views updated May 18 2018


JANISSARY. The Janissaries (from yeniçeri, meaning 'new soldier' in Turkish) were an elite standing force of infantrymen, first formed by the Ottoman Sultan Murad I around 1380. Legally slaves (kul ) of the sultan, they served over the centuries as bowmen, crossbowmen, and musketeers. The Janissaries were distinguished from the main body of the army, which was made up of cavalrymen (sipahis) drawn from the freeborn retinues of provincial officials and notables. Janissary recruits were chosen from groups of boys who were taken into Ottoman service in periodic levies on Christian peasant families, predominantly those in the Balkans. The boys were brought to Istanbul, converted to Islam, despite Islamic prohibitions against the forcible conversion of Christians, and then trained for military service.


The Janissary corps was originally organized in the late fourteenth century when a group of prisoners of war were converted to Islam and personally attached to the sultan. It grew from approximately 20,000 men in the late sixteenth century to well over 100,000 by the early nineteenth century, even though it came to include many non-combatants in later years.

The organization became an important Ottoman military force soon after it was established because the Janissaries were perceived to be the sultan's most trustworthy soldiers as well as disciplined troops with particular small arms skill. They received special privileges and benefits to secure their sole allegiance to the ruler, with their group solidarity reinforced by the way they were organized into small companies of celibate warriors living in barracks and receiving constant military training.

The colonel of each company was called the çorbaci ('soup cook') and wore a soup ladle as his rank insignia to symbolize humility before the sultan although he never actually served food himself. The head of the whole Janissary force was the agha, one of the most important officials in the realm. He served on the Imperial Divan, ranking just below the main Ottoman viziers (ministers) but above other military commanders. The Janissaries lived together in large barracks within the cities in which they were stationed. They were forbidden to marry until they retired from active duty. Several Ottoman grand viziers and admirals had served as members of the Janissary corps during their careers.

The Janissaries' military technique was to rush very quickly into battle after a breach had been made in fortress walls or to outflank an enemy cavalry force that had already charged first. They would then attack with handguns or rifles as appropriate. In peacetime, Janissaries served as guards in fortresses and towns and as firefighters in major Ottoman cities. Although Janissaries were principally a land force, there were naval Janissaries who helped man Ottoman ships.

The Janissaries were famous for their distinctive marching style and headgear. Their special military bands are believed to have inspired military bands all over Europe. The Janissary corps was closely connected with Bektashi dervishes, a popular mystical order regarded by many Muslims as heterodox. To commemorate the Islamic millennium in 15911592, the sultan allowed the master of the Bektashi order and eight dervishes to become part of the Janissaries.


The Janissaries made significant contributions to many important Ottoman victories, among them the conquest of Constantinople in the spring of 1453, the battle against the Iranian Safavids at Chaldiran in 1514, and the defeat of the Mamluk armies at Marj Dabik in 1516. In all these confrontations, the Janissaries administered the final decisive blow after a series of preliminary assaults, usually in swift gunfire attacks. Each of these encounters fueled European perceptions of the Janissary corps as a kind of Ottoman "secret weapon" able to use firearms more effectively than any adversary. Perhaps the greatest moment of Janissary victory was at the battle of Mohacs in 1526, when Janissaries were able to mow down scores of Hungarian cavalry with precise rifle volleys. Many contemporary observers believed that the quality of the Janissary corps diminished in the late sixteenth century when the sons of Janissaries, and freeborn Muslims generally, were permitted to join, and the corps' slave discipline was compromised. This assessment, however, is belied by subsequent Janissary victories in the seventeenth century. Many strains weighed on this group, including inflation and the continual devaluation of Ottoman money, which substantially lowered salary values.


In the early seventeenth century, when economic and social unrest threatened the stability in the empire, the Janissaries became more deeply involved in royal politics. The young sultan in 1621, Osman II, blamed the Janissaries for the Polish defeat of the Ottomans at Khotin. Osman did not trust their loyalty since he associated them with his uncle and rival, the previous sultan Mustafa I, who had just been deposed. Within a year, Mustafa became Sultan again (with his mother behind the throne), and the Janissaries killed Osman II. Many of the regicides were hunted down and executed in retribution for Osman's death, but the Janissaries' kingmaker role was in no way diminished.

