Rereading Janissary Rebellions

posted by Ayşenur Çenesiz August 6, 2018 0 comments

I want to share some important points grabbed my attention from Mehmet Mert Sunar’s PhD dissertation called “Cauldron of dissent: A study of Janissary Corps: 1807-1826”. I’ll specifically go into one of the chapters of it: “Janissaries and the 19th Century Istanbul Rebellions”. In this chapter, Sunar takes 3 different incidents, namely, the Kabakçı Incident of 1807, the Alemdar Incident of 1808 and the last Janissary uprising of 1826. The reason why I find this study important is that Sunar not only gives the characteristics of mentioned rebellions but also reveals the deficiencies of the Ottoman histography. His criticisms towards them enable us to question the mostly accepted truths.

Sunar pays high attention to the continuity of elitist approach from Republican to contemporary Ottoman historians towards these rebellions. They both have tended to label all the incidents as “janissary uprising”, although even the meaning of “janissary” wasn’t constant throughout the Ottoman history. This is a dangerous generalization trap. In the 19th century, janissaries had already lost their military characteristics and started to be integrated more in civil life. They were influential members of guilds, labor groups, transportation and construction sectors, etc. Sunar argues that what have led us to have such superficial interpretations on Istanbul rebellions are these misconceptions. Moreover, degrading all incidents into a simple intra-struggle between reformists and conservatives causes the conscious ignorance of the individual participants’ roles. The reason why these participants have been ignored in most of the works is defended with their irrationality and political incapability.

On the contrary, Sunar argues that Janissaries and their allies were pragmatic and rational enough, when they decided to revolt against the central authority. As a social fact, interests of the Janissaries and the urban crowd were overlapped, thus, they had a strong relationship. They deliberately decided to protect themselves and their interests when they felt insecure about their well-beings. Furthermore, their following some certain rules during these rebellions to gain legitimacy proves their rationality. They tried to maintain discipline and security in civil and commercial life as they promised to the public before the rebellion. They were not acting like maddened mobs.

What I find the most interesting in Sunar’s work is his giving importance on demands and motives of different actors in these rebellions. By doing that, he opens new windows for us to look at them with different perspectives. I strongly advise his work for those who want to investigate the nature of these rebellions and the identities of cross-section participants of them.

Featured Image: Harvard University