When I agreed to write the series about Bulgaria under the Ottoman rule as a suitable stage for the steampunk genre, I underestimated the challenge these articles present. I want to deliver a portrayal of a complicated and cruel span of five centuries in Bulgarian history. At the same time I’m dealing with controversial and sensitive material, given that the Ottoman occupation has hindered Bulgaria’s access to Europe during the time of the Industrial Revolution.1
Even more so, given that this article deals with the cruelest tactic from the Ottoman empire to ensure its armies never lacked man power, while at the same time assured the assimilation of all conquered lands: the ‘enichari’ corps. 2. The word ‘enichar’ means ‘new soldier’ and refers to an Ottoman military class, which consists from non-Muslims. During the 14th century, the Ottoman conquests resulted in a sizeable amount of conquered territories and the aching need to expand the empire’s armies.
Before the ‘enichari’ corps to exist as a concept, the Ottoman empire enlisted volunteers from the enslaved countries and the corps consisting from those were called ‘yaya.’
Although not obvious a choice for slaves, one has to consider the importance of the military class for an ever expanding feudal empire. Soldiers, regardless of social standing, received satisfactory for the time payment. The Christians, who volunteered, even suffered none of the taxes and fees applicable for farmers or herders.
Yet, the ‘yaya’ corps met a quick end. Translated texts from that time period suggest that with the respectability gained from their position soldiers grew confident in their security. What I have read briefly mentions soldiers ‘doing outrageous acts,’ yet nothing definitive. In order to prevent further misdeeds and abuse, the sultan disbanded the corps. Personally, I think that the sultan’s administration found the ideological element missing and thus had to perfect what in theory was a good idea.
The administration reinforced the already existing ‘Ilams-L-Ganaira’ law, which allotted one out of every five male non-Muslim prisoners of war to the sultan. This progressive method for taxation kept slavers in check, while healthy males entered the army. Subsequently with this practice gaining popularity, a six category system based on age emerged.
Shirhor – children up to 3 years old.
Beche – children between 3 and 8 years old.
Gulyamche – boys between 8 and 15 years old.
Gulyam – 18 year olds.
Sakalluh – men older than 18 years.
Pir – old men.
After the initial selection, a second one commenced for every fifth boy from the ‘Gulyamche’ and ‘Gulyam’ categories. This screening ensured that only the healthiest and strongest boys would either be enlisted in the ‘enichari’ or be sent to the palace, if they were handsome. Either way, both groups spent time in Muslim families in order to adopt the Turkish culture and learn Turkish. The boys were circumcised and then asked to choose a Turkish name for themselves or have one picked for them. Based on what little information there is from that period I can confirm that ‘Abdullah’ [meaning ‘god’s slave’] was given as a father’s name in most cases. I can only speculate about the propaganda sultan official subjected the youth to as a means to install loyalty, erase all the non-Muslim origins and trick them into believing that they are Turkish rather than former slaves. While I can’t say that this worked on the older, I’m positive the ones under seven years old could be fooled.
What happened next is not entirely clear. How the children were actually treated is unknown as well as what they have studied, the conditions they lived in. What’s known is that the corps were a success to the point that the administration finalized and supported the corps through a series of laws and decrees.
The first steps in this direction aimed to secure a steady inflow of children. The focus shifted to the younger and more susceptible ones. Thus came to be the ‘blood tax,’ which demanded that each Christian family should give a male child to the empire for the ‘enichari’ corps. This usually meant the firstborn male child. No community was skipped or overlooked and child gathering processions became regular tax collection events, though there is no hard evidence as to how many years the Christian population was allowed to regenerate.
The ‘blood tax’ is one of the darkest chapters in Bulgarian history in regards to the ‘enichari’ corps, the primary reason Bulgarian folklore abounds with tales of resistance, trickery and aggression against both Turkish soldiers and fully fledged ‘enichari.’ Parents hid their boys or switched boys from other villages3; rebel forces 4 organized strikes on such caravans, while in some areas it became popular to accept the Muslim religion, circumcise boys and dress them in Turkish clothing to fool official.
