The Guild of Janissaries was a building constructed in Istanbul by the Ottoman dynasty along with the Old Palace right after the conquest of Istanbul. It was built beside the Palace. This location was a result of the servile relation between the Guild of Janissaries and the Ottoman Dynasty. The Janissaries were required to protect and serve the dynasty. A section of the Janissary Chambers—which played a prominent role in Istanbul’s and the Ottoman Empire’s history for almost 400 years—burned during the abolition of the Guild of Janissaries in June 1826, and the remains were subsequently demolished. Thanks to Mahmud II, there is no sign of these chambers today—despite the immense impact they had on political mechanisms as well as institutions like Topkapı Palace and Babıali (Sublime Porte). He erased all traces of the Guild of Janissaries in an attempt to take revenge for having to live under constant disdain and threat from Janissaries after succeeding to the throne.
The first chambers constructed after the conquest of Istanbul were called the Old Chambers. They were built in the area later named Şehzadebaşı. There has been a disagreement regarding whether another barracks complex, the New Chambers—which were built in the area later called Aksaray—was built around the same time or after the construction of the Old Chambers. According to Kavânîn-i Yeniçeriyân, which was written in the 17th century and gives comprehensive information about the Guild of Janissaries, the New Chambers were built along with the Old Chambers during the reign of Mehmed II, the Conqueror. Another sources states that a part of the area where the Old Chambers were located was allocated to the construction of Şehzade Mosque and some of the chambers in that area were destroyed. Later, new barracks were built in Aksaray during the reign of Süleyman I, the Magnificient. The demolished chambers were moved to the new complex and were named the New Chambers. The chambers of recruits, who worked transport and repair jobs serving the palace and capital until they were enrolled in the Guild of Janissaries, were built next to the Old Chambers to be close to the first palace. According to a document dating back to the second half of the 18th century, the Old Chambers complex had 26 rooms with seven cemaat(frontier troops)rooms and 19 ağa bölüğü (the Istanbul agha’s chamber in the Guild of Janissaries) rooms. There were 30 recruit rooms, one Turkish bath, one fodula (flat bread in the form of a pita bread to be distributed to society) oven, and one fire brigade in the group of buildings where the recruits were located. There were four arrangement rooms for left-handed people as well as 93 cemaat rooms, 42 ağa bölüğü, and 34 sekban (irregular military units) rooms. The barracks in the New Chambers were built around a square called Tekke Square, which had a mosque in its center. Orta Mosque in Tekke Square was an important meeting place for Janissaries. They used it as a center during important events, including riots. The square, which was called Et Meydanı (Meat Square) and located in front of the New Chambers, was also a part of this complex. It was called Et Meydanı since Janissary ortas (battalions) were distributing meat at state-owned prices. There was a drill field for training Janissaries, one seksonhane where dogs used during wars and for hunting could spend the winter, multiple locations where butchers called tomruk (fief) distributed meat, a prayer room, a lodge, and a gathering point for seğirdim ustas (officer managing the Janissaries walking in front of and behind the animals which carried meat). The square, which was separated from the outer area by walls, could be accessed through a large gate called the Et Meydanı Gate.
It would be incorrect to assume that the architectural style of the chambers—which were rebuilt numerous times because of earthquakes, fires, and general wear and tear—was unchanged from the reign of Mehmed II (15th Century) to the 19th century. While the claim that the chambers were made from stones and wood—like madrasas were until the earthquake ‘Little Doomsday’ occurred during the reign of Bayezid II in 1509—after that date is interesting, it is not based on evidence. It is possible to gather only an overview about the chambers’ architectural style from the depictions in the miniatures and maps dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. To acquire more detailed and accurate information for the sake of reconstructing and repairing the Janissary Chambers, it is necessary to consult survey records that were first prepared during the 18th century. These records extend to the present day. The construction of the chambers with wood on top of stone foundations—as was done for mansions and houses—resulted in some problems. Wood does not age well and fires plagued Istanbul for many years. Building the Janissary Chambers out of wood meant constantly reconstructing and restoring them. Today, it is difficult to understand why there was such insistence on the use of wood in building the chambers. Modern historians studying the Janissary Chambers understand the confusion Selim III felt upon requesting that Ottoman architects and master builders use stone in the European style to build barracks in Hasköy for the Humbaracı1(Janissaries with a humbara, which is a circular iron or bronze bomb with an empty space inside where explosives are put and thrown either manually or with a mortar) Guild—this would have been in line with the spirit of the New Rule at the beginning of the 19th century—only to find them all insistent on using wood as was traditional. The chambers which were built in a complicated order were not so different from Istanbul’s wooden houses and streets that would have two, three, or four floors depending on the housing needs of the society.
The Janissary Chambers’ main entrance was made of a marble-arched doorframe with a sign reading Janissary Chamber on it. Inside, there was a courtyard in front of the barracks that was isolated from the outer area with walls. In the middle of the courtyard was a garden that contained—depending on the particular courtyard’s position—a vine, a pool, a fountain, or a pergola. The laundry room, toilets, wood house, and coalbunker were in the courtyard as well. Depending on the barracks, a barn could be found in either the courtyard or—on rare occasions—the ground floor of the barracks. There were sections—like lodges, kitchens, and cabins on the ground floors—reserved for the manservants of Janissary officers. A common congregation area for officers was the divanhane as well as the officer’s mess or concierge’s room. An exhibition room could be found upstairs. Some barracks had sections with special functions. The following could be seen in only some barracks: young Janissaries’ rooms, prayer rooms, steward rooms, administrator rooms, and first old rooms reserved for the officers of Janissary ortas or for other functions. This diversity in layout reminds us to avoid approaching these rooms with modern eyes accustomed to standardization. The sections in the rooms had more than one function, which is different from modern structures. For instance, the mid-hall known as the gathering point for senior Janissary soldiers was used as a dining hall, prayer room, or a bedroom at different parts of the day depending on the need.
Barracks were not very different from the mansions and houses of the period in terms of comfort, decoration, and plumbing. There was often competition among the Janissary ortas regarding how ornate their rooms were. In 1826, the chambers were likened to pagan temples because of the orta signs imprinted all around the barracks in a rubaie written to praise the abolition of the Guild of Janissaries and the burning of Janissary Chambers. People claimed the chambers deserved to be burned down. Efforts to bring water into the chambers were made during the reigns of various emperors; waterways and pools were built during the reigns of Fatih, Bayezid II, and Süleyman I. Water was brought inside the barracks through water installations in the Old and New Chambers. Special attention was paid to the installation and maintenance of the sewer systems which were vital to protecting the following from flood: the skirts of the hill where Fatih Mosque was located, the New Chambers in the valley of Bayrampaşa Stream, and Et Meydanı.
While no comprehensive document about life in the barracks at this time exists, different sources offer some insights. Seniority, or “being old,” played a particularly significant role in the social hierarchy of the Janissary Chambers. Inexperienced soldiers served as the manservants of Janissaries for a while, responsible for errands and keeping the chambers clean. The soldiers that completed their time as manservants were promoted to qualified workmanship with a ceremony in mid-hall where they would wear conical hats called arakıye which were wrapped in muslin. This promotion system was similar to the one experienced by apprentices who were promoted to qualified workmanship after serving for a period of time in craft guilds as well as to how the members of a religious sect would pass into a different rank of dervishes. After completing their qualified workmanship service, these soldiers were promoted to the position of a master. As a senior, they could grow their beards and sit and eat with concierges and other officers.
Some sources state that most of the Janissaries did not stay in their chambers during the last period of the Guild of Janissaries. Those who did stay were either officers and their manservants—like concierges and cooks—or old Janissaries who could no longer work. Although the increased number of Janissaries who married and lived with their families before they retired—this was allowed during the early times of Janissaries—is thought to have played an important role in creating such circumstances, it is clear that single Janissaries were also uninterested in barrack life. That single Janissaries preferred not living in the Janissary Chambers even though it was free is understandable considering the restrictions of life in the barracks and the responsibilities it entailed.
Janissary Chambers was greatly damaged by fires which were a major issue for Istanbul for a time; they had to be rebuilt and repair frequently. The Old and New Chambers were partially or completely damaged by fires in 1633, 1660, 1693, 1718, 1751, 1756, 1779 and 1782. All this construction no doubt resulted in a significant financial burden. In 1766, a significant amount of money had to be spent on repairing and reconstructing the Old and New Chambers as well as the buildings in Et Meydanı after an earthquake heavily damaged them. The cycle of repair and construction could be a result of wear and tear over time as well as disasters like fires or earthquakes. On separate occasions—during the reigns of Selim III and Mahmud II—comprehensive reconstruction and repair activity was carried out on those chambers for the aforementioned reasons.
Not long after comprehensive repairs took place during Mahmud II’s reign, artillerymen, bombers, and coachmen were sent by the sultan to burn down the chambers. In 1826, during the abolition of the Guild of Janissaries, debris from the burning of the New Chambers and the demolition of the Old Chambers was sold to scrap dealers. The fields on which the chambers had been located were assigned to various foundations and opened to the construction of houses, stores, and orchards. With the aim of leaving no trace of the Janissaries behind, the former locations of the New and Old Chambers were named Ahmediye and Fevziye respectively. Construction of a coffeehouse on either location was forbidden during the years closely following the abolition of the Guild of Janissaries because of the close relationship between Janissaries and coffeehouses.
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1 Janissaries with a humbara, which is a circular iron or bronze bomb with an empty space inside where explosives are put and thrown either manually or with a mortar