Illustration of an Ottoman official and his assistant registering Christian boys for the devşirme. The official takes a tax to cover the price of the boys' new red clothes and the cost of transport from their home, while the assistant records their village, district and province, parentage, date of birth and physical appearance. Ottoman miniature painting, 1558. [1] [2]

Devshirme[a] (Ottoman Turkish: دوشيرمه‎, devşirme; usually translated as "child levy" or "blood tax")[3] was the Ottoman practice of forcibly recruiting soldiers and bureaucrats from among the children of their Balkan Christian subjects.[4][5][6] It is first mentioned in written records in 1438,[7] but probably started earlier. It created a faction of soldiers and officials loyal to the Sultan.[8] It counterbalanced the Turkish nobility, who sometimes opposed the Sultan.[9][10] The system produced all of the grand viziers, from the 1400s to the 1600s. This was the second most powerful position in the Ottoman empire, after the sultan. The devshirme also produced most of the Ottoman empire's provincial governors, military commanders, and divans during that period.[11]

Ottoman soldiers would take European Christian males, aged 8 to 20, from Eastern, Southern and Southeastern Europe, and relocate them to Istanbul,[12] where they would be trained. The fact that many were taken forcibly from their parents has been the subject of criticism. The devshirme was often resented by locals[13] though some Christian families volunteered their sons, as service offered good career options, specifically Albanians and Bosnians according to William Gervase Clarence-Smith.[14][7][15] Recruits sometimes used their positions to help their family.[16] The boys were forced to convert to Islam.[17] Muslims were not allowed into the system (with some exceptions), but some Muslim families smuggled their sons in anyway.[18]

Many scholars consider the practice of devishirme as violating Islamic law.[19][7][15] David Nicolle writes that enslavement of Christian boys violates the dhimmi protections guaranteed in Islam,[20] but Halil İnalcık argues that the devshirme were not slaves once converted to Islam.[21][c]

The boys were given a formal education, and trained in science, warfare and bureaucratic administration, and became advisers to the sultan, elite infantry, generals in the army, admirals in the navy, and bureaucrats working on finance in the Ottoman Empire.[2] They were separated according to ability and could rise in rank based on merit. The most talented (the ichoglani) were trained for the highest positions in the empire.[16] Others joined the military, including the famed janissaries.[22]

The practice began to die out as Ottoman soldiers preferred recruiting their own sons into the army, rather than sons from Christian families. In 1594, Muslims were officially allowed to take the positions held by the devishirme and the system of recruiting Christians effectively stopped by 1648.[7][23] An attempt to re-institute it in 1703 was resisted by its Ottoman members, who coveted the military and civilian posts. Finally, in the early days of Ahmet III's reign, the practice of devshirme was abolished.


The Devshirme came up out of the kul system of slavery that developed in the early centuries of the Ottoman Empire and which reached this final development during the reign of Sultan Bayazit I.[24] The kuls were mostly prisoners from war, hostages, or slaves that were purchased by the state. The Ottoman Empire, beginning with Murad I, felt a need to "counteract the power of (Turkic) nobles by developing Christian vassal soldiers and converted kapıkulu as his personal troops, independent of the regular army."[25] That elite force, which served the Ottoman Sultan directly, were called Kapıkulu Ocağı (The Hearth of the Porte Servants), as Kapıkulu has meaning of more a ‘servant, paid servant’ rather than Slave as word shifted meaning over years. The word ‘Kul’ has there meanings in Turkic: Slave, Servant and male Son (biologic), thus in this context they were treated and called Servants through the word ‘Kul’ and ‘Köle’ was the word used for actual slaves (mostly domestic, house slaves). They were divided into two main groups: cavalry and infantry.[b] The cavalry was commonly known as the Kapikulu Sipahi (The Cavalry of the Servants of the Porte) and the infantry as the Yeni Çeri (transliterated in English as Janissary), meaning "the New Corps".

At first, the soldiers serving in these corps were selected from the slaves captured during war. However, a new system commonly known as devshirme was soon adopted. In this system children of the rural Christian populations of the Balkans were conscripted before adolescence and were brought up as Muslims. Upon reaching adolescence, these children were enrolled in one of the four imperial institutions: the palace, the scribes, the Muslim clergy, and the military. Those enrolled in the military would become either part of the Janissary corps, or part of another corps.[26] The most promising were sent to the palace school (Enderûn Mektebi), where they were destined for a career within the palace itself and could attain the highest office of state, Grand Vizier, the Sultan's powerful chief minister and military deputy.