Throughout the seventeenth century, the Janissaries had a fearsome reputation for fomenting unrest instead of fighting in combat. The distinction between the urban craft guilds and the Janissaries had already started to blur, a development that reduced unit cohesion and undermined the Janissaries' fighting capacity. The Janissaries came to be blamed for a series of military defeats, beginning with unsuccessful Ottoman campaigns against the Habsburgs in the 1690s that led to the Treaty of Carlowitz, the first permanent Ottoman surrender of territory to European powers.

The "Tulip Era" of the 1720s was a time when European ideas and fashions became extremely popular in the Ottoman Empire, challenging the traditional system in the wake of a string of Ottoman military failures. This era of social change, combined with the financial weakness and inept administration of the government at that time, produced tensions that culminated in a popular revolt to overthrow Sultan Ahmed III (17031730). Patrona Halil, a noncombatant, illiterate Janissary, led this uprising.


Count Alexandre de Bonneval was assigned in the 1730s to modernize the Janissaries. Despite slight improvements in their military capabilities, the Janissaries still had great difficulties adapting to modern warfare and did not receive adequate funding. Further disasters were in store, such as Janissary mismanagement of naval forces that led to a terrible defeat at Chesme in 1770 during the Russo-Ottoman War.

The Ottomans then turned to another European adviser, Baron de Tott, to begin modernizing the military by establishing a naval engineering school in the 1790s. This began an educational transformation in the Ottoman military that totally left out the Janissaries. New army units with no connection to them were organized under Sultan Selim III (ruled 17891807) in a military and financial program called the Nizam-i Cedid ('New Order').

By the late eighteenth century, though, the Janissaries would prove difficult to dislodge. As their importance as soldiers waned, they had developed considerable economic and coercive power in major Ottoman cities and were able to thwart reformers' direct assaults on their status for several decades. When they were ordered in 1807, for example, to wear European-style uniforms, the Janissaries staged a revolt and put a new sultan, Mustafa IV, on the throne.

However, general reform trends worked against them. Another sultan, Mahmud II, took power in 1808, and gradually developed strong alliances with advocates of change that resulted in drastic action against the Janissaries eighteen years later. During the so-called "Auspicious Event" in 1826, Mahmud carried out a secret plan to surround the Janissary barracks with artillery and kill everyone inside. The Bektashi order, so closely associated with the Janissaries, was outlawed in the Ottoman Empire in December 1826. This incident, which occurred as enemies with more modern armies were trouncing the Ottomans, ushered in the era of profound military and social reform that extended over the next few decades.

See also Islam in the Ottoman Empire ; Ottoman Dynasty ; Ottoman Empire ; Sultan ; Tulip Era (Ottoman Empire) ; Vizier .


Goodwin, Godfrey. The Janissaries. London, 1997.

Inalcik, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 13001600. Translated by Norman Itzkowitz and Colin Imber. New York, 1973.

Itzkowitz, Norman. Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition. Chicago, 1972.

Ernest Tucker


views updated Jun 11 2018


Military corps in the Ottoman Empire's army from the late fourteenth century to 1826.

The term janissary is the anglicized form of the Turkish yeni çeri (new troops). The Janissary corps was established in the late fourteenth century. The Janissaries' first recruits were from the ranks of young Christian prisoners of war; they were converted to Islam, taught Turkish, and given a rigorous military training. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Janissary corps began to admit untrained, mostly Muslim-born, recruits. The admission of untrained recruits marked the beginning of the janissaries' decline as a fighting force and their growing corruption. The basic regulations that had preserved the special character of the corps for some two centuries were treated with growing laxity, until they were abandoned altogether. The janissaries were allowed to marry and have families; then, in order to support their dependents, they were permitted to engage in gainful activities. Over the years, an ever-increasing number of janissaries gave up the practice of living at the barracks and training regularly, and the corps became largely a poorly trained and undisciplined militia. Commissions were sold to the highest bidders, and numerous civilians seeking to enjoy tax exemptions and other privileges bought their way into the corps. Consequently, the number of janissaries steadily increased from 12,000 in the early sixteenth century to 140,000 around 1820. The great majority of these men were not soldiers, but shopkeepers, artisans, porters, and followers of other trades, who rarely performed any military duties but zealously defended their privileged position. Identified with large segments of the urban population, they became a powerful caste resisting change.

