The Turks owed their great military successes to their high level of organization and discipline in the ranks, their adaption of European weapons technology and naval tactics, the bravery of their soldiers and the fear they struck in their enemies. The Turks used human wave attacks in which they "rushed forward in a loose charge with fanatical disregard for casualties."
The Ottomans emerged at a time when gunpowder was changing the nature of military conflict They were able to use gunpowder effectively in the cannons and was one of the reasons they were able to conquer and keep such a large amount of territory for such a long time.
On June 29, 1456, Pope Calixtus III issued a papal bull against Halley's comet. Fearing a plague or another disaster, he called the comet "the anger of God" and asked Christians to pray, as a future historian put it, so that the it might "be entirely diverted against the Turks, the foes of the Christian name."
Turkish troops were regarded as highly disciplined and were equipped with splendid arms. Suleyman the Magnificent's army consisted of 80,000 men and thousands of camels, oxen and carts carrying supplies, and powder and shot for his 300 cannons. The Turks also built impressive fortresses that are scattered through out Turkey, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Ottoman armies marched off to battle almost every spring. During the winter they kept up their skills through training and games. Cavalry men tossed wooden spears at one another, hurled lances through rings and fired arrows at suspended brass balls while riding at full gallop.
In the early days, the military was made up primarily of cavalry officers recruited from Turkic lands, Anatolia and the Balkans. The officers were given land and the right to tax local inhabitants in return for their service in military campaigns. Over time as the officers became rooted to their land the system was less reliable and was replaced by the janissary system (See below).
Ottoman soldiers used pikes, battle axes, composite bows, curved sword. crossbows, and cannons. They also used matchlocks and mortars. Ottomans, had well trained units of musketeer, They were condemned for shooting firearms at Muslims.
Ottoman Military Units
The Ottoman army and navy was divided into highly specialized corps, each of which had specific weapons, garments and headdresses These soldiers were a spectacle unto themselves and were a truly awesome sight when fully assembled for military campaign or holiday parades.
One of the most feared detachments in the Turkish army was the delis. These warriors wore leopard skin cloaks and huge winged hats, and since they were paid only in booty and captives, they raped and plundered like there was no tomorrow.
Ottoman cavalrymen, known as sapahis, were among the world’s most feared warriors. Most of them were Muslim Turks who came from tribes of horsemen. Regarded as helpless on foot they were skilled at shooting arrows and driving pikes into their enemies while galloping at full speed. One historian wrote, “Give him his horse, hand him his bow, din his ears his commander’s roar—“Come on, my wolves!”---and you had, if not the first centaur to bear arms since the days of myth, then a man at any rate hard to tell apart from his horse.”
The Ottoman Turks were the artillery masters of their day. The first people to effectively use canons in warfare were the 15th century Turkish sultans and French kings. Their weapons were large, heavy and mounted on immobile platforms. Some of the cannons used in the siege of Constantinople were too large to be carried and were built outside Constantinople's walls.
Many of the soldiers and officers wore armor. The sultan wore armor made by master craftsman and carried a ceremonial sword and canteen. See Sultans.
In back of the delis, armed with muskets, were the Janissaries who were distinguished by their towering turbans and fierce mustaches. They were the first modern standing army. They worked full time. In contrast, European armies were made up of soldiers recruited for each war.
The Janissaries, the elite troops of the Ottomans, were made up of Christian Balkan boys selected for their strength and intelligence, trained using harsh discipline, and made into virtual slaves. They were taken from their homes at the age of eight, converted to Islam and then, under rigorous training and indoctrination, transformed into a loyal elite corps of fighters. Promotions were based on loyalty and merit. Ottoman used the recruitment methods for the Janissaries that were was used earlier for the Mamluks. Most were Greeks from the Balkans.
The Janissaries were paid in loot and land from conquered provinces. They were loyal to the Ottoman sultan because their interests were the same as his (they had no family, land and subjects of their own to worry about). For two centuries no European force could come close to matching the Janissaries in military skill and fighting spirit.