An early Greek source mentioning devshirme (paidomazoma) is a speech by Archbishop Isidore of Thessalonica, made on 28 February 1395, titled: "On the abduction of children according to sultan's order and on the Future Judgment". The speech includes references to the violent Islamization of children and their hard training in the use of dogs and falcons.[27]

A reference to devishirme is made in a poem composed c. 1550 in Greek by Ioannes Axayiolis, who appeals to Emperor Charles V of Germany to liberate the Christians from the Turks. The text is in the Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1624. In another account, the Roman Catholic bishop of Chios in 1646 writes to the director of the Catholic Greek Gymnasion of Rome asking the latter to accept Paulos Omeros, a 12 year old boy from Chios, to save him from the devishirme.[28]

The life of the devshirme

The ideal age of a recruit was between 8 and 10 years of age,[29] recruitment of boys younger than 8 was forbidden. Those were called şirhor (nursling) and beççe (child).[clarification needed][30] The devshirme system was at times locally resented[13] and was resisted.[14] There were even Christian rebellions initiated specifically against the Devshirme in Albania and Epirus in 1565.[14] Many sources (including Paolo Giovio) mentioned attempts of Christian parents to avoid the devshirme: trying to bribe the officers, marry the boys at the age of 12, mutilate the boy or both the father and son convert to Islam.[31][32] On the other hand, as the devshirme could reach powerful positions, Christian parents in Bosnia were known to bribe scouts to take their children.[33] "The children were taken from their families and transported to Istanbul. Upon their arrival, they were force-converted to Islam, examined, and trained to serve the empire. This system produced infantry corps soldiers as well as civilian administrators and high-ranked military officials."[34] Their village, district and province, parentage, date of birth, and physical appearance was recorded.

Although the influence of Turkic nobility continued in the Ottoman court until Mehmet II (see Çandarlı Halil), the Ottoman ruling class slowly came to be ruled exclusively by the devshirme, creating a separate social class.[35] This class of rulers was chosen from the brightest of devshirme and hand-picked to serve in the palace institution, known as the Enderun.[36] They had to accompany the Sultan on campaigns, but exceptional service would be rewarded by assignments outside the palace.[37] Those chosen for the scribe institution, known as Kalemiye were also granted prestigious positions. The religious institution, İlmiye, was where all orthodox Muslim clergy of the Ottoman Empire were educated and sent to provinces or served in the capital.[38]

Tavernier noted in 1678 that the Janissaries looked more like a religious order than a military corps.[39][page needed] The members of the organization were not banned from marriage, as Tavernier further noted, but it was very uncommon for them. He goes on to write that their numbers had increased to a hundred thousand, but this was because of a degeneration of regulations and many of these were in fact "fake" Janissaries, posing as such for tax exemptions and other social privileges. He notes that the actual number of janissaries was in fact much lower (Shaw writes that their number was 30,000 under Suleiman the Magnificent[40]). By the 1650s the number of janissaries had increased to 50,000, although by this time the devşirme had largely been abandoned as a method of recruitment.[41] Recruits were sometimes gained through voluntary accessions, as some parents were eager to have their children enroll in the Janissary service that ensured them a successful career and comfort.[42][failed verification] The Balkan peasantry tried to evade the tribute collectors, with many attempting to substitute their children in Bosnia,[43] but there are cases Albanian families offering their children voluntarily as it offered them prospects not available to them in any other manner.[44] Conversion to Islam was used in Bosnia and Herzegovina to escape the system. Some Muslim families tried to have the recruiters take their sons so they could achieve professional advancement.[45]

Some Christian families were undeniably heartbroken to have their children taken from them,[46] in Epirus, a traditional folk song expressed that resentment, cursing the Sultan and admonishing against the kidnapping of boys:[47]

Be damned, O Emperor, be thrice damned
For the evil you have done and the evil you do.
You catch and shackle the old and the archpriests
In order to take the children as Janissaries.
Their parents weep and their sisters and brothers too And I cry until it pains me;
As long as I live I shall cry,
For last year it was my son and this year my brother.

