Sipahi (Ottoman Turkish: _ot. سپاهی; also transliterated as "Spahi", "Sepahi", and "Spakh"; traditionally rendered as "Spahia" or "Spahiu" in Albanian, and "Spahija" - Cyrillic спахиjа, спахия - in Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian) was the name of an Ottoman cavalry corps. In the form of "Spahi" it was the title given to several cavalry units serving in the French and Italian colonial armies during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The name ultimately derives from the Persian _fa. سپاه ("sepâh", meaning "army") and has the same root as the English term "sepoy".


The Sipahis were an élite mounted force within the Six Divisions of Cavalry of the Ottoman Empire. The Sipahis' status resembled that of the knights of medieval Europe. The Sipahi was the holder of a fief of land ( _ar. تيمار "tîmâr"; hence the alternative name "Tîmârlı Sipahi") granted directly by the Ottoman sultan, and was entitled to all of the income from that land, in return for military service. The peasants on the land were subsequently attached thereto.

The Sipahis were originally founded during the reign of Murad I. Although the Sipahis were originally recruited, like the Janissaries, using the devshirmeh system [Shaw 26] , by the time of Sultan Mehmed II, their ranks were only chosen from among the ethnic Turks who owned land within imperial borders. The Sipahi eventually became the largest of the six divisions of the Ottoman cavalry. The duties of the Sipahis included riding with the sultan on parades and as a mounted bodyguard. In times of peace, they were also responsible for the collection of taxes. The Sipahis, however, should not be confused with the Timariots, who were irregular cavalry organised along feudal lines and known as "sipahi"s colloquially. In fact, the two formations had very little in common.

A "tîmâr" was the smallest unit of land owned by a Sipahi, providing a yearly revenue of no more than 10,000 akçe, which was between two and four times what a teacher earned. A "ziamet" (زعامت) was a larger unit of land, yielding up to 100,000 akçe, and was owned by Sipahis of officer rank. A "has" (غاص) was the largest unit of land, giving revenues of more than 100,000 akçe, and was only held by the highest-ranking members of the military. A "tîmâr" Sipahi was obliged to provide the army with up to five soldiers, a "ziamet" Sipahi with up to twenty, and a "has" Sipahi with far more than twenty.

Rivalry with the Janissary Corps

Since they were a cavalry regiment it was well known within the Ottoman military circles that they considered themselves a superior stock of soldiers than janissaries, who were a mixture of both Turkic and devshirmeh non-Turks, whereas the sipahis were almost exclusively chosen amongst ethnic Turkic landowners. That minor quarrels erupted between the two units is made evident with a Turkmen adage, still used today within Turkey, "Atlı er başkaldırmaz". Which, referring to the unruly janissaries, translates into, "Horsemen don't mutiny".

Towards the middle of the 16th century, the Janissaries had started to be the most important part of the army, though the Sipahis remained an important factor in the empire's economy and politics, and a crucial aspect of disciplined leadership within the army. As late as the 17th century, the Sipahis were, together with their rivals the Janissaries, the "de facto" rulers in the early years of sultan Murad IV's reign. In 1826, the Sipahis played an important part in the disbandment of the Janissary corps. The Sultan received critical assistance from the loyalist Sipahi cavalry in order to forcefully dismiss the infuriated janissaries.

Two years later, however, they shared a similar fate when Sultan Mahmud II revoked their privileges and dismissed them in favour of a more modern military structure. Unlike the janissaries before them they retired honorably, peacefully, and without bloodshed into new Ottoman cavalry divisions who followed modern military tradition doctrines.

Appearances in modern media

* Sipahis appear in Ensemble Studio's "Age of Empires III" as a heavy cavalry unit unique to the Ottoman Empire.
* Sipahis are employed by the Turks in "Medieval II Total War" in three different forms: Sipahis, mounted archers; Sipahi Lancers, heavy cavalry, and Dismounted Sipahi Lancers, heavy infantry.
* The Sipahi is the unique unit for the Ottoman Empire in the computer game Civilization III.
* The mercenaries in William Barton's novel "When Heaven Fell" are referred to as "Spahi." (Their ranks seem to use names from the Indian or Pakistani military.)



* Shaw, Stanford J. "History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol. 1.
* "Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire 1280–1808". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. ISBN 0-521-29163-1.

External links

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