Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Devşirme, a Marvel of History

The Ottoman Empire lasted from 1299 to 1922, thus for 623 years. It was on the wrong side in World War I and dismembered in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920)—the consequences of which still linger, not least in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and elsewhere. The United States was not one of the signatories; we get a pass there. The Ottomans had already lost the Balkan states in the nineteenth century—also leaving troublesome ethnic problems behind; these still also linger.

In my readings of history, the comments of one historian, either Toynbee or Spengler, remained imprinted on my mind. The statement was to the effect that the Osmanli (named in Turkish after their founder), were a herding people and treated their subjects as herders treat livestock—as valuable resources kept healthy for exploitation. Thus they suppressed ethnic conflicts but also avoided absorbing these populations into a common “national” pool. The notion of nationality hadn’t been born yet. One of the more interesting Ottoman institutions was the formation, from Christian populations, of a standing army by a method of forcible recruitment of young boys. The boys were renamed, raised as Muslims, and forgot where they had come from. They were employed as palace servants and functionaries, as religious, scribes, and, most importantly as soldiers. The institution was known as devşirme (“gathering”), often rendered as devshirme. The herders also, as it were, raised herding dogs and gave them special training.

The “gathering” began during the reign of Murad I (r. 1362-1389) and ended in 1648 when the special Janissary formations made up of such boys were finally dissolved. If we assume that the institution began with Murad’s reign, it lasted some 286 years. The boys were levied at four to five year intervals from rural families in the Balkans. Children of craftsmen were spared; taking them might harm local economies. The system originated in the desire of the sultan to raise an armed force loyal to his own person. The young recruits were technically slaves, but life has its ironies. In later times military leaders and rulers of provinces were drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of Janissaries and royal functionaries—so that the nobility later strained every fiber to cause its own sons to be accepted into the ranks of these titular “slaves.” The last had become the first, the slaves an elite. To be “gathered” by the sultan, once known as the “blood tax,” had become a road to fame and fortune as this institution evolved. And precisely this evolution also caused its ultimate demise.

The Ottoman Empire? Here is what it covered in 1683 (map courtesy of Wikipedia):

1 comment:

  1. Reading this I realize how little I actually know about the Ottoman Empire. Most interesting.