Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Ottoman Turkish practice of Devshirme

Devshirme ~ Click to enlarge.
A particularly nefarious and brutal practice of the Ottoman Turks was known as Devshirme, or "Blood Tax". Devshirme involved the collection of male children from Christian families for service in the Ottoman army and court. In the early days of the empire, the collection took place only in newly conquered territories. As time went on, the practice was expanded throughout the empire, and was executed with particular ferocity in majority Christian regions such as the Balkan peninsula.

The targets of Devshirme were boys between the ages of 10 and 14. These would be forcibly taken from their homes to be circumcised and trained in Istanbul. Conversion to Islam was coerced, and some were made into eunuchs. Most became slave-soldiers in the Janissary corps, elite troops under the direct command of the Sultan. They were expected to forget everything about their previous lives and do the Sultan's bidding, even when it included the conquest and destruction of his Christian enemies.

What is most mystifying in our time is the willingness of some Western scholars to excuse the Devshirme system, or to approach the subject by making it morally equivalent with some of the most infamous practices of Christian princes. Worse, some have attempted to portray this forcible enslavement and gradual genocide as a legitimate and even benevolent means to advancement within the empire because some few of the captives were able to work their way into high positions within the Ottoman government. Personally, I do not understand this attitude. The Devshirme system was a barbaric atrocity that should be universally condemned without qualm or second thought.

To understand the impact of the Devshirme system on the subject Christian populations, here are a few excerpts from primary sources. First, we have a passage from a 1395 AD sermon of Isidore Glabas, bishop of Thessalonika. He offers a vivid description of the blood tribute which had been imposed on his city after its 1387 conquest by the Turks. This passage is taken from an article by Prof. Speros Vryonis Jr. entitled, Isidore Glabas and the Turkish Devshirme (1956):
"What would a man not suffer were he to see a child, whom he had begotten and raised…carried off by the hands of foreigners, suddenly and by force, and forced to change over to alien customs, and to become a vessel of barbaric garb, speech, and piety and other contaminations, all in a moment? … Shall he lament his son because a free child becomes a slave, because being nobly born he is forced to adopt barbaric customs? Because he who is rendered so mild by motherly and fatherly hands is about to be filled with barbaric cruelty? Because he who attended matins in the churches and frequented the sacred teachers is now, alas, taught to pass the night in murdering his own people, and in other such things?"
Here is another passage about the Devshirme during the time of Suleiman the Magnificent (Sultan from AD 1520-1566) from Bartholomew Georgiewitz, a 16th century Hungarian adventurer who spent 13 years as a Turkish slave. This passage is taken from The Development of Spiritual Life in Bosnia under the Influence of Turkish Rule (1990) by Ivo Andric:
"Apart from the other tax burdens which the Christians had to bear under Turkish rule, from time to time their handsomest offspring were seized from them. Separating the children from their parents, the Turks would instruct them in the martial arts. These children, abducted by force, never returned to their parents. Alienated from the Christian religion, little by little they forgot faith, parents, brothers and sisters, and all their blood relatives, so that when they later encountered their parents they no longer even recognized them.

I can find no right words to picture the pain and sorrow, the weeping and wailing of these parents when their children are torn from their bosoms and out of their grasp by those fiends. To parents who had just barely begun to instruct their children in Christian teaching, the hardest thought was that the evildoers would soon succeed in seducing them away from the religion of their forebears and in turning them into dreadful enemies of the Christian religion and Christian people.”

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