Istanbul was the capital city of two of the longest-lasting empires in world history, the Byzantine and Ottoman empires; it has hosted many distinctive sociocultural elements. Not only because this city was the capital but also because of its geopolitical situation, the military and bureaucratic classes that settled in it constituted important segments of the population. Over time, for financial, economic, and political reasons, the military played a role in both positive and negative developments in Istanbul’s social life.

In Ottoman Istanbul, soldiers were based on the kapıkulu askeri, a class based on the status of kul (slave). Without an understanding of the kul system, it is impossible to understand the true position of this military class or its significance in the history of the city. The kul system was a fundamental institution in the Ottoman state administration; it trained personnel for employment in the palace and other state services. Initially, recruits for the kul system were selected from among prisoners of war. However, after the second half of the fourteenth century, the recruits were selected from the children of the Christian population; this system was known as devshirme (devşirme). In this system, Christian children between the ages of 8 and 20, from different sectarian, traditional, and linguistic backgrounds, were brought to Istanbul in accordance with the law; these children were referred to as devşirme oğlan. The best, physically and morally, were selected to be trained to work in the palace and were sent for additional training to Galata Palace or İbrahim Paşa Palace in Istanbul or to the provincial palaces in Edirne or Manisa. The remaining children were left with Turkish peasants in Anatolia to be trained for the Janissary corps, while a few were trained as bostancis (gardeners) to serve in the palace gardens. Those who were selected to serve in the palace were referred to as içoğlanı and those destined for the Janissary corps as acemioğlan. In addition to the children selected through the devşirme, from the earliest days of the empire, children from respected families in lands that were conquered were sent to the palace for this purpose. Boys selected as içoğlanı received a rigorous education for two to seven years, after which they faced a second selection process, known as çıkma. Those who were successful went to work in the offices of the Enderun (the palace school), whose members not only took care of the personal needs of the sultan but also received further education. The Enderun was divided into two sections, the Büyük Oda (Large Chamber) and the Küçük Oda (Small Chamber). Over time, the boys were either promoted to a higher office in the Enderun, known as the Yukarı Oda (Upper Chamber), which included various divisions, such as the has oda, hazine oda, kiler oda, and seferli oda, or they were sent to join the kapıkulu süvari (household cavalry) outside the palace; the latter was known as the Birun and included two divisions, the Sipahi Oğlanları and the Silahdarlar. During their training at the Enderun the boys were educated not only in writing, reading, and physical fitness but also in Islamic studies. Depending on their individual abilities, the boys could receive training in calligraphy, literature, siyakat (a form of written code), or accounting. This educational background allowed the boys to join one of the most important classes in bureaucracy, that of the kâtip (clerk). Over time, depending on their success and performance, these young men were appointed to positions as administrators. Alternatively, those who advanced in religious studies could join the class of the ilmiyye (scholars). These boys from the Enderun, who referred to one another as laladaş (people who share a tutor) when working in the offices of Enderun, did not marry until they left the palace.

Acemioğlanlar, sent to stay with Turkish families to learn Turkish customs and traditions for three to four years, worked and received training in the acemi corps for eight to ten years after they returned. Following a test known as kapıya çıkma imtihanı (going out the door), these young men took up their duties in the military classes outside the palace, known as ocak. The ocak consisted of Janissaries, bostancı (imperial guards), cebeci (armorers), topçu (artillerymen), top arabacı (artillery wagoners), ahır hademesi (stable servants), aşçı (cooks), ehl-i hiref (craftsmen), terzi (tailors), çadır mehteri (pavilion band members), alem mehteri (banner band members), sipahi (cavalrymen), kapıcı (gatekeepers), kapıcıbaşı (head gatekeepers), müteferrika (children of retired officers), çavuş (sergeants), tersane neferi (shipyard soldiers), şikar halkı (hunters), çaşnigir (tasters), and saka (water carriers). The Janissary corps, which constituted 30% to 50% of the entire military corps, has left the most information in the documentary record about the social lives of soldiers in Istanbul.

