns.

Ottoman Empire volley gun with 9 barrels, early 16th century

booty or fiefs. The infantry were called yayas and the cavalry was known as müsellems. The force was made up by foreign mercenaries for the most part, and only a few Turks were content to accept salaries in place of timars. Foreign mercenaries were not required to convert to Islam as long as they obeyed their Ottoman commanders.

The Ottomans began using guns sometime at the 15th century. Following that, other troop types began to appear, such as the regular rifle infantry (Piyade Topçu, literally "foot artillery"), regular cavalry armed with rifles (Süvari Topçu Neferi, literally "mounted artillery soldier") and bombardiers (Humbaracı), consisting of grenadiers who threw explosives called khımbara and the soldiers who served the artillery with maintenance and powder supplies.

Classical period (1451–1606)



This regular army was commanded and paid by some important land-holders who gained power and became a sort of noble class. The mercenaries became a tool for their rise to predominance over the sultan, who simply could not afford to hire so many mercenaries that they would outnumber his nobles'. Therefore, in the middle of the 14th century, Murad I built his own personal slave army called the kapikulu. The new force was based on the sultan's right to a fifth of the war booty, which he interpreted to include captives taken in battle. The captive slaves were converted to Islam and trained in the sultan's personal service.

The most famous branch of the kapikulu was the janissary corps who were recruited among young Christian boys by the devşirme tax, but there were also several other troops types such as the Halberdier corps (Baltacı). Their numbers increased rapidly and this force became the most important element of the Ottoman army. In order to man the force, Murad II developed the devşirme system of recruiting youths in the form of taxes from Christians in the empire. Murad used the strength of the kapikulus and played them off against the nobility, forcing them to pay taxes or land so that the treasury could obtain the money it needed to maintain the Kapikulu army.

A janissary sketched by the renowned Venetian artist Gentile Bellini (1429–1507) who also painted the famous portrait of Sultan Mehmed II
Artillery troop image on the Ottoman coat of arms

The janissaries comprised infantry units that formed the Ottoman sultan's household troops and bodyguard. The force originated in the 14th century; it was abolished by Sultan Mahmud II in 1826.

The first janissary units comprised war captives and slaves. After the 1380s Sultan Mehmet I filled their ranks with the results of taxation in human form called devshirmeh: the Sultan's men conscripted a number of non-Muslim, usually Christian, boys – at first at random, later, by strict selection – to be trained.

Initially they favoured Greeks, Albanians (who also supplied many gendarmes), usually selecting about one in five boys of ages seven to fourteen but the numbers could be changed to correspond with the need for soldiers. Next the devshirmeh was extended to also include Serbs, Bosnians and other Balkan countries, later especially Ukraine and southern Russia. The Janissaries started accepting enrollment from outside the devshirmeh system first during the reign of Sultan Murad III (1546–1595) and completely stopped enrolling devshirmeh in the 17th century. After this period, volunteers were enrolled.[2]

For all practical purposes, Janissaries belonged to the Sultan, carrying the title "kapikulu"(Subject of the gate) indicating their collective bond with the Sultan. Janissaries were taught to consider the corps as their home and family, and the Sultan as their de facto father.

The janissary corps was significant in a number of ways. The janissaries wore uniforms, were paid in cash as regular soldiers, and marched to distinctive music, the mehter, similar to a modern marching band.

The Ottomans were one of the first states to maintain a standing army in Europe since the Roman Empire. The janissaries have been likened to the Roman Praetorian Guard and they had no equivalent in the Christian armies of the time, where the feudal lords raised troops during wartime.[3] A janissary regiment was effectively the soldier's family. They lived in their barracks and served as policemen and firefighters during peacetime.[4]

The janissary corps was also distinctive in the regular payment of a cash salary to the troops, and differed from the contemporary practice of paying troops only during wartime. The Janissaries were paid quarterly and the Sultan himself, after authorizing the payment of the salaries, dressed as a janissary, visited the barracks and received his salary as a regular trooper of the First Division.[2]

The janissary force became particularly significant when the foot soldier carrying firearms proved more effective than the cavalry equipped with sword and spear.[5] Janissaries adopted firearms very early, starting in the 15th century. By the 16th century, the main weapon of the janissary was the musket. Janissaries also made extensive use of early grenades and hand cannon.[2]

The auxiliary support system of the janissaries also set them apart from their contemporaries. The janissaries waged war as one part of a well organized military machine. The Ottoman army had a corps to prepare the road, a corps to pitch the tents ahead, a corps to bake the bread. The

