World History
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14 Facts About The Janissaries, The Ruthless Army That Inspired The Unsullied

Updated September 28, 2021 330.2k views14 items

The Ottoman Empire is one of the most important and influential major empires in history, though it is sometimes overlooked in the West (which may have something to do with the Christianity-versus-Islam bent of Western historical education). This lack of recognition extends to the empire's elite and unique military units known as the Janissaries.

The Janissaries can be discussed in the same breath as other renowned warrior groups, such as the Roman legion or the Spartans. A highly trained band of slave warriors, akin to the Unsullied of Game of Thrones fame, the Janissaries left ample evidence of their tenacity and toughness throughout their nearly half-millennium of existence.

Beginning in the 14th century, the Janissaries served the Ottoman sultan directly. Their involvement in the military and politics changed over the centuries, but the Janissaries remained fundamentally important in Ottoman society. 

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  • Photo: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    They Created The First Military Music Bands

    Military bands are an important part of the history of warfare. The Janissaries started this tradition and 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, drums, and horns. The bands continued to be a part of the Janissary culture right up until the end of their existence.

    Janissary music, by way of these bands, had a large influence on the Western world. Their instruments, styles of dress, and musical styles were all found in Europe by the mid-19th century.

  • Photo: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Their Ranks Swelled To More Than 100,000 Members

    The very first Janissaries were slaves and 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 vassals than prisoners of war.

    At the peak of their power, and long after the strict recruiting traditions had faded, the Janissaries numbered well over 100,000. 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.

  • Photo: Richard Knötel / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    They Specialized In Ranged Weaponry

    The Janissaries specialized in ranged weaponry, upgrading their tools of the trade as the centuries wore on. Initially, the Janissaries were trained as bowmen, although they also used javelins. With time, they upgraded 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. By the late 16th century, sources indicate that all of the Janissaries carried muskets. In their final years, the Janissaries failed to upgrade with the times, which partly led to their downfall.

  • Photo: Mustafa-trit20 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    They Helped Capture Constantinople In 1453

    Perhaps the most famous military victory in the history of the Ottoman Empire is the Ottomans' capture of Constantinople in 1453. This took place 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. Istanbul, long the target of Ottoman sultans, became the focal point of the Ottoman Empire. 

    The Janissaries played a major role in the capture of Constantinople, 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.