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.
They Existed For Almost 500 Years
The Janissaries were around for almost 500 years, getting their start in 1380 CE. Formed by Sultan Murad I, the Janissaries lasted until 1826, when Sultan Mahmud II ended them.
During that time, the Janissaries were an essential part of the Ottoman military. The elite troops were distinct from other factions of the Ottoman army, such as the freeborn sipahis. The sipahis held land, conducted administrative duties, and took up arms during wartime. They were largely cavalry while the Janissaries were infantry troops.
They Were Slaves Who Pledged Celibacy
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 whoever held that title. In their first couple centuries of existence, the Janissaries were recruited almost entirely from Christian peasant families within the empire. These groups may have given up their children freely in hopes of giving them a better life, but they were also, from the viewpoint of Islamic authorities, only loyal to the sultan.
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. The idea that Janissaries would never marry was similarly placed upon them to maintain absolute loyalty to the sultan.
They Also Served As Firefighters In Large Ottoman Cities
As the ranks of the Janissaries grew, the Ottoman Empire found other roles for the fighting force to fulfill. Janissaries were posted throughout the empire, mostly in military roles, 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.
Colonels Were Called 'Soup Cooks' And Wore Ladles Around Their Necks
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." He carried a ladle with him to signify his position along with a gilded helmet and a white staff.
These commanders weren’t actually cooking anyone soup, but the title was meant to connote their life of servitude. There was a certain amount of pride in being çorbaci, however, with men of lower military ranks given demeaning names - and duties - such as water carrier.
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.
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.