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.