According to the BBC: “Non-Muslims in parts of the empire had to hand over some of their children as a tax under the devshirme ('gathering') system introduced in the 14th century. Conquered Christian communities, especially in the Balkans, had to surrender twenty percent of their male children to the state. To the horror of their parents, and Western commentators, these children were converted to Islam and served as slaves. [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009 |::|]
“Although the forced removal from their families and conversion was certainly traumatic and out of line with modern ideas of human rights, the devshirme system was a rather privileged form of slavery for some (although others were undoubtedly ill-used). |::|
“Some of the youngsters were trained for government service, where they were able to reach very high ranks, even that of Grand Vezir. Many of the others served in the elite military corps of the Ottoman Empire, called the Janissaries, which was almost exclusively made up of forced converts from Christianity. |::|
“The devshirme played a key role in Mehmet's conquest of Constantinople, and from then on regularly held very senior posts in the imperial administration. 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. Their status remained restricted, and their children were not permitted to inherit their wealth or follow in their footsteps. The devshirme system continued until the end of the seventeenth century.” |::|
Origin of the Janissaries
The scholar Eva March Tappan wrote: “About a century before the capture of Constantinople , when Amurath I was on the throne, his vizier suggested to him that he had a right not only to one-fifth of the spoils of battle, but also to one-fifth of the captives. "Let officers be stationed at Gallipoli," he said, "and as the Christians pass by, let them choose the fairest and strongest of the Christian boys to become your soldiers." Thus was formed the famous corps of the Janizaries. To keep it up, the agents of the sultan went once in four years to all the Christian villages under Turkish control. Every boy between six and nine years of age must be brought before them, and the agents carried away one-fifth of the number, carefully selecting the strongest and most intelligent. [Source: Eva March Tappan, ed., “The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art,” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, pp. 491-494, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]
“The advice of the vizier was followed; the edict was proclaimed; many thousands of the European captives were educated in the Muhammadan religion and arms, and the new militia was consecrated and named by a celebrated dervish. Standing in the front of their ranks, he stretched the sleeve of his gown over the head of the foremost soldier, and his blessing was delivered in the following words "Let them be called Janizaries [yingi-cheri--or "new soldiers"]; may their countenances be ever bright; their hand victorious; their swords keen; may their spear always hang over the heads of their enemies; and, wheresoever they go, may they return with a white face." White and black face are common and proverbial expressions of praise and reproach in the Turkish language. Such was the origin of these haughty troops, the terror of the nations.” [Ibid]
Janissaries in the 1550s
Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq wrote in “The Turkish Letters, 1555-1562": At Buda I made my first acquaintance with the Janissaries; this is the name by which the Turks call the infantry of the royal guard. The Turkish state has 12,000 of these troops when the corps is at its full strength. They are scattered through every part of the empire, either to garrison the forts against the enemy, or to protect the Christians and Jews from the violence of the mob. There is no district with any considerable amount of population, no borough or city, which has not a detachment of Janissaries to protect the Christians, Jews, and other helpless people from outrage and wrong. [Source: C. T. Forster and F. H. B. Daniel, eds., “The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq,” vol. I (London: Kegan Paul, 1881), pp, 86-88, 153-155, 219-222, 287-290, 293. Busbecq, a Fleming, was the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor at the Sublime Porte (the Turkish Sultan's court in Constantinople) from 1555-62. His letters provide important foreign accounts of the Ottoman state. Because Busbecq was trying to bring about reform at home, he did not dwell on the very real problems with Ottoman government]
“A garrison of Janissaries is always stationed in the citadel of Buda. The dress of these men consists of a robe reaching down to the ankles, while, to cover their heads, they employ a cowl which, by their account, was originally a cloak sleeve, part of which contains the head, while the remainder hangs down and flaps against the neck. On their forehead is placed a silver gilt cone of considerable height, studded with stones of no great value.
“These Janissaries generally came to me in pairs. When they were admitted to my dining room they first made a bow, and then came quickly up to me, all but running, and touched my dress or hand, as if they intended to kiss it. After this they would thrust into my hand a nosegay of' the hyacinth or narcissus; then they would run back to the door almost as quickly as they came, taking care not to turn their backs, for this, according to their code, would be a serious breach of etiquette. After reaching the door, they would stand respectfully with their arms crossed, and their eyes bent on the ground, looking more like monks than warriors. On receiving a few small coins (which was what they wanted) they bowed again, thanked me in loud tones, and went off blessing me for my kindness. To tell you the truth, if I had not been told beforehand that they were Janissaries, I should, without hesitation, have taken them for members of some order of Turkish monks, or brethren of some Moslem college. Yet these are the famous Janissaries, whose approach inspires terror everywhere.”
