The Ottoman Empire is easily the most famous historical empire to share a name with a type of footstool, and the most notable group of individuals from its centuries-long history was the Janissaries. The Auspicious Incident, the day that marked the massacre of the Janissaries at the hands of Sultan Mahmud II, ended that notoriety. A highly trained military force with an existence nearly as long as the Empire’s, the Janissaries were originally composed entirely of slaves who were bound to the sultan after being captured as children and forcibly converted from Christianity. Despite this seemingly cruel origin story, the Janissaries fought bravely and loyally for the Ottomans in many important battles, including the capture of Constantinople.
Unfortunately, the golden age of the Janissary could not last forever, and slipping recruitment standards caused the group’s loyalty and effectiveness to wane. By the end of their tenure as an inimitable fighting force, the Janissaries were nothing more than an elite class of society bent on controlling the Empire through their military might. This often left them in opposition to the very sultans they were still technically sworn to, and they participated in several coups. That all ended, along with the Janissaries themselves, in June of 1826, when Sultan Mahmud II enacted the Auspicious Incident and wiped them out.
The plan to wipe out the Janissaries was as brutal as it was efficient. The Sultan used the Sipahi – a cavalry division of the military with a history longer than even the Janissaries' – to deadly effect. The Janissaries and the Sipahi had long shared a bitter rivalry, so the horsemen were all too happy to participate in the destruction at hand. They used their superior speed to drive the Janissary forces back into their main barracks, which Mahmud II had surrounded with artillery. He proceeded to bombard the barracks and set them ablaze, killing over 4,000 Janissaries in one fell swoop. The remaining forces scattered, and the majority were either executed, exiled, or imprisoned. In one day, the 500-year history of the Janissary had been ended.
When the Janissaries were destroyed in 1826, it marked the end of their ridiculously long reign as the premier military power in the Ottoman Empire. The Janissaries got their start in the late 14th century, and they were involved in every major Ottoman conflict for the next 500 years or so. The Janissaries had been integral to capturing Constantinople on May 29, 1453; from their takeover of the city, it became Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. That meant that Sultan Mahmud II was taking on a lot of history when he set out to remove the Janissaries, making it a decision he could not take lightly.
In their earliest days, the Janissaries were made up entirely of slaves, all of whom were sworn into service of the sultan. This made it unnecessary to tax the Janissaries, since they weren’t really making any income to speak of. However, as time wore on, the rules and regulations regarding Janissary recruitment changed, and, in time, those with an established income were allowed to become Janissaries, and Janissaries were able to conduct business and profit from it. This made them into an elite group in society that held enormous military power, yet was still exempt from taxes. Naturally, this set up sparked jealously and resentment amongst the rest of the Empire.
Initially, the Janissaries were all slaves that were sworn to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and their order remained technically attached to the sultan right up until one destroyed them. However, eventually, the Janissaries began to interpret the “sultan” part of their oath to refer to the position – and not any specific individual – which led to them rising up against any sultan they didn’t like and replacing them. The Janissaries were involved in countless coups, using both their military and economic powers, making them outright king makers and the dominant political force in the Empire.