Illustration of the registration of Christian boys for the devşirme. Ottoman miniature painting, 1558.[1])

Devshirme[a] (Ottoman Turkish: دوشيرمه, devşirme, literally "lifting" or "collecting"), also known as the blood tax or tribute in blood, was chiefly the practice whereby the Ottoman Empire sent military officers to take boys, ages 8 to 18, from their families in order that they be raised to serve the state.[2] This tax of sons was imposed only on the Christian subjects of the empire, in the villages of the Balkans and Anatolia.[3]

The boys were then forcibly converted to Islam[4] with the primary objective of selecting and training the ablest children and teenagers for the military or civil service of the empire, notably into the Janissaries.[5]

Started in the mid 1300s by Murad I as a means to counteract the growing power of the Turkish nobility, the practice itself violated Islamic law.[6]

By 1648, the practice was slowly drawing to an end. An attempt to re-institute it in 1703 was resisted by its Ottoman members who coveted its 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.[7] The origin of the kuls was 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 kapıkulları as his personal troops, independent of the regular army."[8] The elite forces, which served the Ottoman Sultan directly, were divided into two main groups: cavalry and infantry.[b] The cavalry was commonly known as the Kapıkulu Süvari (The Cavalry of the Servants of the Porte) and the infantry were the popular 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, the 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 Religious and the Military. Those enrolled in the Military would become either part of the Janissary corps, or part of any other corps.[9] The brightest were sent to the Palace institution (Enderun), and were destined for a career within the palace itself where the most able could aspire to attain the very highest office of state, that of Grand Vizier, the Sultan's immensely powerful chief minister and military deputy.

The life of the devshirme

The ideal age of a recruit was between 8 and 10 years of age,[10] recruitment of boys younger than 8 was forbidden. Those were called şirhor(nursling) and beççe(child).[11] The devshirme system was at times locally resented[12] and was resisted, even to the point of disfiguring their sons.[13][14] On the other hand, as the devshirme were recruited to rise up to the grand vizier status (the second most powerful man in the empire), Christian parents in Bosnia were known to bribe scouts to take their children.[15] "The children were taken from their families and transported to Istanbul. Upon their arrival, they were 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."[16]

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.[17] This class of rulers was chosen from the brightest of devshirme and hand-picked to serve in the Palace institution, known as the Enderun.[18] They had to accompany the Sultan on campaigns, but exceptional service would be rewarded by assignments outside the palace.[19] 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.[20]

Tavernier noted in 1678 that the Janissaries looked more like a religious order than a military corps.[21] 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[22]). 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.[23] Recruits were sometimes gained through voluntary accessions, as some parents were often eager to have their children enroll in the Janissary service that ensured them a successful career and comfort.[24]

Albertus Bobovius wrote in 1686 that diseases were common among the devshirme and strict discipline was enforced.[25]

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."[26] Yet this system was clearly illegal according to Islamic law, sharia.[27] Halil İnalcık writes that the devshirme were not actually considered to be slaves.[28]

According to Cleveland, the devshirme system offered "limitless opportunities to the young men who became a part of it."[29] Basilike Papoulia wrote that "...the devsirme 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."[30] 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.[31] 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."[32] 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".[33]

Ethnicity of the devshirme, and exemptions

The devshirme were collected once every four or five years from rural provinces in Balkans, and with a few exceptions, only from non-Muslims. 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.[34]

According to Bernard Lewis, the Janissaries were mainly recruited from the "Slavic and Albanian populations of the Balkans".[35] According to the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Encyclopaedia of Islam, in the early days of the empire all Christians were enrolled indiscriminately. Later, those from Albania, Greece, Bosnia, and Bulgaria were preferred.[36] What is certain is that devshirme were primarily recruited from Christians living in the Balkans, particularly Albanians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Slavs. However, Bosnian Muslims were also recruited and sent directly to serve in the Palace (rather than the military), under groups called "potor".[34][37] 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.[38]

Jews were exempt from this service and until recently Armenians were thought to have also been exempt.[39][40] However, Armenian manuscript colophons from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and foreign travelers of the time indicate that Armenians were not spared from the devshirme.[41][42] Only sons of the families and parentless boys were exempt.[43]

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.[44] Although there are many resemblances between Enderûn and other palace schools of the previous civilizations, such as those of the Abbasids, and Seljuks [45] 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 (although some Christian millets, such as the Armenians, have been traditionally thought to be exempted from it) and were converted to Islam; Jews and Gypsies were exempted from Devshirme, and so were all Muslims, except those coming from Bosnia, who were incorporated into it in groups called potur, in Bosnian.

