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Re-examination of Selim III’s Modernization Efforts and The Abolition of The Janissaries

Sultan Selim III holding an audience in front of the Gate of Felicity. Courtiers are assembled in a strict protocol. Oil on canvas. Topkap─▒ Saray─▒ M├╝zesi, Istanbul

This article was edited by Zeynep Bedir and Eyl├╝l Nil Ba┼čgezer.

Sultan Selim III holding an audience in front of the Gate of Felicity. Courtiers are assembled in a strict protocol. Oil on canvas. Topkap─▒ Saray─▒ M├╝zesi, Istanbul


The modernization efforts started during the reign of Selim III and Mahmud II. In their eras, reforms and modernization movements caused many social conflicts. Social groups and historical figures such as the Janissaries, Ulema, Kabak├ž─▒ Mustafa, and Alemdar Pasha significantly impacted these conflicts.

Reforms began to be made without internalizing the idea of modernity and modernization processes. Adapting to the reforms implemented from the top without the creation of civil society was not accepted by other interest groups.

The first fundamental reason for these social conflicts was that the Janissaries could not adapt to the reform movements. The other fundamental reasons are that the central authority was weak, and the reforms caused a sharp schism in the cultural sense. With the elimination of the Janissaries by Mahmud II, the foremost authority became more vital, and cultural dilemmas diminished.

The children of the Vicomte d’Andrezel, French ambassador to the Sublime Porte, are presented to the Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha, October 10, 1724

The Emergence of Modernity and Modernization 

Whereas modernity is a condition of social existence that differs significantly from all past forms of human experiences, modernization refers to the transitional process from traditional or primitive communities to modern societies (Shilliam,2010). In the 19th century, sudden changes and transformations took place in the political, social, economic, and cultural fields in Europe. In particular, the Renaissance and Reform movement in Europe in the 16th century caused the religious authorities to weaken, and ancient Greek and Roman culture and philosophy began to be questioned again. Then, with the discovery of the new world, Europe started colonialism, and new trade routes and economic-production dynamics changed.

In the 18th century, thinkers, people, and society rediscovered, and the Age of Enlightenment began. Social movements and new systems of political and social thought emerged under the influence of various thinkers. In 1789, with the French Revolution, the transformation of political organizations and the concept of the nation-state emerged. With the Industrial evolution that began in the 19th century, the economic-production style began to change critically (Giddens, 2015). This entire historical process represented the slow and painful birth of modernity. The Enlightenment philosophy created modernity as a system of thought. Additionally, the French Revolution transformed the social and political sphere, and the Industrial Revolution changed the economic mode of production and relations.  Therefore, modernity has been a process that creates intertwined patterns of change and transformation (Giddens, 2015).

As a result, the multidimensional paradigm shift of modernity in societies refers to modernization. Understanding modernization efforts should cover this perspective. It was a process that took place in Europe and at a global level; it began to affect other societies and cultures. However,  each organization and culture interacted with modernity with their unique diversity, structure, and dynamics. One of these was the Ottoman Empire, which began its modernization process at the end of the 18th century.

Sultan Mustafa IV is in the Eid Throne, Istanbul

Selim III’s Modernization Efforts and Emergence of Schism

The relationship between Islam and modernity did not emerge as a theoretical or identity problem in the Ottoman Empire. In the middle of the 18th century, the Ottomans were well aware that they were beginning to lose the wars they had won, mainly against the Austrians and Russians. For the Ottomans, the questioning of the reason for the defeats was as follows: “Since it is a fact that we have the right religion, why do we lose wars to the infidels?” (Silverstein,2003).

Selim III’s Tughra and Edict (T─░EM, nr. 2334)

 The Sultan and the highest-ranking civil and religious officials and military commanders began to discuss their diplomacy, military power, and technique problems. The issue showed itself as a technical matter involving military, administrative, and economic organization, expertise, and equipment, and also the final strategy was developed in the late 18th century when Selim III began to make reforms in many areas (Silverstein, 2003).

Upon the signing of the Ya┼č Treaty, which ended the war with Russia in 1792, Sultan III  met with 22 statesmen to write a memorandum on the new order to implement in the Ottoman Empire. Among them were the ulema group and the French military adviser. Bringing back the practices applied in the golden age of the Ottoman Empire or the reforms implemented by the European countries should be taken as an example or should have been used at the same time (Hanio─člu, 2008). 

