Part 11: The Turks - Part 2: Janissaries and others

MOST FAMOUS OF the Turkish soldiers and the very symbol of Ottoman rule from their foundation in 1362 to their abolition in the 19th Century, the Janissaries ('New Soldiers') were second only to the Spahis of the Porte as the heart of Turkish military power, and, outside Europe, the possession of disciplined firearm infantry was the chief advantage the Turks held over neighbours like the Mamelukes and Persians, who could often raise better horsemen.
    The Janissaries are supposed to have been blessed and named by the Imam Hadji Bektach, and they certainly had close links with a Dervish-like religious order, the 'Ahis', who gave them their distinctive cap, their trousers, and their usual mode of address - 'Yoldas' or 'fellow-traveller'. From 1591, eight Bekasi Dervishes were attached to the 99th Orta (Company) and on parade marched before the Aga of the Janissaries in green costumes.
    Originally the Janissaries were raised from prisoners of war, but in the 15th, 16th and early 17th Centuries were raised by the 'devschirme' as described for Spahis, there being 34 Ortas of ajenioglanlar supplying recruits to the Corps; a few prisoners, purchased slaves and sons of former Janissaries also found their way in, but when in the 17th Century large numbers of Muslim recruits were introduced they lost the superb discipline and esprit de corps which had characterised them earlier despite the occasional foray into politics (permission to marry, indulgence in business and inflation hitting their wages were other factors).


    The Ocak of the Janissaries was made up of three divisions, in the 1580s standing at:
The Cema'at (Company) - 101 Ortas, of which the 60th to 63rd were the Solaks of the Sultan's guard.
The Boluk (Division) - 61 Ortas, of which the 19th, the 'Bekcis', provided the sentinels of the army on campaign and the 65th, the 'Cardak', provided the Aga's HQ Guard (including a group of halberdiers).
The Segmens (Dog-keepers) - 34 Ortas.
    The officers at least of the Cema'at and the Boluk were distinguished by yellow and red boots respectively.
    The whole Ocak was commanded by the Aga of the Janissaries, with as his assistants the commanders of the 2nd and 3rd divisions, the Kul Kahyasi and the Segman Basi (the higher officers were distinguished by three large white plumes and three smaller black ones, set fanwise in their hats). The Ortas had their own commanders called Chorbaci (Soup-makers) assisted by a standard-bearer (Beyrakdar), clerk, imam, quartermaster and others including sergeants called 'scullions' (Kara Kullucu); an orta could have as few as 100 or as many as 500 men, and there are said to have been 12,000 Janissaries under Suleiman the Magnificent, rising to about 27,000 toward the end of the 16th Century.
    Each orta had its own sign (examples include key, anchor, fish, flag and mace) which was marked on its tents and other property and originally tattooed on the men as well! It probably also appeared on the Orta flag (red and white according to one source). Even more important than the flag were the 'kasgan', two copper cauldrons, which were carried before the orta on parade, slung from a pole carried by two men.
    The Janissaries had many privileges, including the rather dubious one of being executed (when necessary) in private at night, with a gun to mark their body passing into the sea! They were immune from law and discipline except administered by their own officers, they had a pension fund as well as regular wages, their own band and their own march step (three paces-pause, three paces-pause, with half turns to left and right). Apart from their military duties, which included liability to summer and autumn manoeuvres in peace time, they also acted as police and actually included two bodies of detectives!

