Object Biography: The Yataghan

The Ottoman military was one of the finest militaries of its era. It fought against a wide range of foes, from the Safavids to the Hapsburgs to the countless battles against armies in the Balkans. What contributed to the Ottoman military’s success was due to a combination of factors.  The first factor was the military’s mastery of weaponry, not only of swords and lances but also of guns and gunpowder which gave the Ottoman Empire the title of a Gunpowder Empire.  Secondly, the Ottoman Empire was very well organized, both in terms bureaucratic funding for the military as well as establishing and maintaining various specialized military units. Thirdly, the Ottoman Empire was a diverse area and that diversity strengthened its military’s infrastructure. Metropolitan cities like Istanbul were centers of trade, ideas, and commerce that enabled the empire to absorb different elements into its military. The Ottoman Empire was not adverse to change and in fact, went through a series of reforms throughout its lifetime. The yataghan is just one of the many weapons that Ottoman soldiers used, but it symbolizes the golden age of the Ottoman military, before the empire began to divide and weaken. Like the Ottoman Empire, the yataghan is strong and durable even after countless battles.

The yataghan is a short sword used by Ottoman troops starting in the fifteenth century.[1] It is believed that this type of sword was acquired during Ottoman conquests of the eastern Balkans.[2] Yataghans had straight steel blades with eared hilts normally made of horn or walrus ivory and was worn at the waist.[3] Many yataghans had calligraphy on the blades, with verses of the Qur’an written in gold or silver in order to protect the sword wielder.[4] Yataghans blades also had the sword owner’s name inscribed, along with the sword maker, the date the sword was made, and more rarely, where the sword was made.[5] Decorative yataghans had silver hilts with brass or silver scabbards; however most yataghan scabbards were made of leather.[6]  As well as its practical use as a weapon, the yataghan was also used in Balkan folklore.[7] In Bosnia and Serbia, cloth and weapons that had the symbol of the yataghan were used to protect soldiers from evil spells and spirits.[8] The yataghan was even used to protect the dead from becoming vampires.[9]  In the sixteenth century, yataghans were notorious for being the Ottoman army’s weapon of choice for the decapitation of enemies.[10] Besides being wielded by Ottoman troops, yataghans were also used by sipahis.[11]

Cavalrymen, also known as the sipahi, collected taxes for the state from their timar, or land holdings, and in return, they were allowed to collect a certain amount of revenue to maintain their personal army supplies.[12] Most of them came from the Balkans and between the fifteenth and sixteenth century, they numbered around “40,000”.[13] They normally served during April to October and returned back to their lands in the winter.[14] If a cavalryman performed well in battle, he could win the rights to gain more tax revenue.[15] Pages could become siphais but most commonly the right was passed from father to son, even though hereditary rights were not officially allowed by the Ottoman government.[16]  The sipahi could also gain new land through conquering new territories.[17] Along with the timar, there was also the zeamet and hass levels of land, which were larger estates granted to viziers and included several cavalrymen under the landowner’s command.[18] These larger estates would then belong back to the state once the landowner died.[19] Siphais could also serve on imperial councils in the government.[20] They wielded a great amount of power due to their experience in the military but that also made them a threat to other government leaders, many of whom purged the military rank of the siphais in power.[21] The Ottoman viziers had power over the siphais, as they not only recruited them, but also were responsible for stripping them of their rank if they stepped out of line.[22] A vizier could easily manipulate the siphais to do his bidding in a game of power, whether it involved the government bureaucracy or the military.[23] With the threat of losing their status, the siphais had no choice but to obey the viziers.[24]

During the early 1500s, the timar system of collecting taxes soon gave way to tax farming as a way of centralizing the government and increasing the efficiency of tax collection.[25] The power of the sipahis started to erode due to the economic change as well as the military one.[26] The Ottoman cavalry had unrivaled skills with bows and arrows, swords, and lances.[27] However during the sixteenth century, military units with guns and artillery had eclipsed the cavalry, as it became increasingly more obsolete.[28] Guns also violated the sipahis’ codes of ethics, as they viewed guns as cowardly and filthy due to the gunpowder.[29] In addition, the timar system could not support the rising cost of modern weaponry.[30]