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.[46] Mehmed Refik Beg mentioned that youth with a bodily defect, no matter how slight, was never admitted into palace service (as cited in: [47]), since Turks believed that a strong soul and a good mind could be found only in a perfect body.[48]

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.[49]

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.[50][51][52] They would later attend schools across Anatolia to complete their training for six to seven years in order to qualify as ordinary military officers.[53] They would get the highest salaries amongst the administrators of the empire, and very well respected in public.[54] M. Armağan,[55] 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.


The devshirme system declined in the 16th and 17th centuries due to a number of factors, including the inclusion of free Muslims in the system. After 1568 the "boy harvest" was only occasionally made. In 1632 the Janissaries attempted an unsuccessful coup against Murad IV, who then imposed a loyalty oath on them. In 1638[56] or 1648 the devshirme-based recruiting system of the Janissary corps formally came to an end.[57] 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.[58] On the accession of sultan Suleiman II in 1687 only 130 Janissary inductees were graduated to the Janissary ranks.[59] The system was finally abolished in the early part of Ahmet III's reign (1703–1730).[60]

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,[61] which caused a revolt among the Janissaries. The authorities kept them all in their barracks and slaughtered thousands of them.[62] This development entered the Ottoman history annals as the Auspicious Incident.

See also


  1. ^ Known simply as "collecting" (devshirme) Ottoman دوشيرمه. In other languages, it is known as: Greek: παιδομάζωμα/Paedomazoma - collection of children; Armenian: Մանկահավաք/Mankahavak′ - child-gathering; Romanian: tribut de sânge; Bosnian and Croatian: Danak u krvi, Serbian: Данак у крви/Danak u krvi, Macedonian: Данок во крв/Danok vo krv, Bulgarian: Кръвен данък/Kraven Danak - blood tax
  2. ^ More classifications, such as the artillery and cannon corps, miners and moat diggers and even a separate cannon-wagon corps were introduced later on, but the number of people in these groups were relatively small, and they incorporated Christian elements.


