Waning of the System

The devshirme, a periodic levy of Christian boys from the subject population of the Balkans, supplied most of the Ottoman Empire’s soldiers. The system, unique to the Ottomans and in stark contrast to the hereditary aristocracies of contemporary Europe, provided the empire’s ruling elite, military commanders, and high officers of state. Devshirme was abandoned gradually during the seventeenth century because of internal abuses.

Summary of Event

Unique to medieval Islamic society was the slave-soldier (mamlūk in Arabic, ghulam in Persian), a non-Muslim boy acquired by capture in war or through the slave trade. Islamic law forbade the enslavement of Muslims, so others were acquired, especially Christian boys from the Balkans. A boy would be converted to Islam, undergo a cursus honorum in military training, assimilate into Islamic society, and adopt its cultural norms. Slavery;Islamic society
[kw]Waning of the Devshirme System (1638)
[kw]Devshirme System, Waning of the (1638)
Organizations and institutions;1638: Waning of the Devshirme System[1270]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1638: Waning of the Devshirme System[1270]
Government and politics;1638: Waning of the Devshirme System[1270]
Social issues and reform;1638: Waning of the Devshirme System[1270]
Middle East;1638: Waning of the Devshirme System[1270]
Ottoman Empire;1638: Waning of the Devshirme System[1270]
Balkans;1638: Waning of the Devshirme System[1270]
Devshirme system
Ottoman Empire;miilitary

The eleventh century Seljuk grand vizier Niẓṅām al-Mulk described in his manual of government (Siyasat-nama) the way in which a slave-boy was trained to be both a soldier and a courtier of his master until seniority and experience qualified him for high command or a provincial governorship. Several Islamic dynasties consisted of men who had made their mark as military slaves: In Egypt, for example, between 1250 and 1517, the ruling sultans advanced through the slave army, as did the first sultans of Delhi (1206-1290).

These facts illustrate the background to the institution known as the devshirme (collection), which provided troops and bureaucrats for the Ottoman Empire through the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. The devshirme levied Christian male children, mainly from the Ottoman Balkan provinces. Ottoman tradition, anachronistically, tells that the practice originated in the time of Ottoman ruler Orhan Gazi (r. 1326-c. 1360), but the oldest reference dates from 1395, with the reign of Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402), and the next dates from 1430, with the reign of Murad II (r. 1421-1451). It seems likely that, coinciding with his reorganization of the Janissaries Janissaries (elite troops), Murad conceived the devshirme as the foundation for Janissary recruitment.

There were several theoretical justifications for the practice, one being that because nonbelievers had been conquered by force, the devshirme was permitted in Islamic law. A counterargument was that the practice went against Islamic law because it infringed upon the specific rights of dhimmis (nonbelievers of revealed religions). This counterposition, however, was in turn countered by the argument that dhimmi status did not apply to those Christians whose faith came after Qur՚ānic revelation, which includes most of the rural population of the Balkans. Theory and practice with regard to the devshirme, however, were often at odds.

A devshirme was supported by many because it met a specific need for soldiers. A Janissary officer, accompanied by a secretary, went into the district where the levy was to be made, carrying official authorization, two registers, a supply of uniforms, and soldiers to enforce his orders. In the district where the devshirme was proclaimed, male children, along with their fathers and the village clergy, who brought with them the boys’ baptismal records, were required to assemble at a designated location. European sources held that the children’s ages ranged between eight and twenty, but Ottoman records imply that those selected were teenagers.

Not all children, however, were eligible. Those with poor health and disabilities were exempted because the Ottomans wanted strong and sturdy peasants (reaya) only. Also excluded were urban craftspeople’s sons and those who already were married (leading some communities to practice early marriage), but the methods used for the devshirme varied from region to region and from time to time. Once the boys were selected, their names, ages, physical features, and parentage were entered in the two registers, one of which was retained by the recruiting officer and the other by the suruju (drover), who transported the boys to Constantinople.

Usually, devshirme boys were ethnic Greeks, Macedonians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Bosnians, or Croats. Some areas were exempt from the devshirme because they had submitted voluntarily to Ottoman rule. Others had exempt status presumably because their populations consisted of city dwellers. Also, the devshirme was not levied in Walachia or Moldavia. A peculiar case involved the Muslims of Bosnia, who converted en masse in 1463 but requested that their sons should still qualify for the devshirme.

After the devshirme boys had been selected and registered, they were escorted to Constantinople and then inspected again for their physical and mental qualities. (Medieval Islamic tradition held that a person’s moral qualities and even his destiny might be read in his physiognomy.) Those of superior intelligence were transferred to the palace service, where, after being converted to Islam, they learned Turkish and acquired the ՙadet-i othmaniyye (the cultural values of Ottoman society) as well as secretarial and other bureaucratic skills. The remainder were sent to landholders’ estates in Anatolia, where they grew robust working the land, learned Turkish, and acquired some exposure to indigenous culture.

