Thank you, sir. May I have another?

For those of you who are inclined to doubt the ritual/political significance of pastry in general and baklava in particular, I offer for your consideration the Baklava Procession. The Baklava Procession — and this is no joke — was an elaborate military ceremony in which the Ottoman Sultan’s private guardsmen, known as janissaries, would parade up to the Topkapi palace kitchens where they would be presented with trays of baklava. It occurred every 15th day of Ramadan, and was one of the ways the Sultan showed appreciation for — some might say appeased — his troops.

Why did the Sultan’s own guards need appeasing? Because janissaries were a surly, to say nothing of dangerous, group of people. Unique among military units of their day, they were a full-time standing army. Nowadays we take the concept of a standing army for granted. But back in Medieval times, they were virtually unheard of. Then, armies were raised on an as-needed basis, most of the time from among the local citizenry, usually via some sort of cash incentive.

Janissaries, by comparison, were full-time employees. They were paid regular salaries, lived in permanent barracks, trained constantly and did year-round duty. Until the Ottoman sultans came along, no one had attempted to maintain such a force since the Roman Empire fell — and for very good reason. First and most obviously, because it’s expensive. Second, because lots and lots of training time creates a group of unusually dangerous dudes.

That’s nice when you’re off waging war against another guy’s rabble of semi-skilled fighting farmers. When you’re not, professional armies are inclined to wake up to how much power they have and start throwing their weight around. That happened quite a bit to the Romans with their Praetorian guard, and it happened with the Ottomans. Hence the bribery.

The tendency for bored and dangerous standing armies to threaten the people they’re supposed to protect is why most armies today are of the volunteer sort. Limited service and constant rotation has a way of keeping personal ambition in check and weeding out troublemakers. However a volunteer army was an innovation that was a long way off in the days of the Ottomans, and why, come the 15th day of Ramadan at Topkapi Palace, the baklava needed to be awfully damned good.

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