Janissaries and Turkish military music


The Janissaries were the elite corps of the Ottoman army, independent of the regular army and responsible directly to the sultan himself. In a practice known as devşirme, or “gathering,” the Ottomans would periodically search Christian villages in the Balkans for young boys who they would proceed to abduct. The boys were taken to Turkey, taught Turkish, circumcised and given a Muslim education. The great advantage for the sultans was that these men had no families and that their only loyalty was to the sultan himself. By relying on the Janissaries to carry out the key functions of the state, it was possible to sideline the traditional Turkish nobility. The Janissaries were used, to great effect, in all military engagements, including the siege of Constantinople in 1453.  During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, 1520-1566 CE, there were some 30,000 of them.

Initially the Janissaries were not allowed to marry or to own property, and they lived together in garrisons where they practiced various martial arts and socialized only among themselves. They wore distinct uniforms and were not allowed to grow beards, only mustaches. From the seventeenth-century onward, however, they became powerful enough to change many of the rules that regulated their lives. Marriage was now allowed, as was property, and their offspring inherited their positions. The practice of devşirme was discontinued in the seventeenth-century, mainly, it seems, since the existing Janissaries did not want competition from outsiders.

The Janissaries had their own distinct form of music, known as mehterân bands. When marching off to war they would bring their musicians with them. The shrill ululations of the zurna struck a fearful mood in the enemy much as the davul drums made the Janissaries more courageous. Impressed by these effects, European armies soon adopted similar practices, relying on military bands to instill a martial mood both in soldiers and in members of the general population. Ottoman military music influenced European composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Turkish military music suffered when the Janissaries corps was abolished in 1826, but the tradition has recently been revived.

External links:

15 Minute History, “History of the Ottoman Empire, part I”

15 Minute History, “History of the Ottoman Empire, part II”

Mehter marşı

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Rondo alla Turca,” 1783