"Devshirme" (gravure from Topkapi Palace)

Devshirme (Ottoman دوشيرمه, Greek παιδομάζωμα, Paedomazoma - collection of children; Armenian: Մանկահավաք, Mankahavak' - child-gathering; Romanian: tribut de sânge; Croatian: Danak u krvi, Slovene: Krvni davek, Serbian: Данак у крви / Danak u krvi, Macedonian: Данок во крв / Danok vo krv, and Bulgarian: Кръвен данък/ Kraven Danak - blood tax) was the practice by which the Ottoman Empire recruited boys, forcibly, from Christian families, who were selected by skilled scouts to be trained and enrolled in one of the four imperial institutions: the Palace, the Scribes, the Religious and the Military. Although the primary objective of the devshirmeh system was to select and train the ablest children for leadership positions, either as military leaders or as high administrators to serve the Empire [1] converting to Islam was mandatory to stay in the system.[2] The devshirme candidates were not supposed to be orphans, or the only child in their family (to ensure the candidates had strong family values); they must not have already learned to speak Turkish or a craft/trade. The ideal age of a recruit was between 10 and 20 years of age.[3] Although they recuited much younger boys. As the devshirmah were recruited to rise up to the grand vizier status, many Christian parents were bribing scouts to take their children.[4] Nevertheless, the devşirme system was locally resented[5] and was resisted, even to the point of disfiguring their sons.[6][7][8][9] This system as explained by Kara Khalil Chendereli, founder of the Janissaries, "The conquered are slaves of the conquerors, to whom their goods, their women, and their children belong as lawful possession..", indicates the clear opinion of an Ottoman official regarding devsirme.[10] There were however cases of Christian parents bribing officials to take their children.[4]



The Ottoman Empire, beginning with Murad I, felt a need to "counteract the power of (Turkic) nobles by developing Christian vassal soldiers and converted kapıkulları as his personal troops, independent of the regular army." [11] The elite forces, which served the Ottoman Sultan directly, were divided into two main groups: cavalry and infantry.[12] The cavalry was commonly known as the Kapıkulu Süvari (The Cavalry of the Servants of the Porte) and the infantry were the popular Yeni Çeri (transliterated in English as Janissary), meaning "the New Corps".

At first, the soldiers to serve in these corps were selected from the slaves captured during warfare. However, the system commonly known as "devşirme" was soon adopted: in this system children of the rural Christian populations of the Balkans were conscripted before adolescence and were brought up as Muslims. Upon reaching adolescence, these children were enrolled in one of the four imperial institutions: the Palace, the Scribes, the Religious and the Military. Those enrolled in the Military would become either part of the Janissary corps, or part of any other corps.[13] The brightest were sent to the Palace institution (Enderun), and were destined for a career within the palace itself where the most able could aspire to attain the very highest office of state, that of Grand Vizier, the Sultan's immensely powerful chief minister and military deputy.

The life of the devşirme

Although the influence of Turkic nobility continued in the Ottoman court until Mehmet II (see Çandarlı Halil), the Ottoman ruling class slowly came to be ruled exclusively by the Devşirme, creating a separate social class.[14] This class of rulers was chosen from the brightest of Devşirme and hand-picked to serve in the Palace institution, known as the Enderun.[15] They had to accompany the Sultan on campaigns, but exceptional service would be rewarded by assignments outside the palace.[16] Those chosen for the Scribe institution, known as Kalemiyye were also granted prestigious positions. The Religious institution, İlmiyye, was where all Orthodox clergy of the Ottoman Empire were educated and sent to provinces or served in the capital.[17]

Tavernier noted in 1678 that the Janissaries looked more like a religious order than a military corps.[18] The members of the organization were not banned from marriage, as Tavernier further noted, but it was very uncommon for them. He goes on to write that their numbers had increased to a hundred thousand, but this was because of a degeneration of regulations and many of these were in fact "fake" Janissaries, posing as such for tax exemptions and other social privileges. He notes that the actual number of Janissaries was in fact much lower (Shaw writes that their number was 30,000 under Suleiman the Magnificent[19]). Recruits were sometimes gained through voluntarily accessions, as some parents were often eager to have their children enroll in the Janissary service that ensured them a successful career and comfort.[20]

Albertus Bobovius wrote in 1686 that diseases were common among the devşirme and strict discipline was enforced.[21]

The BBC notes the following regarding the devsirme system: "Although members of the devshirme class were technically slaves, they were of great importance to the Sultan because they owed him their absolute loyalty and became vital to his power. This status enabled some of the 'slaves' to become both powerful and wealthy."[22]

