THE JANISSARIES-: ENGINES OF THE OTTOMAN JUGGERNAUT

Sahej Verma

The Ottoman antics and nuances are famed in the annals of military as well as political history but the most monumental trajectory in its history began with its foray into the European continent. Strategically located at the crossroads of three continents, the Anatolian peninsula has been called home by the Central Asian Oghuz Turks since the 11th Century, turkifying it in the process.

Hellenic influence in the region was dealt a final lethal blow with the defeat of the Byzantines at the hands of Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Empire. Within a decade, the Turks cemented their stronghold in the region occupying vast swathes of lands however nascently. After the collapse of the Seljuk Empire, which was actually a federation of all the Oghuz tribes, independent chiefdoms known as ‘Beyliks’ headed by a chief or clan leader ‘bey’ emerged. In 1299, Osman I of Thebasion united these dissipated entities and forged the Islamic Empire of the Ottomans which would one day come to rule, one third of the world’s geographical area at its largest extent with a cornucopia of diverse peoples as its subjects. Under the redoubtable leadership of his successors, the empire soon stretched to include Asia Minor, the Levant and North Africa. The progenitors of this expansion was the formidable institution that came to be known as “The Janissaries”


Amongst the most capable of Osman’s earliest successors was Sultan Murat I, who carved a successful reign in the late 14th century at the forefront of which was the adoption of the brutal policy of ‘Devşirme,’ literally meaning “The Gathering”, which was a blood tax levied on the Christian territories of incorporated into the empire. The implementation of this system

gave sanction to the authorities to take Christian boys as young as eight years of age, away from their families and employing them as slaves under either newly resettled Turkish landowner or in direct servitude of the existing imperial institutions. While many Christian families, especially those from the nobility, resisted hard to prevent the ‘recruitment’ of their

sons through whatever ways fathomable, a sizeable number of poorer families willingly had their sons given to the officials as they looked upon it as a chance for them to attain upward social mobility and a life of dignity and veneration. All of these recruits had to go rigorous military training as a bare minimum and were converted to Islam. Soon, they came to be known as the ‘Yeniçeri’ , literally meaning “New Soldiers”. The word Janissary is the linguistic appropriation of the former by the Austrian orientalist Joseph Von Hammer-Purgstall. The chronic warfare in Asia Minor along the frontiers of the Christian and Turkish dominions was an affair of frontier raids and counter-raids. In Lascarid times, in Phrygia, these raids were from the Turkish side carried on by people described sometimes as Uj-Turcomans, that is to say, " frontier Turcomans ", between whom and the Turks of the Seljuk realm proper, some distinction is drawn. The Janissaries as an elite force, added a sense of robust organisation, stability and sedentariness into a force that since inception, operated solely on the principles of nomadic warfare.


Additionally, all Janissaries were provided an extensive education in Din(religion), Diller(Languages) and Türkçe Yetiştirme (Turkish culture) to make them more intimate towards the professions of the imperial court and the ideals it stood for. This education established them as a bureaucratic class wielding enormous political power and thus received a plethora of special and several privileges such as advisory opportunities in the court, olitical gifts and governorship of the various provinces known as ‘Vilayets’. Needless to say, soon after the defeat of the Ottomans at the hands of Tamerlane at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, the institution was transformed with the adoption of several strict measures of recruitment and grooming in what has now come to be called as the Ottoman Interregnum, much akin to the Marian Reforms of the Roman Military fourteen centuries prior. Under Mehmet II , the most notable of Ottoman Sultans, the force played an imperative role in his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, paving a new way for the world’s history to embark on consequently. Being a great patron of the arts and learning, Mehmet II introduced the aspect of intellectualism in The Janissaries which soon made it a force to be feared and reckoned with. Unlike other tamed subjects or slaves, the Janissaries enjoyed status as “free” people and were considered “the sons of the sultan.” Its best fighters were commonly rewarded with promotions through the military ranks and sometimes secured political positions in the empire. In exchange for these privileges, members of the Ottoman Janissaries were expected to convert to Islam, live a life of celibacy, and commit their full loyalty to the sultan irrelevant of the turbulence that may engulf the court on a familial level. By the early 16th century, Janissary forces had reached about 20,000 soldiers, and that number only continued to surge. The Janissaries were particularly known for their archery skills, but their soldiers were also well-versed in hand-to-hand combat, which served to complement the Ottoman Empire’s advanced artillery. Their light battle uniforms and slim blades allowed them to deftly circumvent their Western opponents — often Christian mercenaries — and Arab counterparts who typically wore heavier armour and wielded loftier and meatier swords. The defining moment in their military history was actually the slaying of the Hungarian Monarch King Louis II and the merciless routing of the entire Hungarian Cavalry at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526.


