The Janissaries

The janissaries were the special forces of the regular infantry of the Ottoman Empire in 1365-1826. The janissaries with sipahi (heavy cavalry) and akinji (irregular light cavalry) formed the backbone of the army of the Ottoman Empire (Aksan, 1998). They were part of the kapykulu regiments which were sultan’s personal guards, composed of professional soldiers who were officially considered the sultan’s slaves (Aksan, 1998). The janissary regiments served in the Ottoman state as the police, security forces, firefighters and, if necessary, carried out the punitive function. The main duties of the janissaries were to conquest, garrison, protect the sultan, and perform the functions of the city police. The purpose of the paper is to describe the janissaries, their role and the reason why they stopped existing.


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As the Ottoman Empire was expanding, it became necessary to reorganize its troops, creating some disciplined regular infantry units as the main striking force of the Empire. The janissary corps were founded by Sultan Murad I in 1365. They were formed from a new army of 8-16-year-old Christian youths. Thus, the bulk of the janissaries were ethnic Albanians, Armenians, Bosnians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Georgians, Serbs that were later educated in strict Islamic traditions. Children recruited in Rumelia were given to Turkish families of Anatolia to be raised and educated.

Sending children to become the janissaries was one of the duties of the Christian population of the Empire. Thus, the authorities were solving a domestic issue by creating a powerful counterweight to the influence of the land troops (sipahi). Initially, the janissaries were recruited exclusively from Christian children under the order; Jews were released from devşirme (annual forceful recruitment). Later, the Bosniaks who were converted to Islam and Muslim Albanians acquired the right from the sultan to send their children to the janissaries, as the military service in the ranks of kapykulu allowed them to achieve a higher position in society. The residents of Istanbul who spoke Turkish, physically or mentally disabled, and married men were also exempted from devşirme. Probably, the latter was partly due to the early marriage tradition of that time.

The janissaries were officially considered the slaves of the sultan and constantly lived in barracks and monasteries. They were forbidden to marry and acquire property until 1566 (Goodwin, 2013). The property of the deceased or killed janissaries was inherited by the regiment. In addition to martial arts, the janissaries studied calligraphy, law, theology, literature and languages. Injured or old janissaries received pensions. Many of them made a successful civilian career. In 1683, Muslim children were allowed to become janissaries too.

Since the late 16th and the early 17th centuries, the process of the janissary corps’ gradual destruction started. They began to have families, engage in commerce. During the 17th and, especially, 18th centuries, the janissaries became actively involved in craft and trade (Aksan, 1998). The sultan supported this trend, hoping to distract the janissaries from politics. The janissaries monopolized a number of craft industries. In Istanbul, they maintained full control over the production and sale of fruit, vegetables and coffee; a significant part of foreign trade was in their hands. Tax and legal privileges of the janissaries attracted representatives of various social strata. There was a rise in the formal membership in the janissary army: bribing janissary officers could help to enroll in an orta and get tax breaks (Aksan, 1998). At the same time, many criminals penetrated this structure. The army flourished with bribery and embezzlement. During military campaigns, the janissaries often refused to fight, preferring to engage in looting and extortion. Gradually, the janissaries became a powerful conservative political force, a threat to the throne and eternal and indispensable participants of palace coups, as the janissary revolts led to the overthrow and deaths of the sultans in 1622 and 1807 (Aksan, 1998). Finally, in 1826, the janissary corps were officially abolished by the decree of Sultan Mahmud II, and the revolt of the janissaries perturbed by the decree was severely suppressed.

Structure, Recruitment and Training

After devşirme, boys fit for the service were sent to Istanbul. Later, the most capable of them were sent to Enderun, where they were prepared for the court service. Others were sent to the janissary corps. They were trained in military affairs; obedience and submission were instilled into them. At first, the boys were given to Turkish families for education where they were taught the Turkish language, the basics of Islam and military affairs. Then the young men were sent to the learning institutions for at least 6 years, where they were trained under the supervision of eunuchs (Goodwin, 2013). They were taught to use many kinds of weapons. The recruitment system changed over time: for example, in 1568, it was allowed for some sons of the retired janissaries to join the forces, and, in 1594, joining was opened for Muslim volunteers.

The main combat unit of the janissary corps was a regiment (ocak) of about 1,000 soldiers. In the age of prosperity, the number of regiments (orta) reached 196 (Aksan, 1998). Regiments differed in the origin and the functions they performed. The sultan was considered  Supreme Commander, but the tactical leadership was exercised by aga. His assistants were senior corps officers called sekbanbashi and kul kyahyasy (Aksan, 1998). The janissaries were closely related to the Bektashi Order of dervishes, whose adherents played the role of regimental priests. The Order also had a significant impact on the formation of the janissary corps’ hierarchy. In general, there were some similarities between the janissaries and European military order.

Training units of the corps as well as the janissary Istanbul garrison were commanded by Istanbul agas; the main priest was ocak imami (Uyar & Varoglu, 2008). Chief treasurer was beytyulmaldzhi (Aksan, 1998). A person called talimhanedzhibashi was responsible for preparation of the janissaries. Senior officers who were responsible for the recruitment of boys on a certain territory of the Empire and were responsible for their preparation were Rumeli agas, the ones  who were responsible for conducting devşirme in Europe were Anadolu agas, whose territory was Asia; and Aghasi Gelibolu, who were responsible for the territory of Gallipoli (Goodwin, 2013). Later, there was a position of kuloglu bashchavushu who was in charge of education and training received by the sons of the janissaries in the janissary corps. Ocak consisted of three parts. The first one was dzhemaat, regular soldiers, which consisted of 101 ortas (the sultan was counted as a soldier of the first unit); the second part was bёlyuk, personal guards of the Sultan, which consisted of 61 ortas (Uyar & Varoglu, 2008). Lastly, there were sekban, the mercenaries, that included 34 ortas.

