World History 1 270 - 17.2.1 The Slave Soldier System

Many of the Islamic states formed in western Asia over the centuries relied upon a unique means of staffing their armies and administrations—the creation of a highly trained, foreign-born enslaved (or formerly enslaved) elite. Beginning in the ninth century in the Abbasid Caliphate, rulers purchased Turks from beyond the Oxus River in central Asia to serve as soldiers for the state. Enslaved adult men raised outside the state were loyal to their purchaser and not to the state itself, however, and thus they were more willing to revolt if they were not well treated. Briefly losing control of the state in the ninth century because of such uprisings was a lesson for Muslim rulers. Thereafter, they sought to enslave young boys who could be educated and trained within and by the state, ensuring they were more invested in the society they served as adults. Non-Muslim children were chosen because Islam forbade the enslaving of fellow Muslims.

Known as mamluks (from an Arabic word meaning “someone owned”), the boys were taken primarily from Turkic tribes in central Asia, as well as from the Caucasus and eastern Europe, and then converted to Islam and educated. Because they were freed upon completing their training, the rule against enslaving other Muslims was not violated. The largest part of their instruction consisted of training in riding, archery, and military tactics (Figure 17.19). Some were given a formal education in the bureaucracy, in a bid to develop smart and capable administrators for the state.

Two images are shown. The image at the right is a close up of the middle of the image at the left. The images are drawn in vibrant colors on a light brown background with water stains and ripped edges. The image on the left has scripted writing in black with red accents across the top, right side, and in eight rows in the bottom half. The image at the top is enlarged in the image on the right. In this image, a square is seen with a point facing up in the middle. The square has blue designs in the middle with a green border with leafy designs. Green squiggles are drawn in dark ink outside of the square on all sides. On each side of the square a figure is shown riding a horse and holding a long spear. Each rider has dark eyes, pale face, and white layered hat with a pink round object in the middle. They are all dressed in richly decorated long robes in red, blue, and green with designs all over. Their horses are bright colors of black, red, and green with gold and blue reins and bright saddles.
Figure 17.19 This fourteenth-century illustration from the Manual of the Arts of Horsemanship by al-Aqsara’i depicts mounted competitors carrying spears in a game that required great physical skill. As part of their training, young mamluks were taught to ride at a gallop while aiming projectiles at a swinging target. (credit: modification of work “Manual on the Arts of Horsemanship by al-Aqsara’i” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

When the young men’s education was completed, they were set free in a special ceremony. They were then allowed to grow beards, marry, and establish their own households, into which they could introduce purchased mamluks of their own. They might, however, remain in the household of their former owner, the ruler to whom they were expected to remain loyal. In this way, the mamluks somewhat resembled the freed people of ancient Rome, who often retained ties to their former masters.

The relationship between mamluks and their masters was often conceived of as familial in nature, and mamluks often referred to one another as “brother” and to their master as “father.” When their training had ended, their “father” would find a place for them in the ruler’s service. Most mamluks found positions in the army, and from there they often went on to hold administrative positions. In the Ayyubid Sultanate, the mamluks eventually gained control over the government after deposing the sultan and proceeded to rule the state as the Mamluk Sultanate.

In Mamluk Egypt, having been an enslaved soldier was often the path to the greatest success and standing in society. Important positions were given to mamluks, such as provincial governor and commander of the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. The sultan himself was a mamluk. Appointed mamluks were regarded as more entitled to positions of power and authority than were a man’s biological sons, and while Egyptian mamluks married and produced children, it was considered inappropriate if these offspring were awarded important roles in government when true mamluks were available. The mamluks were displeased when this happened, and it was they who usually determined who became the sultan.

While it might seem like a risk to entrust important governmental and military positions to men who had once been enslaved, the Ayyubids, who had broken away from the Abbasid state to found their own dynasty in the eleventh century, adopted the system because of its advantages. The mamluks were highly trained and well educated, and thus well prepared to occupy the offices given to them. A ruler could pick and choose the most able of them, whereas biology might leave a sultan with children entirely unsuited to occupy positions of authority. The fact that the mamluks were of non-Arab origin and had been taken from their homes in foreign lands as children also meant they were likely to remain loyal to the “father” who had been responsible for their training, and to whom they owed their position in society. While the offspring of the Arab nobility might act to advance the fortunes of their families in ways that did not suit the interests of the sultan, the sultan usually did not need to fear that his mamluks would favor the interests of far-distant, long-absent biological relatives over his own.

Enslaved men occupied a similar position in the Ottoman Empire. Beginning in the fourteenth century, the Ottomans purchased enslaved people or used prisoners of war to fill the ranks of their armies. With their invasion of the Balkans, however, the Ottoman sultans soon turned to gathering Christian children from the European lands they occupied, in order to counter the power of the Turkish nobles who controlled the army and the state’s administration.

In a system known as the devshirme (“gathering”), Ottoman agents recruited Christian boys as part of the tax imposed on their European subjects (Figure 17.20). Approximately every three to five years, agents of the sultan took boys, ideally aged between eight and ten, to serve the Ottoman state. They were taught to speak Turkish and brought to Istanbul where they were educated and made to convert to Islam. When they became adolescents, they were trained to become scribes, palace administrators, or soldiers. Those selected to serve in the palace at the end of their training often rose to occupy important positions, including Grand Vizier. In addition, many were awarded timars in exchange for their service and had the opportunity to become wealthy.