  1. Nasuh, Matrakci (1588). "Janissary Recruitment in the Balkans". Süleymanname, Topkapi Sarai Museum, Ms Hazine 1517.
  2. Pollard, Elizabeth (2015). Worlds Together Worlds Apart. W.W. Norton & Company. p. 395. ISBN 978-0-393-92207-3.
  3. Perry Anderson (1979). Lineages of the Absolutist State. Verso. pp. 366–. ISBN 978-0-86091-710-6.
  4. The New Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. Cyril Glassé, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 129.
  5. Basgoz, I. & Wilson, H. E. (1989), The educational tradition of the Ottoman Empire and the development of the Turkish educational system of the republican era. Turkish Review 3(16), 15.
  6. Alexander Mikaberidze (22 July 2011). Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia [2 volumes]: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 273–. ISBN 978-1-59884-337-8. This effectively enslaved some of the sultan's own non-Islamic subjects and was therefore illegal under Islamic law, which stipulated that conquered non-Muslims should be demilitarized and protected
  7. Halil Inalcik, "Ottoman Civilisation", p138, Ankara 2004.
  8. Shaw 1976, p. 27.
  9. Shaw 1976, pp. 112–129.
  10. Taskin, U. (2008). "Klasik donem Osmanli egitim kurumlari – Ottoman educational foundations in classical terms" (PDF). Journal of International Social Research. 1 (3): 343–366.
  11. Ortaylı, İlber (2016). Türklerin Tarihi 2. Timaş Yayınları. p. 71. ISBN 978-605-08-2221-2.
  12.; "...and point out that many Christian families were hostile and resentful about it—which is perhaps underlined by the use of force to impose the system.".
  13. Yannaras, Christos, Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic self-identity in the modern age, (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006), 112.
  14. S. Trifkovic. The Sword of the Prophet: Islam; History, Theology, Impact on the World. p. 97
  15. Malcolm, Noel (1996). Bosnia: A Short History. London: Papermac. p. 46. ISBN 0-333-66215-6.
  16. A History of the modern middle east Cleveland and Buntin p.42
  17. Zürcher, Erik (1999). Arming the State. United States of America: LB Tauris and Co Ltd. p. 5. ISBN 1-86064-404-X.
  18. Shaw 1976, pp. 115–117.
  19. Shaw 1976, p. 117.
  20. Shaw 1976, pp. 132–139.
  21. Tavernier. Nouvelle Relation de L'ınterieur du Serrial du Grand Seigneur. 1678, Amsterdam.
  22. Shaw 1976, p. 121.
  23. Ágoston, Gábor (2014). "Firearms and Military Adaptation: The Ottomans and the European Military Revolution, 1450–1800". Journal of World History. 25: 118.
    • Kunt, Metin İ. (1983). The Sultan's Servants: The Transformation of Ottoman Provincial Government, 1550-1650. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 76. ISBN 0-231-05578-1.
  24. The preaching of Islam: a history of the propagation of the Muslim faith By Sir Thomas Walker Arnold, pg. 130
  25. Nicolas Brenner. Serai Enderun; das ist inwendige beschaffenheit der türkischen Kayserl, residentz, zu Constantinopoli die newe burgk genannt sampt der ordnung und gebrauschen so von Alberto Bobivio Leopolitano. J. J. Kürner. 1667. Search under Bobovio, Bobovius or Ali Ulvi for other translations. French version exists, and fragments exist in C.G. and A.W. Fisher's "Topkapi Sarayi in the Mid-17th Century: Bobovi's Description" in 1985.
    • Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, ed. Alexander Mikaberidze, 273;"This effectively enslaved some of the sultan's own non-Islamic subjects and was therefore illegal under Islamic law, which stipulated that conquered non-Muslims should be demilitarized and protected."
      *The Rise of the Ottomans, I. Metin Kunt, The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 6, C.1300-c.1415, 860.
  27. Halil Inalcik, "Ottoman Civilisation", p. 138, Ankara 2004.
  28. Cleveland, William L. "A History of the Modern Middle East. 3rd Edition." p. 46
  29. Some Notes on the Devsirme, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1966, V.L.Menage, (Cambridge University Press, 1966), 64.
  30. Some Notes on the Devsirme, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1966, V.L.Menage, (Cambridge University Press, 1966), 70.
  31. Shaykh Bali-Efendi on the Safavids, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1/3, 1957, V. Minorsky, (Cambridge University Press, 1957), p. 437.