Janissaries: The Tribute of Children
James M. Ludlow wrote in “The Tribute of Children” (1493): “They are kept up by continual additions from the sultan's share of the captives, and by recruits, raised every five years, from the children of the Christian subjects. Small parties of soldiers, each under a leader, and each provided with a particular firman, go from place to place. Wherever they come, the protogeros assembled the inhabitants with their sons. The leader of the soldiers have the right to take away all the youth who are distinguished by beauty or strength, activity or talent, above the age of seven. He carries them to the court of the grand seignior, a tithe, as it is, of the subjects. The captives taken in war by the pashas, and presented by them to the sultan, include Poles, Bohemians, Russians, Italians, and Germans. [Source: James M. Ludlow: The Tribute of Children, 1493 From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, pp. 491-494, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]
“These recruits are divided into two classes. Those who compose the one, are sent to Anatolia, where they are trained to agricultural labor, and instructed in the Mussulman faith; or they are retained about the seraglio, where they carry wood and water, and are employed in the gardens, in the boats, or upon the public buildings, always under the direction of an overseer, who with a stick compels them to work. The others, in whom traces of a higher character are discernible, are placed in one of the four seraglios of Adrianople or Galata, or the old or new one at Constantinople. Here they are lightly clad in linen or in cloth of Saloniki, with caps of Prusa cloth. Teachers come every morning, who remain with them until evening, and teach them to read and write. Those who have performed hard labor are made Janizaries. Those who are educated in the seraglios become spahis or higher officers of state.
“Both classes are kept under a strict discipline. The former especially are accustomed to privation of food, drink, and comfortable clothing and to hard labor. They are exercised in shooting with the bow and arquebuse by day, and spend the night in a long, lighted hall, with an overseer, who walks up and down, and permits no one to stir. When they are received into the corps of the Janizaries, they are placed in cloister-like barracks, in which the different odas or ortas live so entirely in common that the military dignitaries are called from their soups and kitchens. Here not only the younger continue to obey the elders in silence and submission, but all are governed with such strictness that no one is permitted to spend the night abroad, and whoever is punished is compelled to kiss the hand of him who inflicts the punishment.
“The younger portion, in the seraglios, are kept not less strictly, every ten being committed to the care of an inexorable attendant. They are employed in similar exercises, but likewise in study. The grand seignior permitted them to leave the seraglio every three years. Those who choose to remain, ascend, according to their age in the immediate service of their master, from chamber to chamber, and to constantly greater pay, till they attain, perhaps, to one of the four great posts of the innermost chamber, from which the way to the dignity of a beglerbeg, or a capitan deiri (that is, an admiral), or even of a vizier, is open. Those, on the contrary, who take advantage of this permission, enters, each one according to his previous rank, into the four first corps of the paid spahis, who are in the immediate service of the sultan, and in whom he confides more than in his other bodyguards.”
Ottoman Turkish Soldiers
Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq wrote in “The Turkish Letters, 1555-1562": “The Turkish monarch going to war takes with him over 400 camels and nearly as many baggage mules, of which a great part are loaded with rice and other kinds of' grain. These mules and camels also serve to carry tents and armour, and likewise tools and munitions for the campaign. . . . The invading army carefully abstains from encroaching on its magazines at the outset; as they are well aware that when the season for campaigning draws to a close, they will have to retreat over districts wasted by the enemy, or scraped bare by countless hordes of men and droves of hungry animals, as if they had been devastated by locusts; accordingly they reserve their stores as much as possible for this emergency. [Source: C. T. Forster and F. H. B. Daniel, eds., “The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq,” vol. I (London: Kegan Paul, 1881), pp, 86-88, 153-155, 219-222, 287-290, 293]
“Then the Sultan's magazines are opened, and a ration just sufficient to sustain life is daily weighed out to the Janissaries and other troops of the royal household. The rest of the army is badly off, unless they have provided some supplies at their own expense. . . . On such occasions they take out a few spoonfuls of flour and put them into water, adding some butter, and seasoning the mess with salt and spices; these ingredients are boiled, and a large bowl of gruel is thus obtained. Of this they eat once or twice a day, according to the quantity they have, without any bread, unless they have brought some biscuit with them.... Sometimes they have recourse to horseflesh; dead horses are of course plentiful in their great hosts, and such beasts as are in good condition when they die furnish a meal not to be despised by famished soldiers.
