The Pleasures of Turkish Historical Soap Operas

Post 18 of 45

MY1About a year ago, I began watching a Turkish historical soap opera called Muhtesem Yüzyil (Magnificent Century) about Süleyman the Magnificent’s life, loves, and military campaigns. I was hooked, even though only one episode, the first, has English subtitles. From the second episode on I’ve had to rely on my imperfect Turkish. Fortunately, I do understand Turkish, having been married for 20 years to a Turk and having lived in Turkey long enough to learn the language. I did have to learn some new expressions in order to appreciate Magnificent Century, though: for example, I now know how to say “Off with his head!” and “Prepare yourself; you’ve been chosen tonight for the Sultan’s bed.”

Since the Magnificent Century is set in the 16th century, which happens to be a favorite period of mine (my own novel Fires of Destiny is set in the 1550s), I’m familiar with the major characters who were on the world stage at the time, and with the general European political situation. Like most Americans, though, it wasn’t until I met my Turkish husband that I knew very much about Turkey or its history. My history courses in high school and college had been sadly lacking in information about any land east of Greece, and I had only the vaguest idea about the extent of the Ottoman Empire.

The Turks I knew during those early years (the seventies) weren’t particularly interested in the Ottoman Empire, either. In 1976, when I was living just down the hill from Atatürk’s mausoleum in Ankara, the country was still heavily Kemalist and secular. Out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk, regarded as the father of modern Turkey, had carved a new nation imbued with Western cultural ideals and a western-style government. Turks had turned their back on Ottoman dress, lifestyles, religion, and even the Ottoman Turkish language. The Turkish alphabet was translated from Arabic script into Roman script, and the language itself was cleansed of many of the Persian and Arabic words it had accumulated over the centuries. Atatürk was so successful with his language reform that many young Turks today can’t understand his speeches unless they are translated into modern Turkish. In episodes of Magnificent Century, when Süleyman’s poetry is spoken on screen in its original Ottoman, the producers provide modern Turkish subtitles so the audience for this very popular show will be able to understand it.

Things have changed in recent years, particularly since Prime Minister Erdogan’s party has been ascendant in parliament. It is now fashionable to take pride in the past glories of the Ottoman empire. The period when Süleyman ruled (1520-66) was a golden age. The Empire was vast, wealthy, and, for the most part, well-run.

suleyman and hurrem

Hurrem and Suleyman

Süleyman the Magnicent (known in Turkey as the Kanuni, or Lawgiver for his legal reforms) was a fascinating figure. He was a dynamic leader, smart, well-educated, cultured, a talented poet and goldsmith, and a highly successful warrior who nearly captured the city of Vienna. If Vienna had fallen, this might have led to the Ottoman conquest of Europe. Constantinople had been conquered by the Turks less than a hundred years prior to the time of Süleyman. Was Rome next?

But Magnificent Century’s appeals rests less on Süleyman the warrior than on Süleyman the lover. The show takes us behind the harem walls to the domain ruled less by the Sultan than by the Sultan’s Valide (mother), as she presides over the large collection of women who have been brought to Topkapi Palace, usually as slaves, to become members of the Sultan’s harem. Much of this is fictionalized, since we have little actual information about day to day life in Süleyman’s harem. But it’s good storytelling.

In the first episode we are introduced to a rebellious and spirited young woman named Alexandra (she shares a name with the heroine of Fires of Destiny), a Ukrainian girl captured by Tartars who sold her into the new young Sultan’s harem.


Suleyman’s friend and Hurrem’s greatest adversary, Ibrahim Pasha

Alexandra, better known in the West as Roxelana, is angry and defiant about her fate, but she is also intelligent and ambitious. When one of the harem servants explains that if she catches the Sultan’s eye, becomes his lover, and bears him a son, she could one day run the harem herself, Alexandra doesn’t hesitate. As she pursues this goal, Alexandra, soon renamed Hürrem (the laughing one) by the Sultan, makes enemies, and not only among the women. Perhaps the most dynamic conflict in Magnificent Century is between Hürrem and Süleyman’s childhood friend and adult companion, soon to be promoted to Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha. These two characters, who are both brilliantly acted by Meryem Uzerli (Hürrem) and Okan Yalabik (Ibrahim), duel with one another cleverly and ruthlessly as they slowly accumulate wealth, influence, and political power.

