The very success of Janissaries would eventually destroy them.
Realizing their importance, they began demanding higher pay,
threatening rebellion if their demands were refused.
So how was the end of Janissaries?
In 1826 the Janissaries noticed that the Sultan was forming a new army. Some
have suggested that the Sultan had incited them to revolt on purpose. On June
14-15, 1826, the Janissaries in Istanbul revolted but this time most of the
army, and the population at large, turned against them. The Sipahis, the cavalry
units loyal to the Sultan, forced them to retreat to their barracks. Artillery
fired 15 volleys into the barracks, causing massive casualties. Survivors were
executed or banished, and two years later Mahmud II confiscated the last
Janissary possessions. This event is now called The Auspicious Incident.
So what is Janissaries?
The Janissaries (or janizaries; in Turkish: Yeni็eri, meaning “new soldier”;
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.
Origin of the janissaries
Sultan Murat I of the fledgling Ottoman Empire founded the units around 1365. It
was initially formed of Dhimmi (non-Muslims, originally exempted from military
service), especially Christian youths and prisoners-of-war, reminiscent of
Mamelukes. Murat may have also used futuwa groups as a model.
Such Janissaries became the first Ottoman standing army, replacing forces that
mostly comprised tribal warriors, whose loyalty and morale could not always be
trusted. Moreover, no free warrior would agree to being an infantryman,
considering it the position beneath him.
Recruitment, training and status
The first Janissary units comprised war captives and slaves. After the 1380s
Sultan Selim I filled their ranks with the results of taxation in human form
called devshirmeh. As a form of in-kind tax, the sultan’s men would conscript a
number of non-Muslim, usually Christian, boys – at first at random, later, by
strict selection – and take them to be trained. Initially they favored Greeks
and 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. Later the devshirmeh was extended to
other Balkan countries. While some hated losing their sons, other local
residents appreciated the custom, as there is evidence that some Christians
sought to have their children recruited as a way to gain social advancement. In
some cases bribes were given and ages were lied about.
Janissaries trained under strict discipline with hard labor and in practically
monastic conditions in acemi o๐lan schools, where they were expected to remain
celibate. All did, as Christians were not allowed to bear arms in the Ottoman
Empire until the 19th century. Unlike other Muslims, they were expressly
forbidden to wear beards (a Muslim custom), only a mustache. These rules were
obeyed by Janissaries, at least until 18th century when they also began to get
engaged in other trades and craftsmanship, breaking further another initial
For all practical purposes, Janissaries belonged to the Sultan, carrying the
title kap�kulu (“door slave”) 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. Only those who proved strong enough earned the
rank of a true Janissary at the age of twenty four to twenty five. The regiment
inherited the property of dead Janissaries, thus amassing wealth (like religious
orders and foundations enjoying the 'dead hand').
Janissaries also learned to follow the dictates of the dervish saint Hajji
Bektash Wali, who 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 Johannites of Rhodes.
In return for their (decreasing) loyalty and their fervour in war, Janissaries
gained (increasing) privileges and benefits. Originally they received pay only
in wartime, but by the mid-18th century they could work as law-enforcers or as
tradesmen in peacetime – although they always lived in barracks. Still, they
enjoyed high living standards, exemption from taxes and respected social status.
Many of them became administrators and scholars. Retired and invalid Janissaries
even received pensions. This evolution away from their original military
vocation was the germ of the system's demise.
The Janissary corps
The full strength of the Janissary troops varied from maybe 100 to more than
200,000. The corps was organized in ortas (equivalent to regiment) and all ortas
together would comprise the proper Janissary corps and its organisation named
ocak (literally “hearth”). Suleiman I had 165 ortas but the number over time
increased to 196. The Sultan was the supreme commander of the Army and the
Janissaries in particular, but the corps was organized and led by their supreme
a๐a (commander). 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 was also 34 ortas of the ajemi (cadets).
Originally Janissaries could be promoted only through seniority and within their
own orta. They would 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 a kitchen staff or hunters, perhaps to emphasise that
Janissaries were servants of the sultan.