  • "Turkey Prepares for War 1913–1914" by Lt. Col. Edward J. Erickson
  • Turkey in World War I
  • History of the Ottoman Military Music

External links

  1. ^ Mesut Uyar, Edward J. Erickson, A Military History of the Ottomans: From Osman to Atatürk, Pleager Security International, ISBN 978-0-275-98876-0, 2009, p. 1.
  2. ^ a b c d Uzunçarşılı, İsmail Hakkı (1988). Osmanlı Devleti Teşkilatından Kapıkulu Ocakları: Acemi Ocağı ve Yeniçeri Ocağı. Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu. pp. 411–463,376–377,405–406,66–67,482–483.  
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Goodwin, Jason (1998). Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: H. Holt. pp. 59,179–181.  
  5. ^ Jelavich, Barbara (1983). History of the Balkans, 18th and 19th centuries. New York: Cambridge University Press.  
  6. ^ Shaw 26
  7. ^ a b c Ottoman Warfare 1500–1700, Rhoads Murphey, 1999, p.49
  8. ^ Ottoman Warfare 1500–1700, Rhoads Murphey, 1999, p.190
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Turkish Navy Official Website: History of the Turkish Navy – Operations in the Atlantic Ocean
  10. ^ a b Konstam, Angus (2008). Piracy: the complete history. Osprey Publishing. p. 91.  
  11. ^ the standard – Petition created for submarine name
  12. ^ Submarine Heritage Centre – History: BARROW SHIPYARD AND SUBMARINES
  13. ^ mohammad nasiru din baba
  14. ^ Teaching world civilization with joy and enthusiasm, Benjamin Lee Wren, page 146
  15. ^ a b c d e An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, Halil İnalcik, page 89
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Ottoman warfare, 1500–1700, Rhoads Murphey, page 45
  17. ^ a b History of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey, Stanford J. Shaw, page 127
  18. ^ Ottoman warfare, 1500–1700, Rhoads Murphey, page 42
  19. ^ Guild dynamics in seventeenth-century Istanbul: fluidity and leverage, Eunjeong Yi, page 134
  20. ^ The state at war in South Asia, Pradeep Barua, page 57
  21. ^ An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, Halil İnalcik , page 92, 1997
  22. ^ Mesut Uyar, Edward J. Erickson, A Military History of the Ottomans: From Osman to Atatürk, Pleager Security International, ISBN 978-0-275-98876-0, 2009, p. 62.
  23. ^ History of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey, Stanford J. Shaw, page 129


See also

[3] (Akıncı) light cavalry, the Akıncıs continued to serve until 1595 when after a major rout in Wallachia they were dissolved by Grand Vezir Koca Sinan Paşa.[23]

[2] (Azab) light infantry, during the last quarter of the 16th century, the Azabs disappeared from the Ottoman documentary record.[22]

[1] (Yaya & Musellem) Yaya, light infantry, Musellem, light cavalry, over time they lost their original martial qualities and were employed only at such tasks as transportation or founding cannonballs. The organisation was totally abolished in 1582.[21]

Ottoman Army Strength, 1299–1826
Year Yaya & Musellem Azab Akıncı Timarli Sipahi (Total) Timarli Sipahi & Cebelu Janissary Kapikulu Sipahi Other Kapikulu (Total) Kapikulu Fortress guards, Martalos and Navy Sekban Nizam-ı Cedid Total Strength of Ottoman Army
1350 1,000 est. 1,000 est. 3,500 est. 200 est. 500 est. - - - - - - - 6,000 est.
1389 4,000 est. 8,000 est. 10,000 est. 5,000 est. 10,000 est. 500 est. 250 est. 250 est. 1,000 est. 4,000 est. - - 37,000 est.
1402 8,000 est. 15,000 est. 10,000 est. 20,000 est. 40,000 est. 1,000 est. 500 est. 500 est. 2,000 est. 6,000 est. - - 81,000 est.
1453 8,000 est. 15,000 est. 10,000 est. 20,000 est. 40,000 est. 6,000[14] 2,000 est. 4,000 est. 12,000 est. 9,000 est. - - 94,000 est.
1528 8,180[15] 20,000 est. 12,000[15] 37,741[15] 80,000 est. 12,000 est. 5,000 est. 7,000 est. 24,146[15] 23,017[15] - - 105,084 – 167,343 est.
1574 8,000 est. 20,000 est. 15,000 est. 40,000 est. 90,000 est. 13,599[16] 5,957[16] 9,619[16] 29,175[16] 30,000 est. - - 192,175 est.
1607/1609 [1] [2] [3] 44,404 (1607)[17] 50,000 est. (1609) 105,339 (1607)[17] 137,000 (1609)[18] 37,627 (1609)[19] 20,869 (1609)[16] 17,372 (1609)[16] 75,868 (1609)[16] 25,000 est. 10,000 est. - 196,207–247,868 est.
1670 [1] [2] [3] 22,000 est. 50,000 est. 39,470[16] 14,070[16] 16,756[16] 70,296[16] 25,000 est. 10,000 est. - 70,296- 155,296 est.
1807 [1] [2] [3] 400 est. 1,000 est. 15,000 est. 500 est. 500 est. 16,000 est. 15,000 est. 10.000 est. 25,000[20] 25,000–67,000 est.
1826 [1] [2] [3] 400 est. 1,000 est. 15,000 est. 500 est. 500 est. 16,000 est. 15,000 est. 15,000 est. - 47,000 est.

