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Things you should know about the Ottoman Janissaries (realmofhistory.com)
74 points by codermobile 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments



There are many fun and fascinating similarities to find when comparing the Ottoman Janissaries and the Roman Praetorian Guard.

Both were established as elite divisions, handpicked for loyalty to the ruler, and stationed near the capital to discourage power grabs and revolutions.

Over time they both (figuratively) grew fat and lazy and came to understand and abuse the power that they held.

They both turned into “king makers” for the empire, it being impossible to take the throne without their support. Some sordid tales here on both sides.

Then, after years of havoc and instability in their respective empires, a strong emperor claims the throne without their help and then removes them from any position of power.


Likely because the Ottomans booted out the eastern Roman Empire and adopted many of its structures either explicitly or implicitly ("because that's how they do things here").

I've been told the same is true of the Roman Catholic Church (many people have told me "The Church didn't change Rome; Rome changed the Church) but I don't know enough about the RCC to know how this might be true (e.g. I'm pretty sure there is not a Praetorian Guard; the Swiss Guards are hardly the same thing, and are modern)


The Praetorians were disbanded in 312 [1], while the Janissaries were established about one thousand years later, in the early 1300s. By that time the Roman culture of the early empire had transformed into the predominantly Greek culture of the Byzantines.

While undoubtedly there exist many uninterrupted lines of cultural transmission from the 300s to the 1300s, I'd need to see some historical evidence of any influence the Praetorians had on the Ottoman sultans; in fact, if Murad knew about them, he may well have not created the institution of the Janissaries.

I find it much more likely that there are many flavors of "natural" power structures/dynamics that emerge in societies, dependent on many factors, an important one being the current state of technology (for example, speed of communications).

The organization of Roman and Ottoman society and government, although separated by a millennium of time, were close enough that a similar political/power dynamic developed. It's just a pattern that plays out over centuries (~300 years for the Praetorians, ~500 years for the Janissaries). The originator of the scheme cannot see hundreds of years into the future when everything goes haywire.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praetorian_Guard#Dissolution

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janissaries#Origins


Thanks for this major clarification.


This peaks my interest. Do you have any book recommendations that explore this?


Gibbon's "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" was my first introduction to the Praetorians, I listened to it via free audiobook [1]. I forgot about where I first learned about the Ottoman history with the Janissaries.

[1] http://www.loyalbooks.com/book/the-decline-and-fall-of-the-r...


Thanks!


It actually piques your interest.


Yeah, thanks. Brain wasn't working well this morning! I usually pride myself on not making typos like that. =/


Interesting thing about Janissaries is that though they were foreigners, warrior slaves forcefully taken from their Christian families at young age, quite a few of them managed to move up the ranks and become very powerful military leaders and statesmen, even Grand Viziers (the most powerful person after Sultan). A lot of Ottoman Grand Viziers were not of Turkish origin actually.


What the article fails to tell you is precisely why the Janissary was a better soldier...since the training could have been applied to anyone.

The fatalistic view of Allah being in charge extended to the trajectory of the fired weapon.

The Christian boys retained enough experience from earlier in their lives that they were more diligent...


This is a very honest and informative historical documentary. I don't see any statments that would work in favour of some country or another's political agenda. Pretty rare we get these.


It's not honest. It glosses over bad aspects. Take the blood tribute[1]. It mentions that some parents would allow their children to be taken, but it doesn't mention that some others considered it so bad that they would mutilate their children to avoid them being kidnapped.

It doesn't mention that they were forcefully circumcised and converted to Islam. Muslim laws say that you're not allowed to have Muslim slaves, but the Ottomans were all to happy to ignore this.

It says that the "recruitment" (to be kind) age varied anywhere between 8 and 20. That's completely misleading since the ideal age was 8 to 10.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devshirme


It helps to distinguish between being critical of the article and being critical/morally judging the happenings within an empire between 15-17th centuries.

Your criticism of the article is lie by omission, your moral judgement is irrelevant.

Lie by omission requires an agenda. AFAICS this article doesn't defend the idea of taking young boys from their families and treating them as muslim kids and conscripting them when age comes. It just informs about the notion and historical effects.


> I don't see any statments

The whole text, starting from the title, is "making it nice" in the modern tendency of some who like to imply that what was actually vile was "good" or "not so bad."

How many boys were taken? The OP text mentions hundreds, but that was after the point which was in Wikipedia specified as the "end of the system" (1) whereas:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devshirme

"Shaw writes that their number was 30,000 under Suleiman the Magnificent" - that is, that was the size of the army.

