Tunch Khan

Jun 19, 2005
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Ottoman power in its early days was a family affair, with sovereignity shared by brothers, uncles, cousins and even female relatives; and when Murad I in 1365 founded the janissaries, the yeni ceri, or "new troops", he extended his family in a remarkable way.

Osman and Orhan had taken their fifth of the war booty, as the Koran permits a leader to do, in the form of land and gold; Murad took up his fifth of the captives, too.

Turks appear to have favored the conscription of essentially Greeks, Albanians, Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians. Usually they would select about one in five boys of ages seven to fourteen but the numbers could be changed to correspond with the need for soldiers. Later they would extend the system to Hungary.

Contrary to public belief, this mandatory recruitment practice soon became very popular among the Christian paesantry of the Balkans. If they wished to resist, the tribute gatherer gave plenty of warning for his coming, and the Balkans offered countless avenues for escape. The tribute was not collected blindly or with malice. The Turks left the widow with their boys, and did not trouble families with a single son. As the convoy wound its way across Muslim Bosnia or Albania it had to be heavily guarded to prevent parents from substituting their own offspring. For their own part, Turks avoided boys who already spoke Turkish, or had learned a trade, or had lived in the city.

The boys gave up little when they were enrolled as the Sultan's slaves. Priests were rare in their highland villages, and then as ignorant as their flock, or at least as poor, and prone to abuse their position. Churches were scarce. The villagers of the highlands had a bellyfull of sprites, elves, vampires, tree spirits and such, who could be propitiated, moved on or deflected by charms, amulets, magical cures, muttered innovations, scraps of paper with writing on them, ceremonies of renewal with water jugs, feasts marked by sacrifice and meat, to everyone's relish; and the tribute boys arrival in Anatolia probably marked their first contact with religion of a fromal sort. The Bektashi order, to which the janissaries were officially attached from 1453, was the most liberal and progressive form of the Islam at the time.

What could rival the experience of being drawn from a life of drudgery and obscurity into a world of exhilarating novelty, from a narrow parochial society into the cosmopolitan one of the empire, from poverty to all the possibilities of wealth, from the flock to the ranks of rulers, soldiers, wielders of power? If a boy had the qualities the selectors sought, he would be enrolled immediately in one of the palace schools called Enderun, where boys were trained as pages. These boys studied, they practised martial arts, and emerged strong as well as handsome, versed in a dozen of branches of learning, frequently displaying some special talent, such as astronomy or architecture and when their beards grew, they were sent out to fill positions of responsibility in the provinces. Others graduated at the same time into the Noble Guard or, in far greater numbers, joined the royal order of chivalry, the Spahi of the Porte, who formed the Sultan's regular cavalry.

The janissaries, who sprang from the same stock, were less cultivated. Out of this brawny second stream came the royal gardeners, the gate keepers, the shipwrights and marines and infantry. At one point a youth could be selected for the palace schools, if some aptitude had been overlooked. They too received a corporate training, ate and slept together, and had the traditions of the regiment dunned into them from the start, swearing loyalty to their fellows on a tray containing salt, the Koran and a sword.

This entire system was called, kulluk with kul meaning slave. The kul were certainly the Sultan's slaves, but the translation is inexact. The Sultan's absolute authority over his kul, his power of life and death, and possession of all their wealth, never resembled plantation slavery in America. No shame or disgrace attached to their position. They could not be bought or sold. Absolutely obedient to the Sultan's will, without right of appeal, dependent on him for favour and maintenance, they were no more than Sultan's extended and adopted family, obedient to a patriarch - the son of a slave himself - who enjoyed few practical rights which a father of the time would not possess over his own children. Far from carrying a stigma, the proudest boast of an Ottoman was that he was the slave of the Sultan.

They gave up everything to reach the pinnacle of power; but like the janissary who fell the collegiate self-abnegation of his life still strutted through the streets of Istanbul, they knew they were the best. A miracle had pulled them, as it seemed, through an invisible door in the Balkan pasturelands. The training they received, and the rigourious selection procedure which they had surmounted to reach the top, must have left them with a grandeur of purpose and a breadth of view without parallel in any ruling group in history. Theirs was pride of the most splendid and forgivable sort; for they were fitted to rule.

*I gathered most of the above information from Jason Goodwin's Lords of the Horizons.
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