The Ottoman Empire may qualify as one of the most important and influential – but least discussed – major empires in history, which may have something to do with the Christianity versus Islam bent of Western historical education. This lack of recognition extends to their elite and unique military units, known as the Janissaries, AKA slave fighting forces. The Janissaries should probably be discussed in the same breath as other renowned warrior groups, like the Roman Legionnaires or the Spartans, but they continue to be unheralded. A highly-trained band of slave warriors, akin to the Unsullied of Game of Thrones fame, the Janissaries left more than ample evidence of their tenacity and tougness throughout their nearly half millennium of existence.
Beginning in the 14th century, the Janissaries served the Ottoman Sultan personally and remained in the role right up until the dying days of the Empire. A Turkish conflict didn’t go by that didn’t include some sort of involvement by the Janissaries, and they almost always played a central role. Their heroic acts stand up against any other collection of brave military events, and they certainly did enough to earn a spot on any list of tough historical warriors.
Military bands are an important part of the history of warfare. In fact, it’s hard to imagine old-timey battles without some sort of musical accompaniment, be it Civil War drummers or someone sounding the cavalry charge. The Janissaries started it all, however, as they are credited with forming history’s first military bands. The Janissary bands helped the troops maintain their unique marching pace, and they included a lot of cymbals and horns. The bands stayed a part of the Janissary culture right up until the end of their existence.
The very first Janissaries were formed from a single group of prisoners of war who had surrendered to the Ottoman Sultan and his service. This small collection of former enemies swelled over the centuries to include tens of thousands of men, many of whom were more loyal vassal than prisoner of war. At the peak of their power, and long after the strict recruiting traditions had faded, the Janissaries numbered at well over 100,000 members. Not all of these members were fighters, however, as the organization welcomed more and more non-combatants into their ranks as the years went on.
The Janissaries often feature as a specialized unit for the Ottoman Empire in historical strategy games, like the Civilization Series, and they’re always portrayed as a ranged unit. This is because the Janissaries specialized in ranged weaponry, upgrading their tools of the trade as the centuries wore on. Initially, the Janissaries were trained as bowmen, before upgrading to crossbows for greater range and effectiveness. The popularization of gun powder led to them picking up muskets, and other small arms were adopted from there. In their final years, the Janissaries failed to upgrade with the times in terms of weaponry, which helped lead to their downfall.
Perhaps the most famous military victory in the history of the Ottoman Empire is their capture of Constantinople in 1453, less than 100 years after the formation of the Janissaries. The battle saw the Ottomans take the capital city of the Byzantine Empire and change its name to Istanbul in a transition that was immortalized in the catchiest of pop songs. The Janissaries played a major role in the event, making up a good percentage of the attacking army and bursting into the city wherever breaches were found. The fall of Constantinople helped spread the legend of the Janissaries early on in their history.