More important:

"Devshirme[a] (Ottoman Turkish: دوشيرمه‎, devşirme, literally "lifting" or "collecting"), also known as the blood tax or tribute in blood,[2] was chiefly the practice where by the Ottoman Empire sent military officers to take Christian boys, ages 8 to 18, from their families in Eastern and Southeastern Europe in order that they be raised to serve the state.[3] This tax of sons was imposed only on the Christian subjects of the empire, in the villages of the Balkans and Anatolia."

"The ideal age of a recruit was between 8 and 10 years of age"

What's actually "not so bad" in taking the 8-10 years old children away to maintain the army of 30000?

Read the argument of the article:

"Beyond ‘slave soldiers’" "Essentially, they displayed their ‘slave’ status with pride" --- oh, that makes it OK then? The boys taken from their families when they are 8 to be slave solders for life, but "displayed their ‘slave’ status with pride" somehow is an argument that their status is "misleading, if perceived through the lens of our modern sensibility" (the article tries to argue). Really?

----

1) Under the title of "Decline": 1638 or 1648 "In an order sent in multiple copies to authorities throughout the European provinces in 1666 a devshirme recruitment target of between 300 and 320 was set for an area covering the whole of the central and western Balkans." That was the "official end" according to Wikipedia: "only 300 and 320." Per year, or per month?


> The whole text, starting from the title, is "making it nice" in the modern tendency of some of implying that what was actually bad was good.

The thing is, it's neither "bad" nor "good", it's just history. And in that context, the Janissaries are quite an interesting case because their history is filled with very extreme ups and downs.

> "Beyond ‘slave soldiers’" "Essentially, they displayed their ‘slave’ status with pride" --- oh, that makes it OK then?

If you'd read the whole Wiki article, instead of just quoting the passages that support your notion, you'd also realized that their position immensely changed over the centuries.

Yes, they started out as a "slave soldier" unit in the thousands, made up of forced converts. But their efficiency on the battlefield quickly made them a very renowned unit, so renowned that over time even Muslim families tried to get their children to be recruited.

This went on for a while until the Janissaries became such a powerful institution that they dominated the Ottoman government and could literally dethrone the Sultan, which they actually did, even killing Osman II in 1622.

Until in 1826, after centuries of Janissaries running wild, the Sultan Mahmud II decided "enough is enough" and "disbanded" the Janissaries corps in what is nowadays known as the Auspicious Incident [0].

So, while they started out as a forced conversion soldier group, they ultimately turned into something very different. Heck, I'd like to think them destabilizing the Ottoman empire like they did, was their form of revenge.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auspicious_Incident


> The thing is, it's neither "bad" nor "good", it's just history. And in that context, the Janissaries are quite an interesting case because their history is filled with very extreme ups and downs.

History as is being interesting does not mean you cant make it sound better or worst then it was.

> Yes, they started out as a "slave soldier" unit in the thousands, made up of forced converts. But their efficiency on the battlefield quickly made them a very renowned unit, so renowned that over time even Muslim families tried to get their children to be recruited.

It is kidnapping out of original family that lost a son. The fact that kidnapped kid becomes valued soldier due to training and ideologization in isolation from original family and culture does not changes anything on that.

The unit leadership having a lot of power later on still changes nothing on loss of the original family, the boy being kidnapped and brainwashed/forced to be soldier.


>The fact that kidnapped kid becomes valued soldier due to training and ideologization in isolation from original family and culture does not changes anything on that.

It's trivial to point out the converse: The fact that a soldier became valued due to training and ideologization is not changed by the fact that they were kidnapped.


Thankfully, no one in this thread nor whole discussion claimed that they were not useful army. Just like in discussion of slavery most people agree that slaves earn money to master.

The original discussion was about whether article was in favor of some country or agenda. Answer is yes, the point of view of people who find institution beneficial to them and don't care about damage done to those kids nor to their families nor to their original societies.


> so renowned that over time even Muslim families tried to get their children to be recruited.

Being "renowned" and having a pair of examples of some who actually gave away their sons (for whatever benefit they expected, these were hard times) doesn't mean that forcibly taking the boys "as a tax" away from their families makes it less vile.

Compare: "I'm sure" that some black Africans "gave" their sons to be slaves to the Western men, so there was "more to the forced slavery of blacks" than our "modern sensitivities" say to us. See?

In reality the children were "collected" regularly, by force, by the soldiers coming to the villages and taking the 8-10 year old boys away. And researching the subject, there are also stories among the Christians who were the target that the mothers had to harm their own children, making them disabled and unsuitable for being soldiers only to manage to keep them from being taken away.