For a romantic soul like me, though, much of the appeal of the show lies in the loving relationship of Süleyman and Hürrem (although it certainly has its up and downs). Süleyman took the remarkable and almost unprecedented step of defying custom and marrying Hürrem, with whom he had four sons and one daughter who all survived to adulthood. But since Süleyman’s eldest and most popular son, Mustafa, was not the child of Hürrem, she must have lived in terror that the Sultan would die on campaign. If Mustafa were to inherit, Hürrem and all her children would all be executed (an unfortunate custom when a new sultan took the throne). Many of Magnificent Century’s stories revolve around Hürrem outwitting her enemies in order to preserve her own life and those of her children.

Muhtesem Yüzyil is now in its third season, and is the most popular TV program in Turkey, and indeed all over the Middle east and eastern Europe. It has not been without controversy in Turkey, though. A few months ago, Erdogan, the prime minister, threatened to have the show taken off the air because of its supposed disrespect for Süleyman. In other words, the Islamists don’t like all the sex….mild by Western standards…and the emphasis on the (mostly fictionalized) details of the Sultan’s private life. Erdogan’s threats appear to have had an effect, since Magnificent Century has recently become more focused on the Sultan’s military campaigns. There’s also a good deal more praying, Koran recitation, and celebration of Islamic holidays.

Hurrem and Suleyman

Hurrem and Suleyman

What I’ve found interesting is how addicted I’ve become to the show. During the first two years in particular, Magnificent Century was beautifully written, extremely well acted, and its production values exceeded anything I had even seen previously on Turkish TV. Episodes tend to end in dramatic cliffhangers, so you’re always wondering what’s going to happen next (even though you know you’re being manipulated). After 94 episodes, each close to 2 hours in length, I’m still watching on it the web every week, and feeling rather frustrated because I have no one to discuss the show with. Inshallah some day we’ll get English subtitles on all the episodes. I think there’s a market for it in the West. People who enjoy historical dramas like The Tudors and The Borgias will probably also enjoy Magnificent Century. And who doesn’t want to know what may have gone on behind those mysterious harem walls?


Related Links

  • The latest episode, just released today, of Magnificent Century (in Turkish).
  • The first episode of the series, in Turkish with English subtitles.
  • My partner Curt Monash’s blog post about our recent visit to Istanbul.

This article was written by Linda


A.Ça?larApril 11, 2013 at 5:19 pmReply

Thank you for that accurately well written brief. Ellerinize sa?l?k. 🙂

Linda BarlowApril 11, 2013 at 11:21 pmReply

Çok te?ekkür eder?m!

Anne-Rae VasquezMay 9, 2013 at 10:41 pmReply

Loved resding your post. I too watch Turkish soap opers but dubbed in Arabic because of the lack of English subtitles on the web.

I will definitely watch Magnificent Century.


kanwalMay 30, 2013 at 2:57 amReply

im watching this serial in Pakistan as it translated in urdu and truely and deeply im in love with this drama,,,,what a story,,,,truely fab……

Suresh RKJuly 22, 2013 at 3:26 pmReply

I am indian living in the US and so desperate to watch this soap with english sub-titles. I have watched the first episode on youtube and so desperate to watch other episodes and scouring the net but alas can’t find an avenue.
You are lucky to be able understand turkish.
I am a amateur history buff and I am fascinated by that time of history.
Do you know where I can watch the urdu versions of this show as I can somewhat understand urdu ?
I would have loved to watch the show and discuss it with you if I could.

Linda BarlowAugust 24, 2013 at 2:56 amReply

Sures there is now a Facebook page where English translation are provided. I hang out there because it’s a great place to talk about the show with other people who love it. Here’s the url:

NinaOctober 17, 2016 at 10:31 pmReply

All episodes from one to forty-nine are on Netflix and with English subtitles. They are wonderful, highly recommend watching them. Take care and good luck.

