Cretan Janissaries in the Ottoman Army, 1750-1826


A review of The Social, Administrative, Economic, and Political Dimensions of the Ottoman Army: Cretan Janissaries, 1750-1826 (in Greek), by Yannis Spyropoulos.

In the past decade or so, the study of the Ottoman army has followed two interconnected directions. Regarding the first, one can mention indicatively the important contributions of Rhoads Murphey, Gabor Agoston, and Virginia Aksan, who have questioned theories of linear, teleological decline by discussing specifically the performance, industry, and logistics of the army. The works of Cemal Kafadar, Donald Quartet, and Suraiya Faroqui, at the same time, constitute noteworthy examples of the growing focus on non-military activities and janissaries’ melding into different professional groups.

This dissertation constitutes an excellent addition to such debates. Through its thorough investigation of the Cretan army right before and after the turn of the nineteenth century, Spyropoulos bridges the above-mentioned approaches. For, his work does not discuss the non-military activities of the army as a separate informal universe. Rather, it suggests that it was the formal structure of janissary corps that connected them to a parallel sphere of diverse activities. To understand this system one needs to consider the nature of the Ottoman state apparatus during the island’s incorporation into empire in the seventeenth century. The centrality and flexibility of the army in this particular province stemmed not only from the antagonism between Ottomans and Venice, but also from the empire’s need to establish its institutional presence. Ironically, the ultimate outcome of the above process was that, far from representing the interests of the central state, provincial military forces transformed into factors of instability and undesired decentralization. Most important, this was not a random development. The specific organization, inner hierarchies, privileges, and structure of the Ottoman army made it a cocoon of practices that would eventually undermine the authority of the very central regime janissaries were supposed to serve. By focusing on Crete during its particularly intriguing transition from the late eighteenth to the nineteenth century, Spyropoulos turns his examination of the Ottoman army into a broader exploration of the turmoil surrounding regional reform in the pre-Tanzimat era. This scrupulously researched and well-supported dissertation is an important contribution to the study of the Ottoman state apparatus. Moreover, it forms an excellent invitation to further comparative research on the provincial universe of the late empire, the exploration of which continues to be obscured not only by competing nationalisms but also by arbitrary exclusions among area studies.

The dissertation’s six chapters reveal progressively the main aspects of Spyropoulos’s thesis. Starting with a comprehensive discussion of the existing literature, Chapter 1 (pp. 29-66) maintains that the administrative semi-autonomy of the janissary army made it an attractive source of recruitment (official or not) and conversion to Islam. To this end, the chapter highlights two important privileges to be further explored thereafter: the exercise of military jurisdiction over members of the corps; and the economic roles reserved for janissaries—a practice which led to the creation of Muslim monopolies within the local hierarchy of socioeconomic power. These two institutionalized maneuvers formed the main reason Cretan Islam became identified almost exclusively with a military career, which was the main vehicle of employment in the state sector. In addition, the association of diverse socioeconomic functions with the army, and thus with Islam, relegated non-Muslims to a clearly inferior position. In an attempt to juxtapose established paradigms, Spyropoulos presents military autonomy as a privilege that divided Cretan Christians and Muslims. He thus searches in this reality for the roots of the Christian uprisings that would take place in Crete in the nineteenth century, starting with the Greek revolution of 1821. His goal is to move away from the association of Cretan conflict with ideological nationalism, a view that dominates the Greek literature on the issue (methodological and topical variations notwithstanding). Yet, aside from the diverse external factors and actors that influenced Cretan conflicts, one should bear also in mind that the fluidity of the Ottoman state apparatus in Crete before the revolution of 1821 had a twofold outcome. It promoted the spread of Islam through the military but it also allowed the survival of Christian monopolies and armed forces that exercised their own power over parts of the Cretan hinterland. Spyropoulos looks for a specific difference between the two communities, hypothesizing that, while Cretan Christians did not have actual individual agency in the context of the Ottoman state, the army empowered Muslim actors despite its deeply hierarchical structure. While this differentiation has yet to be further elaborated and fully established, Spyropoulos’s achievement remains significant in that he focuses on the janissaries from a novel and well-researched perspective. His careful use both of an impressive number of Ottoman sources and of the secondary literature succeeds in integrating the Cretan military with the rest of the empire. As such, his work debarks from the idea that Islam’s association with the army gave it the character of an “occupation” force—an argument prominent in the Greek literature even among those who attribute “local origins” to Cretan Muslims.