According to Cleveland, the devşirme system offered "limitless opportunities to the young men who became a part of it."[23] However, according to Dr. Basilike Papoulia, "...the devsirme was the 'forcible removal', in the form of a tribute, of children of the Christian subjects from their ethnic, religious and cultural environment and their transportation into the Turkish-Islamic environment with the aim of employing them in the service of the Palace, the army, and the state, whereby they were on the one hand to serve the Sultan as slaves and freedmen and on the other to form the ruling class of the State."[24] Accordingly, Papoulia agrees with Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb and Harold Bowen, authors of Islamic society and the West, that the devsirme was a penalization imposed on the Balkan peoples since their ancestors resisted the Ottoman invasion.[25] Minorsky states, "The most striking manifestation of this fact is the unprecedented system of devshirme, ie. the periodic conscription of 'tribute boys', by which Christian children were wrung from their families, churches, and communities to be molded into Ottoman praetorians owing their allegiance to the Sultan and the official faith of Islam."[26]

Ethnicity of the devşirme, and exemptions

The devşirme were collected once in every four or five years from rural provinces in Balkans, and only from non-Muslims. The devşirme levy was not applied to the major cities of the empire, and children of local craftsman in rural towns were also exempt, as it was considered that conscripting them would harm the economy.[27]

In early days all Christians were enrolled indiscriminately; later those from Albania and Bosnia were preferred.[28] Bernard Lewis points that the core of the "Ottoman Janissaries were Slavic and Balkanic origin, mostly Albanian."[29]

Jews were exempt from this service and until recently Armenians were thought to have been exempt also.[30][31] However, Armenian colophons from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and foreign travelers of the time indicate that Armenians were indeed not spared from the devşirme.[32][33]

What is certain is that Devşirme were primarily recruited from Christians in the Balkans. However, Bosnian Muslims were also recruited and sent directly to serve in the Palace, under groups called "potor".[27]

Decline of the devşirme class

The devshirme declined in the 16th and 17th Century due to a number of factors, including the inclusion of free Muslims in the system. After 1568 the 'boy harvest' was only occasionally made. In 1632 the Janissaries attempted an unsuccessful coup against Murad IV, who then imposed a loyalty oath on them. In 1648 the devşirme-based recruiting system of the Janissary corps formally came to an end;[34] attempts to reintroduce the old system failed due to the resistance of the new Turkish members of the Janissary corps in 1703, who wanted the coveted posts exclusively for their own families. The Janissary corps was officially abolished by Sultan Mahmud II in 1826 with the Auspicious Incident.[35]

The response of society

The practice as to Janissary soldiers[36][37] was motivated by the desire to create an elite class of warriors loyal only to the Sultan, rather than to individual Ottoman nobles.

There are accounts of Muslim families attempting to smuggle their offspring into the levy, which was strictly forbidden. Although the devshirme made boys the Sultans' state slaves it led to a highly privileged position in Ottoman society, but inevitably led to their conversion to Islam. The system also had specific limits on who and how many could be taken. The seizure of sons whose absence would cause hardship and difficulties was not permitted.

Another aspect is that recruiting personnel for the military and administration counterbalanced the grip of the old Turkish nobility, which was largely channeled into education, law, Muslim religion and the provincial cavalry, in the spirit of division of tasks and rights of the millet system which increased the cohesion of the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural empire.

