Were people vying to become slaves in the Ottoman Empire?

The Appeal of a Janissary Career

The practice of tearing children away from their families and cultures strikes us today as an outrageous violation of human rights. And the idea that anyone would desire a position as a slave seems completely contrary to common sense. To better understand why a loving parent would desire this life for his or her child, it'll help to grasp the idea of "slave" as it was perceived in the Ottoman Empire.

Janissaries were considered kuls, which technically means "slaves," but was understood to signify servants or even officers [source: Ménage]. At the time, the title was even more distinguished than that of a subject [source: Nicolle].

A career as a Janissary had remarkable upward mobility. We mentioned on the last page how some Janissaries received an elite education, and this advantage often prepared them for powerful and prosperous positions. For instance, an outstanding candidate immediately out of training could be assigned as a personal attendant of the sultan. After a few years at this post, he could branch out of the palace into an administrative role. But even those who didn't excel in training early on could still prove their worth and rise in the ranks. Janissaries often held high administrative positions, such as provincial governorships. There were instances, such as the case of Mehmed Pasa Sokollu, of a Janissary reaching the position of grand vizier (chief minister).

When parents saw where a career as a Janissary could lead, some thought sacrificing their children to the sultan would provide them with a better life than they could offer. Muslim parents even tried to convince authorities to consider their children for inclusion in the Janissary corps. And some Christians attempted to bribe officials to accept their sons [source: Sugar]. In fact, one of the reasons the devsirme system of recruitment came to an end in the 16th century was because there were so many applicants who desired to become a part of the Janissary troops.

Despite their technical slave status and significant power, the Janissaries often revolted throughout history. They usually sought reforms or a greater say in who would become sultan. Finally, in 1826, in an event known as the Auspicious Incident, the Janissaries revolted for the last time. The sultan Mahmud II dissolved the elite corps and turned cannons on the rebels, killing most of them.

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