GilOctober 30, 2016 at 11:12 pmReply

When is Netflix showing the rest of the episodes or can the total series with English subtitles be bought on DVD’s?

RaneeDecember 21, 2016 at 2:32 pmReply

No DVD’s are currently available with English subtitles.

sofia ahmedJuly 26, 2013 at 3:42 amReply

I am watching this drama in pakistan in urdu and ppl in pakistan love it everyday we wait for it it is worth watin for it

Dorothy Dunnett and Me, part 2 | Linda BarlowAugust 7, 2013 at 10:31 pmReply

[…] Sultan (Roxelana), Suleyman’s wife. (For more on my obsession with Hurrem and Suleyman, see my post on Muhtesem Yuzyil, the Turkish historical soap opera to which I am […]

Dorothy Dunnett and Me, part 2 | Linda BarlowAugust 8, 2013 at 2:01 amReply

[…] Sultan (Roxelana), Suleyman’s wife. (For more on my obsession with Hurrem and Suleyman, see my post on Muhtesem Yuzyil, the Turkish historical soap opera to which I am […]

Metka sedlarSeptember 11, 2013 at 2:21 pmReply

Hello I got hooked on it while in slovenia it had slovenia subtitles . But my slovenia was not great so my mom or friend had to translate. Now I am watching it in youtube. Trying to get her to keep translating she is slow in translating and I am ahead of her. I am episode 70. I can understand because of the gestures but that is it. Help

Metka sedlarSeptember 11, 2013 at 2:30 pmReply

I could not figure out how to follow it on face book

PilarDecember 15, 2013 at 5:50 amReply

The Facebook link that you provided is broken or does not exists. Any other suggestions?

Linda BarlowJanuary 10, 2014 at 5:39 pmReply

The Facebook page was changed a few times. The current English translation page for Muhtesem Yuzyil is here:

helenaJanuary 30, 2014 at 2:27 pmReply

I love this (For me it is a quality film and not a soap opera) I am watching it dubbed in Hungarian ,which is OK since I understand the language but I only started watching it in the middle so it has been frustrating trying to see it from the beginning. I watch it in Turkish and sort of get the gist. It is shown only once a week and is interrupted non stop by commercials…I wish they would play it in a cinema where it belongs

EmmaJuly 16, 2014 at 5:21 pmReply

Hello Linda,
It was wonderful reading your article on this extremely we’ll produced Turkish historical soap opera. Although, I am of Hispanic origin I have a deep appreciation for historical characters and their “dramatized” life experiences, even the fictionalized ones. On July 1, 2014, MundoFox started airing the story under the name
“Suleiman”. As you mentioned in your article, I’m obsessed with this show. It somewhat saddened me to read that modern Turkey may not have a true appreciation for their history; hence the achievements of the Ottoman Empire. I am content to know that this soap has stirred curiosity among modern Turks to learn more about their beautiful history. Thank you!

nailaAugust 25, 2014 at 6:01 amReply

I love muhetesam yuzyil n I like Ibrahim pasa..

nailaAugust 25, 2014 at 6:03 amReply

I love muhetesam yuzyil n I like Ibrahim pasa.. n hurem is not fair..

nailaAugust 25, 2014 at 6:04 amReply

I love muhetesam yuzyil n I like Ibrahim pasa.. n hurem is not fair.mustafa is very nice

Peter HartmannOctober 31, 2014 at 12:16 pmReply

Anyone know where we can buy the whole series on DVD, and, hopefully, with either English dub or subtitles ?

AlexOctober 3, 2016 at 5:04 pmReply

Hooked on it. I’m on episode 13 and I’m frustrated because it has no English subtitles. Do you know where I can find it? If not do you know where I can find a summary of the episode ? It seems 2 important to miss. I think it gives background into all of relationships. Help if u can.

RaneeDecember 21, 2016 at 2:34 pmReply

Try Netflix they have all season 1 with English subtitles.

