Janissary was a member of the elite infantry units that formed the Ottoman Sultan’s household troops and the first modern standing army in Europe. The corps was most likely established under Sultan Orhan (1324–1362), during the Viziership of Alaeddin. Janissaries began as elite corps made up through the devşirme system of child levy, by which Albanians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Croats, Greeks and Serbs were taken, levied, subjected to circumcision and conversion to Islam, and incorporated into the Ottoman army. They became famed for internal cohesion cemented by strict discipline and order. Unlike typical slaves, they were paid regular salaries. Forbidden to marry before the age of 40 or engage in trade, their complete loyalty to the Sultan was expected. The Janissaries were a formidable military unit in the early years, but as Western Europe modernized its military organization technology, the Janissaries became a reactionary force that resisted all change. Steadily the Ottoman military power became outdated, but when the Janissaries felt their privileges were being threatened, or outsiders wanted to modernize them, or they might be superseded by the cavalrymen, they rose in rebellion. By the time the Janissaries were suppressed, it was too late for Ottoman military power to catch up with the West. The corps was abolished by Sultan Mahmud II in 1826 in the Auspicious Incident, in which 6,000 or more were executed.
According to military historian, the Turkish administrators would scour their regions (but especially the Balkans) every five years for the strongest sons of the sultan’s Christian subjects. These boys (usually between the ages of 6 and 14) were then taken from their parents, circumcised, and sent to Turkish families in the provinces to be raised as Muslims and learn Turkish language and customs. Once their military training began, they were subjected to severe discipline, being prohibited from growing a beard, taking up a skill other than soldiering, and marrying. As a result, the Janissaries were extremely well-disciplined troops and became members of the askeri class, the first-class citizens or military class. Most were of non-Muslim origin because it was not permissible to enslave a Muslim. The Janissary corps were distinctive in several ways. They wore unique uniforms, were paid regular salaries (including bonuses) for their service, marched to music (the “mehter”), lived in barracks and were the first corps to make extensive use of firearms. A Janissary battalion was a close-knit community, effectively the soldier’s family. By tradition, the Sultan himself, after authorizing the payments to the Janissaries, visited the barracks dressed as a janissary trooper, and received his pay alongside the other men of the First Division. They also served as policemen, palace guards, and firefighters during peacetime. The Janissaries also enjoyed far better support on campaign than other armies of the time. They were part of a well-organized military machine, in which one support corps prepared the roads while others pitched tents and baked the bread. Their weapons and ammunition were transported and re-supplied by the “cebeci” corps. They campaigned with their own medical teams of Muslim and Jewish surgeons and their sick and wounded were evacuated to dedicated mobile hospitals set up behind the lines.
The first Janissary units were formed from prisoners of war and slaves, probably because of the sultan taking his traditional one-fifth share of his army’s plunder in kind rather than cash. However, the continuing enslaving of dhimmi constituted a continuing abuse of a subject population. This “child levy” system was regularly implemented during the 15th-16th centuries, the first two centuries of its existence. Some historians argue this system contributed to the Ottoman states efforts at compulsory conversion and “islamization” of its non-Muslim populations.
In response to foreign threats, the Ottoman government chose to rapidly expand the size of the corps after the 1570s. Janissaries spent shorter periods of time in training as “acemi oğlans”, as the average age of recruitment increase. This reflected not only the Ottomans greater need for manpower but also the shorter training time necessary to produce skilled musketeers in comparison with archers. However, this change alone was not enough to produce the necessary manpower, and consequently the traditional limitation of recruitment to boys conscripted in the “devşirme” was lifted. Membership was opened to free-born Muslims, both recruits hand-picked by the commander of the Janissaries, as well as the sons of current members of the Ottoman
standing army. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the “devşirme” had largely been abandoned as a method of recruitment. The corps was organized in “ortas”. An “orta” (equivalent to a battalion) was headed by a “çorbaci”. All “ortas” together comprised the Janissary corps proper and its organization, named “ocak”. Suleiman I had 165 ortas and the number increased over time to 196. While the Sultan was the supreme commander of the Ottoman Army and of the Janissaries in particular, the corps was organized and led by a commander, the “ağa”. The corps was divided into three sub-corps, the “cemaat” (frontier troops), with 101 “ortas”. The “bölük” or “beylic”, (the Sultan’s own bodyguard), with 61 “ortas”. The “sekban” or “seymen”, with 34 “ortas”. In addition, there were also 34 “ortas” of the “ajemi” (cadets). A semi-autonomous Janissary corps was permanently based in Algiers, called the “Odjak” of Algiers. Originally Janissaries could be promoted only through seniority and within their own “orta”. They could leave the unit only to assume command of another. Only Janissaries’ own commanding officers could punish them. During the initial period of formation, Janissaries were expert archers, but they began adopting firearms as soon as such became available during the 1440s. The siege of Vienna in 1529 confirmed the reputation of their engineers, sappers and miners. In melee combat they used axes and “kilijs”. Originally in peacetime they could carry only clubs or daggers, unless they served as border troops. Turkish “yatagan” swords were the signature weapon of the Janissaries, almost a symbol of the corps. Janissaries who guarded the palace (“Zülüflü Baltacılar”) carried long-shafted axes and halberds. By the early 16th century, the Janissaries were equipped with and were skilled with muskets. They used a massive trench gun, firing an 80-millimetre (3.1 in) ball, which was feared by their enemies. Janissaries also made extensive use of early grenades and hand cannons. Pistols were not initially popular but they became so after the Cretan War (1645–1669).