History, Ottoman State and Society
Military Institution, Janissaries, subject class, sultans, Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire reached its peak during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, and the social, administrative, and governmental institutions that had been evolving since the 14th century were formalized in a series of codes that remained the basis of Ottoman law until the end of the empire. As revealed in these codes, the society was divided into a ruling class of Ottomans and a subject class of rayas, or the sultan’s “protected flock.”
The basic attribute of the ruler’s authority was the right to exploit the wealth of the empire. The sultan divided this wealth into administrative and financial units and assigned them to his agents, along with the authority to collect the accruing revenues. These agents were considered “slaves” of the sultan, but because slaves in Middle Eastern society acquired the social status of their master, they actually constituted the ruling class of Ottoman society. Their authority, however, was limited to functions involved with exploiting the empire’s wealth and with expanding and defending the state organized to accomplish this. To carry out these functions, the ruling class organized itself into four basic “institutions”: the Imperial Institution, including the Inner, or Palace, Service, which cared for the sultans, and the Outer Service, which made sure that the system worked; the Military Institution, which kept order through various military corps, of which the most important were the Janissaries and the cavalry; the Scribal Institution, which supported the sultan and his ruling class by assessing and collecting taxes that exploited the wealth of the empire; and the Religious, or Cultural, Institution, which gave religious leadership to the sultan’s Muslim subjects and was in charge of education and justice. The ruling class was made up of two rival elements: (1) Muslim Turks, Arabs, and Iranians, who together constituted the Turkish aristocracy that dominated the Ottoman system during the 14th and 15th centuries, and (2) Christian prisoners and slaves, recruited, converted, and educated through the famous devshirme system. Beginning in the mid-16th century, the latter group took over and dominated the ruling class.
All other social functions were left to the subject class to carry out as they wished, primarily through religiously oriented communities called millets, and through economic and social guilds. The Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Gregorian, and Muslim millets, later joined by Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Bulgarian Orthodox millets, were allowed religious and cultural autonomy.
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