Stefanie MaguraOctober 20, 2016 at 8:02 pmReply

If any of you get Netflix, this series is available on there at least in the United States. They’ve uploaded the first season so far. I was alerted to it when someone posted it in a Dorothy Dunnett group I follow on Facebook.

Alexandra MenzelOctober 20, 2016 at 11:27 pmReply

Sharing the christian name of our heroine I have told my family to call me Sultanah Alexandra. My daughter Sasha (also meaning Alexandra) who is 8 asked why I wanted to be called a sultana. After explaining the difference between queen and dry grapes to her she called me “Mummy-sultana who used to be a grape but got old”. Her father thought it funny. It is illegal to kill your husband and child here.

Janae McinnisOctober 21, 2016 at 8:09 amReply

Hi There, what an interesting and wonderful blogpost. Helped me a lot with my dilemma. Like the facts you have pointed out. Absolutely true!

Lorna DrummOctober 25, 2016 at 5:00 pmReply

Hi I to am a fan of Magnificent Century and like most I only understand English so I really hope it will have English subtitles throughout the whole series, i dont know if they are planning on making enlish subtitles but it would be great if they did

Helen MooreNovember 2, 2016 at 7:22 amReply

I love this TV series. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to download or watch on You Tube S2 E37. This leaves me sad because I am so addicted to it. I watch it with english subtitles and it doesn’t matter the acting is superb the storyline is awesome. Can anyone point me in the right direction on where I can continue to watch this magnificent tv drama series.

Edie EnglehartNovember 16, 2016 at 1:49 pmReply

It is sad that hundreds of people would like to watch the rest of this series, but can’t find a sourse. Netflix carried 48 at left you there wondering….

haranaNovember 16, 2016 at 4:45 pmReply

I have finished watching the first season on Netflix and continued on You Tube most of them without english subtitles. I couln’t find episode 64, 65, 66 and 67 on You Tube. Anyone know where to find them?

Sandra AlsayyadNovember 30, 2016 at 12:17 amReply

I have discovered this Turkish soap on netflix!! Now so many with English subtitles. I am hooked, like the TV show Lost got me when it started on Netflix. Are there any other historical Turkish soaps subtitled in English that you know of, that I might find on YouTube but some such site? Thank you so much for this blog, I think it may have been written some time ago, and therefore I understand I may not hear back from you.Blessings , Sandra Al-Sayyad

Anne BoseJanuary 15, 2017 at 11:03 pmReply

I have a new hairdresser who is a Turkish Cypriot and he had been talking about the Ottoman Empire.I had majored in history at university but had never learnt about the Ottomans. Then I chanced on Muhtesem Yuzyil on Netflix and along with my husband, became obsessed. I have been reading history books on the Ottomans so that I am familiar with the characters and also with Suleyman’s military campaigns.The show is well produced and I love the beauty of the Topkapi Palace with its glorious architecture, exotic interiors and lovely gardens. Turks have a history which should make them proud
We are anxious to watch season 2 but it seems that it is not available with English subtitles.

Beth SantosFebruary 27, 2017 at 6:39 amReply

I come from the Philippines and had I been younger I’d look for a good looking Turkish man. Those Turkish actores esp. Ocan Yalabic who played Ibrahim made my heart go boom boom!
Hope the rest of the episodes of Magnificent Century gets to be seen at Netflix.
And yes, I will go look for Fires of Destiny-a must read for me!

Mia BakiFebruary 28, 2017 at 1:33 pmReply

Thanks for the well-written blog! I am American and have been enjoying Muhtesem Yuzyil for exactly a year now. I came across the show while looking on youtube for something to begin learning Turkish. As there are no classes in Turkish around, all I can do is home study. I watch the show every day and look up the words I hear, which I then compile into a flash card app that I use to memorize words. The show is beautiful, the story is compellingly told–I can’t even believe how they could crank out a two-hour show every week for four seasons!! Anyways, it has a special place in my heart because now, after a year, I can understand what they are saying in most of the scenes! (The battle scenes are still tough language though…) So thanks for sharing your enthusiasm, because I am enjoying it from my little “island” in Oregon.