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The janissaries: 14th - 19th century

Ottoman conquests in the Balkans, in the late 14th century, provide both the need and the opportunity for a standing army. The need is to provide security in these frontier provinces. The opportunity comes with the large number of captives. The boys and young men are trained in warfare as personal slaves of the sultan. The resulting army is given the name yeniçeri (Turkish for 'new troops'), from which the west derives the word janissary.

In the 15th century a human tax is imposed on these conquered Christian territories. Known as devshirme, it is a tribute of children - handed over to the Turkish sultan as slaves.

The boys of the devshirme are trained in the Turkish language, the Muslim religion and the arts of war. They then become janissaries, with considerable privileges and a strong personal loyalty to the sultan. Most medieval armies are temporary groups, gathered together on a feudal basis for a specific conflict. A standing army such as the janissaries, forming a highly trained professional unit, has great advantages - evident in the victorious 15th-century campaigns of the Ottoman Turks.

Like all privileged military elites, the janissaries acquire disproportionate power. They often intervene in affairs of state, rather like the praetorian guards in Rome.

By the 17th century the number of janissaries has been increased to more than 100,000. The system of devshirme is reduced (and by 1700 brought to an end), with Muslim Turks now allowed to join the corps in place of the Christian boys. Increasingly the unruly strength of the janissaries proves as harmful to the Turkish state as it is terrifying to the enemy.

In 1826 the janissaries rebel against proposed reforms. The sultan, Mahmud II, finally acts. He orders other units of the army to turn their cannons on the barracks of the janissaries. Any who survive this bombardment are executed. The corps which has inspired more than four centuries of terror thus comes to a very abrupt end.