An image of a richly colored painting is shown. The image shows a figure in richly decorated red and green robes and a white turban sitting on an intricately decorated orange, green, black and white platform in the middle left of the image in a courtyard with a large green tree behind them. He is looking down at a white rectangle in his lap. Next to him sits another figure in yellow and blue robes with a very tall gold and white head dress, black beard, holding a black plate with gold circles on it. In the bottom left forefront of the image a tall figure holding a long, thin stick stands in long deep blue robes, red socks, black shoes, and a tall gold and white headdress on a deep green lawn. Six figures walk toward him dressed in red, dirty, worn robes with red scarves on their heads. Each carries a sack over their shoulder. A highly decorated wall is behind them with a large group of people in various colored robes standing looking at the group walking. Two figures at the front of the group speak with a man in red and black robes and a tall golden headdress standing at a doorway to the courtyard with the two seated figures. Another group of five figures stands behind the doorway in long robes and looks at the seated figures. Richly adorned brown and black buildings with colorful decor are seen in the background as well as trees, flowers, and a brown sky.
Figure 17.20 In this Ottoman miniature painting from 1558, Christian parents look on as their sons are led away to be enslaved by the sultan. The children carry a few personal possessions in sacks over their shoulders as the seated Ottoman official registers them. (credit: “Janissary Recruitment in the Balkans” by Ali Amir Beg/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The majority of boys were trained as soldiers, some of whom became members of the elite infantry corps called the Janissaries (from the Turkish words yeni cheri, or “new soldier”). They accompanied the sultan into battle and served as his household guard. Like the mamluks, the Janissaries were expected to be loyal to their master, the Ottoman sultan. In fact, the sultans believed the Janissaries would prove more dependable than the noble vassals, because they were entirely dependent upon the sultans for their status and privileges, and because they had been cut off from the biological families to whom they might otherwise have owed their first loyalty. The risk of trusting in the Turkish nobility had become clear at the Battle of Ankara when Bayezid I’s Turkish vassals fled, abandoning him to the Mongols.

In Their Own Words

Memoirs of a Janissary

The account that follows is by a Serbian named Konstantin Mihailović. Born in 1430, he was taken as a child to be trained as a Janissary and recorded his experiences in a book, Memoirs of a Janissary, written between 1490 and 1501.

And from there the Emperor [the Ottoman Sultan] marched and surrounded a city which they call Novo Brdo, “Mountain of Silver and Gold,” and having attacked it, conquered it, but by means of an agreement: he promised to let them keep their possessions and also not to enslave their young women and boys . . . . Having arrived in the city the Turks ordered all the householders with their families, both males and females, to go out of the city through the small gate to a ditch, leaving their possessions in the houses. And so it happened that they went one after another, and the Emperor himself standing before the small gate sorted out the boys on one side and the females on the other, and the men along the ditch on one side and the women on the other side. All those among the men who were the most important and distinguished he ordered decapitated. The remainder he ordered released to the city. As for their possessions, nothing of theirs was harmed. The boys were 320 in number and the females 74. The females he distributed among the heathens, but he took the boys for himself into the Janissaries, and sent them beyond the sea to Anatolia, where their preserve is.

I was also taken in that city with my two brothers, and wherever the Turks to whom we were entrusted drove us in a band, and wherever we came to forests or mountains, there we always thought about killing the Turks and running away by ourselves among the mountains, but our youth did not permit us to do that; for I myself with nineteen others ran away from them in the night from a village called Samokovo. Then the whole region pursued us, and having caught and bound us, they beat us and tortured us and dragged us behind horses. It is a wonder that our soul remained in us. Then others vouched for us, and my two brothers, that we would not permit this anymore, and so they peacefully led us across the sea.

—Konstantin Mihailović, Memoirs of a Janissary

  • How does Mihailović feel about the Ottomans? Why does he feel this way?
  • How loyal a Janissary was he likely to have been? Why?
  • While the Janissaries were elite members of Ottoman society, they remained enslaved people. What sense does this excerpt and the rest of the chapter give you of the Janissary experience?

The Janissaries held high status in Ottoman society. Although many parents protested the taking of their children and sometimes rebelled against the system, others who hoped to provide their sons with a means of advancing in society reportedly bribed Ottoman officials to select them. Some Muslim parents, whose sons were not subject to the devshirme, supposedly even lied about their religion to secure a spot for them in the sultan’s service.

The sultans also kept other kinds of enslaved people. Christian women from foreign lands were purchased in slave markets, and others were given to the sultan as gifts or taken as prisoners of war. They were placed in the sultan’s harem, where they lived among his children and female relatives and served the ladies of the court as attendants. Women in the harem were ranked according to a strict hierarchy in which they could advance based on talent and length of service. The minority chosen to become sexual partners of the sultan were also elevated, especially if they bore him children. Some became the mothers of future sultans and were given the title “lady.” They might hold great power. While some of these women held great power, most remained servants, and after a few years of service, they were usually released from their duties and married to palace officials. Guarding the Ottoman harem were enslaved eunuchs, castrated men who were usually purchased in slave markets in Africa and whose perceived differences in sexuality led them to be assigned made them well suited to important roles such as managing the household of the ruler and other nobles. Despite their enslaved status, the control these men exerted over the harem gave them great power.

Although the mamluks and enslaved men and women who served the Ottoman sultan were considered among the elite of their societies and occupied relatively privileged positions, people other than sultans owned enslaved people who performed hard physical labor on farms or as domestic servants. They might be poorly fed and clothed and were neither paid nor educated. They also could not expect to gain their freedom. As property, they could be pawned or sold at their owner’s whim, and regardless of age, they might be sexually abused. The experiences of these people were far more typical and representative of the enslaved, including Africans enslaved in the Americas beginning in the sixteenth century, than were those of the mamluks, the Janissaries, or the women of the Ottoman harem.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax