When the Ottomans expanded into the Balkans they started to run out of the manpower needed to manage their expanding empire, keep order and conquer new lands. As a result they implemented a tax system in the 1380s that was levied on non-Muslim families within the new territories. This tax, called devširme, required between 2.5% and 10% of boys aged seven to 14 (not usually the first born) to be taken for education and training to run the Ottoman Empire. The boys were encouraged to convert to the Islam faith and could be enrolled in either a civilian or a military capacity. For many non-Muslim families this tax was understandably extremely unpopular, and certainly did not help to ingratiate the new rulers with their new subjects, no matter what other ‘freedoms’, donations and perks may have been given in return. But as time went on, non-Muslim families found that the devširme was also a means of advancement within the Ottoman system, and soon selection criteria were attached to the devširme in order to keep down the number of applicants.
On the military side these boys went into the elite troops of the janissary (literally ‘new troops’ from the Turkish yeni čeri). Their training was harsh; once in the janissary it was forever; and they were forbidden to marry. But these elite troops soon realised their own importance and in 1449 they rebelled, demanding higher pay, pensions and other rights. It took another century before, in 1566, they won the right to marry. By the middle of the 17th century the demand to enter the janissary, particularly from Albanian, Bosnian and Bulgarian families, was so high that the devširme could be abolished.
Although these troops were formed, supposedly as a more loyal section of the army, in order to serve as the sultan’s personal household troops and bodyguards, they proved in the end to be no more loyal than the rest of the Ottoman army, which was also made up of conscripted soldiers and tribal warriors. By the 18th century the janissary practically held the sultan hostage against his own imperial affairs and even his daily household. The Bekteši order of dervishes, the appointed priests of the janissary, supported them in their efforts.
The empire was already beginning to shrink due to the ineffectiveness of combat troops and many of the janissary weren’t even serving soldiers. By 1826 the janissaries were so out of control that Sultan Mahmoud II finally abolished them, after several years of wresting back power from them and creating a totally new army. Their end, in a bloody revolt of the old ‘new troops’ against the new ‘new army’, was a sign of things to come over the next century: the demise of the Ottoman Empire.