—  Anonymous song protesting the collecting of young boys to be made slaves of the Ottoman Empire., [48]

Albertus Bobovius wrote in 1686 that diseases were common among the devshirme and strict discipline was enforced.[49]

The BBC notes the following regarding the devshirme system: "Although members of the devshirme class were technically slaves, they were of great importance to the Sultan because they owed him their absolute loyalty and became vital to his power. This status enabled some of the 'slaves' to become both powerful and wealthy."[50]

According to Cleveland, the devshirme system offered "limitless opportunities to the young men who became a part of it."[51] Basilike Papoulia wrote that "...the devishirme was the 'forcible removal', in the form of a tribute, of children of the Christian subjects from their ethnic, religious and cultural environment and their transportation into the Turkish-Islamic environment with the aim of employing them in the service of the Palace, the army, and the state, whereby they were on the one hand to serve the Sultan as slaves and freedmen and on the other to form the ruling class of the State."[52] Accordingly, Papoulia agrees with Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb and Harold Bowen, authors of Islamic Society and the West, that the devshirme was a penalization imposed on the Balkan peoples since their ancestors resisted the Ottoman invasion.[53] Vladimir Minorsky states, "The most striking manifestation of this fact is the unprecedented system of devshirme, i.e. the periodic conscription of 'tribute boys', by which the children of Christians were wrung from their families, churches, and communities to be molded into Ottoman praetorians owing their allegiance to the Sultan and the official faith of Islam."[54] This system as explained by Çandarlı Kara Halil Hayreddin Pasha, founder of the Janissaries, "The conquered are slaves of the conquerors, to whom their goods, their women, and their children belong as lawful possession".[55]

Status under Islamic law

According to scholars, the practice of devishirme was a clear violation of sharia or Islamic law.[19][7][15][56][57][58] David Nicolle writes that since the boys were "effectively enslaved" under the devshirme system, this was a violation of the dhimmi protections guaranteed under Islamic law to People of the Book.[20] The practice of devshirme also involved forced conversions to Islam.[15] This is disputed by Turkish historian Halil İnalcık, who argues that the devshirme were not slaves once converted to Islam.[21][c]

Some scholars point out that the early Ottoman empire did not care about the details of sharia and thus did not see any problems with devshirme.[59] During this time, the Ottomans believed that the Qanun, the law enacted by the Sultan, superseded sharia, even though the latter was treated with respect.[60] The devshirme was just one example where the Sultan's wishes superseded the sharia (another example is that Ottoman sultans set maximum interest rates, even though sharia totally prohibits all interest).[60] James L. Gelvin explains that Ottoman jurists were able to get around this injunction with an extraordinarily creative legal manoeuvre, arguing that although Islamic tradition forbade the enslavement of Christians, Balkan Christians were different because they had converted to Christianity after the advent of Islam.[5] William Gervase Clarence-Smith points out that this reasoning is not accepted in the Hanafi school of law, which the Ottoman Empire claimed to have practiced.[61]

Contemporary Ottoman chroniclers had mixed opinions on the practice. Ottoman historian of the 1500s, Mustafa Âlî, admitted that devshirme violated sharia, but was only allowed out of necessity.[61] Others argued the Muslim conqueror had the right to one-fifth of war booty and could thus take the Christian boys;[62] however, Islamic law allows no such booty from communities that had submitted peacefully to conquest and certainly not from their descendants.[61]

Ethnicity of the devshirme, and exemptions

The devshirme were collected once every four or five years from rural provinces in Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe and Anatolia. They were mainly collected from Christian subjects, with a few exceptions. However, some Muslim families managed to smuggle their sons in anyway.[18] The devshirme levy was not applied to the major cities of the empire, and children of local craftsmen in rural towns were also exempt, as it was considered that conscripting them would harm the economy.[63]

According to Bernard Lewis, the Janissaries were mainly recruited from the "Slavic and Albanian populations of the Balkans".[64] According to the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Encyclopaedia of Islam, in the early days of the empire all Christians were enrolled indiscriminately. Later, those from Albania, Bosnia, and Bulgaria were preferred.[65] What is certain is that devshirme were primarily recruited from Christians living in the Balkans, particularly Serbs and Bosnians.[66][67][68][69] from Bosnia region, Albanians and Greeks. Well known examples of Ottomans who had been recruited as devshirme include Skanderbeg, Sinan Pasha and Sokollu Mehmed Pasha. The early Ottoman emphasis on recruiting Greeks, Albanians, Bulgarians, and south Slavs was a direct consequence of being centred on territories, in northwestern Anatolia and the southern Balkans, where these ethnic groups were prevalent.[70]

Jews were exempt from this service. Armenians are also believed to have been exempt from the levy by many scholars,[71][72] although a 1997 publication that examined Armenian colophons from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and foreign travelers of the time concluded that Armenians were not exempt.[73][74] Boys who were orphans or who were their family's only son were exempt.[29]