“From this you will see that it is the patience, self-denial and thrift of the Turkish soldier that enable him to face the most trying circumstances and come safely out of' the dangers that surround him. What a contrast to our men! Christian soldiers on a campaign refuse to put up with their ordinary food, and call for thrushes, becaficos [a small bird esteemed a dainty, as it feeds on figs and grapes], and suchlike dainty dishes! ... It makes me shudder to think of what the result of a struggle between such different systems must be; one of us must prevail and the other be destroyed, at any rate we cannot both exist ]in safety. On their side is the vast wealth of their empire, unimpaired resources, experience and practice in arms, a veteran soldiery, an uninterrupted series of victories, readiness to endure hardships, union, order, discipline, thrift and watchfulness. On ours are found an empty exchequer, luxurious habits, exhausted resources, broken spirits, a raw and insubordinate soldiery, and greedy quarrels; there is no regard for discipline, license runs riot, the men indulge in drunkenness and debauchery, and worst of all, the enemy are accustomed to victory, we to defeat. Can we doubt what the result must be? The only obstacle is Persia, whose position on his rear forces the invader to take precautions. The fear of Persia gives us a respite, but it is only for a time.”
Reliance on Black Military Slaves in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century
Bernard Lewis wrote in “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”: “Blacks were occasionally recruited into the mamluk forces in Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century. "When the supply [of white slaves] proves insufficient," says a contemporary observer, W. G. Browne, "or many have been expended, black slaves from the interior of Africa are substituted, and if found docile, are armed and accoutred like the rest." This is confirmed by Louis Frank, a medical officer with Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt, who wrote an important memoir on the Negro slave trade in Cairo. [Source: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East,”Chapter 9 Slaves in Arms, Oxford University Press 1994 *|*]
“In the nineteenth century, black military slaves reappeared in Egypt in considerable numbers; their recruitment was indeed one of the main purposes of the Egyptian advance up the Nile under Muhammad 'Ali Pasha (reigned 1805-49) and his successors. Collected by annual razzias (raids) from Darfur and Kordofan, they constituted an important part of the Khedivial armies and incidentally furnished the bulk of the Egyptian expeditionary force which Sa'id Pasha sent to Mexico in 1863, in support of the French. An English traveler writing in 1825 had this to say about black soldiers in the Egyptian army: *|*
“"When the negro troops were first brought down to Alexandria, nothing could exceed their insubordination and wild demeanour; but they learned the military evolutions in half the time of the Arabs; and I always observed they went through the manoeuvres with ten times the adroitness of the others. It is the fashion here, as well as in our colonies, to consider the negroes as the last link in the chain of humanity, between the monkey tribe and man in intellect; and I do not suffer the eloquence of the slave driver to convince me that the negro is so stultified as to be unfit for freedom. *|*
“Even in Turkey, liberated black slaves were sometimes recruited into the armed forces, often as a means to prevent their reenslavement. Some of these reached of ficer rank. A British naval report, dated January 25,1858, speaks of black marines serving with the Turkish navy: "They are from the class of freed slaves or slaves abandoned by merchants unable to sell them. There are always many such at Tripoli. I believe the government acquainted the Porte with the embarrassment caused by their numbers and irregularities, and this mode of relief was adopted. Those brought by the Faizi Bari, about 70 in number, were on their arrival enrolled as a Black company in the marine corps. They are in exactly the same position with respect to pay, quarters, rations, and clothing as the Turkish marines, and will equally receive their discharge at the expiration of the allotted term of service. They are in short on the books of the navy. They have received very kind treatment here, lodged in warm rooms with charcoal burning in them day and night. A negro Mulazim [lieutenant] and some negro tchiaoushes [sergeants], already in the service have been appointed to look after and instruct them. They have drilled in the manual exercise in their warm quarters, and have not been set to do any duty on account of the weather. They should not have been sent here in winter. Those among them unwell on their arrival were sent at once to the naval hospital. Two only have died of the whole number. The men in the barracks are healthy and appear contented. No amount of ingenuity can conjure up any conncxion between their condition and the condition of slavery." *|*
Ottoman Military Cruelty
A passage from Suleyman log from a battle in Hungary read, "July 7th...a hundred heads of the soldiers...were brought to camp...July 8th, these heads are placed on pikes along the route." Another entry read, "The Emperor, seated on a golden throne, receives the homage of the viziers and the beys; massacre of 2,000 prisoners; the rain falls in torrents."♂
As the Ottoman Empire weakened, the military became more undisciplined and cruel. The Ottoman impalement of victims in Romania was made famous by the Dracula story Many Turkish soldiers carried scimitars, which could be used to slit a man’s throat and slice off his head. Death by strangulation was an old steppe practice.
Describing an execution by impalement in Latakia Syria in 1813, Charles Lewis Meryon wrote: "I was walking out of one of the gates of the town, about eight in the morning when I came suddenly on a man who had been impaled an hour or two before, and was now dead but still transfixed by the stake, which, as I saw on approaching him, came out about the sixth rib on the right side but I was so shocked at this unexpected sight, that it was some minutes before I could recover myself sufficiently to go up to him."
