The Fighting Messmates — The Curious Role of Food in Turkey’s Legendary Janissary Corps

The Janissaries were the elite warrior slaves of the Ottoman Empire. Oddly enough, many of the traditions and accoutrements we associate with them were inspired by food (of all things). Author Richard Anderton invites us to grab a knife and fork and dig in to the story. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The corps’ military vocabulary and symbolism drew heavily

on that of the kitchen.”

By Richard Anderton

THOUGH IT WAS Napoleon Bonaparte (or possibly Frederick the Great) who first coined the phrase “an army marches on its stomach” no military formation in history placed more emphasis on food than the elite Janissary Corps of the Ottoman Empire.

Formed in the 14th Century, to serve as the sultan’s personal army, the janissaries were supposed to operate outside the system of Ottoman feudal loyalties. To achieve this, all janissaries were recruited from the non-Turkish (especially Christian) slaves paid as tribute by the conquered peoples under Ottoman rule.

The word janissary literally means ‘new soldier’ and the system of forced conscription, known as the devşirme (blood tax), took boys of around nine years old from their families and converted them to Islam before training them in the arts of war. Forbidden to marry and housed in communal barracks, every janissary was the personal property of the sultan. So how did these slave-soldiers become an elite fighting force with the power to depose their almighty master?

The answer lay in a most unlikely places. To foster a potent spirit of comradeship whereby every janissary thought of his brothers-in-arms as his family, the corps’ military vocabulary and symbolism drew heavily on that of the kitchen. Consider the following:

Janissaries were famous for their distinctive headgear. Some variants were adorned with a decorative spoon.

Spoon Fed

The strangely shaped janissary hat, called a börk, was supposed to represent the shirt sleeve of the semi-legendary Islamic theologian Haci Bektas Veli whose teachings were very popular among the corps. Whatever the truth of this story, the börk was decorated with an ornamental kaşık-lık (spoon holder), to show that all janissaries were ‘messmates.’

Janissaries of the 17th Century. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Hearth and Home

Domestic nomenclature was also applied to the janissaries’ ranks and organization. The corps as a whole was called the Ocak (hearth) and each orta (regiment) was commanded by a çorba-başi (head-of-soup) who in turn was assisted by a sekban-başi (head of hunting-hounds). Non-commissioned officers bore such titles as sakka-başi (head water-carrier), karakullukçu (scullion) and aşçi-başi (master cook).

Pot Boys

Throughout history, different armies have used everything from gilded eagles to brightly coloured banners to embody regimental spirit. But the pride of each orta was its great copper cauldron called a kazan. Since ancient times, metal cooking pots had been prized by the nomadic tribes of Asia, from whom the Ottoman Turks were descended, and the sultan’s title among the janissaries was bizi besleyen baba or ‘the father who feeds us.’

Janissaries carrying their famous kazan cauldrons. (Image source: Victoria & Albert Museum)

Carrying the Can

On the march, kazans pots were carried in the place of honour at the head of the regiment. In camp, they were placed in front of each çorba-başi’s tent to serve as a rallying point. The worst crime any janissary could commit was to allow his regiment’s cauldron to be captured by the enemy. If a kazan was lost in battle, all the regiment’s officers were dishonourably discharged and the orta forbidden to parade in public with its replacement.

Trouble Brewing

Regimental cauldrons also played an crucial role in displays of loyalty to the sultan. Every Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, janissary regiments stationed in Constantinople marched with their cauldrons to the palace kitchens where they received their ceremonial ration of pilaf (a stew of mutton and rice or bulgur wheat). There was great symbolism attached to this humble task: if an orta’s janissaries hesitated before accepting the handout, or if they failed to appear at the appointed time, it was a sign that the regiment was on the point of mutiny.

Janisarries feasted on a pilaf dish the was (quite literally) to die for. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Going to Pot

If the sultan failed to address the janissaries’ grievances, they would declare a mutiny by kicking over their cauldrons and marching to the meydani (the Hippodrome racetrack built by the Byzantines). Such was the symbolic authority of the kazan, a mutinous orta only had to steal the cauldrons of other ortas to force them into joining their rebellion.

Out of the Frying Pan

Even in provincial towns, the cauldrons had a ceremonial function. The janissaries often operated as a police force and, every day, two janissaries carrying the kazan on a long pole, led by a third man bearing a giant ladle, paraded through the town taking food to their comrades on patrol. And while we’re on the subject of policing, the cauldron also served as a place of sanctuary. By hiding underneath it, any janissary accused of a crime was spared summary execution.

Janissaries in action at the 1543 Siege of Esztergom. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Main Course

For at least two centuries, the janissaries were the Sultan’s most loyal, and most effective, troops. Paradoxically, they were all slaves drawn from the conquered peoples of the Ottoman Empire. However, the janissaries’ servile status did not prevent some from becoming extremely rich and powerful. What’s more, all janissaries were well paid a salary and were exempt from taxes. Better still, each could expect to receive a bounty on the accession of a new sultan. In fact, failing to pay the bonus was a frequent cause of janissary mutinies. Moreover, many janissaries were appointed to lucrative governorships and other positions of political power after retirement, which caused considerable resentment amongst ambitious, free-born Turks.

Slaves or not, ordinary Turks envied the perks afforded the janissaries. By the late 16th Century, many Ottomans clamoured to be admitted into the corps. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Just Desserts

Turkish volunteers were first admitted into the Ocak in 1594, but once being a janissary became a way of advancing a civilian career, this formerly invincible military force began to lose its effectiveness. Few free-born Turkish janissaries were willing to submit to the harsh discipline applied to slaves. And many of the new volunteers insisted on being allowed to marry, live outside the communal barracks and enjoy all the privileges of being janissary without having to actually fight.

Janissaries cooked their enemies at the 1526 Battle of Mohacs. While the corps fought for the sultans for centuries, by the 19th Century, they had to be disbanded. (Image source: WikiCommons)

From Soup to Nuts

Like the Roman emperors’ Praetorian Guard and the Knights Templar of medieval France, the Janissary corps gradually became a ‘state-within-a-state’ with hereditary membership and a reputation for decadent living that disguised their enormous power. By 1826, the janissaries had become such a barrier to reform, Sultan Mahmud II decided to abolish the Ocak in what became known as ‘the Auspicious Incident.’ Naturally, the edict disbanding the 135,000 ‘brothers-of-the-spoon’ met with violent resistance and Mahmud was forced to execute 6,000 leading ex-janissaries in order to regain control of his own empire. It was the end of nearly 500 years of tradition.

Richard Anderton is the author of The Devilstone Chronicles, a new series of historical novels set during the blood soaked 16th Century. One of the janissaries’ most famous victories forms the climax for The Devil’s Lance, the second book in the series, in which the hero has to steal an ancient relic from the Imperial chapel in Nuremberg. The Devil’s Lance, and its prequel The Devil’s Band, are both available from Amazon in either paperback or eBook formats and there’s more information about the books on Richard’s website 

Leave a Reply