Ottomans Suppress the Janissary Revolt Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Sultan Mahmud II faced considerable opposition to his efforts to reform the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman military, which included the powerful yet corrupt Janissary corps, championed reactionary policies until its destruction.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire;reforms was on the verge of collapse. Enemies, both foreign and domestic, carved off Ottoman territory, while internal unrest made normal government functions ineffectual. Ottoman leaders recognized the need for change, but they had great difficulties promoting reforms of government and military affairs. Reforms began during the reign of Selim III, who argued that the state needed a new military capable of fighting like the best of the European powers. Such a strategy required the importation of Western ideas and technology, and doing so placed Selim on a collision course with archconservatives. The opponents, an alliance of politicians, religious leaders, and soldiers, are best represented by the Yeni Çeri, or Janissary corps. Janissaries;revolt of Ottoman Empire;Janissary Revolt Mahmud II [p]Mahmud II[Mahmud 02];and Janissaries[Janissaries] Selim III [kw]Ottomans Suppress the Janissary Revolt (1808-1826) [kw]Suppress the Janissary Revolt, Ottomans (1808-1826) [kw]Janissary Revolt, Ottomans Suppress the (1808-1826) [kw]Revolt, Ottomans Suppress the Janissary (1808-1826) Janissaries;revolt of Ottoman Empire;Janissary Revolt Mahmud II [p]Mahmud II[Mahmud 02];and Janissaries[Janissaries] Selim III [g]Turkey;1808-1826: Ottomans Suppress the Janissary Revolt[0390] [g]Ottoman Empire;1808-1826: Ottomans Suppress the Janissary Revolt[0390] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1808-1826: Ottomans Suppress the Janissary Revolt[0390] [c]Government and politics;1808-1826: Ottomans Suppress the Janissary Revolt[0390] [c]Social issues and reform;1808-1826: Ottomans Suppress the Janissary Revolt[0390]

Historian David Nicolle succinctly defines nineteenth century Janissaries as “the Empire’s most important infantry corps, and its greatest military weakness.” Once the sultan’s shock troops, by the eighteenth century the Janissaries had devolved into a near-parasite class of armed rentiers. Unwilling to embrace new technology or ideas, they were a powerful faction with garrison units in most important cities, and a major presence in the empire’s capital, Constantinople.

Since the early eighteenth century, Janissaries had played a considerable role in Ottoman politics. Their status as the empire’s main infantry force provided a vehicle that allowed them to veto government actions and even obtain the execution of their political opponents. Although doggedly opposed to military reform, Janissary leaders were often adroit politicians. The key to their success was not only holding a monopoly on military power but also having extensive familial, business, and social connections with middle- and lower-class city folk. These alliances included important conservative leaders within the ulama, a body of scholar-officials that regulated Muslim Islam;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] Ottoman Empire;and Islam[Islam] life throughout the empire.

No longer made up predominantly of Christian children from the Balkans, the Janissaries now recruited relatives and business associates to fill their ranks. They were a corrupt lot, maintaining fictitious members to increase company payrolls and collecting bribes and protection money from local merchants. As they seldom engaged the sultan’s many foreign enemies, this was a coveted career, which partially explains the constant growth of the corps in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By 1808, the Janissaries numbered 140,000 men, but of this number, probably no more than 10 percent were trained soldiers.

The corps developed a notorious reputation. In Constantinople, for example, where they also served as a fire brigade, corps members often set fires Fires;Turkish and then demanded bribes to put out the blazes. The year 1810 witnessed more than two thousand incidents of that nature. In Jerusalem Jerusalem , the Janissaries sold surplus weapons to local rebels, while in Cairo Cairo;Janissaries in their protection rackets directed against local businessmen impressed even the corrupt Mamlūks Mamlūks[Mamluks] .

A contemporary observer, John Moore, gave one explanation why such a depraved and useless military could survive. Writing in 1799, he described the Janissaries as the “only professional soldiers” in the Ottoman army. Janissaries thus, were the “best of the worst,” but the sultans could not dispense with their limited services until a substitute was available. Selim III’s answer was his nizam-ul Cedid (new order), an infantry force designed to fight like European regulars. For a decade (1791-1801), this new corps increased in size and prestige, but not without also attracting the attention of Janissary leaders and their allies.

