History of International Relations Textbook

The Muslim caliphates

Janissaries and Turkish music

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Janissaries were the elite corps of the Ottoman army, independent of the regular army and responsible directly to the sultan himself. The Janissaries, just like the Mamluks of Egypt, were foreign troops kept as slaves. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, 1520-1566 CE, there were some 30,000 of them, and they were used, to great effect, in all military engagements, including the siege of Constantinople in 1453. In a practice known as devşirme, or “gathering,” the Ottomans would periodically search Christian villages in the Balkans for young boys – Albanians, Serbs and Greeks, between 7 and 10 years of age – who they would proceed to abduct. The boys were taken to Turkey, taught Turkish, circumcised and given a Muslim education. The intellectually most promising among them were then sent off to become officials in the state, another group were made into scribes, and a third group became Janissaries. 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 bypass, and to sideline, the traditional Turkish nobility. 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 amongst themselves. They were distinct uniforms and were not allowed to grow beards, only mustaches. It was not only the Janissaries who were dependent on the sultan, however, but also the sultans who were dependent on the Janissaries. From the seventeenth-century onward, they became powerful enough to change many of the rules that regulated their lives. Marriage was no 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, mehterân bands, consisting of davul drums, timpani, cymbals and zurnas, an oboe-like instrument. 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 an upbeat and martial mood both in soldiers and in members of the general population. Ottoman military music influenced European composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – “Alla Turca,” from the Piano Sonata no. 11, 1783 – and Ludwig van Beethoven – “Marcia alla turca,” from The Ruins of Athens, 1811. Turkish military music suffered when the Janissaries corps was abolished in 1826, but the tradition has recently been revived. At the Military Museum in Istanbul it is possible to attend daily performances by mehterân bands. Their repertoire includes the “Turkish marches” composed by Mozart and Beethoven.