Ottoman Army Strength, 1299–1826

In 1389 a system of conscription was introduced in the Ottoman military. In times of need every town, quarter, and village should present a fully equipped conscript at the recruiting office. The new force of irregular infantrymen was called Azabs and it was used in a number of different ways. They supported the supplies to the front-line, they dug roads and built bridges. On rare occasions they were used as cannon fodder to slow down enemy advance. A branch of the Azabs were the bashi-bazouk (başıbozuk). These were specialized in close combat and were sometimes mounted. They became notorious for being brutal and indisciplined and were recruited from homeless, vagrants and criminals.[13]


  • Nefer
  • Onbaşı
  • Çavuş
  • Mülâzım-ı Sani (Second Lieutenant)
  • Mülâzım-ı Evvel (First Lieutenant)
  • Yüzbaşı (Captain)
  • Kolağası (Senior Captain)
  • Binbaşı (Major)
  • Kaymakam (Lieutenant Colonel)
  • Miralay is a commander of a regiment (alay)
  • Mirliva is a commander of a brigade (liva)
  • Ferik
  • Birinci Ferik
  • Müşir

In modern period

  • Aghas were commanders of the different branches of the military services, like "azap agha", "besli agha", "janissary agha", for the commanders of azaps, beslis, and janissaries, respectively. This designation was given to commanders of smaller military units, too, for instance the "bölük agha", and the "ocak agha", the commanders of a "bölük" (company) and an "ocak" (troops) respectively.
  • Boluk-bashi was a commander of a "bölük", equivalent with the rank of captain.
  • Çorbacı (Turkish for "soup server") was a commander of an orta (regiment), approximately corresponding to the rank of colonel (Turkish: Albay) today. In seafaring, the term was in use for the boss of a ship's crew, a role similar to that of boatswain.
Military ranks of the Ottoman Empire
Field marshal
Birinci Ferik (Serdar)
فريق أول
Lieutenant general
Major general
أمير آلاي
قائم مقام
Lieutenant colonel
(Sağ Kolağası / Sol Kolağası)
Mülâzım-ı Evvel
ملازم أول
First lieutenant
Mülâzım-ı Sani
ملازم ثاني
Second lieutenant
Non-commissioned officers


The first aircraft carrier sunk in the world was the seaplane carrier HMS Ben-my-Chree. She was sunk on 11 January 1917 by shore-based Turkish artillery fire commanded by Mustafa Ertuğrul.

The mine layer Nusret (Nusrat) and the frigate Hamidiye (Commanding Officer: Rauf Orbay) are two of the more famous ships of Ottoman Navy in the period of Balkan Wars and World War I. In the Gallipoli Campaign of the first World War, the Nusret, commanded by Lieutenant Tophaneli Hakki (Guverte Kidemli Yuzbasi Tophaneli Ibrahim oglu Hakki) laid 26 mines in the Dardanelles Strait. These mines led to the sinking of the British pre-dreadnought battleships HMS Irresistible and HMS Ocean and the French battleship Bouvet, and badly damaging the British battlecruiser HMS Inflexible.

Following the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, the Committee of Union and Progress which effectively took control of the country sought to develop a strong Ottoman naval force. The poor condition of the fleet was highlighted during the Ottoman Naval Parade of 1910, and as a consequence the Ottoman Navy Foundation was established in order to purchase new ships through public donations. Those who made donations received different types of medals according to the size of their contributions. With this public money, the Ottoman government purchased large battleships from the United Kingdom, naming them Sultan Osman I and Reşadiye. However despite the payment for both ships, the United Kingdom confiscated them at the outbreak of World War I and renamed them as HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin. The battleships had cost £4 million but the British government refused to refund the payments. This caused some ill-feeling towards Britain among the Ottoman public, and the German Empire took advantage of the situation by sending the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau which entered service in the Ottoman fleet as Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Midilli, respectively. Prior to the confiscation of the battleships, the Ottoman public opinion was largely divided between the pro-Britain stance of the Ottoman Navy and the pro-Germany stance of the Ottoman Army. This event significantly contributed to the decision to support and side with Germany in the First World War.

The Ottoman Navy at the Golden Horn in Istanbul, in the early days of the First World War

Following defeat against the combined British-French-Russian navies at the Battle of Navarino in 1827, and the subsequent loss of Algeria (1830) and Greece (1832), Ottoman naval power, and control over the Empire's distant overseas territories declined. Sultan Abdülaziz (reigned 1861–1876) attempted to reestablish a strong Ottoman navy, building the world's third largest fleet in that period after those of Britain and France, with 21 battleships and 173 other types of warships. The shipyard at Barrow, United Kingdom built its first submarine in 1886 for the Ottoman Empire.[11] The submarine Abdul Hamid achieved fame as the world's first to fire a torpedo underwater.[12] But the collapsing Ottoman economy could not sustain the fleet strength. Sultan Abdülhamid II (reigned 1876–1908) distrusted the navy, when the admirals supported the reformist Midhat Pasha and the First Ottoman Parliament of 1876. Claiming that the large and expensive navy was of no use against the Russians during the Russo-Turkish War, he locked most of the fleet inside the Golden Horn, where the ships decayed for the next 30 years.

The conquest of İmralı Island in the Sea of Marmara in 1308 marked the first Ottoman naval victory. In 1321 the Ottoman fleet made its first landings on Thrace in southeastern Europe, and vastly contributed to the expansion of the Empire's territories on the European continent. The Ottoman navy was one of the first to use cannons, and the Battle of Zonchio in 1499 went down in history as the first naval battle where cannons were used on ships. It was also the Ottoman navy which initiated the conquest of North Africa, with the addition of Algeria and Egypt to the Ottoman Empire in 1517. The Battle of Preveza in 1538 and the Battle of Djerba in 1560 marked the apex of Ottoman naval domination in the Mediterranean Sea. The Ottomans also confronted the Portuguese forces based in Goa at the Indian Ocean in numerous battles between 1538 and 1566. In 1566 the Sultan of Aceh asked for support against the Portuguese and declared allegiance to the Ottoman Empire, which sent its Indian Ocean fleet under Kurtoğlu Hızır Reis to Sumatra. The fleet landed at Aceh in 1569, and the event marked the easternmost Ottoman territorial expansion. In 1585 the Ottoman admiral Murat Reis captured Lanzarote[9] of the Canary Islands. In 1617 the Ottoman fleet captured Madeira[9] in the Atlantic Ocean, before raiding Sussex, Plymouth, Devon, Hartland Point, Cornwall and the other counties of western England in August 1625.[9] In 1627 Ottoman naval ships, accompanied by corsairs from the Barbary Coast, raided the Shetland Islands, Faroe Islands, Denmark, Norway and Iceland.[9] Between 1627 and 1631 the same Ottoman force also raided the coasts of Ireland and Sweden.[9] In 1627 a force of ships under the Ottoman flag captured the Isle of Lundy in the Bristol Channel, which served as the main base for Ottoman naval and privateering operations in the North Atlantic until 1632.[10] Ottoman ships later appeared off the eastern coasts of North America, particularly being sighted at the British colonies like Newfoundland and Virginia.[9] The overseas territorial acquisitions of the Ottoman Navy further expanded the extent of the Ottoman sphere of influence on distant lands in both the Indian and Atlantic oceans, such as the addition of Aceh (1569) as a vassal state to the Ottoman Empire, and temporary occupations like those of Lanzarote (1585), Madeira (1617), Vestmannaeyjar (1627) and Lundy (1627–1632).[9][10]

Ottoman navy

Sultan Mahmud II, Selim III's successor and nephew, who was a great reformer, disbanded the Janissaries in 1826 with so-called known as "Vaka-ı Hayriye" (the good incident), and formed the Asakir-i Mansure-i Muhammediye as a contemporary modern army.

