Bashi-bazouk! If you’ve read a Tintin comic featuring Captain Haddock, you will know and possibly love the word Bashi-bazouk! It is a mainstay of many a Haddock rant, along with Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles, Ectoplasms and occasionally, Artichokes. Like the rest of Haddock’s colorful vocabulary, Bashi-Bazouk isn’t an expletive at all, but a relatively harmless word with meaning, like Troglodytes and Filibusters, two other Haddock favorites.
Bashi-Bazouks were irregular mercenaries who fought for the Ottoman Turk Army. They were unpaid, undisciplined rabble who augmented the regular army by serving primarily as an irritant to the enemy. It may be a stretch to call them soldiers, since they were unorganized, untrained and rarely under any consistent chain of command. They were often hired only on the eve of battle, with no expectations, except to swell the Army’s numbers and soften up a wavering opposition with an initial attack – from which they frequently fled. It is likely that outside of military campaigns, the Bashi-Bazouks served primarily as local muscle, ruffians and bandits. Since they were unpaid, their motivation and livelihood depended entirely on pillage and loot, which also made them good at terrorizing civilians. They carried a deserved reputation for brutality and generally deranged behavior. It is not without reason that they were called Bashi-Bazouks – the Turkish word means damaged head.
Bashi-Bazouks fought their most significant action on May 29’th, 1453, as the vanguard for the final assault on Constantinople. They were promised 3 days of pillaging as motivation, and found their resolve further strengthened by the Ottoman military police, who used whips, thongs and iron batons to keep them at the walls for over 2 hours. Which was long enough to soften up the defenders, as the Sultan Mehmed II had intended, and earn them their pillaging. But to their chagrin, the Sultan broke his word and stopped the sack of Constantinople after only one day.
In 1478 and again in 1479, Bashi-Bazouks raided Venetian Italy as a prelude to invasion. Thousands of Bashi-Bazouks destroyed harvests, castles and villas, terrorized the population and made off with substantial booty. The Venetians could only watch the fire and smoke from atop the famous campanile of St.Mark’s Cathedral. But Venice escaped a full scale Ottoman onslaught by quickly signing a peace treaty with the Empire. The Bashi-Bazouks were sent off to besiege the fortress of Rhodes instead.
By the 17th century, Bashi-Bazouks had lost favor with the Ottoman Army, and no longer figured in the Empire’s military campaigns. They were too disorganized for maneuver and only marginally effective on the battlefield. However, they did continue to function as oppressors and murderers of the local populace, something they were good at. They were used in the bloody Balkan wars of the 19th and early 20th century when the Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Bosnians, Armenians and the rest tried their best to ethnic cleanse each other on the basis of religion and that noxious ideology: nationalism (history was to repeat itself in the 1990s).
You can get a romanticized look at what a 19th century Bashi-Bazouk might have looked like from the astonishingly detailed canvases of Orientalist painters like Jean Leon Gerome: