The Devsirme System
Whenever the sultan wanted to boost his Janissary troops, he'd go into one of his territories, such as Greece, Austria, Albania or Serbia, to take young boys between the ages of 8 and 18 from Christian families [source: Volkan]. But not just any boy would do. The sultan's officials conducted comprehensive examinations of the children and looked for those who fit a certain list of criteria.
When authorities arrived in a village, fathers brought out their sons for inspection. To qualify, a boy had to be strong, but untrained. His attitude was important, too -- he couldn't act spoiled. No orphans or only sons were accepted, and neither were boys who spoke any Turkish. Even if a boy satisfied all these prerequisites, he wasn't in unless he was handsome [source: Halil]. Once a boy was chosen, he was transported to Istanbul for training.
Boys would usually undergo three to seven years of training in Istanbul. First and foremost, they were circumcised and converted to Islam. They were taught Turkish, and depending on how well they did in their training and education, they could be put on different tracks. The trainees who excelled were eventually enlisted to serve at the sultan's palace as members of the standing army. These soldiers received extensive education in math, theology, law, horsemanship and military strategy. The others were assigned to serve government officials or toil in the fields, while assimilating into Muslim society. No matter their post, they remained the sultan's slaves and could be recruited back to the palace at any time [source: Halil].
In general, these slave-soldiers adhered to a strict code of conduct, in which obedience and manners were paramount and any violation resulted in harsh punishment. In addition, they were expected to lead a celibate life, never marrying (at least until the 16th century, when some were allowed to take wives).
The total number of young Christians kidnapped under the devsirme system isn't known for sure. Modest estimates peg the number in the hundreds of thousands. But some think as many as 5 million boys were stolen from Christian families and raised to become slaves of the sultan [source: Halil].
Despite being enslaved, a young boy could look forward to remarkable prospects in his life as a Janissary.