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Armenians in the Ottoman Army (From the 14th Century till 1918)

Anahit Astoyan, Madenataran; Junior Researcher

Armenians in the Janissary Corps

Subject Christian nations in the Ottoman Empire were viewed as suspect elements and thus weren’t conscripted into the ranks of the army and were not granted the permission to bear arms and most importantly, based on Sharia law, could not serve in the army of the faith given that they were non-believers.

In order to utilize their Christian subjects for military purposes and for the sultans to fulfill their ever-present military ambitions, the Ottoman rulers started to implement the devshirme, a Turkish term meaning gathering, which in this context takes on the meaning of a “boy harvest/collection”. The Sultan authorities would periodically go to the Christian populated-provinces to gather up the most handsome, strongest, healthy an clever young boys and teenagers. After converting them to Islam, they would send the boys to special army detachments called acemi oglan (foreign boy). Here the boys would be taught various military skills and experience and imbued with a degree of religious fanaticism. Thus, they were transformed into masters of the military arts and soldiers ready to enter the ranks of the Janissary Corps, loyal warriors for the Sultan and the Muslim faith.

The Janissary Corps (Turkish: yeni cheri, or new troops) was created in 1361-1363 during the reign of Sultan Murat I and became a major, elite force of the Ottoman army. It was completely comprised of Christians forcibly converted to Islam. At first the ranks of the Janissary were made up of captured enemy soldiers. Christian inhabitants captured by the Ottoman Empire were viewed as war prisoners and were forcibly sold off based on the penj-yek human tax classification, according to which one out of every five prisoners was handed over to the Ottomans to fill the ranks of the army. After consolidating their occupied lands the Christian inhabitants became subjects of the Ottoman Empire and the devshirme could be practiced against them. According to the records of Armenian chroniclers, the “boy harvest” practice began in Western Armenia in 1464. During the three-century history of the devshirme practice, the   periodic collections became more frequent during those periods when the Ottoman Empire was engaged in wars of expansion.

It is not known how large the purely Armenian element was in the Janissary multitudes. Over many generations, the most promising representatives of the Armenian people were removed from their national surroundings and served in the name of the victory of a foreign nation and religion. There were individuals in the Janissary Corps of Armenian origin that were able to attain positions of high rank in the Ottoman military and government due to their bravery and skills.

A notable Janissary of Armenian origin was the 17th century naval commander and Grand Vizier Khalil Pasha, who acts of courage have been glorified in the annals of Ottoman history.   He was appointed Grand Vizier after emerging victorious in a 1609 naval battle. He thwarted the Kazak forays from Sinope and renewed the peace treaty with Poland and Austria. He fought against the Persians and forced Shah Abbas into signing a ceasefire treaty.

Of Armenian origin was the Ottoman commander and political statesman Ermeni Suleyman Pasha (1605-1680). Due to his God-given talents, cleverness and valor, he was able to rise from the ranks of a common soldier and become Grand Vizier and one of the most renowned figures in Ottoman history. Suleyman Pasha wasn’t the first Armenian forcibly converted to Islam nor the last. However, he was perhaps the only one who never hid his national roots and he always used the term Ermeni (Armenian) in his official rank, even while Grand Vizier.

Without doubt one can claim that there were other Armenians besides Khalil Pasha and Suleyman Pasha who were forcibly to Islam and proved themselves worthy on the battlefield but were remembered in the historic annals as being Turks, merely because they served in the Ottoman ranks. The names of these individuals either never reached us or Turkish historians decided it best not to mention their actual national origins. Such is the case of Sinan the Great, the most famous Ottoman architect of the 16th century. For quite a long time, Turkish and other scholars wanted to strip Sinan of his national origins. That glory was finally bestowed on the Armenian nation when a document was published in a Turkish scientific review in 1931 attesting to Sinan’s Armenian extraction. According to the document Sinan served as a combat engineer in a Janissary (Christian-based) detachment. He participated in the 1524 Balkan wars and the 1534 Baghdad campaign. Sinan is famous for his many military construction works, hospitals, bridges, etc. He took Islamic architecture to the height of perfection and has earned a place in the history of world art as one of the greatest architects ever.

