The Enderun, the Ottoman school for the gifted, supplied the Empire with civil and military leaders who kept the government together for better or worse until the end of the 19th century

Meaning of Enderun

The Ottomans developed a school for gifted children long before the idea took hold in western European countries and through it supplied the Empire with civil and military leaders who kept the government together for better or worse until the end of the 19th century. This educational organization was known as the Enderun or the palace school.

The Enderun was first set up by Sultan Murad II, who reigned from 1421 to 1451, but was further developed under Fatih Sultan Mehmed II following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the building of Topkapı Palace.

Basic education outside the palace started in the home with an emphasis on religion and morality. A boy would then go on to study at a medrese, a school usually attached to a mosque.

But the boys who were streamlined to enter the palace school were initially chosen from Christian families in what was called the devşirme. This practice involved choosing young boys – usually between the ages of 8 and 18 – from the Balkans who were good-looking, healthy and strong to be trained to be soldiers. This was something similar to what we would call conscription. Christian subjects were required to pay a tax in lieu of serving in the Ottoman army, but boys taken up through the devşirme became exempt from the tax. The devşirme was only applied according to need so it might occur once in three or four years. Later boys were chosen from families in Anatolia and eventually the system allowed Muslims to enter under pressure from those who had previously graduated and wanted their sons to have the same advantages.

Specially chosen Turkish farmers

Boys selected to attend the Enderun would first live with specially chosen Turkish farmers so they could learn to speak Turkish and gain an understanding of religions and Turkish customs. After two to three years, these boys would be brought to Istanbul and examined. The brightest and handsomest would be sent to the palace for an education that was rigorous by any standards. The Enderun was located in the Third Courtyard of the palace and anyone who has visited that area knows that it is rather small. Because of this the boys were split and groups were sent to Galata, İbrahim Paşa, İskender Çelebi and Edirne palaces, where they would stay in barracks or dormitories in the Third Courtyard.

For the boys that showed an aptitude for music, there was extensive training in playing various instruments, singing and composing music. According to Albert Bobovi, a dragoman or translator, Turkish music was “a combination of the melody, the touch of the performer, and especially his ability to extemporize.” The women in the harem were also trained in music of lyric or instrumental sorts. Military music on the other hand was confined strictly to men to provide members for the Janissary military band that would accompany the army on a march.

When the time came and their education was complete the boys would undergo a kind of graduation ceremony depending on which part of the seven different levels of the Enderun they had served in. Some would be assigned to the Janissary corps while others would be appointed to various posts in the government. If any of the boys failed to advance, they would be granted leave and assigned to positions in the army or outside the palace.