Friday 1 May 2020

Early 16th Century Janissaries?

So here are the Janissaries, iconic infantry of the Ottoman army. I don't intend to discuss the Janissaries history or organisation in great detail here but instead have a look at how they may have appeared in the early 1500s. They have so many notable features, from their dress to their recruitment. Originally they were prisoners of war converted to Islam and then the "devshirme", a levy on christian boys in the Balkans, became the primary source of manpower for them in the 15th and 16th centuries. This post will have a look at some of the earliest images of Janissaries. I am attempting to build an Ottoman force for the first half of the 16th century that can oppose my Italian wars collection in conflicts such as the Ottoman-Venetian War of 1499-1503 and the Siege of Vienna in 1529. Janissaries on campaign in this period are what I have tried to show here with the 28mm figures that are currently available.

There is an abundance of information on the Janissaries or "Yeniçeri" literally meaning new troops or soldiers. I've read a couple of books solely on Janissaries, yet I have still struggled to find out exactly how they dressed in battle in the early 1500s. One of the stumbling blocks seems to be that the Janissaries were an organised military unit for such a long period of time. Probably emerging in the late 14th century they were still in existance in the early 1800s. This relatively long life span means that later images and traditions of the corps tend to sometimes overshadow the earlier history and make it harder to decipher how they would have looked.

An Ottoman Anthology Manuscript of 1480. Two Janissaries can be seen in the distinctive "ak börk" hats.

Gentile Bellini's image of a Janissary c.1480.  This is probably a "Solak", one of the Sultans guard as he wears a tall "üsküf" hat.

Hunting Scene,  from a Persian poem, showing another tall "üsküf" Janissary hat, c.1498.

Firstly did they even wear their distinctive white hats in battle at all? Most Janissaries wore the "ak börk" or "bork", the distinctive white hat that folds over the neck while the Sultan's bodyguard, the Solaks, and higher ranking Janissary officers wore the tall pointed hat, which seems to be known as an "üsküf". The above three images show Janissaries in these styles of hat in the 15th century. In the first from 1480 two Janissaries can be seen in the "ak börk" while in the second two images the "üsküf" is clearly identifiable. In all of these images the Janissaries are appearing in more guard or domestic roles so while the headgear is evident it does not necessarily mean it was worn in battle.

The depiction of the naval battle of Zonchio from the turn of the fifteenth century clearly shows Janissaries in combat wearing the "ak börk" or an early form of it.  Below are some details from the image that show this. While the Janissaries in the French image from 1513 appear to be dressed for the parade ground the last two near contemporary images show Janissaries on campaign in their distinctive headgear. How accurate they are is hard to say. There is always the possibility that helmets were worn below the headgear. It is interesting that in the Süleymannâme image from the mid 16th century the Knights of Rhodes are depicted in Ottoman style helmets, a good example of how difficult it can be to trust these sources. As it is an Ottoman image the Janissaries are likely to be depicted more accurately than the Knights of Rhodes.

While Janissaries in later centuries may have worn turbans in combat you could tentatively argue that from these sources it does look like the famous hats were worn in battle earlier on, possibly with helmets underneath at times. Ian Heath in his "Armies of the Middle Ages, volume 2", which has lots of useful information on the Ottomans and early sources for how they looked, suggests that Turks wore red caps with their turbans while non Turkish troops or the Sultan's personal troops wore white. What confuses me with this is that I've also read that the "Silhatars", the Sultan's personal cavalry, wore a red "ak börk"! This would go against what Heath writes unless of course the red "ak börk" came at a later date. While delving into the Janissaries early history there a quite a few confusing things like this.

Detail from the Battle of Zonchio of 1499. A Janissary can be seen in green, wearing his "ak börk" in battle. 

Another detail from the Zonchio image of c.1499. Janissaries can be seen in green and red in the attacking boats.

Janissaries in Persia 1513, from a French manuscript. They appear to be in parade dress.

Detail from a 1532 wall painting of the Siege of Constantinople in Moldovita Monastery, Romania. A group of what appear to be Janissaries can be seen with polearms and distinctive headgear. 
The Süleymannâme - mid 16th century, showing Janissaries at the siege of Rhodes in 1522. In this slightly later 16th century image the Sultan's guards can clearly be seen with different style hats in the bottom right. Note that some of the Janissaries on the left carry "turpans" which look very similar to bills. The way the Knights of Rhodes have been depicted at the top of the image is also interesting as they look more like armoured Ottomans than European men at arms of the 1520s.

So how have I tried to depict the Janissaries? Obviously the miniatures available limit this. We will start with the "Zirhli Nefer". The "Zirhli Nefer", or armoured soldiers, were armoured Janissary assault units. They were used into the 16th century. As this Ottoman army will be used for siege games I was keen to include some of these troops. The unit is made of Old Glory figures with the addition of a few Essex miniatures to add some variation. I don't know of any contemporary images of these armoured troops and most of the figure sculpts seem to be based of Ottoman armours that survive from the late 15th and early 16th century.

