Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Janissaries

The word “janissary” comes from the Turkish “yeni cheri” or new troops. The janissaries were the elite troops and the first standing army of the Ottoman Empire. They were also the sultan’s household troops and bodyguards.

In 1380 Sultan Murad I organized the first janissary army to replace Ottoman troops derived from different Turkish tribes. These troops fought for war booty, and their loyalty belonged to their tribal leaders. Their divergent loyalties and cultural differences might turn one tribe against another. This attitude was not conducive to a stable and reliable army which the sultan could rely to protect his throne and his empire. He needed disciplined, well trained and loyal troops. And he could only attain that desire by enlisting soldiers from his non-Muslim subjects from such places as Greece, Albania, Serbia and other territories of the empire.

The first janissaries were those captured in battle. Later on as the power of the Ottoman Empire grew, the recruits were taken from the sultan’s Christian subjects who paid levies to the empire. The devsirme system of the empire was a form of levy on which Christian families would send some of their sons to serve the sultan. And the boys were then conscripted as janissaries.

Boys with ages 14 to 18 were preferred but sometimes those with ages 18 to 20 were also accepted. For practical reason these boys were then converted to Islam and given the finest military training. The boys were isolated from their families and from the rest of the society. Their barracks were their home, the corps was their family and the sultan was their father. They couldn’t marry until their retirement. They were not allowed to grow beard, but only a moustache because beard signified a freeman. Only the best could become a janissary at age 24 to 25.

The janissaries developed into disciplined and skilled troops that the sultan could rely to depend his person and his empire. They became fearsome soldiers of Europe. In recognition of their valuable services, the sultan rewarded them benefits and privileges. The janissaries were paid salaries not only in war but also in peace. They were also entitled to war booty. They were given pension upon retirement and their children were well taken care of. They also enjoyed a high standard of living and social status. A janissary had a big opportunity to become a civil or military official. He could even become a grand vizier of the sultan. Because of their power and influence the janissaries later become a powerful political and military force in the Ottoman Empire.

In the 15th century the devsirme system of recruiting janissaries was relaxed. A Muslim could be enrolled as a janissary. Some of janissaries were enrolled into the corps even if they were born as Muslims. In the 17th century the devsirme system was totally abolished. After this period volunteers who came mostly from Muslim families were enrolled. This changed system of recruiting janissaries started their decline as potent fighting force.

With their power, the janissaries interfered in the affairs of the empire. They exerted their influence in policy making to suit their interest. They engaged in palace coups and changed leaders they did not want. When Sultan Osman II wanted to curb their excesses after the Ottoman defeat in Poland, they arrested him, had him imprisoned and later murdered him.

The janissaries wanted more privileges and higher pay which the sultan granted lest they turn against him. They could marry while still in the service, and they could live outside the barracks. They also engaged themselves in business and dealt directly with society.

The essence which the janissaries were originally organized was completely gone. Instead of being a protector of the sultan, they become a threat to him. The original hallmarks of discipline, loyalty and courage of a janissary were no more. He became corrupt, undisciplined and ineffective soldier. The janissaries’ failure to crush a Greek rebellion that resulted to the independence of Greece totally discredited them as a dependable fighting force.

The cost of paying 350,000 men many of them not actually serving as soldiers and the janissaries’ abuse of power, military ineffectiveness and resistance to reform were too much for the empire to bear. In 1826 Sultan Mahmud II plotted against the janissaries to replace them with a force along western European lines. Upon knowing the plot, the janissaries revolted. Then the sultan waged a war against them. The janissaries marched to the palace, but Sultan Mahmud with the help to the loyal troops contained them. The loyal troops blew up the janissaries barracks in Constantinople with artillery fires that resulted to 4,000 deaths. Captured janissaries were either exiled or executed. Following its defeat, the janissary corps was disbanded.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