Armenian Mercenaries

Despite the fact that non-believers couldn’t serve in the ranks of the “army of the faith”, Ottoman rulers, based on the interests of the state, overlooked such religious norms and included Christians in their military forces. Armenian mercenaries served in both the Ottoman infantry and cavalry. Armenians were employed in military units called salakhoran, to open roadways. They were dispatched at the head of the army and would clear the way for the advancing troops, by felling trees and filling in swamplands. There were entire Armenian units of sappers in the Ottoman army that were considered vital during raids and forays. Many of these units were comprised of Armenians from Gesaria (Kayseri). Armenian soldiers were inn the front ranks of the advancing Ottoman army before laying siege to any town and they were the ones responsible for digging trenches eventually leading to the town gates. Other units were made up of Armenian stonemasons from the villages whose main task was to undermine the stone walls of any fort or castle by digging away at the base.

Armenian mercenaries also served in the Ottoman navy. It was during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid I (1771-1788) that the number of such mercenaries increased when Admiral Cezayirli Hasan Pasha, of Armenian origin, served as Admiral of the navy. 75% of those sailors manning the cannons on Ottoman ships were either Armenian or Greek. Armenians also served as standard-bearers on Ottoman war ships. Hasan Pasha Ghazi was from a poor Armenian family in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the town of Rodosto. His parents were forced to hand over the boy to an Ottoman merchant as a servant. This merchant gave the boy the name of Hasan. He eventually entered into military service with the Ottoman fleet and became famous for the many contributions he made to the navy, including his participation in the siege of the island of Malta. He earned the nickname of ghazi (victor).

Armenian Payments to the Ottoman Army

Over the centuries the material contributions made by the Empire’s Christian Armenian subjects to the strengthening of the Ottoman Army reached sizeable amounts. These amounts were in the form of taxes and other tributes that the Empire’s Muslim subjects did not have to pay. Non-Muslim subjects could avoid military service by paying what is known as a “head” tax. Most of the taxes collected for military proposes were levied against subject peoples in the Empire and especially the Christians. During times of war, Christian subjects were obliged to cover the military expenses of the Empire through the collection of a variety of taxes and other payments. Even during peacetime, the Ottoman authorities collected a variety of taxes from the Christians to maintain their army. Given that the amount of these taxes and other forms of tribute was never clearly defined, the sums to be collected were left to the whim of the local officials. Oftentimes Ottoman soldiers would confiscate the crosses and Bibles from Armenian churches and sell these items to cover military expenses. Armenian villages and settlements were randomly pillaged for the same purpose.

Armenian Craftsmen in the Service of the Army

For many consecutive centuries the numbers of Armenian craftsmen constantly servicing the Ottoman army and navy were great indeed. Armenian arms makers were of the highest quality and forged swords, fashioned gun barrels, repaired damaged arms and provided a host of other services. These arms makers were an integral component of the army and traveled with the troops throughout various military campaigns. Also in the service of the Ottoman army were thousands of saddle-makers, tailors, musicians and other craftsmen.

Armenians and Greeks made up most of the master shipbuilders for the Ottoman military fleet. From the 18th to the 19th century the official blacksmiths for the navy was the Demirjibashian family. In the 18th century Kevork Demirjibashian became the royal fitter for the fleet and the director of the naval arsenal that had been formerly under the management of the Armenian, Mardiros the Craftsman. It was Kevork that designed the contemporary ship anchor that the Europeans adopted as their own.

For one entire century the gunpowder works of the Ottoman Empire was in the hands of the Dadian Family. Known for their inventiveness and skills they managed to transform their gunpowder factory into the best in the country and a state institution to be envied.

