Devshirme, the recruitment of Christian children by the Ottoman Empire to become soldiers and officials

The Ottoman Empire was one of the main powers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Its colossal dimensions guaranteed it a military surplus that allowed it to recover from any defeat in a very short time, as happened in Lepanto, and to undertake campaigns simultaneously on different fronts, in the case of Asia or Europe. But, at the same time, this enormous extension multiplied its ethnic diversity and made many satraps of dubious loyalty, so it became necessary to create a body of absolute fidelity, that of the famous janissaries. The form applied for their recruitment was as original as it was painful: the Devshirme or blood tribute.

The Ottoman army was divided into two basic units, the cavalry and the infantry (later an artillery corps and a sapper corps would be created, although not very abundant in numbers). The first, called Kapıkulu Süvari (Cavalry of the Servants of the Sublime Gate), was an elite troop structured into six divisions and made up of the sipahi (a word derived from the Persian sepâhi), equivalent to the European knights. In other words, they were noble holders of a swindle (fiefdom) which, in a conceptual medieval survival, had been granted to them by the sultan in exchange for a military service. Sometimes they did not fulfil this duty, especially in the distant satrapies.

The infantry was divided into four corps: the Yeni Çeri (new corps), that is, the aforementioned Janissaries, created by Orhan I in 1330, probably inspired by the Mamluks and to have a stable force that did not depend on recruitment, which, as we said before, could not always be trusted; the başıbozuk (irregulars, mercenaries), needed to control the huge borders of the empire; the yerlica, janissaries destined for urban garrisons, in whose political and daily life they used to integrate; and the kapikulu, the elite of the elite.

Initially, the quarry of the janissaries were the prisoners of war and the slaves. Therefore, adult men whose ideological or religious malleability was not easy on a large scale. That is why in the last quarter of the 14th century it was decided to introduce a novelty in the devshirme. This term, which can be translated as “collecting” or “gathering”, is very descriptive because that is what it was based on: the requirement for subjugated Christian territories to send children for education in Islam and the corresponding training in the skills of war.

Janissaries in a nineteenth-century illustration / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The ages were to be between eight and fourteen years or so, depending on the availability and needs of the empire, although it was forbidden to recruit minors under that age such as beççe and şirhor, words that designated kids and babies. It is curious because in theory the prohibition should have been total, since the Sharia or Islamic law protected the dhimmi or People of the Book: practitioners of abramic religions, such as Christians or Jews, who when they lived in Muslim territory were entitled to some freedom in exchange for the payment of the yizia (a tax for each adult) or the jarach (land income tax). It seems that the issue was resolved by considering that the devshirme was not a form of kul (slavery), although it originated from it, and was therefore legitimate.

In general, the origin of the children was the regions of Anatolia where there were still Christian communities, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, that is, those under Ottoman rule; thus their resistance was punished at the same time as the future was foreseen, since they would have to fight against their own families. The devshirme was not made every year, of course, as demographically it would have been unsustainable, but every four or five years and, from 1568, sporadically. But it was periodically supplemented by children who were captured in the Berber races, which spread to more distant places such as the south of France, the Italian peninsula, the Iberian peninsula, North Africa, the Canary Islands and even a slave assembly factory was established on the Irish island of Lundy, where those captured on raids through Iceland and England were taken.

The children gathered in groups of about 100 and were dressed in red so that they would be easily recognized if they tried to escape on the way to Istanbul (although there were cases, especially in the poorer rural world, where their parents voluntarily handed them over or even bribed the recruiter to do so, since the child would have a better life). When they arrived, they were circumcised and the vast majority had to continue their journey to Anatolia to undergo a process of acculturation during which they worked hard in the fields and received basic military training. The most prominent ones returned to Istanbul, being distributed among seven enderûn (schools) from which the janissaries were nourished.

Fighting between English and Berber ships (Willem van der Welde) / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Once in Istanbul everyone went through a fairly complete training period that included learning to read and write, notions of theology and law, science, poetry, three languages, physical training and hand-to-hand combat. The teaching system was similar to that of other great schools of the time, based on rewards and punishments. In adolescence or shortly thereafter, this stage was ended with a ceremony called çıkma (departure, retreat) and they were considered ready to begin their service, according to that facet for which they had shown more ability.