Arms and appearance of the Janissaries

    The illustrations give a general idea of their dress; in contemporary Persian-style paintings they are shown in varied colours including black, blue, red and purple, but 16th Century Europeans were struck by the uniformity of their dress - 'The Make and Colour of their clothes were almost the same, so that you would judge them all to be Servants of one Man'- and the uniform issued appears to have been of coarse blue cloth, though some of the Segmens, like the 33rd Orta, the Avcus (huntsmen), may possibly have worn green. Over a short plain tunic, sometimes worn on its own, they had a short sleeved caftan of near ankle length; its front corners were normally hitched up and tucked into the striped sash, which ended in a gold or silver fringe; beneath were blue trousers and yellow stockings. The characteristic sleeve-cap or 'zarcola' was of white felt with the band and frontal of silver or gilt; senior soldiers or members of picked 'forlorn-hope' groups such as 'Serden-gecti' (head-riskers) or 'Dal kilic' (bare swords) were distinguished by semi-precious stones in the nasal and long heron or bird-of-paradise plume. Apart from the powder horn shown a pouch usually hung from the sash. Except for officers the uniform was notably plain, neither slashed nor decorated.
    The Janissaries shaved their heads except for a scalp-lock and were usually clean-shaven but for a large moustache, unlike the often bearded Turks.
    Up to the 16th Century the Janissaries had sometimes worn armour, but this seems to have vanished during our period, while the composite bow also gave way to the arquebus. Usual armament in the 16th Century was a long and richly-decorated arquebus, a scimitar, a dagger, and a small axe (usually thrust through the back of the sash). By the siege of Malta some Janissaries carried muskets, said to he more accurate than European ones; Turkish sniper-fire from over 500 feet range made a rampart sentry-walk untenable. Probably the musket gradually replaced the arquebus, as in Europe, though the Turks do not seem to have used musket rests.
    Armament, however, was not entirely standardised, as by tradition each Janissary could choose his own weapons from the Imperial armoury before going on campaign. The great majority certainly carried firearms but a traveller of the 1580s says the remainder had half pikes, while for close combat the Janissaries normally slung their muskets and relied on shield and scimitar, advancing with high wailing warcries.

Other regulars

    By Suleiman the Magnificent's reign the regular artillery or 'Topdjis' were 2,000 strong, and there were also 3,000 'Top-Arabacis' or drivers who conducted the vast ox-teams (a train of 40 guns in 1643 had 4,000 oxen) which normally drew Turkish guns. The 'Cebecis' (Armourers), 1,500 strong, not only maintained the artillery but guarded transport and stores on campaign. The first and last of these were recruited like the Janissaries (though renegade European 'experts' were also employed) and may well have been uniformed. There were also two feudally-organised bodies, the 'Humbaracis' (Mortar-gunners) and the 'Lagimcis' (Pioneers). The latter had English and Dutch officers in the 1640s.
    Turkish guns were mainly bronze, and to begin with huge stone-throwers were favoured; during the 16th Century smaller guns firing cast-iron balls, and European style field carriages came into use, but Turkish artillery seems to have remained generally heavy and slow-moving. At the late 15th Century siege of Rhodes the Turks had 33 guns mainly firing stone balls, and 12 bronze mortars firing explosive shell; the heavier cannon averaged only two rounds a day, the mortars about 5. At Malta (1564) their 80 or so guns again included 12 mortars (quite likely the same twelve!) and ranged up to ten 80 pounders and one 160 pounder, while the armourers also provided specialised equipment such as incendiary sticky-bombs.

The Sultan's Guard

The Solaks - four 100-man Ortas of Janissary archers; they wore white silk tunics and helmets of beaten gold; those who walked to his left were left handed (which is what Solak means). 60 always accompanied the Sultan on ceremonial occasions.
The Peyks - (messengers): 150 men, richly dressed and perhaps armed with maces. 30 accompanied the Sultan on parade.
The Muteferrika - ('separated'): the Sultan's 'Noble Guard'. 100 to 400 high-borne cavalry, with their own mounted retainers, who acted as his bodyguard on campaign.
The Mulazims - 300 picked men from the Spahis of the Porte, who accompanied the Sultan on campaign as bodyguard and ADCs.
    (There were also 15 companies of 42 men each of the Cavuses, or Palace Guards).