Replacing the sipahis in terms of military importance were the janissaries. The janissaries were an elite infantry unit in the Ottoman military and were obtained as boys through the devsirme system.[31] In the devsirme system, young Christian boys from the Balkans would be collected as a levy and be taken to the capital, Istanbul, where they would convert to Islam.[32] They would then train for several years in schools to become bureaucrats and janissaries.[33] Because of their elite nature, the number of janissaries was small, about “12,000”, compared to the rest of the Ottoman armed forces.[34] Dervishes, wandering Muslim holy men, often tagged alongside janissary units as moral and religious support.[35] Unlike the sipahis, the janissaries embraced the use of guns.[36] In the sixteenth century, the majority of the janissaries had matchlock guns, which were heavier and longer compared to the European guns of the time.[37]  They excelled using bows, crossbows, muskets, and mortars.[38] Janissaries were also given allowances along with their salaries.[39] These allowances would go towards clothing, bread and meat during military campaigns.[40] Janissaries were also assigned to keep the peace within Ottoman cities.[41] Janissary commanders were in charge of their unit’s actions within the city, as well as disciplining troops if they broke any laws.[42] By the 1700s however, the janissaries too declined as their training and discipline deteriorated due to the end of the devsirme system, the dramatic increase of the janissary corps and the decline in wages.[43] The rank of the janissaries became hereditary and Muslims in the empire could now become janissaries, a right that was previously allowed only to Christian boys from the Balkans.[44]

Both janissaries and sipahis could volunteer for dangerous military missions with extremely high death rates in return for a permanent increase of their wage or promotion into a higher rank.[45] The reason why the Ottoman military offered such missions to janissaries and sipahis was because they had the skills and expertise to achieve a higher success in completing the missions.[46]  Temporary, reserve, or former members of the cavalry and janissaries could also participate in dangerous mission assignments.[47]  They were not only motivated by the potential for a wage increase, but also for securing their jobs for the future.[48]

Besides the cavalry and the janissaries, there were other units and soldiers that made up the Ottoman army. There were the azaps, the marines who supported the janissaries by defending fortresses and supply animals.[49] Azaps also had the task of providing cover to troops with their bows and arrows until the troops had prepared themselves.[50] There were the topcus, the artillery division, who specialized in gunning cannons during sieges.[51]  The yayas were ordinary farmers who enlisted as soldiers to gain tax breaks.[52]  There were also sappers and miners, whose jobs included maintaining, making, and using bombs and mortars.[53] Beldars would be in charge of digging trenches to provide cover for troops and a path to cities’ walls.[54]

A mobile unit of Ottoman raiders, known as the akincis, would be sent ahead of the army to strike fear into enemies and destroy communications.[55] They would also be used for scouting and reconnaissance as well as being used as guerilla fighters in difficult terrain.[56] When the akincis were broken up in 1595, their duties were filled by delils, who were Muslim converts from the Balkans.[57] They were known as “crazy” warriors who wore animal skins and served as a light cavalry for the Ottoman military.[58]  News on the battlefield was transmitted by the peyk, who brought information to the sultan as well as carried the sultan’s orders back to military officers.[59]

Ottoman vassals also provided military aid, in particular the Tartars from the Crimea.[60] They were excellent bows and horse men as well as being skilled infantrymen.[61] They would also be used as scouts during the Ottoman’s campaigns into Europe.[62] Using several horses, Tartar scouts would go ahead of the main army and communicate back on the position of enemy’s troops, along with information about the terrain ahead.[63]  Despite their skills however, Tartar military men were not always loyal as they gave their loyalty to their Han rather than the sultan.[64] Whenever the Tartars under Ottoman service were beginning to act rebellious, Ottoman officials would replace the current Han to a more Ottoman-friendly leader instead.[65]  Although Ottoman peasants were traditionally not allowed to own fire arms, by the sixteenth century, the Ottoman military allowed gun-owning peasants to serve as sharpshooters.[66] These peasant troops were called “overnight soldiers” and were hired for a limited amount of time; however because of their low wages, they soon were used to replace janissaries that were out of military service.[67] The Ottoman Navy was also an impressive power. The navy was primarily used defensively to protect the coast of the empire as well as carry military troops and to be used offensively with the use of canons.[68] Along with marine janissaries, North African marines were also recruited in the navy and favored crossbows.[69] In the eighteenth century, Greeks made up the majority of the Ottoman navy.[70]

All members of the military were supplied with armor, helmets, and weapons.[71] They were fed by the government, who would buy food from local farms and in turn, the purchases would help the local economy.[72] The government would also obtain grain through grain taxes for future military campaigns.[73] The army itself was well-fed with a daily diet of meat and bread.[74] Before battles, there would be celebrations in order to lift the spirits of the troops for the fights ahead.[75] Stories about past Ottoman soldiers’ bravery would be told in camps to encourage troops to follow their examples.[76]  During battles, battle cries and the playing of war drums boosted the troops’ confidence.[77] Despite the preparations and care, casualties for soldiers were high in major battles, due to battle injuries, disease, and exposure to the elements.[78] Soldiers who were wounded in battle and cavalrymen who lost horses were monetarily compensated. [79]                            While there was a trade of materials, goods, and weaponry to and from the Ottoman Empire, the majority of military equipment was produced within the empire itself.[80] Those who worked on creating Ottoman weaponry reflected the diversity of the empire; they were Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Marranos.[81]