One of our lesser Name Day celebrations, ‘Petlyovden’5 , is dedicated to the ingenuity of one mother, who killed a rooster and smeared its blood all over her front door and steps. This way, when the ‘enichari’ came to gather her son, they saw the blood and figured that this house has already been visited by their brothers in arms.
Songs speak of how former sons of Bulgaria return to their homes to kill and/or torture their families and communities on sultan’s orders without realizing they raised hands against their blood. Others speak of ‘enichari’ coming home to recognize their family homes, their parents and siblings. The devastation the ‘blood tax’ caused on Bulgarians is ever lasting and I still do shudder, thinking about those times.
However, in the spirit of not being subjective and not applying a ‘black & white’ approach to this topic, I’d like to speak of the ‘enichari’ themselves. It’s true that Bulgarian Christians suffered hell over losing their children; it’s also true that the Ottoman empire employed cruel and devious tactics, but the ‘enichari’ as a corps rose as the most important rank in the army and also contributed to the empire’s downfall.
In the early years from the formation of the corps, the ‘enichari’ had no rights or privileges. None could take bride or own lands. Centuries later, though, saw the ‘enichari’ wed and with properties, ensuring wealth even after retirement. Even the sons of the first generations were accepted into the corps’ ranks.
With the empire’s military losses frequenting, the army’s needs fell into the background. By then, the ‘blood tax’ had been abandoned and the ‘enichari’ corps recruited men without any pedigree in the art of war. Apart from their sons, ‘enichari’ welcomed acrobats, dancers and fire fighters, mudding down the efficiency and prestige of the once elite force. Not only this, but any attempt to reform the army, bring focus on different corps or modernize equipment, meant heavy opposition or death for the reformers. Subsequently, on May the 29th 1826, a council of high ranking officials and religious figures gathered to disband the corps.
I’ve skipped some historical facts. After all, I’m not attempting to write a historical paper and as gruesome as the subject is, the structure of the corps and the decrees issued aren’t of crucial importance. I’ve presented the core story behind the ‘enichari’ corps starting from year 1365 and ending in 1826, almost five centuries later.
What has this to do with steampunk? Technically not much, since the Victorian era starts well after the corps have been disbanded and if I or anyone else were to be puritan as to what time era could be considered as steampunk, then ‘enichari’ flavored steampunk is not likely. But in theory a writer can do a lot with the history of the ‘enichari.’ There is enough ‘punk’, enough of the social unrest to make a story true steampunk. Add some steam-powered machines or twisted experiments and it’s a win-win.
Maybe your character will be a boy, who is sent to become an ‘enichar’ and has to resist the training, but pretends to be loyal to the sultan. Maybe your character is a brother or a sister, who has suffered the loss of a sibling being taken and then reunite as adults. Maybe your character will be a Turkish official, who takes pity on a particular boy and shields him from the cruelties waiting in the sultan’s palace guard. Or maybe you want to write about the ambushes done on the child gathering processions. There are multitudes of opportunities and all these stories are relatable.
As in my first article, I highlight that war and social unrest is what makes steampunk tick. In order to write steampunk and acknowledge it as such, one has to tap into indignities and the warrior spirit of the time era. What better topic for steampunk than the ‘enichari’ corps?
1 Thus resigning my country to struggle economically ever since. It’s a contributing reason as to why Bulgarians are bitter and still harbor animosity towards Turkey. Fair warning: I may be bitter and not objective, though so are some of my sources.
3 Which implies that other children have been kidnapped and offered to the Ottoman empire. The Bulgarian rebels carried the name ‘haiduti’ and lived primarily in the mountains, from where they planned attacks on Turkish squadrons.
1. “Enicharite” (in Bulgarian)
2. “On the question of the enichari, the blood tax and its application as a means for the islaminisation of the Balkan people” – Yordan Yordanov (in Bulgarian)
Harry Markov tries to fix his status from unpublished to a published, while at the same time not shutting up about the books that he reads. He’s a reviewer at The Portal and the former Temple Library Reviews. He rambles about writing and the journey of a procrastinating writer at Through a Forest of Ideas. He’s always available for a chat on Twitter @harrymarkov.