  32. Lybyer, Albert Howe, The Government of the Ottoman empire in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, (Harvard University Press, 1913), 63-64.
  33. 1 2 Shaw 1976, p. 114.
  34. Lewis, Bernard (1992). Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. Oxford University Press. p. 65.
  35. Encyclopædia Britannica. Eleventh Edition, vol. 15 and Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden Grill, 1967-97), vol. 4, art. 'Devshirme'. p 151.
  36. Zdenko Zlatar (2007). The Poetics of Slavdom: The Mythopoeic Foundations of Yugoslavia. 2. Peter Lang.
  37. Andrina Stiles, 'The Ottoman Empire: 1450-1700' (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), pp. 66-73.
  38. Shaw 1976, p. 114: Shaw states that the reason for this exemption may have been the recognition of both People as a separate Nation (none of the Balkan ethnic groups were recognized as such) or that both Jews and Armenians lived mostly in the major cities anyway.
  39. Albertus Bobovius, who was enslaved by Crimean Tatars and sold into the palace in the 17th century, reports that both Armenians and Jews were exempt from the devshirme levy. He writes that the reason for this exemption of Armenians is religious: That Armenian Gregorian church was considered the closest to Christ's (and therefore Muhammed's) teachings.
  40. Kouymjian, Dickran (1997). "Armenia from the Fall of the Cilician Kingdom (1375) to the Forced Migration under Shah Abbas (1604)" in The Armenian People From Ancient to Modern Times, Volume II: Foreign Dominion to Statehood: The Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth Century. Richard Hovannisian (ed.) New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 12-14. ISBN 1-4039-6422-X.
  41. (Armenian) Zulalyan, Manvel. "«Դեվշիրմեն» (մանկահավաքը) օսմանյան կայսրության մեջ ըստ թուրքական և հայկական աղբյուրների," [The "Devshirme" (Child-Gathering) in the Ottoman Empire According to Turkish and Armenian Sources] Patma-Banasirakan Handes 5-6/2-3 (1959): pp. 247-256.
  42. Taskin, U. (2008). "Klasik donem Osmanli egitim kurumlari – Ottoman educational foundations in classical terms" (PDF). Journal of International Social Research. 1 (3): 343–366.
  43. Basgoz, I. & Wilson, H. E. (1989). The educational tradition of the Ottoman Empire and the development of the Turkish educational system of the republican era. Turkish Review 3(16), 15.
  44. Van Duinkerken, W. (1998). Educational reform in the tanzimat era (1839–1876): Secular reforms in tanzimat (Unpublished masters thesis, McGiIl University). Retrieved from =0&dvs=1248070802480~852
  45. Taskin, U. (2008). Klasik donem Osmanli egitim kurumlari - Ottoman educational foundations in classical terms. Uluslararasi Sosyal Arastirmalar Dergisi - The Journal of International Social Research 1, 343–366.
  46. Miller, B. (1973). The palace school of Muhammad the Conqueror (Reprint ed.). NY: Arno Press.
  47. Ipsirli, M. (1995). Enderûn. In Diyanet Islam ansiklopedisi (Vol. XI, pp. 185–187). Istanbul, Turkey: Turkiye Diyanet Vakfi.
  48. Devshirme is a Contested Practice Katheryn Hain (2012), Historia: the Alpha Rho Papers, vol. 2, p. 167, 168.
  49. Horniker, A. N. (1944). The Corps of the Janizaries. Military Affairs 8(3), 177–04.
  50. Miller, B. (1973). The palace school of Muhammad the Conqueror (Reprint ed.). NY: Arno Press.
  51. Ipsirli, M. (1995). Enderun. In Diyanet Islam ansiklopedisi (Vol. XI, pp. 185–187). Istanbul, Turkey: Turkiye Diyanet Vakfi.
  52. Ilgurel, M. (1988). Acemi Oglani. In Diyanet Islam ansiklopedisi (Vol. I, pp. 324–25). Istanbul, Turkey: Turkiye Diyanet Vakfi.
  53. Akarsu, F. (n.d.) “Enderun: Ustun yetenekliler icin saray okulu”. Retrieved from
  54. Armağan, Mustafa (2006). Osmanlı’da ustün yetenekliler fabrikası: Enderun Mektebi. Yeni Dünya Dergisi 10, 32.
  55. Hubbard, Glenn and Tim Kane. (2013). Balance: The Economics of Great Powers From Ancient Rome to Modern America . Simon & Schuster. P. 152. ISBN 978-1-4767-0025-0
  56. Zürcher, Erik (1999). Arming the State. London and New York: LB Tauris and Co Ltd. p. 80. ISBN 1-86064-404-X.
  57. Murphey 2006, pp. 44-45.
  58. Murphey 2006, p. 46.
  59. Murphey 2006, p. 223.
  60. Kinross, pp. 456–457.
  61. Hubbard, Glenn and Tim Kane. (2013). Balance: The Economics of Great Powers From Ancient Rome to Modern America. Simon & Schuster. P. 153. ISBN 978-1-4767-0025-0


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