An ağayeri devşirme, Christian child recruitment officer / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

They did not have to be assigned exclusively to the army, since the devshirme also supplied the bureaucratic institutions (Kalemiyye) and even the religious ones (İlmiyye) with personnel of the highest caliber, although the brightest were reserved to enter the service of the Sultan, either in the palace or in a province; some even went so far as to occupy the post of grand vizier, equivalent to that of prime minister. Many were assigned to the administration with the aim of reducing the number of officials of noble origin, thus counteracting the power that this estate had come to achieve; ironically, they themselves would end up forming their own.

Muslims were exempt from the devshirme but they were not alone, as the exemptions covered orphans, single children and those with physical defects, for example. Also the offspring of artisans, since they were supposed to continue the business of their parents and from an economic point of view it was not advisable to deprive a community of them. Likewise, Jews, gypsies and the inhabitants of major cities were excluded. Until recently, the same was thought of the Armenians but the colophons (manual notes at the end of a text) found in manuscripts of the time reveal that this was not the case. Instead, Bosnian Muslims were recruited and sent directly to the elitist Enderûn Mektebi (Palace School), founded by Murat II and perfected by his heir Mehmet II, where they joined the other outstanding ones.

Janissaries practicing with firearms. The conical cap indicates that they are still apprentices / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

According to some historians, the devshirme in general and the janissaries in particular behaved almost like a religious order, with a high degree of corporatism that gave them the right to share a series of things, apart from belonging to the corps: their filial relationship with the sultan, having a common origin, having received the same education and practicing certain customs of their own accord, such as wearing a moustache (a tradition from when they were forbidden to grow a beard in the enderûn to differentiate themselves from free Muslims) or celibacy, which had in fact been obligatory during their instruction but no longer after the çıkma.

In the 15th and 16th centuries they were a formidable fighting force, the spearhead of an empire that dominated the Mediterranean and advanced through central Europe to Vienna, so it is understandable how powerful they became. So much so that, in the time of Selim I and out of discontent, they led a mutiny that set fire to Istanbul and even put the Sultan himself in a state of shock. Paradoxically, their triumphs earned them many riches among pay, rewards and spoils, so that their discipline tended to relax. By then they were already functioning as a lobby capable of blackmailing the sultan (who had a body of janissaries as his personal guard, the Beyliks), actively participating in all kinds of political intrigues.

Expansion of the Ottoman Empire from the beginning of the 14th century to the end of the 17th / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Their number was important enough to allow it. It is not clear how many there were because it depended on the time, the wars and the classification as janissaries of many who were not (they pretended to be so to benefit from their privileges, including not paying taxes), so that of the hundred thousand that were reported in the past only a third would really be janissaries, at least in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent. Current Turkish historians estimate that around two hundred thousand children were given to devshirme. One of them was Skanderberg, the famous Albanian hero; another, the even more famous Vlad the Impaler who, like the previous one, was able to free himself, but not his brother Radu, who became a loyal janissary.

An agha or commander in chief of janissaries / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

As the Ottomans lost control of many territories and went into decline, the devshirme was affected and it was necessary to enlist volunteers, so that Muslims by birth had to enter the ranks of the janissaries. After all, it was a destination that was longed for because of its prestige and standard of living. But in 1632 they organized a new insurrection against Murad IV, proving that they had become the Ottoman equivalent of the Roman praetorians.

The imposition of an oath of fidelity was not a deterrent and the intrigues continued, so that in 1648 the devşirme was ended. It would exist for a few more years, but it gathered only a few hundred children and Ahmed III abolished it definitively in the first quarter of the 18th century. The Janissaries did not disappear because of this; they continued to exist, renewing their ranks through the system of passing on positions from father to son. But this affected their military effectiveness in what was already an obsolete unit, so they were only a problem and Mahmoud II put an end to them in 1826.


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