First of all, Happy Fall of Constantinople Day; it’s been 562 years since the city fell to the Ottomans and the Roman Empire more or less ceased to exist. Second, if you’re wondering why I’m writing about some obscure coup instead of one of the most important military victories in Islamic or European history, it’s because I already wrote about Constantinople on May 29 of last year. The May 29, 1807 coup that overthrew Ottoman Sultan Selim III (d. 1808) and replaced him with his cousin, Mustafa IV (also d. 1808, so you can see where this is going to wind up), isn’t a major event in Ottoman history, certainly not on par with what happened in 1453. But it does highlight one of the big levers in the 17th-18th century decline of the Ottoman state, a decline that would briefly be arrested in the early 19th century for reasons I’ll mention at the end.
I’m talking here about the corruption and degradation of the Janissary Corps, which had once been the most capable and therefore most feared army in Europe. It’s not clear when exactly the Janissary Corps was formed, but we know it was established as early as the reign of Murad I (1362-1389), who expanded the empire deeper into the Balkans (building on the beachhead his father, Orhan, had established) and was the first Ottoman ruler to take the title “Sultan.” The Janissaries were “recruited” via the devşirme (“devshirmeh”), a “draft” imposed mostly (there were a few exceptions) on Christian families living under Ottoman rule in the Balkans. Pre-adolescent boys were taken from these families, converted to Islam, taught the Turkish language, and put to work as what were technically slaves, or kul (though they were generally better treated than, say, the average household slave). You can imagine that the devşirme was not especially popular among those Balkan Christian families, though there was an upside to the arrangement in that a very successful product of the devşirme could rise through the Ottoman bureaucracy and even potentially become Grand Vizier, the second-most powerful figure in the empire (arguably the most powerful, at least during the reigns of ineffectual sultans).
Once they’d been conscripted, the young slaves were trained in a variety of forms of state service, from working on the sultan’s household staff to serving in the bureaucracy to serving in the military, where they made up the Janissary Corps (from the Turkish yeniçeri, or “new soldier,” signifying that this was to be a new kind of army). As a fighting force they had a lot going for them: high unit cohesion (since they all came from similar backgrounds and grew up together), high levels of training (facilitated by the fact that this was a professional standing army that could train even in peace time), and the best weapons and equipment available (owing to the empire’s wealth). The corps quickly became expert in using gunpowder weapons, from heavy siege guns to personal firearms, and they were more than a match for the empire’s enemies both to the west, in Europe, and the east, in Iran and Syria/Egypt. As a nod to the risk that such a powerful standing army posed to the empire itself, they were prohibited from owning businesses and their children were forbidden from serving as Janissaries themselves.
In hindsight it’s easy to see that a system like this is impossible to sustain indefinitely, and there are two big reasons why. First, when your empire invests so much military might in a single unit, and when martial success is as important to your empire as it was to the Ottomans, the members of that unit are eventually going to realize that, hey, they can pretty much dictate terms to the empire. The Janissaries realized in the 16th and 17th centuries that they didn’t have to obey restrictions on their involvement in the economy (owning their own businesses, for example) because no other unit in the empire could make them. On the contrary, they began to dominate the imperial economy and get very rich and very contented, which meant that they were less keen on training and drilling and fighting all the time. Second, when you make service in the Janissaries, or via the devşirme system, the only real path to high status an the bureaucracy, and when the bureaucracy is one of the most attractive options in your empire for long-term personal success and wealth accumulation (if you think bribery is a problem in government nowadays, you haven’t seen anything), you create a powerful set of incentives for those who are technically locked out of the devşirme (Turks, other Muslims, children of Janissaries) to find a way in. In the late 16th century, entrance into the devşirme class was opened up to other imperial subjects, to the great detriment of that unit cohesion I mentioned earlier. Overall the number of Janissaries ballooned, but their training and equipment (it became prohibitively expensive to outfit tens of thousands of men with the latest hardware) declined precipitously.
