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.
Most empires don’t last half a millennium, never mind a singular military force hanging around for that long. However, the Janissaries were around for almost 500 years, getting their start in 1380 CE, when Sultan Murad I formed them, and lasting until 1826, when Sultan Mahmud II ended them. During that time, the Janissaries were involved in every Ottoman military conflict, and they played a central role in most of them. From the beginning, there was a sharp distinction between the Janissaries and the other factions of the Ottoman Army, like the freeborn Sipahis, which ensures that their lengthy history is fully their own.
The Janissaries were originally a fighting force made up entirely of slaves. These slaves, known as "kul," were legally the property of the Ottoman Sultan and were permanently bound to whomever held that title. In their first couple centuries of existence, the Janissaries were recruited almost entirely from Christian peasant families within the Empire, who often gave up their children freely in hopes of giving them a better life. The children would be brought back to the capital city, forcibly converted to Islam, and trained extensively for military service. The Janissaries were subject to many strict rules, including an oath of celibacy.
As the ranks of the Janissaries grew, the Ottoman Empire found other roles for the famous fighting force to fulfill. Janissaries were posted throughout the Empire, mostly in military applications, but they took on more municipal duties in the most populated cities. In the biggest Ottoman metropolises, such as Istanbul, Janissaries served as firemen, putting their military training to work by stamping out blazes before they could spread throughout densely packed neighborhoods. One would hope they didn’t use their small arms proficiency too often when serving in this role.
As much as the Janissaries were feared and revered, their masters never wanted to let them forget their place as vassals of the Ottoman Empire. The Janissary equivalent of a colonel was known as çorbaci, which literally translates to “soup cook,” and carried a ladle with him to signify his position. These commanders weren’t actually cooking anyone any soup, but the title was meant to connote their life of servitude. Lower military ranks were given similarly demeaning names, such as water carrier.