Armenian arms makers also forged weapons for the Janissary troops. The weapons makers of Garin (Erzeroum) were regarded in high standing in the capital of Constantinople. The craft of weapons making reached its artistic height in the hands of master craftsman Sarkis Ajemian. He was the official sword maker for Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The works of Sarkis Ajemian are on display at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Benaki Museum in Athens.

Armenian Outfitters for the Army

Armenian merchants were the ones who basically outfitted the Ottoman Army. It was Apraham Chelebi Abroian who outfitted the army during the conquest of Crete in 1646. Manoug Bey Mirzanian (1769-1817) was an advisor to Mustafa Pasha Bayrakdari who was the commander of the Ottoman Army in the Danube.

It was Manoug Bey who was given the responsibility of war provisions and repair services during the 1806-1812 Russo-Turkish War. He was also given the authority to enter into negotiations with the Russians at the war’s end.

It was due to this skillful statesman that the Treaty of Bucharest was signed in 1812, effectively preventing the plans of Napoleon Bonaparte to draw the two sides into prolonged warfare. It was during the Crimean War (1853-1856) that Haji Ohan Yaghjian of Kharpert was given the task of supplying provisions for the Ottoman Army. In 1865, Krikor Shabanian held the post of General Provisions Director for the royal army. During the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War he participated in the deliberations of the committee concerning the overall outfitting of the Ottoman military.

Armenian Military Doctors

Both due to the possibilities granted by the Tanzimat (1839) and due to the shortage of Turkish doctors in the country, Armenian doctors educated in European universities began to serve in the Ottoman Army. Armenian graduates of the Imperial Military Physicians Institute also started to fill the ranks of Armenian military doctors in the Ottoman Army. More than 170 top ranking Armenian military doctors were bestowed with the honorary titles of “Pasha” and “Bey”. Those with the military rank of marshal or general were given the honorarium of “Pasha” while colonels were bestowed with the title of “Bey”.

Armenian military doctors participated in a host of military campaigns and served in a number of military hospitals and contributed greatly in the organizational work of medical services. Many of them also were instructors in the Empire’s military physicians institute. They also make a substantial contribution in the development of the field of medical science. It was due to their efforts that an Imperial Medical Association was formed with an initial membership of some 55 Armenian physicians. The Ottoman Red Crescent Society was formed as a result of the efforts of Gabriel Pasha Sevian, Hagop Bey Tavutian and other Armenian military doctors.

In addition to Armenian military physicians, the number of Armenian pharmacists and veterinarians in various Ottoman military units was also great.

Armenian Officials with Military Rank

A wide field opened for Armenians to serve in the government beginning in the middle of the 19th century. In addition to other state departments, Armenians were employed in positions of responsibility in the Naval and War Ministries. Some of these officials were granted high military ranks during their terms of service. Andon Yaver Pasha Tengrian worked in the translations office at the Sublime Ports and later on in the steam-ship division. He served as the personal secretary to Eomer Pasha, the commander of Ottoman forces during the Crimean War. Andon Pasha went on to become the Head of the Steamship Division, the Director of the Royal Navy and Director of the Foreign Languages Correspondence Office attached to the Ministry of War. In 1875 he became military commander for Rumelia receiving the rank of Beylerbeyi, (Ottoman Turkish for "Bey of Beys", meaning "Commander of Commanders") and was bestowed with the title of Pasha.

Hovsep Pasha Vartanian served in the Ottoman Naval Ministry for 25 years. During the 1853-1856 Crimean War he served as the First Translator attached to the Ottoman Navy and was granted the title of Pasha. Toros Bey Gisak was also an official in the Ottoman military fleet with the rank of colonel.

Garabet Artin Pasha Tavutian and Hovhannes Pasha Kuyumdjian, Armenian governors from Lebanon, held the rank of Marshal. Before assuming the office of governor of Lebanon they held diplomatic posts and didn’t have any military titles. Perhaps it was an important condition for governors of Lebanon to have a military rank especially given the fact that this region was the site of interracial warfare.

Another Armenian serving in the Ottoman Army with the rank of Marshal was Ferdi Pasha Terjimanian, the Chief Pharmacist of the overall Ottoman Army.