The general weakness of Ottoman sultans in the late 16 and 17th centuries didn’t help, as they were unable to serve as a counter to the growing power and corruption of the Janissaries. Ironically this weakness can partly be traced to a change in the manner of succession that was begun by the most successful Ottoman sultan, Sulayman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566). Prior to Sulayman, succession in the Ottoman dynasty had been managed via what can arguably be described as fratricide by civil war. The Ottomans didn’t institute a firm succession principle like primogeniture, and in fact as Turks their steppe traditions dictated that inheritance passed to all the sons of the deceased (steppe traditions aren’t necessarily compatible with ruling an empire, you see). Ottoman princes would be sent to govern provinces and command their own military units to prepare them to be emperor, and then they and their loyal soldiers would usually fight it out amongst themselves to see who would succeed their father; the last man standing got the job. This is, to say the least, an incredibly inefficient way to pick a new emperor, but it does mean that whoever winds up succeeding to the throne will be well-trained, have an interest in running the empire, and, more often than not, will be the best military commander of the lot.
Sulayman decided that only one prince, the chosen heir, should serve in some kind of governorship to prepare him for the sultanate, but that the rest of the princes should be confined to the palace (a system literally called “the cage,” or kafes) in order to render them powerless and to eliminate the need for all these destructive civil wars. Some princes still had their brothers killed upon succession, just to be safe, but from this point on that just involved straight up murder rather than wars. The big problem here is that it quickly became more advantageous for a prince to be confined to the palace, where he could play backroom politics with the bureaucrats with the support of his mother, who would obviously love the chance to become the valide sultan (queen mother) and would put her own political skills toward that end. Where the empire had been producing heirs with excellent training and military skill, now it was producing heirs whose biggest asset was their ability to ingratiate themselves with the palace bureaucracy, and whose capacity to actually run the empire, to say nothing of their interest in running it, was often negligible.
Selim III took the throne in 1789 upon the death of his uncle Abdülhamid I, who seems to have been a nice guy but led the Ottomans into a couple of disastrous wars with Russia and was powerless to fix the problems with the Janissaries (in his defense, he was hamstrung by the fact that this once extravagantly wealthy empire was by this point struggling with a nearly empty treasury). In contrast to a century plus of addled and/or weak sultans, Selim knew what needed to be done and was prepared to do it. His father, Sultan Mustafa III (d. 1774), had been well aware of the need for military reform (though he was powerless to implement it against opposition from the Janissaries) and probably passed that on to his son, but at his accession Selim was stuck fighting and losing wars with Russia and Austria and had no time to attempt any reforms until later on in his reign. He resolved to build an entirely new force rather than reform the bloated Janissaries, and so he instituted new taxes to pay for it and then brought in experts from all over Europe to train and equip it. He called his reform program, heavily influenced by what Napoleon was doing in France, the Nizam-ı Cedid, Persian for “the new order,” and this new army was at the heart of it though it also included comprehensive school reform and an effort to recentralize the bureaucracy.
These were all smart moves, but they managed to piss off just about every stakeholder in the empire. The Janissaries feared, rightly, that this new military force was going to render them obsolete. The empire’s other military power, the sipahi lords who were given military fiefs to rule in exchange for providing troops, usually cavalry, were mad because the reforms were being partially financed by confiscation of their fiefdoms. And the religious establishment was angry because the reforms were being implemented along European models and were also partly being paid for through new taxes that were deemed impermissible under Islamic Law. When these elements all approached Abdülhamid I‘s son, the future Mustafa IV, about deposing Selim and putting him on the throne instead, they found a willing partner, and the deed was done, though Selim was not killed immediately. One of Selim’s governors, Alemdar Mustafa, assembled an army of 40,000 men and, in July 1808, was marching on Istanbul to reinstate Selim when Mustafa IV decided to have Selim killed to forestall that possibility. He also ordered that his own brother, the future Mahmud II, be killed, which would have made Mustafa literally the last surviving Ottoman male and thus untouchable, but Alemdar Mustafa got to Istanbul before that happened, executed Mustafa IV, and put Mahmud on the throne, where he would stay until his death in 1839.
Although Selim didn’t get to see it, the Nizam-ı Cedid ultimately got the last laugh. After continuing Selim’s work and slowly building up a new army along European models, on June 15, 1826 Mahmud II took advantage of a Janissary revolt in Istanbul to break the Corps once and for all. He rallied residents of the city, most of whom hated the Janissaries by now, and sipahis to his cause and ordered the new army, called the “Victorious Army” or Mansure Army, to bombard the Janissary barracks. Known as the “Auspicious Incident,” this event left thousands of Janissaries dead and thousands captured (who would later be executed). The Janissary Corps was no more, and Ottoman military fortunes actually ticked up for a while even as forces of nationalism and economic weakness continued to drag the empire itself toward its end.