Initially a small compact force of elite troops, they grew in size and power during the five centuries of their existence until they eventually became a threat to the fabric of the Ottoman empire. In their later years, they mutinied whenever an attempt was made to reform them, deposing and murdering those sultans they regarded as enemies.
The origins of the Janissaries are shrouded in myth though traditional accounts credit Orhan I – an early Ottoman bey, who reigned from 1326 to 1359 – as the founder. Modern historians, such as Patrick Kinross, put the date slightly later, around 1365, under Orhan's son, Murad I, the first sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The Janissaries became the first Ottoman standing army, replacing forces that mostly comprised tribal ghazis, whose loyalty and morale could not always be trusted.
As corps other than the infantry were added, the totality of the Ottoman standing army corps was called Kapıkulu, however the term Janissary, which formally refers to one of the Kapıkulu corps is often used interchangeably (albeit incorrectly) for all of the Ottoman Kapıkulu Corps.
The Ottomans were the first state 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. A janissary regiment was effectively the soldier's family. They lived in their barracks and served as policemen and firefighters during peacetime.
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.
By the early 16th century, the Janissaries were equipped with and were skilled with muskets. In particular, they used a massive 'trench gun', firing a huge ball, which was "so feared by their enemies". Janissaries also made extensive use of early grenades and hand cannon, such as the abus gun.
Logistical support also set the Janissaries 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 cebeci corps carried and distributed weapons and ammunition. The Janissary corps had its own internal medical auxiliaries: Muslim and Jewish surgeons who would travel with the corps during campaigns and had organized methods of moving the wounded and the sick to traveling hospitals behind the lines.
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. Although eventually the concept of the modern army incorporated and surpassed most of the distinctions of the Janissary, and the Ottoman Empire dissolved the Janissary corps, the image of the Janissary has remained as one of the symbols of the Ottomans in the western psyche.
In modern times, although the Janissary corps no longer exists as a professional fighting force, the tradition of mehter music is carried on as a cultural and tourist attraction.
The first Janissary units were formed from prisoners of war and slaves, probably as a result of the sultan taking his traditional one-fifth share of his army's booty in kind rather than cash. From the 1380s onwards, their ranks were filled under the devşirme system, where feudal dues were paid by service to the sultan. The "recruits" were mostly Christian youths, reminiscent of Mamelukes. Sultan Murad may have used futuwa groups as a model. Initially the recruiters favoured Greeks (who formed the largest part of the first units) and Albanians (who also served as gendarmes), usually selecting about one boy from forty houses, but the numbers could be changed to correspond with the need for soldiers. Boys aged 14-18 were preferred, though ages 8-20 could be taken. As borders of the Ottoman Empire expanded, the devşirme was extended to include Bulgarians, Armenians, Bosnians and Serbs and later Poles, Ukrainians and southern Russians.
The Janissaries first began enrolling outside the devşirme system during the reign of Sultan Murad III (1546-1595) and abandoned devşirme recruitment completely during the 17th century. After this period, volunteers were enrolled, mostly of Muslim origin.
Janissaries trained under strict discipline with hard labour and in practically monastic conditions in acemi oğlan ("rookie" or "cadet") schools, where they were expected to remain celibate. They were also expected to convert to Islam. 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 moustache. These rules were obeyed by Janissaries, at least until the 18th century when they also began to engage in other crafts and trades, breaking another of the original rules.
For all practical purposes, Janissaries belonged to the Sultan, carrying the title kapıkulu ("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 father. Only those who proved strong enough earned the rank of true Janissary at the age of twenty-four or 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, disciples of whom 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 loyalty and their fervour in war, Janissaries gained privileges and benefits. They received a cash salary, received booty during wartime and enjoyed a high living standard and respected social status. At first they had to live in barracks and could not marry until retirement, or engage in any other trade but by the mid-18th century they had taken up many trades and gained the right to marry and enroll their children in the corps and very few continued to live in the barracks. Many of them became administrators and scholars. Retired or discharged Janissaries received pensions and their children were also looked after. This evolution away from their original military vocation was the essence of the system's demise.
The full strength of the Janissary troops varied from maybe 100 to more than 200,000. According to David Nicolle, the number of Janissaries in the 14th century was 1,000, and estimated to be 6,000 in 1475, whereas the same source estimates 40,000 as the number of Timariot, the provincial soldiers. After the defeat in 1699, the number was reduced, but it was increased in the 18th century to 113,400 soldiers according to Ottoman, but most were not actual soldiers and were accepted into the army through corrupt means and were only taking salary.
The corps was organized in ortas (equivalent to regiment) An orta was headed by çorbaci. All ortas together would comprise the proper Janissary corps and its organization 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 ağa (commander). The corps was divided into three sub-corps:
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 troop of 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 in 1529 confirmed the reputation of their engineers, e.g. sapping and mining. 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 against Hungary and 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. 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.
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.
By 1622, the Janissaries were a "serious threat" to the stability of the Empire. Through their "greed and indiscipline", they were now a law unto themselves and, against modern European armies, ineffective on the battlefield as a fighting force. In 1622, the teenage sultan, Osman II, came to the throne, determined to curb Janissary excesses and outraged at becoming "subject to his own slaves". In the spring, hearing rumours that the sultan was preparing to move against them, the Janissaries revolted and took the sultan captive, imprisoning him in the notorious Seven Towers: he was murdered shortly afterwards.
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 II, he had the captured Mustafa executed and eventually came to a compromise with the Janissaries. Ever mindful of the Janissary threat, the sultan spent the next years discreetly securing his position. The Janissaries' 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, had all become intolerable.
By 1826, the sultan was ready to move. Historian Patrick Kinross suggests that Mahmud II incited them to revolt on purpose, describing it as the sultan's "coup against the Janissaries". The sultan informed them, though a fatwa, that he was forming a new army, organised and trained along modern European lines. As predicted, they mutinied, advancing on the sultan's palace. In the ensuing fight, the Janissary barracks were set in flames by artillery fire resulting in 4,000 Janissary fatalities. The survivors were either exiled or executed, and their possessions were confiscated by the Sultan. This event is now called The Auspicious Incident.
In 1952, the Janissary military band, Mehter, was organized again under the auspices of the Istanbul Military Museum. They have performances during some national holidays as well as in some parades during days of historical importance. For more details, see Turkish music (style) and Mehter.