Thursday, October 5, 2023

What Was Paidomazoma (Devshirme) and Who Were the Janissaries?

By Marios Novakopoulos, Internationalist

Paidomazoma, or the mass kidnapping of children. This word resonates to this day as one of the most painful memories of the Turkish occupation, which both as a human tragedy and as a tool of biological oppression haunts the conscience of the Greeks.

Paidomazoma, Devshirme in Turkish, is the compulsory recruitment of the children of the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire, to staff the army and administration of the sultan. The most famous body that absorbed the victims of paidomazoma was the famous Janissary guard.

The system of paidomazoma was introduced around 1430 by Sultan Murat I, but individual conscriptions had started since the time of Sultan Bayezid in 1395. But why did the Ottomans implement such a policy? The answer lies in the deepest needs of Sultanate politics.

At the expense of Romania (the Roman Empire) and other Christian powers to whom the Ottomans owe their conquests, at the beginning of their existence they fought hard against the other Turkish emirates of Asia Minor. To secure his throne, the sultan needed a strong fighting force, but one that would have no interest and loyalty elsewhere and above all would not be connected to the other Turkish clans and noble houses. By recruiting Christians, who of course converted to Islam and were brought up in the sultan's court to be fanatically loyal, the Ottomans solved this problem.

Depending on the period, paidomazoma was carried out at regular intervals or whenever there was a need. Accordingly, there were large differences in the ages of the children. In the popular imagination there is the image of the child that the Turks take from his mother's arms, only to forget her and then return as an enemy and a slaughterer. In fact the Ottomans usually recruited teenagers, between 15 and 20 years old. There were various rules that restricted paidomazoma, excluding only families with one son, orphans, married people – that's why the Romans tried to marry off their children at a very young age. Craftsman families and residents of large cities were also excluded. Even these terms, however, were often violated by the Ottoman authorities.

Recruited youths had different fortunes, depending on their circumstances or capabilities. Some were sold as slaves to Turkish farmers. Those who were physically stronger joined the Janissaries, while those who were inclined towards letters staffed the bureaucracy of Constantinople. The Islamized Janissaries followed the doctrine of the Bektashi Order, which differed significantly from traditional Sunni Islam and included the veneration of Christian saints.

Paidomazoma was manifested more in the Balkans and with the main victims being the Orthodox population. Armenians were also rarely recruited, while Jews were excluded.

The forced conscription of their children was one of the greatest worries of the Christians, who did everything they could to avoid it, for example by bribing the Ottoman officials. Our folk tradition has recorded heartbreaking laments and tragic stories of paidomazoma, as well as violent resistance to its implementation. It was the uprising of Naoussa in 1705 that forced the Sublime Gate to abolish this institution. But there were cases of very poor families who gave their children voluntarily, or young people who sought their fortune by joining the Ottoman army. As we have already said, many young men were recruited as teenagers, they retained the memory of their families, with the result that some of them helped them or took them with them to the City, when they had already established themselves in the Janissary corps or in the Sultan's palace. So ironically, we have Muslims constantly complaining about their children being excluded from the process, while the Bosnian Christian aristocracy converted to Islam only on the condition that their children could serve in the palaces. At the end of the 17th century the Turks succeeded in being accepted into the Janissaries, and shortly afterwards the recruitment of Christians stopped.

Janissaries were the spearhead of the Ottoman power, giving the empire glorious victories and great conquests. After all, they were the unit that was finally able to breach the walls of the Queen City on May 29, 1453. They were excellently equipped, fanatical and disciplined, among the best warriors of the time. However, with the cessation of conscription and the introduction of Turks into their ranks, the garrison began to decline. The office became hereditary, while the numerical increase undermined the character of the Janissaries as an elite unit. Instead of defending the sultan, they began to raise and lower their own, as the Praetorians did in ancient Rome. On the other hand the Janissaries evolved into a parasitic body of highly paid drones who refused to fight while the empire declined. They were also a reactionary element in any attempt at reform and modernization, which the Ottoman state so badly needed.

The Janissaries were almost absent from the Greek Revolution, resting in their barracks. Depressed Sultan Mahmut II decided to get rid of them. In 1826 the Janissaries rebelled against the establishment of a regular army. But the sultan trapped them in the streets of Constantinople, surrounded them with artillery and slaughtered them. In a bloodbath, the Ottoman Empire wiped out its once great pride, ending a legendary military corps with very, very dark roots.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

Additional note:

In the synaxarion of the Holy New Martyr Akylina of Zagliveri, the following is mentioned:

When her father converted to Islam, she and her mother wore black and mourned him as if he were dead.

Historical accounts of paidomazoma refer to the habit of the unfortunate parents who lost their sons to hold funerals and memorial services for their children, because after their conversion to Islam they were viewed as lost from Christ, it was as if they died and were lost forever. However, by holding a funeral quickly before their conversion, they hoped the children would be viewed as having died as baptized Christians and remembered as Christians.

For Orthodox Christians, to lose Christ is worse than death.