Some Facts on Joyful Christmas

Christmas is the merriest season of the year. However, people differed in their views about Christmas and some of the practices related to it. Some people accept Christmas as part of their religious or social traditions. Others do not celebrate it at all because of their religious or other beliefs. But the fact is that Christmas is an occasion that is widely celebrated all over the world and has affected the lives of many people in some ways. Christmas is just around the corner. And it is worthwhile to make this year’s celebration as joyous and memorable as ever. We could start entertaining ourselves in connection with the celebration of Christmas with a small discussion of some facts that follow:

December 25 as Christmas Day. Although December 25 is the day that is traditionally celebrated as Christmas, the Bible did not specify the exact date of Jesus’ birth. And religious scholars have not established the date of his birth either. A clue to the question is the book of Luke 2:8-14 which stated that during Jesus’ birth the shepherds were watching their flocks at night. Considering that it is usually a winter season in Palestine in December, Biblical scholars contend that Jesus could not have been born during that month because shepherds most probably would not go to their field in a wintry evening. It is said that early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. It was also said that pagans celebrate their festivity called Saturnalia during the winter solstice which may occur from December 21-22 to honor the sun god. At about 440 A.D. Christian converted Roman officials made December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth to make Christianity acceptable to the pagans.

The three kings. It was never mentioned in the Bible that there were three kings who visited the infant Jesus to pay homage to him. It was mentioned that he was given gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh by the magi from the east. Although there were only three gifts that were presented to Jesus, the givers who were called magi might be a group of people composing more than three persons.

The date of Christmas of Eastern Orthodox Churches. Some Eastern Christian Orthodox Churches celebrate their Christmas on January 7 rather than on December 25. The reason of it is that most Christian Orthodox Churches especially the Russian and Serbian use the old Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar.

Not all Christians celebrate Christmas. Jehovah’s witnesses, a Christian denomination do not celebrate Christmas. They consider Christmas as pagan in origin and therefore not a Christian holiday. They also believe that Jesus Christ and some known Biblical personalities did not celebrate birthdays. And that Biblical accounts related to birthdays were mostly associated with unpleasant events.

 “Happy Holidays” Greetings. Generally, people associate Christmas with the Christian religion. But some people are non-Christians, others do not profess to belong to any religious group while still others do not celebrate Christmas at all. Greeting them with “Merry Christmas” is some sort distasteful to them.  “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas!” is a more acceptable way of greeting them during the celebration.  Those people also prefer to call the occasion “the holidays” instead of Christmas.

The longest Christmas celebration in the world. The Philippines is a country with the longest Christmas celebration. The merriment starts as early as late September with the playing of Christmas carols over the radio and some business establishments, and ends at the feast day of Epiphany on January 6. The official celebration however starts at the ”Misa de Gallo” or the evening mass that starts on December 16 and culminates in the Christmas  Eve. The New Year and the Epiphany are considered by many Filipinos as part of their Christmas celebration.

Christmas tree. Christmas tree has its origin in the pagan traditions of having tree as decoration during the winter festivity. The evergreen boughs, mistletoe and holy were regarded as the hope for life in the wintertime when trees had no leaves. Early Christians prohibited the tradition because of its pagan origin. The Germans however revived the tradition in the 16th century by using tree as a decoration during the festivity of “The Feast of Adam and Eve” which was celebrated on December 24. The German brought the Christmas tree tradition in the 17th century to the United States.  The Americans in turn spread the use of Christmas tree as decoration throughout the world.

White Christmas. The song “White Christmas” was the best-selling Christmas single of all time. It has sold more than 50 million copies. The song was composed by Irving Berlin and popularized by Bing Crosby at Decca Records which released it in 1942.

Santa Claus. The figure of a red- suited Santa that is chubby, bearded and round bellied who is on a sleigh drawn by reindeers  was taken from the poem  “A Visit to Saint Nicholas” which is better known today as “The Night before Christmas“. The poem was attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. One of the first artist to define Santa’s modern image was Thomas Nast an American cartoonist of the 19th century who made a picture of Santa in the “Harper’s Weekly” in 1863.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Taj Mahal, a Magnificent Monument to a Man's Undying Love and Devotion to a Woman

Photo by Jankit (Wikimedia Commons)
Shah Jahan (1592-1666) was originally known as Prince Khurran. At his father’s death in 1627, he became the 5th mogul of the Muslim Mugol dynasty that ruled India from 1628 to to 1658. As an emperor he was called Shah Jahan. He later married a young woman who was betrothed to him. Her name was Arjumand Banu Begum, a daughter of a Persian noble family. After the marriage she was given the name Mumtaz Mahal.