Sultan Selim III formed the Nizam-ı Cedid army (Nizam-ı Cedid meaning New Order) in the late 18th century and early 19th century. This was the first serious attempt to transform the Ottoman military forces into a modern army. However, the Nizam-ı Cedid was short lived, dissolving after the abdication of Selim III in 1807.

Ottoman forces massed near Jerusalem during World War I

Modernisation (1826–1858)

Turkish soldiers in 1854.

Reform efforts (1606–1826)

Ottoman military bands are thought to be the oldest variety of military marching band in the world. Though they are often known by the Persian-derived word mehter (مهتر) in the West, that word, properly speaking, refers only to a single musician in the band.

An Ottoman mehterân

Military band

The Ottomans increased the use of Sekban (temporary infantry recruits) soldiers in the 17th century. They had a wartime strength of between 4,000 and 10,000 men.[8]

The Ottoman armies were not distinguished from their contemporaries in the West by numerical predominance of its military forces but by the thoroughness of the administrative backup and general support that maintained them in the field.[7]

The Ottoman military was modest for an empire whose population probably exceeded 20,000,000 by the end of the 17th century.[7]

A typical Ottoman army in 17th century might be composed of 50,000 timariots and 20,000 kapikulu.[7]

Other divisions of the Ottoman army were:

The Başıbozuk, who were also called Delibaş ("crazy head"), were a branch of the azabs and were especially recruited among the homeless and criminals. They were fierce, undisciplined, and specialized in close combat.

This new force of irregular infantrymen was called the azabs and they were used in many ways: to build roads and bridges for the army, to support the supplies for the front-line, and sometimes they were even used as cannon fodder to slow down enemy advance.

Apart from the janissaries, in 1389 the Ottoman army introduced a system of conscription: when needed, every town and village were obliged to provide a fully equipped conscript at the recruiting office created by the order of the Sultan.

The azabs (semi-mercenaries)


The frontier units (Serhat Kulu and Yerli Kulu)

Frontier units

In times of peace, they were also responsible for the collection of taxes. The sipahis, however, should not be confused with the feudal lines and known as "sipahi"s colloquially. In fact, the two formations had very little in common.

A tîmâr was the smallest unit of land owned by a sipahi, providing a yearly revenue of no more than 10,000 akçe, which was between two and four times what a teacher earned. A ziamet was a larger unit of land, yielding up to 100,000 akçe, and was owned by sipahis of officer rank. A has was the largest unit of land, giving revenues of more than 100,000 akçe, and was only held by the highest-ranking members of the military. A tîmâr sipahi was obliged to provide the army with up to five soldiers, a ziamet Sipahi with up to twenty, and a has sipahi with far more than twenty.

The Sipahis' status resembled that of the knights of medieval Europe. The sipahi was the holder of a fief of land (tîmâr; hence the alternative name tîmârlı sipahi) granted directly by the Ottoman sultan, and was entitled to all of the income from that land, in return for military service. The peasants on the land were subsequently attached thereto.

Timariot cavalry

Provincial army

The Miners (Lağımcı Ocağı: literally the Hearth of Miners)


The Bombardiers (Humbaracı Ocağı: literally the Hearth of Bombardiers)

Flag of Humbaracı Ocağı. First mortar and grenade launcher class in the world, early 15th century.

The Artillery wagoners (Top Arabacıları Ocağı: literally the Hearth of Artillery wagoners)

Artillery wagoners

The Armorer Corps (Cebeci Ocağı: literally the Hearth of Armourers)


The Artıllery corps (Topçu Ocağı: literally the Hearth of Artıllerymen)

Artillery corps

The Sipahis were originally founded during the reign of Murad I. Although the sipahis were originally recruited, like the janissaries, using the devshirmeh system,[6] by the time of Sultan Mehmed II, their ranks were only chosen from among the ethnic Turks who owned land within imperial borders. The Sipahi eventually became the largest of the six divisions of the Ottoman cavalry, and were the mounted counterpart to the janissaries, who fought on foot. The duties of the Sipahis included riding with the sultan on parades and as a mounted bodyguard.

An important part of the Ottoman warfare was also the six divisions of cavalry (altı bölük halkı), a mounted elite force. The most important of these divisions was the sipahis. A force of professional raiders called the akıncıs pillaged enemy territory ahead of the regular army. They also served as scouts.

The household cavalry (Kapıkulu Süvarileri Ocağı: literally the Hearth of the Household Cavalrymen of gate subjects)

Sipahis were the elite knights of the Ottoman Empire
Household cavalry

These differences, along with a war-record that was impressive, made the janissaries into a subject of interest and study by foreigners in their own time.


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