The earliest known use of guns in battle by the Ottomans was in 1422 at the battle of Constantinople under Murad II.[82] However it was not until the 1453 battle of Constantinople under Mehmed II that truly illustrated the Ottoman military’s mastery over guns, cannons, and gunpowder.[83]  For two months Constantinople’s walls were attacked by large cannons, which led to the walls eventually weakening, leaving it open for the final push that lead to an Ottoman victory.[84] Despite the use of guns and canons however, they had a limited range of fire and were affected by events such as weather and gunpowder supply.[85] Guns at that time were also slow to reload and had poor accuracy.[86]  Guns were often used to provide cover for other troops as they invaded an area.[87] Until the 1700s, guns had to be used alongside swords and other hand-to-hand weapons in order to ensure military victory.[88]

The main battle tactic of the Ottoman army was to lure enemy armies away from their bases and then launch a surprise attack.[89] This tactic worked especially well against European troops, as they eventually tired their horses due to their heavy armor and left them venerable to attack.[90] Heavy artillery was also a specialty of the Ottoman army, with large siege cannons used to destroy fortress walls.[91] A typical Ottoman military campaign would begin in mid-spring and last until mid-autumn.[92] Although the journey to a destination may take several months, the military tried to limit their stay within enemy lines, especially when fall approached.[93] Autumn brought rain, which could impede supply carts and cause river levels to rise.[94]

During the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire realized that it had to reform in order to modernize its military.[95] A few men from outside the Ottoman realm such as Claude Alexandre Comete de Bonneval, the Baron de Tott, as well as Gazi Hasan Pasa were brought in to teach in military academies and to help modernize the military.[96] French engineers and weapon experts were brought in to fortify citadels, translate French books, and create engineering schools.[97] There were efforts to maximize the army’s strength by ensuring that sipahis and janissaries did come to the army’s aid when summoned and that they attended training.[98] Those who did not were swiftly dismissed from army service.[99]  The firing of a large amount of janissaries allowed the increase of overall salary in order to motivate the remaining units.[100]

New reforms were again implemented during Sultan Selim III’s reign in the late 1700s.[101] In his set of reforms, Selim separated the muddled mess of administrative government and army command, assigning separate commanders in each in order to prioritize their duties.[102] Once again, any soldiers or officers who were not efficient were dismissed.[103] To discourage bribery, promotions became based on seniority rather than personal ability and wages were increased.[104] To fill the void of fired soldiers, the practice of replacing them with apprentice soldiers was created.[105] Timars would no longer be given to non-fighting men and sipahis would rotate their duties so they could both be used in war and still be able to take care of their land.[106] Janissaries were given European guns as well as given extra training on how to use them.[107]However due to the influence of both the sipahis and the janissaries, the reforms that involved them were ignored and their units went unchanged.[108] Due to the stubborn refusal of the sipahis and the janissaries to reform, Sultan Selim III created the “New Order”, a new infantry unit.[109]  They were trained by European teachers, dressed in European uniforms, used European weapons, and were funded by a treasury that was separated from the central one.[110] The soldiers who made up the unit were peasant boys from Turkey and later on the “New Order” became an effective fighting force within the empire.[111]

Another successful reform from Sultan Selim III was the establishment of technical and navy schools in the empire.[112] In these technical schools, students were taught European-style sciences such as mathematics and engineering, as well as military sciences.[113] Most of the graduates went on to become officers in the artillery units and the “New Order”.[114] Navy schools followed the same trajectory of modernization.[115] The navy itself reformed in an effort to rival its European counterparts; modern ships were bought and older ones were refitted to the same standard, the navy became more centralized and disciplined, wages were increased, and promotions became ability based rather than based on seniority.[116]  Old rivalries for power in the navy were diffused by the establishment of a navy superintendent and treasurer.[117] The last and one of the most crucial reforms to the navy was the establishment of navy medical schools and service.[118] Students trained with European textbooks and medical equipment and supplemented their training by practicing in Istanbul’s main hospital.[119]

The various reforms that the Ottoman Empire had gone through had strengthened its military, as well as exposing stubborn elements that refused to change. It illustrated the struggles that the government had to overcome in order to create a more modern military that could compete with Europe. Even though the Ottoman Empire eventually crumbled, replaced by a dozen nation states in the twentieth century, it has its place in history as one of the world’s greatest empires. This was due in large part by its extensive and awe-inspiring military that once made the empire’s neighbors tremble at the very name of the Ottomans. The Ottomans will be forever remembered as one of the greatest military forces the world had ever seen.