But we are not just talking about "a pair of examples":

"In response to foreign threats the Ottoman government chose to rapidly expand the size of the corps after the 1570s. Janissaries spent shorter periods of time in training as acemi oğlans, as the average age of recruitment increased from 13.5 in the 1490s to 16.6 in 1603. This reflected not only the Ottomans' greater need for manpower, but also the shorter training time necessary to produce skilled musketeers in comparison with archers. However, this change alone was not enough to produce the necessary manpower, and consequently the traditional limitation of recruitment to boys conscripted in the devşirme was lifted. Membership was opened up to free-born Muslims, both recruits hand-picked by the commander of the Janissaries, as well as the sons of current members of the Ottoman standing army. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the devşirme had largely been abandoned as a method of recruitment."

"In 1449 they revolted for the first time, demanding higher wages, which they obtained. The stage was set for a decadent evolution, like that of the Streltsy of Tsar Peter's Russia or that of the Praetorian Guard which proved the greatest threat to Roman emperors, rather than an effective protection." [0]

That's why comparing them to black African slaves completely misses how influential the Jannisaries ended up becoming inside the Ottoman empire. How often did you see black African slaves successfully revolt to increase their wages, among other privileges? How often did black African slaves manage to kill their "slaver leader" and survive to tell the story?

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janissaries


> comparing them to black African slaves completely misses how influential the Jannisaries ended up becoming inside the Ottoman empire.

So, boys 8-10 years old, forcefully taken away from their Christian families by the Muslims to be the Muslim soldiers eventually "get influential" to "demand higher wages" should somehow make the fact that they were taken away "as a tax" less bad?

Or that the eventually "recruitment" was allowed "from the Muslims" too and that the structure changed in the army that counted hundreds of thousands?

Of course it's not comparable to the black African slaves, but only because the black African slaves weren't taken away to be the soldiers. That's the major difference, and there's nothing less revolting there.

The whole logic of having the soldiers made from the 8-10 year enslaved children was to have the the "pure soldiers" with no "real past" (they were "educated" so) and no "family to care about." Eventually those who organized that army managed to use them for some political influences, so the structure of that army was changed through the history to reduce the chances of them being used for the political influences. But these happened still from time to time, by the very position of being the top army force in the whole system. But the enslaved were enslaved, that didn't change that fact. That's the whole story there.


> So, boys 8-10 years old, forcefully taken away from their Christian families by the Muslims to be the Muslim soldiers eventually "get influential" to "demand higher wages" should somehow make the fact that they were taken away "as a tax" less bad?

You are still generalizing whole centuries like it's all the same, and nothing ever changed.

Even tho I already presented you with plenty of evidence to the contrary, even the fact that the devşirme system for recruitment was largely abandoned as a recruitment method by the middle of the seventeenth century.

Why you are doing that? I really don't know. At this point, it rather feels like you've just got some ax to grind with Islam, completely independent of the actual history of the Janissaries.

As a Slav myself, I think their story has a tad bit more to learn from than just "Evil Muslims stealing Christian children". It also tells the story how these "children", many of which at that point have lived for generations in the Empire, then proceeded to "destroy the enemy from within".

I'm also pretty sure the Ottoman Empire wasn't the only faction at that time that used "slave soldiers" or forced conscripts. At the end of the 18th, the British empire was the single biggest purchaser of slaves to be used as soldiers [0].

Yet I don't know about any units out of that with a similarly complex history, and influence, like the Janissaries, ended up having on the Ottoman Empire. If you know any, I'd be glad if you could share.

[0] https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/slaves-red-coats-west-india-re...


> As a Slav myself

And in:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18690617

> As a German, I have to ask

By the occasion, a Slav, or a German, interesting tendency in your replies, to point in them to what "you are."

Still, "what you are" is not an argument for anything you write, but, if given honestly, can give the information about the possible biases. But even the known biases should not make the real arguments less worthy.

One of my biases is: I am an atheist, and I'm particularly sensitive for all religions trying to present their worst acts as something "nice." But I've studied a lot of details from a lot of religions.

Having said that, even the "worst" Islamists today consider the "blood tax" performed by the Ottomans as being against the very Sharia law, which does allow killing infidels, chopping the heads and limbs, and considering everyone by a Muslim male less worthy, but nevertheless doesn't allow forcing the "dhimmis" to serve military and even less enslaving them more than they are already dependent to the owner of the land on which they work (the dependency in the feudal system, in our parlance): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhimmi#The_dhimma_contract_and...