The janissaries consistently opposed attempts to introduce military reforms because those required training and submission to discipline. They also objected to any attempts to create a new military force that might replace them or threaten their privileged position. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, Selim III (r. 17891807) hesitatingly introduced a new infantry corps known as the Nizam-i Cedit. The janissaries objected to the new force, and they eventually led a coalition of conservative forces that overthrew Selim and abolished his reforms (May 1807). An attempt by the grand vizier, Bayrakdar (Alemdar) Mustafa Paşa, to reintroduce the Nizam-i Cedit also was foiled by the janissaries, and Bayrakdar himself was killed (November 1808).

Following Bayrakdar's death, Mahmud II (r. 18081839) concluded a pact with the janissaries, known as Sened-i Ita'at (Deed of Obedience), promising not to introduce military reforms in return for a janissary commitment not to intervene in political affairs. However, the Greek war of independence that broke out in 1821 (and lasted until 1830) confronted the Ottoman Empire with new and dangerous challenges, including the possibility of European intervention. The janissaries proved ineffective against the Greek insurgents, and the sultan was forced to enlist the support of his governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, who had a new, European-style, modern army. The contrast between the ineffectual janissaries and the disciplined, successful Egyptian troops softened public opinion toward military reform. Capitalizing on this new mood, early in 1826 Mahmud proposed a plan (the Eşkinci/Eşkenci project) to reform a small segment of the Janissary corps, transforming it into a regular, modern, European-style force. Although most of the senior officers approved the plan, soon after its implementation the janissaries once again rose in rebellion. The sultan, however, had taken precautions against such a threat. With the support of the ulama (body of Islamic scholars) and the general public, loyal forces including artillery and naval units quickly suppressed the rebellion with considerable bloodshed (15 June 1826). Mahmud seized the opportunity to abolish completely the Janissary corps and the Bektashi sufi order affiliated with it.

Thus ended an institution that had existed for almost five centuries and that had become a hallmark of Ottoman power, in both its greatness and decline. The suppression of the janissaries, which became known in Ottoman history as the Beneficial Event (Vaka-i Hayriye), made a great impression on
contemporaries in the Ottoman Empire and abroad. It also cleared the way for comprehensive, European-style military and administrative reforms that, in the long run, affected every aspect of society, and extended the life of the Ottoman Empire into the twentieth century.

see also bayrakdar, mustafa; vaka-i hayriye.


Levy, Avigdor. "The Eşkenci Project: An Ottoman Attempt at Gradual Reform (1826)." Abr-Nahrain 14 (1974): 3239.

Shaw, Stanford J., and Shaw, Ezel Kural. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol. 2: Reform, Revolution, and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 18081975. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

avigdor levy
updated by eric hooglund


views updated May 18 2018

Janissaries Elite corps of the Ottoman army, founded in the 14th century. The Janissaries were a highly effective fighting force until the 17th century, when discipline and military prestige declined. They were abolished by Mahmud II in 1826.


views updated May 29 2018

Janissaries (Turk., yeni cheri, ‘new troops’). Corps of highly trained Muslim soldiers who were raised from the devshirme, Balkan boys who, by levy, were compelled to become Muslims. They existed from the 14th cent. (8th cent. AH) to the 19th (13th).


views updated May 11 2018

janissary a member of the Turkish infantry forming the Sultan's guard between the 14th and 19th centuries. The word is recorded from the early 16th century, and comes from French ianissaire, based on Turkish yeniçeri, from yeni ‘new’ + çeri ‘troops’.


views updated May 21 2018

janissary one of the Sultan of Turkey's bodyguard; Turkish soldier; henchman. XVI. Early forms repr. various Rom. forms., all ult. — Turk. yeniçeri, f. yeni new + çeri militia.