Bibliography

  1. Agoston, Gabor. Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  2. Devries, Kelly. Guns and Men in Medieval Europe, 1200-1500. Aldershot, Great Britain: Variorum Collected Studies Series, 2002.
  3. Elgood, Robert. The Arms of Greece and Her Balkan Neighbors in the Ottoman Period. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2009.
  4. Goodwin, Godfrey. The Janissaries. London: Saqi Books, 1994.
  5. Murphey, Rhoads. Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
  6. Nicolle, David. Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774. London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1983.
  7. Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  8. Shaw, Stanford. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Volume I: Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

[1] Robert Elgood, The Arms of Greece and Her Balkan Neighbors in the Ottoman Period, (New York: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2009), 138.

[2]  Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 148.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 144, 146, 148.

[7] Ibid., 141.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 147.

[11] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London:  Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 37.

[12] Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 28.

[13] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London:  Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 11.

[14] Rhoads Murphey, Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 37.

[15] Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 28.

[16] Godfrey Goodwin, The Janissaries, (London: Saqi Books, 1994), 65.

[17] Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 29.

[18] Godfrey Goodwin, The Janissaries, (London: Saqi Books, 1994), 65.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rhoads Murphey, Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 165.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 29.

[26] Ibid., 30.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Godfrey Goodwin, The Janissaries, (London: Saqi Books, 1994), 66.

[30] Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 30.

[31] Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 30-31.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 31.

[34] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London:  Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 11.

[35] Ibid., 38.

[36] Godfrey Goodwin, The Janissaries, (London: Saqi Books, 1994), 69.

[37] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 10-11.

[38] Godfrey Goodwin, The Janissaries, (London: Saqi Books, 1994), 69.

[39] Rhoads Murphey, Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 85.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Stanford Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Volume I: Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 160.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 45.

[44] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 11.

[45] Rhoads Murphey, Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 163-164.

[46] Ibid., 164.

[47] Ibid., 163-164.

[48] Ibid., 164- 165.

[49] Godfrey Goodwin, The Janissaries, (London: Saqi Books, 1994), 67.

[50] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 17.

[51] Godfrey Goodwin, The Janissaries, (London: Saqi Books, 1994), 68.

[52] Ibid., 67.

[53] Ibid., 68.

[54] Rhoads Murphey, Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 116-117.

[55] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 14.

[56] Ibid., 14.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Robert Elgood, The Arms of Greece and Her Balkan Neighbors in the Ottoman Period, (New York: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2009), 155.

[59] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 37.

[60] Ibid., 16.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Rhoads Murphey, Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 67.

[63] Ibid., 68.

[64] Ibid., 32.

[65] Ibid.

[66] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 17.

[67] Rhoads Murphey, Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 46.

[68] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 24.

[69] Ibid., 36.

[70] Robert Elgood, The Arms of Greece and Her Balkan Neighbors in the Ottoman Period, (New York: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2009), 150.

[71] Godfrey Goodwin, The Janissaries, (London: Saqi Books, 1994), 77.

[72] Rhoads Murphey, Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 86.

[73] Ibid., 99.

[74] Ibid., 88-89.

[75] Ibid., 152.

[76] Ibid., 157.

[77] Ibid., 156.

[78] Ibid., 130.

[79] Ibid., 161.

[80] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 22.

[81] Gabor Agoston, Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 44-45.

[82] Kelly Devries, Guns and Men in Medieval Europe, 1200-1500, (Aldershot, Great Britain: Variorum Collected Studies Series, 2002), 354.

[83]  Ibid.

[84] Ibid., 361-362.

[85] Rhoads Murphey, Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 14-15.

[86] Ibid., 121.

[87] Ibid., 121.

[88] Ibid., 14.

[89] Godfrey Goodwin, The Janissaries, (London: Saqi Books, 1994), 77.

[90] Ibid., 78.

[91] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 19.

[92] Rhoads Murphey, Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 69.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Ibid.

[95] David Nicolle, Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774, (London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1983), 21.

[96] Ibid.

[97] Kelly Devries, Guns and Men in Medieval Europe, 1200-1500, (Aldershot, Great Britain: Variorum Collected Studies Series, 2002), 257.

[98] Ibid.

[99] Ibid.

[100] Ibid.

[101] Ibid., 260.

[102] Ibid., 261.

[103] Ibid.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Ibid.

[106] Ibid.

[107]Ibid.

[108] Kelly Devries, Guns and Men in Medieval Europe, 1200-1500, (Aldershot, Great Britain: Variorum Collected Studies Series, 2002), 262.

[109] Ibid.

[110] Ibid.

[111] Ibid.

[112] Ibid., 263.

[113] Ibid.

[114] Ibid.

[115] Ibid.

[116] Ibid.

[117] Ibid., 264.

[118] Ibid.

[119] Ibid.

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