The Grand Seraglio. Within its walls the Turkist Sultans sought an answer to a an old question: Can absolute power bring absolute bliss? Within the confines of what is today the Topakapi Museum, the Sultan’s residence the answer between the violence and the mystery, its decisions taken there shaping millions of lives, the brainwashed slaves, the ornate gardens, the answer was less obvious at the time…
…Those kidnapped children who showed an aptitude for ferocity were not sent to the Palace School but put into the Janissary Corps. The janissaries were a sort of private army of the Sultan who took the field only when he did and acted as his personal bodyguard. They were first organized in 1330, when the Turks were still living on the Plains of Anatolia, and were called “new soldiers.” A legend says that a holy man passed his wide sleeve over their heads, blessing them, and for this reason they wore a cap that hund down behind like a sleeve. They were spartan in their habit, celibate and forbidden to quarrel with one another. Native Turks and children of former janissaries were not allowed to join the corps.
They were a brave and valuable lot until the great period of Turkish conquest was over and the Sultans became more interested in dallying at home in the Seraglio than in leading troops into battle. Their number swelled from twelve thousand under Suleiman the Magnificent to forty-nine thousand a hundred years later, as more and more captured children entered their ranks with no great wars to kill them off. From admirably disciplined assault troops they turned into a rowdy and dangerous mob of hoodlums, always discontented, looting, starting fires, and prone to start revolutions. By 1826, when Mahmud II succeeded in abolishing them, there were 135,000 of them, including many native Turks and sons of janissaries.
Six Sultans in two and a half centuries had been dethroned or murdered, or both, by the corps that was supposed to guard them. Lady Mary Whortley Montagu in 1717:
The government here is entirely in the hands of the army and the Grand Signor with all his absolute power as much a slave as any of his subjects, and trembles at a janissary’s frown. Here is indeed a much greater appearance of subjection than amongst us. A minister of state is not spoke to but upon the knee; should a reflection on his conduct be dropped in a coffee house (for they have spies everywhere) the house would be razed to the ground, and perhaps the whole company put to the torture. No huzzaing mobs, senseless pamphlets and tavern disputes about politics A consequential ill that freedom draws; A bad effect, but from a noble cause….
None of our harmless calling names! But when a minister here displeases the people in three hours time he is dragged even from his master’s arms. They cut off his hands, head and feet, and throw them before the palace gate with all the respect in the world, while the Sultan (to whom they all profess an unlimited adoration) sits trembling in his apartment, and dare neither defend nor revenge his favourite. This is the blessed condition of the most absolute monarch upon earth, who owns no law but his will. Read More:http://www.swan.ac.uk/visualanthropology/projects/004_Montagu/turkishEmbassyLettersTheLetters.htm
The Janissary Corps emblem was a kettle, and the Chief of Janissaries was titled head soup distributor. Each man wore in his cap a spoon in a brass socket. Every Friday, a large delegation of janissaries came to the second court of the Seraglio, just inside the Executioner’s Gate, to get their weekly rice allowance, and if they were disgruntled about anything they would turn their kettle upside down and beat on them with their spoons, a warning to those in the inner palace that somebody’s head was wanted.