1- Janissaries during the period of Sultan Süleyman I (<em>Hünername</em>)

Over time the Janissaries became one of the greatest and the most influential infantry forces in the kapıkulu corps, and beginning in the early seventeenth century, they took up an important position among the population. There is no question that the Janissaries, the majority of whom by the 1580s were located in Istanbul, had very difficult duties; they had to undergo a rigorous and hierarchical military training, were not allowed to marry, and faced other hardships. On the other hand, when compared to their counterparts in Western states, their high and regularly paid salaries, the potential for merit-based promotion, and disability and pension rights, along with an environment of mutual assistance, working within the context of cash endowments known as orta sandığı (corps’ funds), a type of joint investment and exigency fund, all made being a Janissary an attractive occupation.

Until the second half of the sixteenth century, the Janissaries in Istanbul lived in their military posts, known as oda (chambers). Soon after the conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II had two military complexes built, one in the district of Şehzadebaşı and the other one in Aksaray. As the one in Şehzadebaşı was finished first, it was known as the Eski Odalar (old chambers), while the one in Aksaray was referred to as the Yeni Odalar (new chambers). At first these chambers were not isolated from the city; however, due to some inappropriate behavior and difficulties that emerged over time, both complexes were surrounded by walls; access was only via gates. After the 1509 earthquake, also known as the Minor Day of Judgment, the barracks were rebuilt from timber. However, in the 1540s, most were demolished to make room for the Şehzade Mosque, and most of the Janissaries were accommodated in new and spacious barracks located between Aksaray and Horhor. From the era of Sultan Mehmed II to that of Sultan Suleyman, the number of Janissary units increased from 101 to 165 and finally 196. Initially, these units were composed of 60 to 70 soldiers, but this number increased to 100.

2- A group from Ottoman military class (<em>Hünername</em>)

The barracks in which the Janissaries lived were surrounded by canopies known as turre saçak. Every barrack had its own yard, with a garden in the middle. The yard could be accessed through the main gate; surrounded by a marble frame and arch, the gate also included a room for guards. Immediately adjacent to this were laundry facilities, toilets, a coal shed, and a woodshed. There were various structures in the garden, such as a pool, an arbor, a vine-yard, covered structures and/or a şadırvan (water fountain for ablutions). The employees, such as the imam, preacher, and muezzin, who worked at the mosque located in the middle of the barracks, were appointed from among the Janissaries. The mosque was also a location for the Janissaries to gather, particularly during times of unrest and Janissary revolts.

The Janissary chambers, which were constructed from timber on a rock foundation, were three to four stories high, depending on the number of soldiers in the unit. On the first floor of a typical Janissary chambers there was a middle hall, known as a meydan, a kitchen, a cellar, a master chief’s room, and rooms for privates and orderlies serving the officers; these were known as the kamara. On the second floor was a hall known as a divanhane. On one side of the divanhane were a room for officers and a room for the person in charge of the chambers; on the other side was a reception hall. The number of rooms and their distribution changed from one barracks complex to another. In some barracks, there were special rooms or sections for officers, such as a vekilharç, mütevelli, birinci eski, civelek, or namazgâh.

Janissaries originally were not allowed to get married; however, this changed in the seventeenth century. After that, the number of married Janissaries gradually increased. In the 1650s almost half of the Janissaries lived in their own apartments in various districts within the city walls. This practice continued during the eighteenth century and spread to districts outside the city walls. Other Janissaries lived in rooms for single men or in coffeehouses that offered sleeping quarters.

No matter where they lived, the most important places for the Janissaries were the Yeni Odalar and Etmeydanı Square, which stood in front of it. Symbolic objects such as flags and cauldrons were stored in the Yeni Odalar, and all traditional Janissary events and celebrations were held in the square. Every morning after special prayers known as gülbank were recited, the meat ration was ceremonially distributed to the units. This ceremony was perceived as a confirmation of an agreement between the sultan and his army for service in return for blessings. Failure to hold this ceremony was a significant political step, and counter-movements often started by swearing an oath in the Etmeydanı.