Thereafter, they would be recalled, as needed, to Constantinople and enrolled in the Janissary corps, the Kapikulu cavalry (made up of six regiments of the sipahi and forming the household cavalry), or the Bostancis (guards of the palace establishments), with expectations of unlimited future advancement. It was a unique aspect of Ottoman government (in contrast to the hereditary aristocracies of contemporary Europe) that its ruling elite, military commanders, and high officers of state, recruited by the devshirme and enrolled as Kapikulus of the Sublime Porte (Ottoman government), were not Turks at all but came from the subject population. The Köprülü family of grand viziers, for example, were Albanian by descent. Military;Ottoman Empire

To Europeans, the devshirme was evidence of the inherent barbarity of the Turks. There is, of course, no disputing the anguish involved in the separation of parents and children, made worse by the certainty that baptized Christians automatically became Muslims, but there must have been times when large peasant families living between bare subsistence and starvation were relieved to have one less mouth to feed, and there was always the hope that a “lost” boy would end up a serder or serasker (military commander), an agha of the Janissaries, or a grand vizier. To what extent devshirme boys retained ties with their families is uncertain, but there is some anecdotal evidence.

Ibrahim Paṣa, the Greek-born grand vizier under Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566), when disgraced, was accused of advancing family interests. Mehmed Sokollu, Serbian-born grand vizier (1564-1579), favored fellow Serbs and reestablished the metropolitanate of Peć with his Christian brother as archbishop. These are high-level examples, but there must have been many more.

When the Ottoman Empire was a world power, the devshirme was the main instrument for recruiting its seemingly invincible armies, especially the dreaded Janissaries, who were the terror of Christendom. Change set in, though, during the late sixteenth century. In the beginning of Süleyman the Magnificent’s reign (1520-1566), the Janissary corps had numbered about 7,900; by 1609, it had risen to more than 39,000. By this time, the corps included recruits from all walks of life and were not made up exclusively of troops trained through the devshirme system. A reformer of the 1630’, Mustafa Kochi Bey Mustafa Kochi Bey , denounced the new corps as consisting of “city boys of unknown religion, Turks, gypsies, Tats, Kurds, outsiders, Lazes, Turkomans, muleteers and camel-drivers, porters and confectioners, highwaymen and pickpockets.” His solution was to return to the classical institutions of the earlier empire, including the devshirme.

However, a return to the past was hardly possible, not least because the devshirme no longer could provide the numbers needed. Meanwhile, the Janissaries had declined in fighting capacity and discipline and became a source of urban mayhem and rabble-rousing in the capital, threatening the foundations of the state. In 1621, Osman II Osman II and his grand vizier Dilawar Paşa Dilawar Paşa planned the total abolition of the devshirme as the first step on the road to radical reform; the second step was to open the Janissary corps to free-born Turks recruited in Anatolia and Syria. The idea cost them their lives

Thereafter, the devshirme was levied less and less often. It seems that no sultanic decree ordained its abolition, although Osman’s half brother, Murad IV Murad IV , was said to have ordered that abolition in 1638. It seems that the protests that met Osman’s proposed abolition died as the Janissary corps became a corporation that was increasingly hereditary (the old prohibition on Janissaries marrying had long been ignored). The Ottoman writer Evliya Çelebi Evliya Çelebi supposed that the devshirme still occurred every seven years, but Sir Paul Rycaut, Rycaut, Sir Paul the first historian of the Ottoman Empire to write in English, who was in Constantinople in 1660, thought that the practice had been abandoned for the most part. This cannot be the case because the Ottoman-Polish Treaty of Buczacz (1672) Buczacz, Treaty of (1672) includes the stipulation that the inhabitants of Podolia, newly annexed to the Ottoman Empire, were to be exempt from the devshirme. A devshirme had certainly occurred before Buczacz treaty, in 1666, and another after, in 1674, although the latter was for palace-service only. When, in 1703, Ahmed III Ahmed III (r. 1703-1730) decided to transfer one thousand unruly Bostancis into the Janissary corps, he ordered a devshirme to recruit their replacements. Perhaps connected with Ahmed’s order was a devshirme ordered for Greece in 1705, the last known instance.


Turkish slave-soldiers and the Janissary corps itself predated the devshirme and survived long after its demise. Like other elite units (for example, the Roman praetorian guards or the Muscovite streltsi), the Janissaries deteriorated over time, and the devshirme became an anachronism, lingering on to the end of the seventeenth century. The Janissaries survived until 1826, when they finally were disbanded, many of them massacred by order of Mahmud II (1808-1839).

Further Reading

  • Goodwin, Godfrey. The Janissaries. London: Saqi Books, 1994. A highly recommended history of the elite Janissary corps.
  • Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650. New York: Palgrave, 2002. An excellent history of Ottoman institutions from the beginning of the fourteenth to the mid-seventeenth century.
  • Miller, Barnette. The Palace School of Muhammad the Conqueror. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941. Reprint. New York, 1973. A useful account of the training of the Kapikulus, the palace guard.
  • Murphey, Rhoads. Ottoman Warfare, 1500-1700. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999. Perhaps the best account of the Ottoman war machine.
  • Suger, Peter F. Southeastern Europe Under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977. The author provides sensible observations about the significance of the devshirme.

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