Specifically, Spyropoulos refocuses the debate on Crete towards larger and far more interesting questions. The reasons behind the abolition of the janissaries by Sultan Mahmud II in 1826 constitute one of his central points of focus. Moving beyond the plausible idea that the abolition was decided due to the corps’ military incompetence, his work agrees with the more recent view that Mahmud’s policies should be addressed in their totality. From the perspective of the central regime, the development of autonomous socioeconomic and political monopolies in the provinces constituted a major threat. Hence, Mahmud’s regime tried to gain fiscal and political control through a series of reforms that resulted in often-violent confrontations. Spyropoulos incorporates his discussion of Cretan janissaries into this model by presenting them as an enlarged, multifunctional body of clientele networks that thrived due to the institutionalized privileges of the military. While initially serving the interests of the central regime—if only in theory—these networks underwent a gradual localization that undermined the authority and fiscal goals of Istanbul. Hence, given Mahmud’s further policies of centralization, it could be argued that the socioeconomic functions of provincial janissary corps inspired the sultan’s anti-janissary actions in 1826 as much as the said corps’ bad military performance.

Chapter 2 (pp. 67-117) aims to illustrate this point through a lengthy exploration of the military organization, divisions, salaries, institutionalized privileges, and political functions of Cretan janissaries in the second half of the eighteenth century through 1826. Right from the outset, the author recognizes the limitations of official sources. Yet to the extent that this dissertation presents the multifunctional character of the army as part of an official structure, the wealth of the archival material used in this chapter is extremely valuable. Moreover, it provides a charter of the Cretan military very useful for further comparisons. One of the main characteristics of janissary presence in Crete was the division between “imperial” and “local” forces. The first were controlled and financed by the central regime, which they represented. The second served the appointed provincial governors. This distinction stemmed from the early-modern mindset of empire. The separation between administrators and the military was designed to create a system of checks and balances. In order to limit the autonomy of provincial administrators, janissaries were allowed to operate empire-wide as a separate force, run by its own laws and regulations. Quite literally, the specific regulations applied in Crete with regard to imperial janissaries referred to “The Law of Janissaries,” which bypassed the local judiciary and political authorities. Moreover, each fortress was managed as a separate unit. At the same time, the corps’ chiefs participation in the council of each Ottoman governor in the island’s main towns guaranteed that the interests of the military were represented in the island’s administration. The autonomy of imperial janissaries was not considered a threat to the central regime because their regiments were not supposed to stay stationed in the same place for a very long time. In the eighteenth century, however, Cretan imperial forces gained permanency and became localized. The rising conflicts between them and Ottoman administrators corroborated a reversal of intended roles. Instead of blocking the localization of political authorities, the military had developed into a powerful factor of decentralization and instability.

Chapter 3 (pp. 119-223) addresses the same issue through an examination of the janissary payroll and various sources of income. Again, Spyropoulos explains here an important distinction between imperial and local janissaries. The first received their wages directly from the central treasury, while the second from the collection of the local tithe. While this arrangement was meant to deem imperial forces fiscally independent from local resources or networks, its eventual fallout was the opposite. The irregularity and decreasing value of monetary wages forced imperial janissaries to look for different sources of income with the acquiescence of the central regime, which could not really afford to fully cover their needs. Local janissaries did not enjoy the same privileges but received a part of their salary in kind—specifically in wheat. Hence, changes in cultivation and trade patterns directly affected their interests. An indicative example was the crisis caused by the reorientation of the local agriculture from wheat to olive oil in the eighteenth century. If this new trade commodity undermined the empire’s traditional payroll system, it opened new horizons for Cretan janissaries through the evolution of their pious foundations into major local creditors. Pious foundations constitute one of the most interesting aspects of the janissary experience in Crete. Spyropoulos demonstrates very well their centrality in the growth of a matrix of diverse socioeconomic networks. The confiscation—and impressive size—of janissary religious properties by Mahmud’s regime in 1826 speaks directly to the dissertation’s central arguments. A most interesting issue remains, however: the notable survival of pious foundations in Crete as a socioeconomic pillar of local Islam. It would be interesting to consider, in this respect, not only the centralizing goals of Mahmud’s reforms but also to what extent they were achieved.