Another location that played an important role in the social, political, and administrative life of the military corps was the residence of the Janissary agha, known as ağa kapısı and located close to Süleymaniye Mosque, where all administrative matters as well as other issues related to the corps were taken care of; meetings of the ağa divanı (agha council) were also held there. This mansion consisted of various buildings placed around a wide central courtyard. The ağa kapısı consisted of the working areas of the Janissary agha and other lower-ranking officers, a large mosque, a dungeon, a number of villas, arbors, and service buildings, as well as workshops for artisan Janissaries. A tall glass structure known as the Tekeli Pavilion served as a fire observatory; this was also where the grand vizier received visitors in the winter. This pavilion, which the acemoğlanlar (who were known as köşklü) looked after, could be seen from many quarters of the city.

The period from the last quarter of the fourteenth century to the last quarter of the sixteenth century can be regarded as the classical period for the Janissaries. During this time, they were involved only in military services, and the institutionalization of the corps was completed. After the sixteenth century, the number of Janissaries began to increase and their functions began to change and diversify, and as a result, they began to engage in civilian work and trades. In the final 250 years before the corps was abolished in 1826, Janissaries were involved in every occupation, not only in the center of the empire but also throughout the provinces. The main reason for this change was the increase in their number.

This increase had several internal and external reasons. Foremost among these was the need to expand the Janissary corps, the only armed infantry force in the Ottoman Empire, to keep up with the increase in the number of professional European military forces armed with firearms especially rifles. The use of firearms started to spread in the sixteenth century and became firmly established in the seventeenth century. The Janissary corps numbered about 10,000 by the middle of the sixteenth century, almost all of them occupied with training and education in their Istanbul barracks, but this number increased four to six times in response to increased militarization in the West.

Janissary salaries were high, and with the increase in the number of troops, a steep increase in public expenses occurred. Attempts were made to solve this problem by debasing the currency; this helped to keep the nominal value of Janissary salaries at the same level, but the purchasing power of Ottoman citizens noticeably decreased. Janissaries now faced the possibility that they would not be paid on time due to budget deficits, and they began to rebel. Between 1603 and 1703, these uprisings led to five out of nine reigning sultans losing the throne; two of these sultans lost their lives, as did one reigning sultan’s mother and three sheikh al-Islams.

3- Janissary musketeers on the way of a military expedition (<em>Hünername</em>)

After the beginning of the sixteenth century, to make up for the loss in the real value of their salaries, the Janissaries were allowed to work in civilian jobs and trades. By the 1580s, this had become a common practice. This not only diminished their military performance but also destabilized trade and artisanship. Furthermore, the inclusion, to a large extent, of the Janissaries and members of other military classes in the iltizam (tax-farming) system, beginning in the middle of the seventeenth century, meant that they dominated this sector, and the competition between mültezim (tax farmers) decreased. As a result, a loss in revenues occurred that was significant enough to negatively affect the budget, and this in turn further intensified the financial crisis.

4- Janissaries in their official attires (Stato militare dell’impero Ottomano)

In addition to an increase in the number of active Janissaries, the growing number of retirees from the Janissaries and other military classes placed a considerable financial burden on the central treasury. For this reason, tımar (fief) lands began to be taken away from the tımarlı cavalry and given to retired Janissaries. This led to the gradual elimination of tımar holders, who had been primarily responsible for ensuring domestic security in times of peace, and eventually to the weakening of domestic security, the intensification of the Celali rebellions in Anatolia during the same period, and a decrease in the productivity of these lands. In addition, the onset of cold, dry weather, a time that was known as the “little ice age,” also affected the tımar lands in Anatolia. Due to a lack of security and decrease in production, people started to move to the cities. As a result of these interrelated developments, there was an increase in the number of Janissaries and other kapıkulu soldiers. As the devşirme did not provide enough recruits, the sons (kuloğlu) and relatives (kul karındaşı) of the devşirme children, who were now Muslim and living in Istanbul, wanting to earn money, started to be recruited into the military corps. By the end of the sixteenth century, this development had opened the way for rapid changes in the social formation of the Janissary corps.