See also


  1. ^ Basgoz, I. & Wilson, H. E. (1989, The educational tradition of the Ottoman Empire and the development of the Turkish educational system of the republican era. Turkish Review 3(16), 15.
  2. ^ The New Encyclopedia of Islam, Ed. Cyril Glassé, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 129.
  3. ^ Taskin, U. (2008). Klasik donem Osmanli egitim kurumlari - Ottoman educational fundations in classical terms. Uluslararasi Sosyal Arastirmalar Dergisi - The Journal of International Social Research 1, 343–366.
  4. ^ a b Malcolm, Noel (1996). Bosnia: A Short History. London: Papermac. p. 46. ISBN 0-333-66215-6. 
  5. ^; "...and point out that many Christian families were hostile and resentful about it - which is perhaps underlined by the use of force to impose the system.".
  6. ^ Yannaras, Christos, Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic self-identity in the modern age, (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006), 112.
  7. ^ Schindler, John R., Unholy terror: Bosnia, al-Qa'ida, and the rise of global jihad, (Zenith Press, 2007), 23.
  8. ^ Bostom, Andrew G. "Jihad Conquests and the Impositions of Dhimmitude - A Survey" in The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims. Andrew G. Bostom (ed.) New York: Prometheus Book, 2005, pp. 41-46.
  9. ^ S. Trifkovic. The Sword of the Prophet: Islam; History, Theology, Impact on the World. p. 97
  10. ^ Lybyer, Albert Howe, The government of the Ottoman empire in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, (Harvard University Press, 1913), 63-64.
  11. ^ Shaw, Stanford; Ezel Kural Shaw (1976). History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Volume I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 27. ISBN 0521212804. 
  12. ^ More classifications, such as the artillery and cannon corps, miners and moat diggers and even a separate cannon-wagon corps were introduced later on, but the number of people in these groups were relatively small, and they incorporated Christian elements.
  13. ^ Shaw and Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire, pp. 112–129.
  14. ^ Zürcher, Erik (1999). Arming the State. United States of America: LB Tauris and Co Ltd. pp. 5. ISBN 186064404X. 
  15. ^ Shaw and Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire, pp. 115–117.
  16. ^ Shaw and Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire, p. 117.
  17. ^ Shaw and Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire, pp. 132–139.
  18. ^ Tavernier. Nouvelle Relation de L'ınterieur du Serrial du Grand Seigneur. 1678, Amsterdam.
  19. ^ Shaw and Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire, p. 121.
  20. ^ The preaching of Islam: a history of the propagation of the Muslim faith By Sir Thomas Walker Arnold, pg. 130
  21. ^ Nicolas Brenner. Serai Enderun; das ist inwendige beschaffenheit der türkischen Kayserl, residentz, zu Constantinopoli die newe burgk genannt sampt der ordnung und gebrauschen so von Alberto Bobivio Leopolitano. J. J. Kürner. 1667. Search under Bobovio, Bobovius or Ali Ulvi for other translations. French version exists, and fragments exist in C.G. and A.W. Fisher's "Topkapi Sarayi in the Mid-17th Century: Bobovi's Description" in 1985.
  22. ^
  23. ^ Cleveland, William L. "A History of the Modern Middle East. 3rd Edition." p. 46
  24. ^ Some Notes on the Devsirme, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1966, V.L.Menage, (Cambridge University Press, 1966), 64.
  25. ^ Some Notes on the Devsirme, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1966, V.L.Menage, (Cambridge University Press, 1966), 70.
  26. ^ Shaykh Bali-Efendi on the Safavids, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1/3, 1957, V. Minorsky, (Cambridge University Press, 1957), 437.
  27. ^ a b Shaw and Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire, p. 114.
  28. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica. Eleventh Edition
  29. ^ Lewis, Bernard. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. Oxford University Press. 1990.
  30. ^ Shaw and Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire, p. 114. The Shaws state that the reason for this exemption may have been the recognition of both People as a separate Nation (none of the Balkan ethnic groups were recognized as such) or that both Jews and Armenians lived mostly in the major cities anyway.
  31. ^ Albertus Bobovius, who was enslaved by Crimean Tatars and sold into the palace in the 17th century, reports that both Armenians and Jews were exempt from the devşirme levy. He writes that the reason for this exemption of Armenians is religious: That Armenian Gregorian church was considered the closest to Christ's (and therefore Muhammed's) teachings.
  32. ^ Kouymjian, Dickran (1997). "Armenia from the Fall of the Cilician Kingdom (1375) to the Forced Migration under Shah Abbas (1604)" in The Armenian People From Ancient to Modern Times, Volume II: Foreign Dominion to Statehood: The Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth Century. Richard Hovannisian (ed.) New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 12-14. ISBN 1-4039-6422-X.
  33. ^ (Armenian) Zulalyan, Manvel. "«Դեվշիրմեն» (մանկահավաքը) օսմանյան կայսրության մեջ ըստ թուրքական և հայկական աղբյուրների" ("The 'Devshirme' (Child-Gathering) in the Ottoman Empire According to Turkish and Armenian Sources"). Patma-Banasirakan Handes. № 2-3 (5-6), 1959, pp. 247-256.
  34. ^ Zürcher, Erik (1999). Arming the State. United States of America: LB Tauris and Co Ltd. pp. 80. ISBN 186064404X. 
  35. ^ Kinross, pp. 456–457.
  36. ^ Cragg, Kenneth, The Arab Christian, (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 120.
  37. ^ Sedlar, Jean W., East Central Europe in the Middle Ages, 1000-1500, (University of Washington Press, 1994), 242.

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