After having laid the framework of his main thesis in the first three chapters, Spyropoulos presents a number of engaging examples in Chapter 4 (pp. 225-284), which illustrates some of the ways imperial janissaries became localized. For instance, outsiders gained access to the corps by purchasing janissary titles in the black market; high-ranking members of the military dominated for-life rights to tax-farming; and the military councils organized under the presidency of each corps’ chiefs in the island’s major towns had jurisdiction over the regulation of the market. All of the above contributed to the creation of strong clientele networks that included various socioeconomic classes and layers. At the very top of this pyramid emerged powerful janissary families connected through arrangements both intimate and professional. That implies neither “class consciousness” nor a homogenous character among these actors. Various antagonisms arose among elite groups, especially over the most profitable types of investments, such as the trade of wheat, olive oil and soap—or the manipulation of the relevant markets and the illegal sale of janissary titles. Moreover, there existed tangible inner hierarchies and regional conflicts that created tensions between high officers and simple soldiers or among different regiments. Still, the enlargement of these clientele networks over guilds, landowners, traders, soldiers, and credit foundations, revolved around two specific characteristics of the military: its various activities and growing localization.

According to Spyropoulos, the uneven distribution of profits from all of the above activities contributed to the excessive rise of local violence. This aspect of the story, which was directly relevant to Sultan Mahmud’s actions, is explored also in Chapters 5 (pp. 286-340) and 6 (pp. 342-384), which focus on janissary uprisings right before the eventual confrontation of 1826. The archival sources used therein flesh out the arguments made in the previous chapters revealing a number of intriguing incidents. Spyropoulos identifies a change in the character of janissary uprisings, which he attributes to the army’s broader transformation. While earlier conflicts revolved around payroll issues, from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards they stemmed predominantly from janissary attempts to maintain local privileges and monopolies. This led to a culmination of violence at the local level that caused a deepening gap between the interests of the center and the Cretan military. As a fitting conclusion to this discussion, Chapter 6 focuses on Crete during the events of 1826. Spyropoulos argues that the news of the corps’ abolition did not cause significant reactions in Crete. Besides, many of its members were incorporated into the new army of Mahmud II. Janissary properties, at the same time, were confiscated and the socioeconomic networks stemming from them destroyed. This observation further strengthens the dissertation’s main argument. Regarding per se Mahmud’s reign and the events of 1826, the international context, Greek revolution, and involvement of Egypt in the affairs of Crete were of immense importance and merit further exploration. As a case in point, for all its efforts of centralization the regime eventually had to surrender the island’s administration to Mehmet Ali as a semi-autonomous province. How did the Greek and Egyptian factors influence the specific character of developments in Crete? Was the abolition of janissaries enough to explain the subsequent reversal of local power in favor of the Christians? Or does one need to consider a number of other contingencies as well? Last but not least, how indicative was this situation of developments in different provinces?

The dissertation could not possibly answer all of the above questions and does not attempt to do so. Spyropoulos’s focused discussion of Cretan janissaries offers a wonderful case study that is appealing in terms both of methodology and argumentation. His work demonstrates the efflorescence of Ottoman studies in Greece and, specifically, at the University of Crete in the past decades. Furthermore, it could be used comparatively to discuss the separation of powers, military privileges, and political agency as broader methodological questions.

Elektra Kostopoulou
Rutgers University

Primary Sources

Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi, Istanbul
Vikelaia Municipal Library, Heraclion, Crete
General State Archives – Rethymno Prefecture, Crete

Dissertation Information

University of Crete. 2014. 426 pp. Primary Advisor: Antonis Anastasopoulos.

Image: A Turkish Jannisary by Gentile Bellini.

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