From this time on, service in the Janissary corps became a source of income for people who moved to the city. Even though, as a result of censuses that were held during the sixteenth century, reductions were made in the number of Janissaries, the government’s policy on this matter changed only after the 1730 Rebellion; the esami (muster rolls), which allowed the Janissaries to draw their salaries, were sometimes put on the market and transformed into government bonds that benefited domestic borrowing. Thus, the number of Janissaries increased even more—from 10,000 at the end of the fifteenth century to 13,000 in the middle of the sixteenth century, 38,000 in 1609, 55,000 in 1670, and as high as 120,000 in the eighteenth century.

However, even at this time, the actual number of Janissaries active in Istanbul was only about 20,000. Those who were accepted into the corps came from various ethnic, linguistic, religious, and sectarian backgrounds, including Turks, Albanians, Bosnians, Kurds, Laz, various Caucasians, Greeks, Armenians, Slavs, and converts from Christian Europe. In addition to these, there were about 150,000 esami holders who had no association with the military and did not receive a salary directly from the military service, but rather sought refuge in the corps in order to benefit from its network, business connections, and reputation; they made their living by working for the members of the corps. They were known as yeniçeri taslakçısı. After the seventeenth century, the Janissaries who worked in these areas of production and service were gradually transformed into small business owners. Civilian shop owners and guilds, which naturally opposed this shift at the beginning, eventually tried to benefit from the earnings of the military classes and make the best of this situation by electing administrators, such as kethuda and yiğitbaşı, out of this emerging group. Based on the attributes used to describe about 1,000 shops and their owners, such as beşe, odabaşı, bölükbaşı and çavuş, it is possible to conclude that by the end of the eighteenth century about 40% of the shops had a connection with individual Janissaries or with the Janissary corps. This indicates what a significant position the Janissaries had come to occupy in Istanbul’s social life.

Coffeehouses, which began to spread throughout Istanbul by the end of the sixteenth century, became important reflections of the distinctive social and cultural worlds of the Janissaries. Some of the coffeehouses, which continued to spread rapidly across Istanbul in the seventeenth century, were known as yeniçeri kahvehaneleri, and almost every Janissary troop operated its own coffeehouse. In addition to large amounts of coffee and tobacco being consumed, politics and other current events were discussed in these locations, which were decorated with symbols and logos specific to the relevant troop. The coffeehouses also became places where important poets like Aşık Ömer Gevherî, who usually wrote his poems under the pseudonym of Kul, and Kâtibî were trained; the coffeehouses became the locations where these poets could be heard outside private mansions and palaces.

Janissaries and Bektaşi Order

Not all Janissaries were members of the Bektaşi order or followed its religious principles. Although it is not clear when the connection between this order and the Janissaries was established, we know from contemporary sources that this began to be rumored around the fifteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century, it was common to refer to the Janissary corps as the Bektaşı corps and to address their officers as Bektaşi ağa. Another example of this connection is that the person who built the Yenikapı Mevlevihane was also a katib (clerk) in the Janissary corps. There were also numerous Janissaries who were members of other Sufi orders. Perhaps, as expressed by a writer in the seventeenth century, the fact that the Janissaries referred to themselves as Bektaşi was only an act of respect to Hacı Bektaş-ı Veli and had no religious connotation. However, we should also remember that there were Bektaşi elders among the Janissaries.

Even though the customs and lifestyle of this colorful and dynamic class were seen as debauched by many, some people wanted to imitate them, and the Janissaries’ slang and fashions deeply affected the social and cultural life of the city. For example, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the western technological invention of the water pump was first adopted and employed in Istanbul by the Janissaries, and they were the ones who established the subculture of tulumbacı (pump men), with its own distinctive rituals, coffeehouses, and poems, which eventually spread throughout Istanbul. The fashion known as Cezayir kesimi (Algerian cut) in the eighteenth century was also created by this class; young men from aristocratic families tried to imitate this clothing style and the tradition of decorating their bodies with beads. Examples like these help explain why such sociocultural and socioeconomic developments found support among the public and transformed military unrest into rebellions throughout society.