1- Sultan Selim IIIÔÇÖs admission of a European envoy. On the SultanÔÇÖs left Shahzada Mustafa (IV) and Shahzada Mahmud (II) (dÔÇÖOhsson), via (

Selim III also created a state budget based on the monetary economy. However, unfortunately, the cash flow was unstable, causing a cash shortage. On the other hand, he wanted to renew and standardize the Malikane and T─▒mar systems (Hanio─člu, 2008). For this, he established the New Treasure. He mainly focused on the systematic removal of the Timar system. Towards the end of the 18th century, Ottoman foreign policy was no longer an advantage. For this, it has become necessary for foreign policy to establish relations with other countries that will create common interests (Hanio─člu, 2008).

The Sultan created a new administrative law. The law stated that twenty-eight provinces in the empire would be each governed by a vizier. The law also noted that the appointed governors would not be given to people who did not know about the state administration and had only military power. If the local people and the Sultan were satisfied, the mandate of the governors would be extended. Unfortunately, the law remained on paper because the necessary financial and military resources were insufficient to make the law enforceable and auditable. In this case, it caused the abuse of the law. For example, Mehmet Ali of Kavala took advantage of this exploitation opportunity. On the other hand, the French Revolution began to affect the Ottoman Empire, which included many ethnicities, religions, and cultures. In particular, elites in minorities began to create national identities (Hanio─člu, 2008). Therefore, the decentralization policy increased instability in distant provinces.

Selim III  and his modernization efforts in military, political and economic institutions created duality in every field. Ottomans formed a modern, European-style army alongside a conservative Janissary army against the reforms (Hanio─člu, 2008). Reforms created a growing monetary economy with the medieval T─▒mar system. Alongside the Ottoman madrasas, whose curriculum had not changed for centuries, modern academies emerged, boasting libraries full of French-language books (Hanio─člu, 2008).

The social conflict that arose in 1807 to remove the Nizam-─▒ Cedid was actually a clash of two opposing cultures. Based on the dichotomy of the new and the old, this conflict was also the crisis of the Ottoman palace and common culture.  In the late eighteenth century, the state could not control the growing difference between the ayans and the city. Selim III  admitted his lack of discipline to the soldiers coming from Istanbul (Mardin, 1969).  However, for the soldiers from the villages and tribal areas of Anatolia, the lack of discipline was more, and he did not accept them. Many left Istanbul, formed new bandit gangs, and began disturbing both notables and governors in Western Anatolia and the Balkans (Mardin, 1969). Under the leadership of Kabak├ž─▒ Mustafa, yamaks and Janissaries abolished the army of Nizam-i Cedid and then dethroned Selim III.

There was a certain inevitability in the conflict between the great culture of the military and the minor culture of kinship. The phenomenon of ‘cultural isolation’ also contributed to the conflict (Mardin, 1969). This phenomenon is a feature of the type of social structure which is segmental coining by Durkheim. He meant that ‘each local unit tends to be similar to the others and functionally complete in itself’ (Mardin, 1969).

The Rise of Alemdar Pasha

The new Sultan Mustafa IV (1807-08) was against Selim III’s reform movements. After he became the sultan, he wanted to return to the old policies. But the new sultan and his anti-reform allies found that the new sultan extended the imperial ruling power only to the capital and a few peripheral areas. Outside of this small area, their ruling power was weak in conscription or taxation (Hanio─člu, 2008).

Meanwhile, the prominent reformers who remained during the reign of Selim III fled to Rumelia to seek refuge in Ruse, under the aegis of the rising Alemdar Mustafa A─ča, and started to establish close relations with the notables in the Balkan provinces (Hanio─člu, 2008).

Alemdar Mustafa gained many opportunities during the political chaos in the capital and  Rumelia. The Serbian region’s fragmentation of lands and political instability made Alemdar Mustafa the greatest military power in Rumelia (Hanio─člu, 2008). However, the alliance with Ismail of Serez, who controlled a large area between the Danube and the capital, also increased Alemdar Mustafa’s political and regional power. The sultan and the defenders of the conservative order feared that Alemdar Mustafa would join the scattered imperial army and take control of the capital with his forces on his return from the Danube front (Hanio─člu, 2008).

In 1808, Alemdar Mustafa Pasha came to Edirne with the Ruse militia army. Grand Vizier Celebi Mustafa Pasha and his army were also there. Grand Vizier Celebi Mustafa Pasha was summoned to the capital due to the Kabak├ž─▒ Mustafa Revolt. Along with his shattered troops, he joined Alemdar (Hanio─člu, 2008). Then, the two troops marched to Istanbul together. On the way, a local Rumelian notable, acting on the instructions of Alemdar Mustafa,  executed the Janissary leaders responsible for the dethronement of Selim III. Alemdar Pasha sent a cavalry unit of 300 people for Kabak├ž─▒ Mustafa, who was hiding in Rumelihisar. Kabak├ž─▒ Mustafa did not escape without care; he was killed there (Hanio─člu, 2008).