"The stake was planted upright, seemed to be scarcely sharp, and was somewhat thicker at the hip-hole. I was told that it was forced up the body by repeated blows of a mallet, the malefactor having been bound on his face to a heavy pack-saddle, an incision being made with a razor to facilitate entrance of the stake. The body, yet alive, was set upright in a rude manner; for the Turks preserve no decorum in executions: from pity for his suffering, after being a short time in this position, he was shot."
"His shirt, which was afterwards set on fire, in burning singed the whole of his body black; and thus he was left for two days. His crime was to be the stealing of a bullock and the murder of one his pursuers. Jewish, Christian, Druze and Ansary criminals are alone subjected to this horrible punishment: Turks are beheaded.
Vlad Ţepeş, Dracula and the Turks
Dracula, meaning "demon" or "devil," was used to describe the real life historical figure Vlad Ţepeş, a prince who ruled the region of Walachia from 1456 to 1462 and was also known as "Vlad the Impaler." Vlad earned his nickname the "Impaler" for his practice of impaling people on stakes to set an example. It is believed that most of the victims were already dead when they were impaled.
Most of Vlad's victims were Turks. In 1459, Vlad refused to pay traditional dues to the Ottoman Turk court and the sultan decided to send a force to punish him. Vlad's army outwitted and defeated the Turks. To discourage further attacks he impaled the dead bodies of Turks on spikes and placed them around the walls of his capital.
Over the years other stories of cruelty were attributed to Vlad the Impaler, but their veracity is under dispute. Not only did he impale Turks he allegedly also impaled his own countrymen and members of his court. In addition to impalement, he allegedly boiled his victims alive, beheaded them, scalped them, skinned and maimed them. Once he reportedly impaled thousands of live people of sharp stakes in a small town and then sat down to lunch while the bodies squirmed in dying agony around him. He also once allegedly invited beggars to a feast at a castle which he then burnt down.
According to one account: "certain envoys of the sultan had come to greet the prince officially, and they refused to take off their turbans. Vlad Ţepeş, who was hypersensitive about any slight to his vanity, speedily ordered the turbans of the Turkish envoys nailed to their heads. The Turks agonized within a pool of blood at the very foot of the throne." Needless-to-say Vlad was not very popular with the Turks. After his death Vlad's head was sent to the Turkish sultan who displayed it on a stick.
Vlad Ţepeş linkage to a vampire named Dracula may have something to do with fact that his son was named Vlad Dracul. The novel Dracula was written by Irishman Bram Stoker in 1897. in the novel, Stoker says Vlad Ţepeş was from Transylvania and he was a descendent of Attila the Hun, neither of which were true. "To die, to be really dead, that must be really glorious," Count Dracula said in the book. "There are far worse things awaiting man than death." Stoker never visited Transylvania but he carefully researched the chronicles and legends of Vlad Ţepeş. The author had long been fascinated with vampire stories.
Ottoman Navy and Sea Power
The Ottoman Turks also had a powerful navy. They used galleys (rowed by paid Albanians) with forward mounted cannons in their conquest of the Mediterranean. Their main rivals, Venice, Genoa and Spain, used galleys powered by criminals and slaves. The Turkish ships has canons on their bows. If they were fired while the ship was moving the ship slowed down slightly. If they were fired while the ship was stationary the ship was driven slightly backwards.
As was true with the ancient Greeks, 16th century sea battles were essentially land battles at sea. A ship tried to sink the ship of its enemy by either piercing it with a cannon ball or ramming it (the same tactics used in the siege of a castle); or the ship tried to maneuver close enough that it soldiers could leap onto the ship and conquer them as they would on a battlefield. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]
With the capture of Constantinople and Egypt, the Ottomans controlled the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea. With their powerful navy and army they established a chain of stronghold in Algiers (in the 1520s), Tripoli (in the 1550s) and Tunis (1574). From these the Ottomans were able to check Spanish expansion and protect pirates that raided European ships. The Spanish had an even more powerful navy but they were busy fighting the British and conquering the New World.
Barbary corsairs and other North African pirates, protected by the Ottoman navy, raided European shipping in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and occasionally made Viking-style land raids in places as distant as the British Isles. In 1627, they even raided Iceland.
In the Red Sea, the Ottoman adopted a defensive position, oriented primarily towards from keeping the Portuguese from taking over the most profitably trade routes.
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018