Janissaries as Economic & Social Actors in 17th-C. Istanbul


A review of The Economic and Social Roles of Janissaries in a Seventeenth-Century Ottoman City: The Case of Istanbul, by Gülay Yılmaz.

Janissaries and their socio-political roles in the later Ottoman Empire has been one of the most interesting research topics in Ottoman urban history during the past three decades. A number of books and articles have treated their rebellions and political realignments. Yet we still know little about the quotidian realities of the lives of Istanbul janissaries, regarding where they lived, how rich they were, with whom they had economic transactions, and how many of them stayed in Istanbul during a military campaign. Although there are some works on the urban experience of early nineteenth-century Istanbul janissaries, strangely there has not been any on the seventeenth century when decisive changes began to take place. Gülay Yılmaz’s dissertation goes far toward filling that gap in its presentation of impressive new findings from a dazzling array of primary sources.

The Introduction states that the dissertation “examines the civilianization of the military and the militarization of civilians” (p. 2), and deals with a society that was more complex and dynamic than what the rulers commanded it to be. Yılmaz sets out to counter the old orientalist stereotypes of the “Islamic city” and “sultanism” with an observation of a society where there were more spontaneous intermingling and less guarantee of soldiers’ loyalty to the sultan. She places her study in the context of Ottoman urban history writing that has focused on civic institutions that promoted urban identities and helped define social relations, and appears to count the janissary regiments as such an institution. It is in conversation with many works that touch on the social history of janissaries, a major inspiration of which was Cemal Kafadar’s M.A. thesis (“Yeniçeri-Esnaf Relations: Solidarity and Conflict,” McGill University, 1980).

In Chapter 1, Yılmaz deals with the institution of devshirme from its very origins, and describes the process of conscription and training as well as the responsibilities devshirme recruits were expected to fulfill. Based on a conscription (eşkal) register, she reports that the devshirme recruits of 1603-4 were mostly in their late teens, in contrast with those of the late fifteenth century, who were between 12 and 15 years old when recruited. The new military situation of the early seventeenth century required older boys who could be made soldiers immediately. Thus, janissaries in Istanbul at that time were either ex-Christian that went through no period of adaptation with Turkish peasant families or those who were of freeborn Muslim background that bypassed devshirme altogether, which made it hard for both groups to adjust to their lives as janissaries in Istanbul. This is an important fact in understanding the significance of the ties provided by the regiments.

Chapter 2 starts with the setting of seventeenth-century Istanbul, including population and chronology, and goes on to explore the meanings of a vastly increased number of janissaries in such contexts. Yılmaz examines the salary (mevacib) registers to count the number of janissaries in Istanbul. She shows that 35,000-40,000 janissaries were registered in Istanbul in the seventeenth century; although about half of them were away on campaign, janissaries together with their families (about half of them turn out to have been married based on evidence from probate registers) probably made up nearly 20% of the city’s population. She investigates the salary register of 1663-64 with respect to the question of which units were more reluctant than others to send their soldiers to the front and for what reasons. Members of those regiments that were actively involved in the urban economy may have preferred to stay in Istanbul. There were various ways of designating a janissary in court records, and those differences may indicate blurred lines between civilian and military categories and the subtle distinction that the court may have wanted to impose on them. In addition, according to probate registers, janissaries’ residences spread out beyond the barracks all over the city, although there were some places of concentration and also an element of class diversification in terms of neighborhood.

Chapter 3 analyzes the major janissary revolts of the seventeenth century as question of civic culture in Ottoman Istanbul. Comparisons are drawnto popular protests in various early modern capitals, and E. P. Thompson’s theory of “moral economy” is invoked to explain the logic of the rebels. The contractual nature of the patron-client relationship between the kul and the sultan is noted. After a review of major revolts that transpired in the first half of the seventeenth century, the procedural, spatial, and ideological patterns of Janissay revolts are described.

Chapter 4 examines the janissaries’ income and economic activities. It starts with probate registers (tereke defterleri) to explore the distribution of wealth among janissaries, which was sometimes extremely uneven. Some janissaries were definitely in commerce given the presence of commercial goods in their estates and the fact that they were renting shops. Yılmaz observes that janissaries were becoming well-established players in virtually all types of market trade, which accords with the findings in Eunjeong Yi’s study of Istanbul guilds of the same period. However, she also finds that the most typical route for janissaries to partake of the “New Wealth” that was being created at that time was through saving cash and lending money. By the mid-century, there was a great increase in the percentage of those janissaries who possessed more than 100,000 akçes (from 0% in the first half of the seventeenth century to 19%), and among these very rich janissaries, only one had commercial goods in his estate. Over time they expanded their range of clientele for their money-lending activities to include more Muslims and ulema among the borrowers. Janissary money-lending cases from the Istanbul court records show that by mid-century they had developed a frequently used institutional form, that is, a regiment waqf (oda vakfı/sandığı) whose loaning activities went far beyond the immediate scope of the janissary regiment into Istanbul’s civilian society, although there were still many internal loans. Thus Yılmaz convincingly shows that janissaries infiltrated economically into the fabric of Istanbul communities while at the same time keeping strong internal bonds.

The Conclusion recapitulates the main points made in the body of the text and argues that the process of civilianization and the creation of new ties with artisans and ulema transformed the janissary regiments into economic interest groups and diluted their loyalty to the sultan. Janissaries’ new social existence made their active participation in urban protests possible, and their rebellions fit into the general development of early modern urban protests that involved similar dynamics created by enlarged armies and economic hardship. The ambiguous nature of the janissaries’ social status is here again underlined, as they came to occupy a position halfway between the military and the civilian.

This is a groundbreaking work that fills much of the gap in the social and economic history of the janissaries that will be heavily cited when published as a book. The reason why this gap has been left unfilled until now is due to the daunting scope of archival research and interpretive skills required to do so adequately. In covering a conscription register, a salary register, nine volumes of court records and ninety mühimme registers as well as many other documentary and narrative sources, and presenting the data thus acquired in neat tables in appendices at the end, this dissertation impressively tackles this challenge. It will provide a new point of departure for any study of janissary- or Istanbul-related topics.

Eunjeong Yi
Department of Asian History
Seoul National University
Seoul, South Korea

Primary Sources

Center for Islamic Studies (İslam Araştrırma Merkezi [ISAM]), Istanbul: probate (tereke) registers and court records (sicill)
Prime Ministry’s Ottoman Archives (Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi [BOA]), Istanbul: conscription (eşkal), salary (mevacib), mühimme registers

Dissertation information

McGill University. 2011. 352 pp. Primary Advisor: Victor Ostapchuk.


Image: Page from a salary register of janissaries in Istanbul for the year 1664 (Ottoman Archives, KK.d 6599).

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