Alemdar Pasha came to the Sublime Port and asked the Ulema for support for Selim III to ascend the throne again. At that time, those in the palace killed Selim III (Hanio─člu, 2008). They began to search for Mahmud II in the palace. Various agas and women in the court managed to hide Mahmud II., then Alemdar Pasha came to the palace and enthroned Mahmud II, and also he obtained the title of the Grand Vizier (Hanio─člu, 2008).

The Concept of Notables

Alemdar Pasha wanted the deed of agreement with the notables outside the capital to increase the sultan’s influence in the Empire and included collective solidarity against the Janissary revolts because the notables had become very rich and powerful in various regions outside the capital, which weakened the central authority. Mahmud II did not approach this agreement positively, but he still had it temporarily accepted. Unfortunately, many of the influential notables, such as Kavalal─▒ Mehmet Ali Pasha, did not sign the document.

Although the rise of Alemdar Pasha seems positive for the unfinished reforms, his killing of Kabak├ž─▒ Mustafa and enthroning of Mahmud II also show a chronic problem in the Ottoman Empire. This problem was increasing the ruling and military power of notables, especially ayans.

His Highness Muhemed Ali, Pacha of Egypt 1841 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Bequeathed by the Earl of Effingham 1927

In the cities of the outer Muslim regions of the Ottoman Empire, the political actions were carried out by the notables. The notables could also dominate the rural hinterland along with the cities. They had intermediary roles between the central Ottoman power and the regions. The notables were set to three (Hourani, 1980). The first is the ulema, which legalizes the administration’s political, military, economic, and social actions and has an institutional structure for all Muslims in the empire. The second is that they are local garrison leaders. They were independent of the local governor. The third is that ayans and aghas were the local region’s prominent economic, political, and military power (Hourani,1980). The term was conceptualized in a highly symbolic way, as the meaning, functions, and power of ayans were constantly changing during the 18th and 19th centuries (Karpat,1972). The term Ayan or E┼čraf refers to this class. However, it refers to the groups that emerged at the end of the 18th century as a result of the transformation in the socio-economic order (Karpat,1972). Usually, the title of ayan was given by the government, while individual communities accepted the E┼čraf as a result of social stratification (Karpat,1972).

The example of Alemdar Pasha was now posing a threat to the authoritarian power of the palace by the power centers other than the central authority. Alemdar Pasha was pro-reformist. Mahmud II did not threaten the central authority, but the notables and other notables in different regions could pose a threat. On the other hand, the janissaries were also a threat to the central authority. Social conflicts and rebellions that emerged in the future would cause Mahmud II to produce new strategies.

The Death of Alemdar

Alemdar Pasha wanted to restart the reforms that faltered after he became the Grand Vizier. First of all, he tried to establish a new unit in the army. However, he also wanted to eliminate various corruptions, such as a lack of discipline in the Janissary corps. Unfortunately, the Janissaries started a revolt on the night of Qadr. November 15, 1808. Alemdar Pasha was at the iftar dinner at the Sheikh al-Islam’s mansion at that time. Most of  Alemdar Pasha’s soldiers were guarding the palace. Alemdar Pasha despaired help from the palace and blew up the mansion. He died with hundreds of rebel Janissaries (Hanio─člu, 2008).

The Janissaries were eventually victorious despite strong resistance from the new troops and AlemdarÔÇÖs troops. They lynched many of the leading reformists and forced the sultan to remove new troops in November 1808 (├ťnal,2008). The abolition of the new armies was a severe setback for the sultan. The murder of Alemdar Pasha and the elimination of a reformist notable ayan with political and military power was a victory for the Janissaries. On the other hand,  the murder of Alemdar Pasha and the revolt coinciding with the religious night of Qadr in the month of Ramadan negatively affected their Islamic reputation (├ťnal,2008).

Mahmud II ordered Mustafa IV to be killed at the time of the revolt; however, he also killed the mother and sister of Mustafa IV because they supported the Janissary revolt. When Mahmud II, the sole heir of the dynasty, remained, the Janissaries asked the Sultan for forgiveness and ended their rebellion (├ťnal,2008).