There have been loads of conversions on these miniatures. The shape of the helmets has been changed on lots of them with green stuff or added plumes, and most have had their weapons replaced with a wide variety of polearms, axes and maces. The Osprey Elite series on Janissaries mentions the assault troops carrying large shields so I have included some of these amongst the unit. I have tried to make them fairly colourful with painted and gilded armour as well as varied shield motifs. While some of them have Islamic designs on their shields others have more western style heraldic designs to reflect the Balkan influence.

The "Zirhli Nefer" wait behind the handgunners and archers.

Ottoman armoured Janissaries, the "Zirhli Nefer".

Ottoman "Zirhli Nefer".

Armoured assault Janissaries. I have used a few western style shield motifs on these to reflect the Balkan influence.

The armoured Janissaries showing some of the armour detail.

The next question to address was how to depict the more regular Janissaries? How to make them look more like they were on campaign and whether to have them uniformed or in a mix of colours? In some ways the lack of conclusive early sources has given me more leeway here. The various "Ortas" or companies of Janissaries were supplied with material for their clothing so it would make sense that they would appear uniformed, something akin to the liveried troops of Western Europe in the 15th and early 16th centuries. I decided to paint up two separate "Ortas" of Janissaries, one in green and one in red, similar to the Janissaries depicted in the Zonchio image and the French illustration from 1513. This way if I decide that I want them less uniformed I can simply mix the bases of figures.

Although possibly being uniformly equipped with clothing the Janissaries were allowed to choose their own personal weapons in this period. The combat units carry a really wide variety of weapons, including many Western European polearms, these being imported by the Ottoman State as well as being captured in their many campaigns in the West. The bill is very much in evidence as the Ottomans used a similar weapon called a turpan, influenced by the Italian bill or roncone. Janissaries are shown using the turpan in the Süleymannâme image above. In some ways the Janissaries have much in common with some of the Italian infantry of this period: As with the "Zirhli Nefer" I have used a wide variety of shields, some of Arabic influence and some more Balkan.

The clothing has been tricky as the "ak börk" hat and the Janissaries robes changed during this period. The "ak börk" definitely looks to have got higher and more pronounced into the 16th century so the figures shown here are probably more accurate for the 1520s and 30s than 1500s. I have used Assault Group and Old Glory figures for the bulk of these troops with a few Essex miniatures added in and a great Warfare Miniatures figure for one of the Janissary officers. The Assault Group figures all had really big plumes, they look to be quite closely modelled on the Janissaries depicted in the 1513 French illustration, shown above. To make these figures look more like they were on campaign the plumes have been removed from all of them apart from the officers. For the Old Glory figures I only left plumes on the standard bearers removing even the plume holders from the other figures. The variations in clothing don't seem to make a huge difference, in fact they help to make them look more like campaign units. For the colouring of the trousers, shoes and belts I have gone with the information provided in the Osprey Elite series on Janissaries, although this may well be for a slightly later period.

Janissary Orta dressed in red.

Janissary archers, handgunners and troops armed with a variety of polearms and hand weapons.

Janissary Handgunners.

As I wanted my Janissaries to be for around 1500 to 1530 I didn't like the idea of them carrying muskets, they are a little anachronistic for the start of the 16th century. I have chosen to include a unit of handgunners or arquebusiers instead. These are a mix of Essex and Assault Group miniatures with Assault Group arquebuses added where necessary as well as some powder horns, match and leather pouches left over from previous Landsknecht projects. To use the army for later 16th century clashes Janissaries with muskets can always be added later.

Janissary Orta dressed in green.

Janissaries armed with close combat weaponry.

Janissaries with polearms, swords and axes.

A couple of command bases have been included with the Janissaries. In the photo below we have a "Beylerbey" or "Commander of Commanders" discussing tactics with a Janissary Officer. The Officer wears a distinctive "üsküf" hat to denote his rank. This miniature is from Warfare Miniatures 17th and 18th century range but he fits in perfectly here. Wafare Miniatures have also produced the flags: Again they are for a later period but they fit in really well with my earlier Ottomans and add a lot of colour to the collection. The Beylerbey is a converted Assault Group miniature. The second command base shows a Janissary bowing to his senior officer. This base is a mix of converted Assault Group figures as well as an Essex and Old Glory miniature. The bowing miniature was clearly in 18th century dress so this has been converted to fit into the earlier period.

A Janissary Officer, note the different headgear from most of the other Janissaries. He advises an Ottoman "Beylerbey" on the troop dispositions. The Janissary Officer is from Warfare Miniatures as are the flags. The Ottoman Commander is a converted Assault Group figure.

The Commander of an Orta of Janissaries in the centre of the picture.

The photos below show the Janissaries en masse. I fear they are probably far from perfect for depicting early 16th century Janissaries but hopefully they look the part and as discussed above it is difficult to find exactly how they looked in the early 1500s. You may notice there is no infamous cooking pot, the" Kazan",  for them yet. Maybe this is something I will add later. The next part of this project involves different challenges, an attempt to show a convincing Ottoman gun battery for the 1500s to 1520s.

The Janissaries!

The whole Janissary force.

The troops from behind.

Early 16th century Janissaries in 28mm.