Mumtaz was a woman who possessed admirable grace and beauty. Although she was only the third wife of Shah Jahan, she was the favorite among his wives.  Their loving relationship was intense. He was deeply in love and devoted to her. He wanted her to be always by his side so that she was with him even in his military campaigns.

On Shah Jahan ventures at Ber Hampur, Mumtaz died while giving birth to her 14th child. This ended the couple’s 19 years of loving companionship that blessed them with 14 offspring, seven of which died at a very young age. 

The unexpected loss of his beloved wife gravely saddened Shah Jahan, and he was inconsolable in his bereavement. He was in secluded mourning, and it took him long to get over his sorrows. Her loss adversely affected him emotionally and physically so that it made him look grayer and older.

Mumtaz was buried in Berhampur. A year later, in 1631, her remains was disinterred and placed in a golden casket and carried back to Agra, Shah Jahan’s capital, for final interment.

To honor the memory of his wife that he loved very much, Shah Jahan built a mausoleum the beauty of which the world had never seen before. When completed, it was called Taj Mahal which means “crown palace”. The mosque-like mausoleum stands at a raised platform of 186x186 square feet. It is made of white marble. The inside and outside are decorated with inlaid design of flowers and calligraphy. It has a bulbous central dome which is 58 feet in diameter and 213 feet in height. At the corners of the raised platform are four minarets with a height of 162 feet each. Surrounding the mausoleum are gardens, walkways and fountains. The mausoleum took 21 years to finish, from 1632 to 1653, and employed about twenty thousand artisans and craftsmen.

In 1657 when Shah Jahan became ill, one of his sons, Aurangzeb, took advantage of the situation by grabbing power and imprisoning him. Shah Jahan spent the rest of his life in prison. When he died, he was also laid to rest in the Taj Mahal.

The magnificence of Taj Mahal is a description of Shah Jahan’s deep and undying love to his departed wife. The monument is an awesome beauty so that many people consider it as the eight wonders of the world.
Indeed, the beauty of the Taj Mahal is a source of awe and admiration of many people. For example, it was mentioned in an old song written by Frankie Laine and Fred Karger. The title of the song was “Magnificent Obsession” which was popularized by Nat King Cole. The opening of its lyrics goes as follows:

“You’re my magnificent obsession
The greatest wonder of this earth
The Taj Mahal and other splendors
To me have really no worth . . . .”

The mausoleum that Shah Jahan built is indeed a splendid architectural beauty in the world. But, perhaps, to him, it was nothing compared to the life of Mumtaz, his wife and eternal love. It goes without saying that for a man, the woman that he truly loves is more precious and more beautiful than any of the greatest work of art.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Santa Claus, a Figure Blended from Different Christmas Traditions

One of the most visible figures during the Christmas season is Santa Claus. During the holiday commercial establishments have personnel dressed up as Santa to enliven the spirit of the season and to help heighten business activities. In the west and in other regions of the world Santa is generally depicted as jolly, fat, white-bearded old man with red suits. He is also depicted as always on sleigh pulled by reindeers as he comes to homes via the chimney to deliver toys to the children.

It is said that the real Santa was the Greek bishop Nicholas of Myra who was born in third century in the village of Patara, now a part of the southern coast of Turkey. Nicholas, an only son, was raised in a rich family. At a young age his parents died because of an epidemic and he inherited their wealth. As a devoted Christian, Nicholas lived his life in accordance with the teachings of Christ. One of them was to share his material possessions to the poor. His love of the children, his generosity to the poor, and his help to the sick made him a true follower of Christ. He became a bishop at a very young age. During the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian the Christians were persecuted and their religious leaders were imprisoned. One of them was Bishop Nicholas of Myra. The situation of the Christians changed for the better when the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity. During his reign he gave the Christians freedom to exercise their religion. This development enabled Christianity to spread like wildfire throughout the ancient Roman Empire. However, the Christians were deeply divided on their doctrine so that in 325 AD Constantine had to call the bishops for a council in Nicea to discuss on the issue. Nicholas was one of the bishops in the attendance list.

Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD. His person and his good deeds were widely known throughout Christendom so that he was made as patron saint of people of different walks of life in many places, and many churches were named after him. Stories on his deeds abound. One of the most popular stories was on the three poor girls whom he saved from slavery. It was said that their father could not afford a dowry for their would-be husbands. During the time it was the father’s obligation to provide for the dowry so that he could get ideal husband for his daughter or else she would consign her life to being a slave. Out of nowhere, a sack with three gold bars was left in the house of the girls and their father was able to solve their problem. The sack of gold was attributed to Saint Nicholas who was said to have thrown it through the window and landed right in a wet stocking which was left hanging by the fire.

The Vikings who were sea-faring people made St. Nicholas as one their patron saints. They helped spread the saint’s stories to the lands that they went to such as Germany and Netherlands. The Dutch settlers in America started the tradition of associating Christmas with St. Nicholas whom they called “Sinter Klaas”. Overtime that name has evolved into what is now Santa Claus.

To counter the commercialized tradition of Saint Nicholas day which was on December 6, and to divert the focus of reverence to Christ rather than on Saint Nicholas on Christmas, Martin Luther came up with Kris Kringle. In that concept the giver of gifts to children is the child Christ who does it when they are asleep. And because of that situation they never know who the giver of the gift is.

Father Christmas who was also called “Old Man Winter” was a figure related to a traditional pagan celebration of the winter solstice that is assimilated to Christmas. He traveled from home to home and was given foods and drinks by the people.  In return Father Christmas granted them blessings of a moderate winter.

The tradition on Santa Claus is a blend of religion, historical facts, myths and legends so that most people consider Santa Claus, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas as one and the same person. From the historical Saint Nicholas people derived the tradition of putting in toys in the stockings which are by the fire. From the Kris Kringle is the tradition of giving gifts to children when they are asleep so that they don’t know who the giver is. And from “Old Man Winter” is the legend that Santa Claus travels from house to house. In the Middle Ages St. Nicholas was typically depicted as a tall, thin and bearded Cleric. The fat and white bearded appearance of Santa Claus as he is depicted today is generally traced to a 19th century poem entitled “’Twas the Night before Christmas”.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Hagia Sophia, a Beautiful, Historic World Monument

Photo by Bigdaddy (from Wikimedia Commons)
Hagia Sophia or the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin and Aya Sofya in Turkish is a historic monument of two great empires that shaped the course of world history- the Roman and Ottoman Empires. It also served as a house of worship of adherents of two of the world’s largest religions- Christianity and Islam. It was the largest cathedral in the world until 1520. Hagia Sophia is famous for its massive dome.

Hagia Sophia was built on the site where Emperor Constantine built a wooden church. The second church was built by his son Constantius and the Emperor Theodosius the Great. That church was burned. Under the supervision of Justinian I, the church was rebuilt in its present form around 532 and 537 AD.

Constantine was the first Roman Emperor who became Christian. He later promoted Christianity and moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium, an ancient Greek city. After he defeated his rivals, Constantine rebuilt Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople. It later became the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire which was also called the Byzantine Empire. Its heartland was Asia Minor and the Balkans.

Constantinople was situated on the southern coastal tip of the Balkan Peninsula along the Strait of Bosporus that separates the continents of Europe and Asia. The city’s strategic location provided the Byzantine Empire easy economic and military access to its territories across Asia and Southern Europe.

Justinian hired architects Isodore Militus and Arthemius of Tralles, both teachers of Geometry to design the church. He imported materials from neighboring places such as Ephesus, Athens, Rome and Delphi. The original dome of the church which Militus and Arthemius designed collapsed in an earthquake in 558. The replacement of 563 had to be repaired after a partial collapse in the 9th and 14th centuries.