Whereas the Ottoman military regularly went to the children enslavement "collecting" expeditions, year after year, for centuries, creating the military base which counted in at least some tens of thousands of soldiers. And these once "collected" fought the wars and killed for the Empire, including the very people from which they originated.

In short, what the Ottomans did for centuries was even worse than what the Islamists of today would accept to be lawful.


Please don't use thought killing cliches, like that he has an axe to grind with islam, because it is not PC to criticize Islam these days. I didn't read anything anti islam in his post. In my opinion he is strongly against you normalizing a kind of slavery.


> I didn't read anything anti islam in his post.

The Janissaries had been around for nearly 5 centuries, 463 years of history.

Yet he chooses to only talk about the devşirme system and only that. Completely ignoring that at one point it got phased out, and over the course of these nearly 5 centuries, the Janissaries evolved from "slave soldiers" to become the most influential political caste in the Ottoman Empire, dominating the Ottoman government.

We are talking about people who, at that point, already lived in the Ottoman Empire for generations, not 8-year-olds who just got abducted from their families.

> In my opinion he is strongly against you normalizing a kind of slavery.

So much about "thought killing cliches". Nowhere did I normalize anything, I'm merely pointing out how these practices changed, turning the Janissaries into something completely different than slaves.

While acqq keeps on insisting all the Janissaries had been forced converts, always living in servitude, which is factually wrong, as recruiting practices heavily changed over the centuries. So all that remains from his comments is pretty much just an appeal to emotion along the lines of "They abducted Christian children!" ignoring pretty much all other content from the submission, and every other angle on the Janissaries, like that's their most defining factor, but it isn't.


I'm sorry i don't understand in what way your reply where your point is that things changed through time in any way invalidates what acqq and I wrote. Maybe we are just talking past each other and we don't see it. I also don't get it why are you hang up on the fact that the ottomans were muslim and the children were christian, it could be any other combination of religions or other ideologies and would still be very bad.


Did you read the article? Most of your points are already refuted there.


None of it is refuted in article.


You make it seem like that there are two kinds of slavery: one is good and the other one is bad. They took small children and made them mercenaries to plunder the very lands they have been taken from. A lot of them died or got crippled in the process, they were after all soldiers expected to die for their master.


That has still zero impact on families that did not wanted their boys to become soldiers and lost them anyway. Nor on boys that did not wanted to be soldiers, but were forced to become ones anyway - regardless of whether particular boy later made peace with being lifetime soldier or not.

It is different institution then slavery. Differences are important. There was constant fear of slave revolt so those were kept away from what could make them dangerous. Those differences nor political power does not make it less forced nor somehow good.


If anything would cause us to suspect the motives behind a monarch killing some of his previously-favored subjects, surely that would be the propaganda campaign behind a goofy term like "Auspicious Incident". Calling a voluntary violent act an "incident", that's like calling automobile collisions "accidents". How fared the careers of Ottoman historians who didn't adopt this judgmental term for the event?


> The thing is, it's neither "bad" nor "good", it's just history. And in that context, the Janissaries are quite an interesting case because their history is filled with very extreme ups and downs.

Let me guess, your country / nation luckily never had anything to do with the Ottoman empire?


When Irish people are anti-British it’s boring. When Serbs are anti-Turkish or anti-Ottoman it’s boring. If your country won before you were born you you should get over it. History is not worth learning about and studying for the propaganda victories it can be useful for today but for what it can teach us about humanity. Better that we forget everything than that we remember only to nurse grievances and pass them on to our children and theirs.


I'm sure those Christians around the Balkans would have much rather been a part of the Holy Roman Empire that were nothing but kind to the Orthodox.


When you mention it, parts of Serbia that were under Austria-Hungary are noticeably more urbanized and developed than the parts that were under the Ottoman Empire, despite them being in the same state for exactly one century.

Turkish slavery/occupation is perceived as much, much worse in folk memory than the Austrian. Of course, both of these are foreign empires, so neither of them is good, but one is clearly worse than the other...


>When you mention it, parts of Serbia that were under Austria-Hungary are noticeably more urbanized and developed than the parts that were under the Ottoman Empire, despite them being in the same state for exactly one century.

... The parts of Serbia that Austria-Hungary didn't conquer by force about a hundred years ago were more developed than the parts they did conquer by force? Clearly the Ottoman's fault.


I had to parse slowly and try to figure out about what boomboomsubban wrote, what I now believe he wants to point is probably:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serbian_Campaign_of_World_War_...

