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Turkish history Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Empire (1301-1922)

The millet system

Non-Muslim communities were organised according to the millet system, which gave minority religious/ethnic/geographical communities a limited amount of power to regulate their own affairs - under the overall supremacy of the Ottoman administration.

The first Orthodox Christian millet was established in 1454. This brought Orthodox Christians into a single community under the leadership of the Patriarch who had considerable authority given to him by the Sultan. Armenian Christian, Jewish and other millets followed in due course.

Sunset skyline of the Sultan Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, TurkeySome millets paid tax to the state as dhimmis, while others were exempted because they were seen to be performing services of value to the state.

The devshirme system

Non-Muslims in parts of the empire had to hand over some of their children as a tax under the devshirme ('gathering') system introduced in the 14th century. Conquered Christian communities, especially in the Balkans, had to surrender twenty percent of their male children to the state.

Although the forced removal from their families and conversion was certainly traumatic and out of line with modern ideas of human rights, the devshirme system was a rather privileged form of slavery for some (although others were undoubtedly ill-used).

Some of the youngsters were trained for government service, where they were able to reach very high ranks, even that of Grand Vezir.Main gate of the Topkapi Palace, defended by two watchtowers and crenellated wall Many of the others served in the elite military corps of the Ottoman Empire, called the Janissaries, which was almost exclusively made up of forced converts from Christianity.

The devshirme played a key role in Mehmet's conquest of Constantinople, and from then on regularly held very senior posts in the imperial administration.

Although members of the devshirme class were technically slaves, they were of great importance to the Sultan because they owed him their absolute loyalty and became vital to his power. This status enabled some of the 'slaves' to become both powerful and wealthy. Their status remained restricted, and their children were not permitted to inherit their wealth or follow in their footsteps.

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