In 1204 Hagia Sophia was attacked and sacked by the crusaders and looted of its properties. They arrested the Patriarch of Constantinople and replaced him with a Latin bishop. This event irreconcilably divided the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches which had long standing disputes that started from the great schism of 1054.
Photo by Andreas Wahra (from Wikimedia Commons)
Islamic text inside Hagia Sophia
In May 1453, Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire and the greatest city of Eastern Christendom at that time fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II. Amazed by the architectural beauty of the church, he converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Since then it remained a principal mosque for about 500 years. Hagia Sophia’s design then served as model of many mosques built around Constantinople and its neighboring areas.

The prominent feature of the cathedral is its dome which measures 230 ft (70 m) in width and 246 ft (75 m) in height. The dome is supported by pendentives which are rested on a square of 4 columns below. The 48 windows around the base of the dome reflect sunlight everywhere into the interior of the nave.

A mosaic depicting Jesus (center)
Mosaic of Virgin Mary and child Jesus. Photo by Griffendor (from Wikimedia Commons) 
The changes made during the Turkish era had markedly altered the outer appearance of Hagia Sophia so that it was indistinguishable that it was once a church. There are buttresses built to support the outer walls to ensure their endurance over the century. Four minarets were added by the corners of the church. The mihrab, the fountain, and mausoleum give the Hagia Sophia a mosque appearance. However, the inside of the edifice reveals the original purpose of its building. There are 6th century church features such as mosaics painted on the walls depicting various Christian religious scenes. When Hagia Sophia was a mosque some mosaics were covered with plaster because of Muslim prohibition of figurative imagery. Further renovations of the church that was turned into mosque were made by Abdulmecid in 1847 who invited Swiss architects Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati to do the job.

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and following the establishment of Turkey as a nation, Constantinople was renamed Istanbul in 1930, and President Kemal Attaturk had the Hagia Sophia secularized by turning it into a museum in 1934.

Hagia Sophia is a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. This priceless historic world monument is a UNESCO world cultural heritage site. Hagia Sophia is a major landmark and a tourist attraction of Turkey. All year round it is visited by tourists from different parts of the world.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Parol, a Traditional Philippine Christmas Decoration

In the Philippines people adorn their homes with a replica of manger where the infant Jesus was born in Bethlehem, with Christmas tree, with the "parol" or the Philippine Christmas lantern and with other adornments. The parol, especially in the rural area, is a traditional Christmas decoration of Filipino homes. The name parol is derived from the Spanish word “farol” which means lantern or lamp.  


A parol , as its name suggests, is a Christmas lantern that is made in divergent sizes, shapes and colors. It is commonly star shaped although there are lanterns which are shaped as box, bells or others depending on the ingenuity of the makers. Most lanterns which are star-shaped are five-pointed star although there are others that are four-pointed stars. The star shape is inspired with the bright star that guided the three magi in their search for the Infant Jesus. Although a  parol is called a lantern, many are designed and made without light in them. Most of the lanterns are not designed to be carried outdoors but rather they are used to adorn the exterior of the house. Most lighting is Christmas lamps that are attached on the body of the lantern.  Usually, the lantern’s framework is made of thin bamboo strips which are joined and bound with string.  Some designs have ring around the star and tails at the bottom while others have none. The framework is covered with crepe paper that is attached by pasting it on the bamboo strip. Other types of decorative papers are also used. The allure of the finished product depends on the design of the lantern and the paper cutting skill of the maker.  Elaborate paper cutting designs on the body of the star, the ring and tail as well as the attractiveness of the lighting can make a lantern stand out from other lanterns.    
Some poorer Filipino Families can earn additional income during the Christmas season by making parols. September starts the beginning of the month when they make use of their craft in Christmas lantern making. The parol is priced as low as 50 pesos (about 1.15 US dollars) for the smallest and the simplest, and as high as 3,000 pesos (about 69.14 US dollars) for the biggest with the most elegant design and lighting.