In the first centuries, Janissaries were expert archers, but they adopted
firearms as soon as such became available during the 1440s. The siege of Vienna
confirmed the reputation of their engineers, e.g. sapping. In melee combat they
used axes and sabres. Originally in peacetime they could carry only clubs or
cutlasses, unless they served in border troops. Local Janissaries, stationed in
a town or city for a long time, were known as yerliyyas.
The Ottoman empire used Janissaries in all its major campaigns, including the
1453 capture of Constantinople, the defeat of the Egyptian mamluks and wars in
Austria. Janissary troops were always led to the battle by the sultan himself,
and always had a share of the booty.
Janissaries’ reputation increased to the point that by 1683 Sultan Mehmet IV
abolished the devshirmeh as increasing numbers of originally Muslim Turkish
families had already enrolled their own sons into the force hoping for a
lucrative career. Every governor wanted to have his own Janissary troops.
As Janissaries became aware of their own importance they began to desire a better life. In 1449 they revolted for the first time, demanding higher wages, which they obtained. The stage was set for a decadent evolution, like the Praetorian Guard which had 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. Sultan Selim II gave janissaries permission to marry in 1566, undermining the exclusivity of loyalty to the dynasty.
In the aftermath of the Moldavian Magnate Wars (1595–1621) with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Habsburgs, culminating in the battles of Cecora and Ottoman defeat at Khotyn (Polish-Lithuanian Army was represented by Ukrainian Cossacks under the command of Petro Konashevych Sahaidachny), Sultan Osman II died during the Janissary rebellion of 1622.
By the early 18th 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, so of lesser 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. The Janissaries resisted attempts to reorganise the army and in 1622 killed Sultan Osman II when he planned to replace them. They also had support of the Bektashi sect.
In 1807 a Janissary revolt deposed Sultan Selim III, who had tried to modernize the army along Western European lines. His supporters failed to recapture power before Mustafa IV had him killed, but elevated Mahmud II to the throne in 1808. When the Janissaries threatened to oust Mahmud, he followed suit, had the captured Mustafa executed and eventually came to a compromise with the Janissaries. He spent more than a decade in securing his position.
In April 1810, Janissaries burned 2,000 homes in Galata; in spring 1811 two regiments engaged in a gun battle in Istanbul. They fought in the Greek War of Independence.
Eventually Mahmud II sought to get rid of the Janissaries altogether. Their 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, or even still alive, allowing the commander to still claim the money with their pay tickets, had all become intolerable.
In 1826 a new reform program for the army, Eşkinci Lahiyası, was announced by the state and the majority of the Janissary high command, among whom Mahmud II had painstakingly placed his own men for the last two years, agreed to sign a legal document in which the janissaries vowed to follow the new reform program. The document also stated that if the janissaries broke their vows, they were to deserve any divine calamity which would befall upon them. Yet the majority of the rank-and-file janissaries had no clue about the approval of the new reform program and they simply faced with a fait accompli which they had no power to resist at the time. According to the new program every janissary regiment was going to supply 150 men to the new army units which would be organized under the name of Eşkinci troops. Initially the janissaries showed no resistance to the forming of the new army. In a short period of time, the number of new janissary recruits for the new corps reached 5,000 on the registers. If we are to believe the Ottoman state sources, while seemingly obedient, the janissaries were secretly organizing a revolt in Istanbul. Some have suggested that the Sultan had incited them to revolt on purpose. On June 14-15, 1826, the Janissaries in Istanbul revolted but this time most of the army, and the population at large, turned against them. The artillery troops, marines and bombardiers (humbaracis) loyal to the Sultan, forced them to retreat to their barracks. Artillery fired many volleys into the barracks, using grapeshots and flammables and causing massive casualties. While the wooden barracks started to burn in some parts, imperial troops rushed to salvage the treasuries of the janissary regiments and account registers. Survivors were executed or banished. The total number of janissaries who lost their lives during these events was estimated as 6,000. Two years later Mahmud II confiscated the last Janissary possessions. This event is now called The Auspicious Incident.