They look rather silly, don’t they? But in the 15th and 16th centuries, they were the elite infantry of the Ottoman Empire. The Janissaries conquered the Balkans, much of the Black Sea coast, and Hungary. Little known to most people is that they were almost exclusively Christians, who were either kidnapped or bought from their parents by recruiters under the empire’s devshirme system. But, like many things that were once a good idea, it didn’t look so good any more by the time the 1800s rolled around.
The following discussion comes from David Brewer’s excellent book The Greek War of Independence: The Struggle for Freedom from Ottoman Oppression and the Birth of the Modern Greek Nation:
The Sultan’s problem within his borders lay, as it had done before, with the corps of janissaries. They were now practically useless as a military force, and [the Sultan] Mahmoud had to fight his wars with mercenaries and with troops raised by local pashas. The janissary regiments in the provinces drew pay and rations in idleness, while those in the capital were an unruly menace, as a contemporary visitor described. “Lords of the day,” he wrote,
they ruled with uncontrolled insolence in Constantinople, their appearance portraying the excess of libertinism; their foul language; their gross behaviour; their enormous turbans; their open vests; their bulky sashes filled with arms; their weighty sticks; rendering them objects of fear and disgust. Like moving columns, they thrust everybody from their path without any regard of age or sex, frequently bestowing durable marks of anger or contempt.
In 1807 Mahmoud’s predecessor Selim III had tried to bring the janissaries under control by incorporating them into his so-called Army of the New Order. The janissaries reacted violently, the New Army was formally abolished and Selim lost his throne. In the following year, the first of Mahmoud’s reign, his grand vizier publicly advocated reforming the janissaries and curbing their abuses, but lost his life in the ensuing janissary revolt.
In the space of some four hundred years, the janissaries went from an elite military force to a kind of mafia, with members of the corps selling “protection” to merchants. They acted as the firemen of Constantinople, but it was also widely believed that they set the fires in the first place.
For a delightful novel about the decay of the janissary corps, I recommend Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree, a 19th century mystery whose “detective” is a eunuch connected with the Sublime Porte. In 1826, the Sultan could take no more and began arresting and executing the remnants of the corps. In Ottoman history, the persecution is referred to as the “Auspicious Event.”
By the way, Jason Goodwin not only writes entertaining detective stories set in the Ottoman Empire, but he is also a historian whose Lords of the Horizons is perhaps the best introduction to the Empire.