The devshirme system began in the late 14th century. Christian boys were recruited by force to serve the Ottoman government. The boys were generally taken from the Balkan provinces, converted to Islam, and then passed through a series of examinations to determine their intelligence and capabilities. In special palace schools, they learned Arabic, Persian, Turkish, math, calligraphy, Islam, horsemanship, and/or weaponry. Working in the sultan's personal services was also part of the overall education, and this entailed assigning the boys to various rooms in the palace to look after such items as the sultan's hunting birds or the sultan's valuables. At the conclusion of each stage of the boys' training, the boys passed through a selection and promotion process. The academic education at the palace schools was one of the finest in the Islamic world and among its aims was to produce obedience, as well as high morals. Because of their loyalty to the state, the boys would become guards, gatekeepers, scribes, pages, governors, soldiers, or prime ministers, depending on their merit and seniority. Although the boys were essentially transformed into state slaves, most considered it an honor as it led to a highly privileged position in Ottoman administration. This system lasted through the 16th century. There is some evidence that some families (including Muslim families) voluntarily put forth their children to be admitted into this system because of the opportunities it provided.
This image shows a group of boys when they were first conscripted. The boys were dressed in red to avoid their escape. Boys were recruited from anywhere between 8 and 20 years of age.
Annotated by Heidi Morrison.