Austria-Hungary fought with the army from and occupied during the World War I the Serbian "territories" (inhabited with the people who massively died during the occupation) that dragandj says are still "less developed" today:

From the Wikipedia article: "The estimates of casualties are various: the Serb sources claim that The Kingdom of Serbia lost more than 1,200,000 inhabitants during the war (both army and civilian losses), which represented over 29% of its overall population and 60% of its male population,[14][15] while western historians put the number either at 45,000 military deaths and 650,000 civilian deaths[16] or 127,355 military deaths and 82,000 civilian deaths.[17]" The numbers are all over but whatever they are, they are huge for a small country. To compare with something that happened around the same time:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_Genocide

"The Armenian Genocide (...) also known as the Armenian Holocaust,[9] was the Ottoman government's systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians,[note 2] mostly citizens within the Ottoman Empire." "Date: 1914–1923"


Far more in depth than what I said, but exactly. The territory didn't change hands peacefully, and that's likely the cause for the development difference.


Wait, what? None of the territories here were changing hands peacefully, and the World War I events have nothing to do with the Ottomans.

In WWI Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia and that's how the WWI started. It did a lot of damage to Serbian state. But this is 100 years after 1804, when Serbia started a process of breaking off from slavery under Turks. By the mid-19 century Serbia was practically independent.

I am comparing two areas that have been under foreign Empires for a long time. The area north of Danube and Sava was only briefly under Ottoman rule, and then was conquered by Austria(+Hungary) while to the south of Danube and Sava was under Turkish rule for 300-500 years. Not only Serbia, but also Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania etc.

All the areas that were ruled by the Turks are backwaters even to this day, the areas to the north much less so. There are other factors, of course, but everyone from the Balkans clearly recognizes this (development) dividing line.

WW 1 and WW 2 came later and brought its own share of destruction, but that destruction came after the nations were formed here, and the distinction I'm talking about have much older roots, that can still be clearly seen, even in how the towns and cities are laid out, ways of doing business etc.


Their exacts mat be off, but my principal is correct. Look at Belgrade, a border town in Ottoman control. South of it the land becomes noticeably less habitable, with mountains covering most of the region, and Belgrade itself has been razed 44 times. It's a natural border that is constantly warred over, not some relic of Ottoman cruelty compared to Hapsburg benevolence.


The sacking of Constantinople was just an honest mistake. /s


Which one?


I was referring to the 4th Crusade's siege and then sacking that crippled the Byzantine Empire.


Eeh, all balkan countries had their dirty little bloody revenges as well hadn't they. History is history, deal with it.


>Let me guess, your country / nation luckily never had anything to do with the Ottoman empire?

Occupied people should never have a monopoly on the narrative.


At the same time, this pales in comparison to what took place under the Spartan agoge system (at least to modern minds): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agoge


Is it not that there are 2 sides to every argument?

The final section is very anti Janissary, and paints the Sultan in a positive light, despite executing and exiling previously loyal subjects.

What is their story of their 'disbanding'?


Getting killed under cannon fire in their own barracks, not a nice end for an order which served for so many years. The destructon of bektashi order was also a decision with long reaching consequences. Still, what most people believes that towards the end they were corrupt beyond any hope of rehabilitation or modernization. Earlier, Murad IV could restore the order after killing of Osman II by Jannisaries but it was mostly downhill after that. The abolishment of Jannisaries is known as "Vaka-i hayriye, Auspicious event".


Honest? The premise is of the article is "Okay, maybe the Janissaries were taken as slaves as children but here's why that's a good thing."


No Assassins Creed (Revelations) references?? I am so disappointed!


Or Age of Empires II


> a slave or a Kul often enjoyed more social benefits and even better opportunities than an ordinary subject (as opposed to oppression)

Presumably ordinary subjects were not castrated.

EDIT: Apparently this is not true.


The Janissaries weren't castrated. Are you confusing them with the Eunuchs ?


Perhaps it was the Unsullied?


You are confusing Eunuchs (Harem agasi) with Jannisaries.


And not a single mention of Pournelle's Janissaries. It's as if the Ottomans (or the post's author) had never read this series...

https://www.baen.com/Chapters/9780671877095/9780671877095.ht...

Ok, back to your regularly scheduled programming.


Baen?


It's a Gaelic word for a baby.

It's also a sci-fi book publisher, which is probably what the OP was referring to :)


Yes, it really was a post in jest. I guess the downvotes show just how funny it wasn't.


Or how diverse the community's sense of humor is :^)




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