After the Edirne Buçuktepe Rebellion in 1446, the central government was always aware of the political muscle of the Janissary corps, and relied on its military support while also striving to keep it under control. The first rebellious act of the Janissaries that spread through the streets of Istanbul took place in 1481 in the political vacuum that emerged after the death of Sultan Mehmed II. The main reason for the military uprisings in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the devaluation of the currency. The consecutive rebellions that broke out at the end of the sixteenth century were led by the cavalry corps. The Janissaries remained loyal to the government and did not participate in the rebellions. However, after they became a social class, the first large rebellion led by the Janissary corps occurred in 1622; this led to the dethronement and murder of Sultan Osman II. Those who supported the Janissaries, the urban community whose socioeconomic welfare had become entwined with that of the corps, revolted in reaction to rumors that the corps were to be abolished. In addition to the rebellions in which shopkeepers and artisans of the city participated, there was also ongoing tension between the corps and the rebels. Nevertheless, the leaders of the rebels promised not to touch the shops, and prevented arbitrary looting, not wanting to face opposition from the shopkeepers (which did occur, for instance, in 1651 and 1688).

In the rebellions that took place in 1632, 1648, 1655, 1703, and 1730, there were coalitions and tensions among various levels of society. The greatest coalition took place during the 1703 Edirne Incident. After several meetings and negotiations, Janissaries, scholars, and tradesmen in Istanbul decided to act together against the unpopular sheikh al-Islam, Feyzullah Efendi, and the sultan, who insisted on remaining in Edirne; thousands of people from different classes marched from Istanbul to Edirne. However, none of the rebellions, although they dethroned sultans and removed many officers from their positions, even causing them to be beheaded, were ultimately successful in carrying out the radical changes they sought. The rebels and their demands disappeared within the political structure of the Ottoman State.

5- Karakullukçu master and karakullukçu from the Ottoman military class (Brindesi)

The conflict between the state and the Janissaries, which started in the eighteenth century and reached its peak at the beginning of the nineteenth century, should not be understood in oversimplified reformist-versus-traditionalist terms. From 1768 to 1774, the Ottoman state fought a war with Russia and was defeated. The central administration, having experienced negative events throughout the war, wanted to eliminate such problems and reestablish the state’s power with reformist projects. However, the Janissaries, with the support of a number of social classes whose interests and traditions they represented, became a defensive power against the state. For these reasons, Sultan Mahmud II received support from the scholars; however, seeing that he would be unable to implement the necessary reforms, he also brought together some of the residents of Istanbul under the banner of the state. Thanks to some troops that had been trained and equipped with modern weapons, cannon were trained on the Janissary barracks, thus officially abolishing the corps and carrying out a thorough sweep of the city and its surroundings.

6- Recruiting of Christian boys for the janissary corps (<em>Süleymanname</em>)

Table 1- Military classes in Istanbul and their numbers at certain dates.

Kapıkulu Soldiers





























Top arabacıları





Ahur hademeleri










Ehl-i hiref










Çadır mehterleri





Alem mehterleri



























Tersane neferleri




Şikâr halkı




















Not all Janissaries and their supporters were eliminated, although many high-ranking Janissary officers lost their lives. Various locations where the Janissaries were known to gather, particularly their coffeehouses, were destroyed. However, during this process Sultan Mahmud II protected the Janissary poets, giving them refuge in the palace, and thus this genre entered the mansions and palaces.

In the new system that was established after the abolition of the Janissary corps, a regulated process was used to recruit soldiers to the military corps established in Üsküdar and on the European side of Istanbul; these now developed into a class that dealt solely with military matters. Soldiers, trained in the newly opened modern military schools or in schools in Europe, created a new elite class and were the future staff of the Ottoman state and the Istanbul administration.


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This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.