Unifying factor

The diversity of the devshirme also served as a unifying factor for the Ottoman Empire. Greeks, Armenians,[clarification needed] Albanians, and other ethnicities may see that the Sultan is Turkish, but his viziers were Greek, Bulgarian, Armenian, and other ethnicities. This ethnic diversity in high-level and powerful positions of the Ottoman Empire helped to unite the diverse groups under their jurisdiction. They also prevented a hereditary aristocracy from forming, but held sway over the sultan themselves, practically forming their own aristocracy.[75][page needed][76][page needed]

Devshirme in the Ottoman Palace School

Enderûn pyramid

The primary objective of the Palace School was to train the ablest children for leadership positions, either as military leaders or as high administrators to serve the Devlet.[77] Although there are many resemblances between Enderûn and other palace schools of the previous civilizations, such as those of the Abbasids, and Seljuks[78][page needed] or the contemporary European palace schools, Enderûn was unique with respect to the background of the student body and its meritocratic system. In the strict draft phase, students were taken forcefully from the Christian population of the Empire and were converted to Islam; Jews and Gypsies were exempted from Devshirme, and so were all Muslims.

Those entrusted to find these children were scouts, who were specially trained agents, throughout the Empire's European lands. Scouts were recruiting youngsters according to their talent and ability with school subjects, in addition to their personality, character, and physical perfection. The Enderûn candidates were not supposed to be orphans, or the only child in their family (to ensure the candidates had strong family values); they must not have already learned to speak Turkish or a craft/trade. The ideal age of a recruit was between 10 and 20 years of age.[79][page needed] Mehmed Refik Beg mentioned that youth with a bodily defect, no matter how slight, was never admitted into palace service,[80][page needed] since Turks believed that a strong soul and a good mind could be found only in a perfect body.[81]

The selected children were dressed in red, so that they could not easily escape on their way to Constantinople. The cost of the devshirme service and their clothes were paid by their villages or communities. The boys were gathered into cohorts of a hundred or more to walk to Constantinople where they were circumcised and divided between the palace schools and the military training. Anyone not chosen for the palace spent years being toughened by hard labor on Anatolian farms until they were old enough for the military.[82]

The brightest youths who fit into the general guidelines and had a strong primary education were then given to selected Muslim families across Anatolia to complete the enculturation process.[83][80][81] They would later attend schools across Anatolia to complete their training for six to seven years in order to qualify as ordinary military officers.[84] They would get the highest salaries amongst the administrators of the empire, and very well respected in public.[85] M. Armağan,[86] defined the system as a pyramid which was designed to select the elite of the elite, the ablest and most physically perfect. Only a very few would reach the Palace School.


According to historian Cemal Kafadar, one of the main reasons for the decline of the devshirme system was that the size of the Janissary corps had to be expanded in order to compensate for the decline in the importance of the sipahi cavalry forces, which itself was a result of changes in early modern warfare (such as the introduction of firearms and increased importance of infantry).[87] Indeed, the Janissary corps would soon become the empire's largest single military corps.[87] As a result, by the late sixteenth century, the devshirme system was increasingly being abandoned for less rigid recruitment methods that allowed Muslims to enter directly into the Janissary corps.[87]

In 1632 the Janissaries attempted an unsuccessful coup against Murad IV, who then imposed a loyalty oath on them. In 1638[88] or 1648 the devshirme-based recruiting system of the Janissary corps formally came to an end.[89] In an order sent in multiple copies to authorities throughout the European provinces in 1666 a devshirme recruitment target of between 300 and 320 was set for an area covering the whole of the central and western Balkans.[90] On the accession of sultan Suleiman II in 1687 only 130 Janissary inductees were graduated to the Janissary ranks.[91] The system was finally abolished in the early part of Ahmet III's reign (1703–1730).[92]

After Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 there was a reform movement in Sultan Selim III's regime, to reduce the numbers of the askeri class, who were the first class citizens or military class (also called janissaries). Selim was taken prisoner and murdered by the Janissaries. The successor to the sultan, Mahmud II was patient but remembered the results of the uprising in 1807. In 1826 he created the basis of a new, modern army, the Asakir-i Mansure-i Muhammediye,[93] which caused a revolt among the Janissaries. The authorities kept the Janissaries[which?] in their barracks and slaughtered thousands of them.[94] This development entered the Ottoman history annals as the Auspicious Incident.

See also