From Christian child to Turkish Janissary

Diether von Michelstadt, Knight of the Holy Order of Saint John, missioned on the Isle of Rhodes, to his dear cousin, Wolfgang Capito.  May God bless you, beloved friend, in the sure hope of our resurrection on the last day.

Your welcome letter arrived today in good time, since our supply ships had favorable winds and nearly flew across the seas.  You say you have heard many horrible stories about the Turks and wonder if they are true.  You say you have heard of an elite army composed of stolen Christian children.  Sadly, this is indeed true.

Devsirme–Topkapi Palace

The practice is called the “devsirme,” which means “gathering,” and it is a human taxation, sometimes called the “boy harvest,” of the non-Muslim populations of Anatolia and the Balkans, primarily Greeks and Albanians and a few Armenians.  Every few years, the Sultan conscripts a certain percentage–perhaps ten percent–of Christian male children.  The boys are usually between eight and twelve years old.  The Sultan’s officer arrives in a village, the Christian fathers are ordered to appear with their sons, and the strongest, most promising boys are taken.

We hear many stories about this.  Some say the Christian parents will disfigure their sons to prevent their being chosen.  Others, that the Christians are starving and some children wish to go.  We hear that Muslim parents, desirous of the fine education and elite opportunities in the Sultan’s service, sometimes bribe Christians to claim their children.

Janissary–Gentile Bellini

The Janissary schooling, which may take 14 years, converts the children to the faith of Islam and teaches them the Ottoman view of the world.  They learn Turkish, Persian, and Arabic.  There is physical training, study of literature, the Koran, and the law called the Seriat.  The boys are separated forever from their families and, once in the palace school, they cannot leave for any reason or have any contact with the outside world.  They know they cannot marry until they retire.  They emerge passionate Muslims, eager to fight, ready to die for their faith and the Sultan.

The Janissaries live and train in tightly disciplined barracks communities to give them a cohesive strength unusual in any other army.  While many Turks favor beards, the Janissaries wear only a mustache and shave their heads, except for a scalp-lock.

Although they are slaves, they are well paid, have striking uniforms, and the best food and equipment available.  Their distinctive headgear looks like a folded sleeve.  A Muslim holy man, Hajji Bektash, blessed the new soldiers upon the founding of the corp.  Some say the sleeve of his robe touched their heads.  Others say he tore the felt sleeve off his white coat and placed it on a soldier’s head, calling him a “new trooper.”  Either way, the Janissaries wear these sleeves in remembrance.  Even in peacetime, the Janissaries never disband, but improve their training skills and their military installations, much as we are doing ourselves at the present moment.   They are expert with firearms and a great variety of other weapons of the most modern sorts.  They often carry small hand bombs called “grenades” because of their similar aspect to pomegranates.

In addition to his Janissaries, the Sultan can put an army in the field with hundreds of thousands of armed men, from his territories’ vast populations, and equip them with good arms and generous provisions, from his limitless wealth.   The majority of these soldiers are feudal cavalry, armed with lance and bow, brave, but not always well led.   But these are supported by artillerymen with some of the largest cannon in the world.   Their supplies of good powder and abundant shot allow them to maintain a steady fire by day and night.   The army is well served by a supply corps, by sappers and miners for an extended siege, and by a medical branch for the sick and wounded.

As you know, we are only a few leagues from the Turkish coast, with no other armed Christians nearby.

We concentrate on the addition of several small strong points in front of the main walls.  These go by the name of ravelin or demi-lune, and are intended to stop the shot from Turkish heavy cannon from reaching the main curtain walls.  Our supplies of rations and weapons are already quite large.  Together with our large supply of fresh water, I suppose we might survive a blockade of a hundred years.  The Sultan may indeed attack Rhodes, but I promise you, he will pay a dear price, including ruinous casualties to his precious Janissaries.  As always, we rely not only on our own arms, but on the mercy of God.  May he be eternally praised in all we do.

Sincere thanks for your welcome letters.  May your days be as happy and sunny as ours here in the Levant.


Diether von Michelstadt created by Leopold Glueckert, O.Carm.,Ph.D

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Published in: on September 16, 2011 at 9:52 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I enjoyed reading this very much. I have a special interest in Turkey. I thought it was especially interesting how the Christians disfigured their children to avoid the gathering to the Muslim religion and the Muslim families would pay a bribe to obtain the education for their children.

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