The Issue of Armenian Military Conscription

There have been singular exceptions and cases during the history of Armenian-Turkish relations when the ottoman authorities have requested military help from the Armenians. During the Jelali Rebellions, when Deli Hasan attacked Sepastia in 1600, the local governing Pasha was forced to arm the residents of the city, including Armenians, due to a lack of regular army troops.

In 1847 were called to military service when Ottoman forces were battling against rebellious Kurdish chieftains in the eastern provinces.

Having suffered heavy losses in 1877 during the Russo-Turkish War, the Ottoman government felt the need to conscript its Christian subjects into the army and called on their religious patriarchates for assistance. The overwhelming majority of those attending the Armenian National Assembly in Constantinople on December 14, 1877 rejected the government’s plea.

After the 1908 declaration reinstating the Ottoman Constitution, Armenians along with other Christian subjects made demands in the Ottoman Parliament to be conscripted in the army and to be given equal rights in the service of the army. Conservative elements with the Armenian community were against conscription while the young strata were for the idea. According to a law passed in the Ottoman Parliament in 1910 all subject peoples in the Empire were subject to military service. When the declaration for a military draft was published in August and September of 1910 the Armenian youth greeted it with great enthusiasm since it lifted from their shoulders the psychological burden of being a captive, raya (cattle) and subjects.

The military field opened up for the Armenians. Taking advantage of the possibilities, Armenian youth began studying at the Harbiye imperial military academy and quickly proved themselves in various military sectors. Greatly appreciating the orderliness, loyalty and cleanliness of the Armenians, the Turkish officers began substituting their Turkish troops with Armenians. Many of these soldiers quickly rose up in the ranks. Armenian soldiers performed many acts of bravery both during the Ballkan War and the First World War and were praised by top Turkish military officers, thus proving that Armenians weren’t only skilled merchants and craftsmen but courageous soldiers as well.

At the outbreak of World War I some 60,000 Armenians between the ages of 18-45 were conscripted into the Ottoman Army. They joined the ranks of Armenians already in army service. Despite the harsh conditions awaiting them in the army, Armenians were quick to fulfill their duties with such devotion that they saved Enver Pasha from being taken prisoner on the Garin front. Enver in turn sent a message praising and thanking the Armenian troops to Zaven Der-Yeghiaian, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople.

On the other hand, starting from the first days of the war false rumors started to spread regarding Armenian soldiers deserting the army. This was just a pretext for the implementation of the premeditated plan of the Young Turks for the extermination of the Armenians. On February 12, 1915 the disarming of Armenian soldiers began and these troops were soon organized into work battalions. At the same time Armenian officers were being isolated and arrested. What followed was the directive of Enver Pasha, Minister of War, to exterminate all Armenian soldiers in the army. More than 60,000 Armenian soldiers were brutally killed on the rear lines.

Many Armenian military doctors also fell on the battlefield when serving in field hospitals. Many also perished after treating Turkish soldiers who had contracted typhus. Then too, many were slaughtered simply for being Armenian. Also arrested on the evening of April 24, 1915 was the poet and prose write Ruben Sevak who also served as a military doctor with the rank of captain at the Makrigyugh military hospital. He shared the same fate of the other Armenian intellectuals destined to be brutally slaughtered in the interiors of Anatolia.

By thus destroying the fighting potential of the western Armenians the Turkish government set about to implement its predetermined plan to exterminate its Armenian populace.

This is how the Turks repaid the Armenians for their centuries of diligent service in strengthening the Ottoman Army. They also continued to express their “thanks” by erasing Armenians from the Ottoman military history books and by claiming that only Turks and other Muslim peoples shed blood for the Ottoman Empire and that Christians, Armenians included, were able to prosper and develop given that they were exempt from military service. However the irrefutable historical facts show that for centuries on end Armenians, whether serving as soldiers, doctors, craftsmen, suppliers and officials, were a constant presence in the Ottoman Army and significantly contributed to its becoming a major world force.

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