The head of the institution was the Aga Janissary, or the Head of the Janissaries who oversaw the education of his elite men and the security and the maintenance of the institution. Being a Janissary not only meant war, but mutiny and Baklava. In times of peace,

however a rarity they might have been, these men were known to have congregated in taverns, mosques, clerical centers, bazaars or coffee houses encamping en masses around

a massive cooking pot known as the Kazan. Eating from it was a way to affirm their solidarity amongst their peers devouring delicacies like Pilaf with meat, soups and saffron pudding. Historian Giles Vernstein writes in Fighting for a Living that ultimately, it was food that came to decide the ranks of their forces. The Janissary corps was referred to as the ocak, which meant “hearth,” and the titles within their ranks were derived from cooking terms. For instance, çorbacı or “soup cook” referred to their sergeants while aşcis or “cook” pertained to low-ranking officers. During the holy month of Ramadan, the sultan would organize Baklava Processions wherein he would distribute gifts , other precocious incentives or things of value and of course lip smacking Baklava , as the name suggests, to these elite men. This acceptance of food was regarded as their acknowledgement of fealty towards the Ottoman culture, the empire and most importantly the Sultan. Rejection of offerings however, was a sign of dissatisfaction or ultimate trouble. Hesitance signaled the beginning of mutiny whereas flipping of the Kazan meant full-scale revolt. However, many Oriental historians dismiss this as a mere gimmick or as a display of the impeccable power they wielded which ultimately did become a precipitous reason behind the fall of the institution as the imperial society began sensing interpreting their nuances as that of infealty.


WHEN GIANTS FALL

There have been numerous occasions in Ottoman history where the Janissaries took matters in their own hands. In 1622, Osman II, who planned to dismantle the Janissaries, was killed by the elite soldiers after he banned them from visiting the coffee shops they frequented. And in 1807, Sultan Selim III was dethroned by the Janissaries when he attempted to modernize the army. However, this was soon to change radically. History is also a study of man’s doings and assessing their extents and impacts and much like any other empire in history , the Janissary Corps may have been a veneered force guarding the empire’s sovereignty and suzerainty, but it also posed a significant threat to the Sultan’s own political power. Realizing this in its entirety, the nobles of the court got the ‘Devşirme’ abolished in 1638 which threw open membership of the military to all Turkish Muslims and even the Janissary corps in a series of nationalistic reforms. Recruiting criteria too was eased as compulsory avowed celibacy was also eradicated. The Reign of Sultan Mahmud II proved to be the final nail in the coffin. In 1826, the Sultan decided to implement European style modernized changes into the army which was vehemently opposed by the Janissaries. To verbalize their protest, the Janissaries overturned the sultan’s cauldrons, signaling that a rebellion was brewing. Yet Mahmud was a step ahead. Having already anticipated a massive rebellion, he used the superior artillery possessed by his regular army in bombing the Janissary barracks and had them mowed down in the streets of Istanbul, marking a very cruel and unfair end to a rather formidable force that has immortalized itself in the epochs of history captivating modern day imagination and understanding of the mediaeval world.