Within the regiment, there existed such positions as ashchi usta (senior cook), imam, bayraktar (standard bearer), bash karakullukchu (literally “chef senior assistant”), sakabashi (“head of the water supply”), vekilharch (quartermaster), odabash (“head of the barracks”) and, finally, chorbadji (equivalent to the colonel) (Goodwin, 2013). Simple soldiers also had their own ranks depending on personal qualities and the time spent in the corps. The highest rank of oturaka was assigned for participating in the campaign and gave the right to engage in trade.


During the battle, the leading role in the attack was assigned to the cavalry. Its task was to break the enemy’s line. Under these circumstances, the janissaries were armed with firing guns, built a fighting wedge and attacked using swords and other weapons. During the first years of the janissary corps’ existence, the enemy forces, especially if they did not have a large disciplined infantry, as a rule, could not withstand such an attack. The janissaries did not use volley fire preferring the aiming shooting. Among the janissaries there were special shock units, called serdengetchi that included approximately 100 soldiers (Kafadar, 2007). During the siege of Vienna, these units were broken into smaller units comprised of five janissaries; a swordsman, a warrior with grenades, an archer and two warriors with guns. During the battle, the Janissaries often used a fence of large carts. A distinctive feature of the janissaries was being clean-shaven, which was unusual for the traditional Muslim population. They also differed from other soldiers because they wore white felt hats (burke or yuskyuf) with a piece of cloth similar to the shape of a sultan’s robe’s sleeve hanging from the rear or the military cap of the Zaporozhian Cossacks (Kafadar, 2007). The janissaries’ tailored clothes were made of wool. The uniforms of senior officers were trimmed with fur. The  owner’s status was emphasized by belts and sashes.

Originally, the janissaries were expert archers, and then they were armed with firearms. First, some janissaries wore full body armor, but eventually abandoned it. Only the warriors of serdengetchi continued to wear the armor (Kafadar, 2007). At first, the most common weapon of the janissaries were bows and short spears. Later, with the transition to firearms, the bow did not lose popularity but became a prestigious ceremonial weapon. Crossbows were popular among the janissaries and were widely used. They were also armed with swords (which, at first, were a rarity), daggers, scimitars. Different maces, battle axes, and various types of spears (glaives, poleaxes, halberds, guisarmes) and guns (since the17th century) were also popular.

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The Auspicious Incident

Destruction of the janissary corps was the cause of a series of military defeats of the Ottoman Empire, beginning in the late 17th century. Attempts of the sultans (Mahmud I, Selim III) to reform the force, or create parallel new European-style military units, faced a strong opposition of the janissaries, who were supported by the Muslim clergy, dervishes of the Bektashi Order, the ulema (scribes), and the lower classes of the Turkish society. The elimination of the janissary corps was conducted in June 1826 by the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II (Stephanov, 2014). By the beginning of the 17th century, the janissary body lost its military significance and ceased to be an elite unit. Many janissaries who were soldiers began to engage in commerce and started to have families. The corps as a whole engaged in extortion of money from the state and were involved in politics, contributing to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. One of the results of the janissary revolts was toppling or assassination of several sultans. By 1826, the hatred toward the janissaries spread throughout the Empire. Seeing that Sultan Mahmud II created a new army and hired European gunners, the janissaries in the capital mutinied, but were sent to the barracks in Constantinople and Thessaloniki (Stephanov, 2014). During further fighting in the barracks, the janissaries at Atmeydany and Aksaray were set on fire by the artillery, which led to heavy losses (Stephanov, 2014).

The instigators of the rebellion were executed and their property confiscated by the Sultan, and the young janissaries were either expelled or arrested. This, as well as the incurred losses during the fighting, led to the destruction of the corps. Sufi Order (Bektashi),which was the core of janissary organization, was disbanded, and many of its followers were executed or exiled. The janissaries that survivrd engaged in crafts and trade (Stephanov, 2014). Mahmud II created a new corps called “Victorious Army of Mohammed” (Asakir-i Mansure-i Muhammediye) to replace the janissaries as the protection of the Sultan (Stephanov, 2014). The loss of the janissaries’ privileged status had an extremely negative impact on the situation of Muslim converts in the Balkans and was the cause of the mass uprisings and armed clashes between Christians and Muslims in Rumelia, especially in Bosnia and Albania. It started a rapid decline of the influence of the Ottoman Empire in Europe.

Immediately after the elimination of the janissaries, Mahmud II ordered the court chronicler Mehmet Esad Efendi (1789-1848) to create and write down the official version of the events called Üss-i Zafer (translated as “foundation of victory”) (Stephanov, 2014). The book was published in 1828 in Constantinople and served as the main source of other Ottoman publications about this period (Stephanov, 2014). Eventually, the janissaries stopped existing as a military unit of the Ottoman Empire.


In sum, the janissaries were brave and courageous warriors who obeyed only the sultan and were his main defense. Traditionally, at the coming to the throne, the sultan bestowed riches on the elite forces of the army. However, the janissaries also carried out the role of the modern police, the punitive role, and the role of enforcement agencies in the country. By the end of the 16th – the beginning of the 17th centuries, the role of the janissaries had drastically changed. They married, acquired their own households and participated in political life, which led to palace intrigues and even revolutions. Gradually, the janissaries who were the main protection of the Turkish throne turned into a real threat to the sultan. As a result, in 1826, Mahmud II abolished the janissary corps, thus ignominiously ending the existence of the army which for centuries had been the mainstay of the Turkish sultans.

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