09/11/2012

Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Neo-Ottoman Style

Suleiman and Hürrem Sultan get busy Ottoman-style in Muhteşem Yüzıl.


The last ten years have seen Turkey transform itself from a rather insular, little-reported state fond of kebabs and economic recessions, to a powerhouse influencing trade and politics in Europe and the Middle-East. The transformation has come with many new features, but perhaps the most logical, if least predictable, has been the burst of romanticism for the long-defunct Ottoman Empire.

When historians talk of the foundation of the Republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the trend is to talk of a wall between the past and new future. In its execution, this was almost total. With the importation of new laws, political frameworks, fashion, vocabulary and even architecture, the generation that grew up in the time of the Republic was unaware of any past but for the Turks’ original pre-Ottoman glory days as nomads in Central Asia, from where they founded many of the world’s great civilizations.

A fuss has been made recently regarding the new tone of Turkish textbooks, whose role was traditionally to promote a kind of dispassion towards the Ottomans, whose decline in the 19th century brought all the horror of defeat and occupation which, like one who has suffered a recent trauma, was soothed temporarily by denial laced with disassociation. Regarding multi-faceted and complex reformations, such as the change from Arabic script to the Latin alphabet, tick-box responses have been taught as universal truths: ‘Arabic script was too difficult’, the loan-words ‘polluted Turkish’, the prevalence of Islamic culture in all its manifestations had ‘hindered progress’.

Fatih Günü - Conquest Day, has gained popularity in recently
But now Turkey’s Ottoman past is being looked to with a new enthusiasm, and much has been made in the media here and abroad, regarding that old, new-fangled Ottoman craze sweeping the imagination. Turkey is now wielding the kind of power it has not had since the high point of the Empire, with much debate over neo-Ottomanism as a political view-point. A new class of conservative bourgeoisie have risen in society too, challenging the monopoly of traditionally Western-leaning upper classes in the country, with their tastes too now being catered for. Most significantly, the death of the last heir to the Ottoman throne, Osman Ertuğrul Osmanoğlu, in 2009, also brought about kind of relief that with the symbolic closure of the period, with the end of the royal line it could be approached without guilty feelings.

Ottoman TV

The success of the TV series, Muhteşem Yüzyıl, (or “Magnificent Century”) provides an exquisite example of the new nostalgia. The New York Times describes Muhteşem Yüzyıl as “a sort of Sex in the City, set during the 46-year reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.” The series is mostly set within the confines of Topkapı Palace, and joins the scandal and rivalry of the Hareem with political intrigue, war planning and genuinely fascinating matters of governance such as the conquest of Rhodes, in the first season, and the reform of the legal code focused more in the second.

Suleiman is better-known in the East as “Kanuni” or ‘the Law-maker’, as his legal reforms provided the backbone of Ottoman law for centuries after his death. He was also a talented man, fluent in five languages and well-versed in poetry. Although all this is shown in the series, it’s easy to view the lead character, played by Halit Ergenç, as a slightly cocky crooner whose eyebrows evoke more Johnny Bravo than an Ottoman philosopher-king. More distracting still, is that for all his wisdom, Muhteşem Yüzyıl presents a sultan blissfully ignorant of the bitchery his short attention-span for women causes as it rips apart the corridors of the palace.
For the creators, Durul and Yağmur Taylan, this does not represent one of the show’s short-comings, but rather Suleiman’s short-comings represent him rather better than the usual immaculate hero typical of Turkish historical dramas. Speaking to Haber Türk, they commented that in Turkey “they teach a very idealized version of history. But our sultan is absolutely human – someone everybody can relate to”.

The most talked-about character of the series is Hürrem – Suleiman’s third wife, and former slave-girl whose intrigues were infamous at the time. Her role, performed by Meryem Uzerli, provides the key to many of the palace rivalries that give Muhteşem Yüzyıl the advantage over other historical dramas, that tend to neglect strong-female characters.
Philosopher-King Suleiman

The Muhteşem Effect

According to Ergenç, after the TV series gained popularity “people started reading history books and visiting historical places.” It has spurned an industry in Turkish historical dramas and movies, although arguably the series merely set the bar higher, with previous attempts at looking at the Ottomans, such as the movies Ottoman Republic and The Last Ottoman, being more tongue-in-cheek efforts.

It is not only Turkey that has contracted Ottoman fever, however, as the first series of Muhteşem Yüzyıl received record ratings in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is doing well all over the Balkans, the Middle East and Greece, suggesting that Turkey’s enthusiasm for the Ottoman’s is not simply related to domestic changes. Ergenç comments that “the Ottomans’ biggest expansion was under Suleiman. Everyone in those borders watches Turkish [tv] series. For instance, Croatia watches it – yet, Austria doesn’t, Serbia watches it, but Italy doesn’t. We share the same heritage.” According to one Greek, commenting on Hürriyet, “people are watching the series and then saying ‘ah! My grandmother used to say that!’,” speaking of the families of Greeks who fled from Anatolia in the last century.

It is clear that the revival has been a long-time coming and will no doubt lead to more and more questions being asked about Turkish history as it has formerly been presented. Culture, in the form of books and entertainment, by humanizing history, can help break down the wall with the past in the country’s search for how to view itself in the present.

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