Conservative forces could draw on legal, religious, and social arguments to attack the sultan. The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic Ottoman Empire;and Islam[Islam] Islam;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] state, where good government meant there was a just sovereign who upheld the Sharia, Islamic religious law. Selim’s importation of European ideas and technology was a much debated concept, and was seen by many as a step away from good government. Muslims, after all, lived in a world of perfection, while Europe, part of the non-Muslim dar al-harb (house of conflict or war), could only provide confusion and dilute Islamic purity. This argument appealed to influential religious authorities, while the simple fact that nizam-ul Cedid forces drained away revenues made the Janissary rank-and-file fearful of losing their monopoly on power.

On March 26, 1807, angered by these military reforms and higher taxes, Janissaries and their urban allies attacked nizam-ul Cedid troops, starting a year-long series of coups and counter-coups. In the end, Selim was deposed and then murdered and replaced briefly with a half-witted cousin named Mustafa IV. Mustafa IV, too, was murdered, leaving only one surviving male member from the imperial family, Mahmud II.

Learning from the disasters of 1807, the new sultan approached change with caution. At the same time, Mahmud had little doubt of the need for reforms. Between 1808 and 1826, the Ottoman government fought against Russian and Persian invaders, plus Serbian, Greek, and Arab rebels. At best, Mahmud’s soldiers could fight to a stalemate, and, more often, they suffered defeat. Simultaneously, political maneuvers in the capital pitted the sultan’s desire for reform against archconservatives and their Janissary backers.

By the early 1820’s, Mahmud had cleverly isolated Janissaries from their allies within the ulama by coopting the latter into a new governmental department of religion. Mahmud also was adroit at publicizing Janissary misdeeds, so as to alienate the corps from Constantinople’s urban mob. Equally important was the creation of a new artillery corps, which, as it did not seem to have an infantry function, caused little concern to the Janissaries.

The new gunners, however, were trained not only in artillery drill but also as foot soldiers. By 1826, they numbered fourteen thousand and were probably the best troops in the empire. In June, the sultan ordered selected men from every Janissary regiment to train in Western drill. As he expected, Janissary opposition was quick and violent. On June 14, each Constantinople unit overturned their soup kettles, a traditional call for insurrection. Expecting an alliance with the city’s urban rabble, the Janissaries instead ran into an Ottoman version of Napoleon Bonaparte’s “whiff of grapeshot.”

The new artillery units ravaged the rebels, forcing them to retreat into a vast wooden barracks. The gunners followed this up with incendiary rounds that quickly set the building on fire. The fire destroyed the barracks and almost every man hiding inside. The rebellion lasted less than three hours. Hunted down without mercy, the rebellious Janissaries obtained the same treatment they had meted out so often in the past. In Constantinople alone, thousands were killed in what was soon dubbed the vaka-I hayriye (auspicious event or incident). An eyewitness described the Sea of Mammara “mottled with dead bodies.” Massacres on a smaller scale took place at Vidin, Izmit, and Edirne.

Significance

Despite the poor showing of new, reformed Ottoman troops in the Russo-Turkish War and again in the Egyptian-Turkish Wars of 1831 and 1839, Mahmud II’s destruction of the Janissary corps was a singular event in Ottoman history. By removing these military reactionaries, he was now able to improve not only the army but also civil government and education. The destruction of the Janissaries marked a decisive break with the past and allowed Mahmud and his successors to instigate reforms that strengthened the state, improved military efficiency, and thus allowed the “sick man of Europe” to move into the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Assad Effendi. Précis historique de la destruction du corps des Janissaries par le Sultan Mahmoud, en 1826. Paris: Firmins Didot, 1833. The author, who was a government worker, provides the “official” history of the Janissary corps’ destruction. In French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin, Godfrey. The Janissaries. London: Saqi, 1997. A history of the Janissary corps, from its beginnings in the fifteenth century to the early twentieth century. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levy, Avigdor. “Military Policy of Sultan Mahmud II, 1808-1839.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. Harvard University, 1968. A massive work that examines Sultan Mahmud II’s military reforms. Based on a vast array of archival sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Extensive coverage of the problems and solutions of Sultan Selim III and Sultan Mahmud II in developing a modernized Turkey.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicolle, David. Armies of the Ottoman Empire, 1775-1820. London: Osprey, 1998. An excellent introduction to the Ottoman military that stresses the challenges facing military reformers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Stanford, and Ezel Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. A well-written standard account that provides considerable coverage of nineteenth century Ottoman civil and military reforms.

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