Other infantry

    In the 15th Century there were various kinds of infantry recruited like many Spahis on a feudal basis, but by the mid-16th Century these 'Ascaris' only accompanied the army as pioneers, though the 'Musellems' had a short period serving as marines. 'Azabs' (bachelors) seem to have been more like the irregular cavalry, volunteers serving for loot, and to have been employed during most of the period. Such troops would be irregulars in basically civilian dress, and their chief weapon was the composite bow, though spears, javelins, scimitars and shields were also used, and toward the end of the 16th Century irregulars would appear to have carried firearms, especially if raised in European provinces.
    This was also true of the mercenary troops who began to be raised in the 17th Century to supplement the overstretched and declining regular forces; they included 'Gonullas' (Frontier volunteers), Mustafiz (Fortress guards) and 'Sarijas' ('yellow' - possibly from the colour of their flags). They included some light cavalry as well as infantry, and were not highly organised or disciplined, and probably not uniformed though I have no details of their dress (one of the illustrations may give an idea of it).
    'Iaylars' were a group of religious fanatics, apparently some thousands strong and distinct from the Dervishes, some of whom also fought. They were armed with scimitar and shield, wore gilt helmets and tunics of skins, decorated with characters in silver. They were used at the siege of Malta as a kind of 'suicide squad'.


    Coloured pictures of Janissaries can be found in the Funken volume previously mentioned, and of other Turks in Warriors and Weapons of Early Times in Color, by N. M. Saxtorph (Blandford) and Boudet's Ancient Art of Warfare, though many of these are based on 18th Century originals.
    An easily-obtainable starting point for reading would be the appropriate volumes of the Cambridge Modern History , while The Great Siege by Ernle Bradford, which has just appeared as a Penguin, is a lively account of the defence of Malta against the Turks.


Janissaries (note decorated muskets) and bodyguards. The former are wearing the shorter tunic, normally covered by their longer caftan (British Museum photo).
The Ottoman Army at Tiflis, 1578, from the Nusretname

Turkish troops in the Balkans, 1630. The cavalry are probably feudal Spahis. Some Janissaries and bodyguards can be seen, at lower right, while the infantry probably belong to the new mercenary forces such as Gonulla or Sarija. As they have no turbans they are non-Turkish, probably Bosnians or other Balkan troops. They have red caps, red, blue or brown costume, white leggings, black shoes and red equipment (British Museum photo).

Janissary - obviously a veteran or 'hero' by his plume!
From Nicolay's Peregrinations faites en Turquie, 1577.

a-f typical Turkish shield patterns. d shows plan as well as top view. g Sanjak, or Turkish battle flag. Scarlet silk, green border, gold decorations. The medallions bear the names of Mohammed and various Caliphs: the thing in the middle is Zulficar, the legendary sword of Mohammed's son-in-law Ali. h red and yellow cavalry standard from first half of 17th Century. i flag from early 17th Century painting of Turks in Persia. Flag is red with a black sector at bottom and is probably rectangular; Tassels are green. j and l Turkish standards captured by Spanish at Lepanto. Colours not known but would use the 'Muslim colours' red, green, white or black. Crescents indicate Ottoman origin. k and m flags from a 1582 print of the Siege of Malta. n Guard cavalryman, probably a member of the Muteferrika or the Mulazims. Plumes - white, black. Cap - top white, bottom gold. Outer coat - scarlet or purple. Inner coat - purple, light blue or black with gold frogging. Sash - red, gold decoration. Trousers - purple or light blue. Shoes - black. Scabbard - black and gold. Stirrups - gold. Saddlecloth - black or purple and gold. Harness - all red with gilt fittings. o Solak of the Sultan's Guard, 1580s. Dress probably white, gold helmet and sash. p Turkish 15th Century arquebusier. Turban white, cap green, shirt green and white stripes, coat red, trousers green and slippers red. He has a sash round his waist with a sort of leather stomach-protector in it, visible behind the powder horn. q Turkish artilleryman, based on a print of the Siege of Malta. He might be Europeanised, but caps with five turned-up points similar to this were worn by some palace functionaries, and as the Tapdjis were part of the Household they may have worn this uniform. r alternative cap styles shown in the same print. (Drawings by Ian Heath).

Left Janissary officer. Right the Aga of the Janissaries. Both of these are from Nicolay's Peregrinations faites en Turquie, 1577.

Turkish heavy guns of the early 16th Century (Miniature Figurines guns with gunners converted from Egyptian Campaign and Colonial ranges).

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See also Ottoman Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers