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A Janissary (from the Turkish Yeni Cheri or Yani Cheri, meaning, "new soldiers") was a soldier in the standing army of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Ottomans were the first to devise a standing army in recent times, giving them an immense advantage over Europeans countries. The Janissary corps was formed about 1380 by Sultan Murad I Bey (though he was not called "Sultan" at the time, Ottoman rulers eventually were all given this title). The Janissaries lasted until about 1826, when their many revolts and increasing ineffectiveness led to the abolition of the corps and its replacement by a modernized army. They replaced the feudal ghazi army with a core consisting of a small body (about 1,000 -20,000 troops originally) of trained professional soldiers who were supposedly loyal only to the sultan. They had their own marching band and music, and fearsome whirling dervishes who were to become infamous in Europe and Russia.

At the end of the fifteenth century there might have been a thousand Janissaries. Additional provincial Timariot,  about 40,000 troops in the fifteenth century, made up the rest of the Ottoman soldiers. Unlike other soldiers in that era, Janissaries were full time soldiers paid a cash wage during both war and peace. In war, they received a part of the spoils as well.

At first Janissaries may have been  recruited from war prisoners. Later, they were recruited by systematic abduction of Christian youths from their families in the devshirmeh system, which raised them as soldiers from a young age (as young as 8 but as old as 20) in special academies. They were forced to convert to Islam, as non-Muslims were not allowed to bear arms.

The Janissaries were originally archers, but the Janissary force became particularly important with the introduction of firearms. Infantry carrying muskets proved more effective than cavalry equipped with sword and spear, but such soldiers required intensive training. Only a standing army could really master firearms and infantry drill. Janissaries adopted firearms  from about the 15th century. By the 16th century, the main weapon of the Janissary was the musket. Janissaries also made extensive use of early grenades and hand cannon.

The Ottomans had an elaborate system of logistics and auxiliary support systems. The Ottoman army had a road engineer corps, a corps to pitch the tents and make camp, a corps to bake the bread, a cebeci logistic corps to manage the weapons and ammunition. The Janissaries also had a medical corps consisting of Muslim and Jewish physicians, and the Turks had organized field hospitals. These innovations made the Ottoman army the most formidable force in Europe for a long period.

Initially, Janissaries had few rights and were not allowed to marry until retirement. They wore moustaches, but could not grow beards, the sign of free men. By the fifteenth century, the Janissaries had become a powerful political force within the Ottoman state, and were gradually granted increasing rights, which made them increasingly autonomous and a threat to the state. By the 16th century they were allowed to marry, and their sons, even if born Muslims, could enter the army. In 1648 the Janissaries deposed and murdered Sultan Ibrahim I.


Janissaries, 1583

Service with the Janissaries became so desirable that in 1683, Sultan Mehmet IV abolished the traditional devshirmeh system of conscription, and both Christian and Muslim free men applied or sent their sons willingly for service as Janissaries. The Janissaries supplemented their income by engaging in trade and other pursuits, losing their military discipline and causing them to develop interests that were often opposed to those of the ruler. They were tools in and initiators of palace intrigue and revolted several times. By the 1820s, there were about 135,000 Janissaries,  an expensive drain on the increasingly meager income of the empire. The Janissaries prevented modernization of the army, which would abolish their privileges and perhaps replace them with more disciplined modern troops.

The Janissaries failed to suppress the Greek bid for independence in the 1820s, providing evidence of their inefficiency and of the urgency of the need for reform.  In 1826, they got wind of the plans of Sultan Mahmud II to form a new style army, and revolted. The Sultan, however, had foreseen their reaction and provided himself with loyal troops. The Janissary barracks in Istanbul and provincial headquarters were shelled, and most of them were eventually killed or banished. The Janissary corps was abolished.

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

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Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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