Machmud II. Reproduction of a portrait in Austrian National Library by Metin Asa─č (*1973 -)

Auspicious or Unfortunate Event

Mahmud avoided provoking the Janissaries for many years by establishing a rival corps. Instead, he made moves that required more cunning and patience. He ensured the appointment of commanders loyal to him (Hanio─člu, 2008). In 1826, widespread admiration for Mehmed of Kavalal─▒ÔÇÖs modern army developed after defeating the Greek rebels in Missolonghi. This powerful gentry, loved by the people, was dangerous to the sultan’s authority. He was now ready to remove the Janissaries to strengthen his central authority. duly formed a new army called E┼čkinciyan (Horsemen Yeomen) (Hanio─člu, 2008). Three days after the new force started training, the Janissaries took their cauldrons to Et Square in the traditional rebellion. Turning the situation around against his opponents, who claimed that the new army was imitating “infidel” practices, the sultan received a fatwa from the Sheikh al-Islam that approved the massacre of the Janissaries (Hanio─člu, 2008).

In a bloody battle that lasted for several hours, loyal military units joined by madrasa students and other volunteers massacred a significant number of Janissaries. The rest fled in panic or went to jail.

A poster painted by an unknown artist describes the modern Ottoman Army, which was founded after the abolition of the Janissary corps in 1826.

The abolition of the Janissaries marked a turning point in Ottoman military history and Ottoman reform. Then , Mahmud II abolished the Bektashi Sufi sect (Hanio─člu, 2008). The sultan ordered the great Bektashi lodges to be destroyed, exiled prominent Bektashis, and forced the remaining members of the sect to renounce their faith and adopt the mainstream Sunni dress code. The palace was free to establish a new European-style corps (Hanio─člu, 2008). The new army, called As├ókir-i Mansure-i Muhammediye (Muhammad’s Victorious Troops), formed an infantry and cavalry unit. In 1834, Mahmud II started a reserve army with troops in various provinces of Anatolia and Rumelia (Hanio─člu, 2008). In 1838, the Military Council was formed to discuss all military matters concerning the Empire. Significantly, the provincial armies that had threatened the center in the past were disbanded. As a result of these changes, the Ottoman State now had a single military organization under unified command. This was an outstanding achievement in the centralization of administrative power.

The imperial edict regarding the abolishment of the janissary corps (BOA HH, no. 318/51356C), via (


Various political, economic, social, and cultural paradigm changes and transformations in Europe led to some reform efforts in the Ottoman Empire towards the end of the 18th century. The main reason for the reforms was the defeats in the wars. The new armies established in the military field caused rebellions by the old and traditional janissaries. The reforms implemented above exacerbated the existing problems of the empire. The strengthening of the notables in the regions and the national identity effect of the French Revolution further reduced the administrative power of the central authority.

The abolition of the Janissary Corps and its replacement with a totally palace-based military order changed the delicate, centuries-old balance of power within the Ottoman political system (Guney and Onhan, 2020). The Janissaries had become traditional powerhouses with the potential to replace a sultan. Inclined to ally with the ulama against the judicial institutions and bureaucracy, they created a system of checks and balances endowed with both power and legitimacy that would oppose and, at times, replace the ruling order (Guney and Onhan, 2020). With the departure of the Janissaries, the ulema lost their main source of pressure on the judicial and bureaucratic institutions (Guney and Onhan, 2020). With the lacking military support, the ulama began to adopt a much more conciliatory stance against the new bureaucracy’s pressure for far-reaching reform. The collapse of the legitimist opposition strengthened the sultan and his administration immeasurably. After that, until 1908, Ottoman politics was reduced to a game played by two great actors: the Porte bureaucracy and the Sultan’s palace (Hanio─člu, 2008).

Along with the existing military reforms, economic and political reforms could not adapt to the imperial system. In particular, cultural and thought differences between the palace bureaucracy and the governed caused various oppositions and schisms. There was a certain inevitability in the conflict between the great culture of the military and the minor culture of kinship. The phenomenon of ‘cultural isolation’ also contributed to the conflict (Mardin, 1969). With the elimination of the Janissaries by Mahmud II, the foremost authority became more vital, and cultural dilemmas diminished.


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├ťnal, F (2008). Alemdar Mustafa Pahsa Incient And 1808 Janissary Rebellion According To Alexander Grigorevich KrasnokutskÔÇÖs Diary ( ALEKSANDER GR─░GOREV─░├ç KRASNOKUTSKÔÇÖUN G├ťNL├ť─×├ťNDEN ÔÇť1808 YEN─░├çER─░ AYAKLANMASI VE ALEMDAR MUSTAFA PA┼×A VAKASIÔÇŁ ). Journal of International Social Research.

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