About 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.
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.
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.
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?
This article was written by Linda