A spiced-up TV show on a legendary Ottoman sultan divides Turkey

The soap opera is drawing viewers—and criticism from the religious conservatives as well as nationalists
Suleiman the racy
Murad Sezer/Reuters

“The past is always an invented land,” Nobel winning novelist Orhan Pamuk once said. “The revision of the past is always held to the political struggles of the country.”

This insight rings particularly true in his native Turkey, where a massively popular soap opera depicting the most revered sultan of the Ottoman Empire is sparking controversy and tension between liberals, diehard nationalists and religious conservatives. The show, which at US$500,000 an episode is the most expensive ever for Turkish television, is called Muhtesym Yuzil (The Magnificent Century). It depicts the personal life of Suleiman the Magnificent, who ruled during the 16th century.

Nationalists have been critical of the show’s focus on the sultan’s personal life, which they say diminishes the glories of the empire during his rule, when Ottoman territory spanned west to modern-day Austria and east into what is now Iran. Religious conservatives, meanwhile, are outraged at how Suleiman is shown drinking wine and cavorting with women (there are kissing scenes and nudity), arguing that this is historically inaccurate and offensively un-Islamic.

“That’s a little bit harsh,” says Murat Yasar, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Toronto who grew up in Turkey and watches the show. “[Producers] don’t claim to be historically accurate, that’s the thing. They say they were inspired by history.”

After it first aired in January 2011, Turkey’s Supreme Board of Radio and Television reportedly received more than 70,000 complaints about the show. Even Prime Minister Recep Erdog?an, who heads the Islamic political party AKP, condemned the program as “an effort to show our history in a negative light to younger generations.” Such resentment resulted in protests outside the office of the program’s private broadcaster, where demonstrators hurled eggs and chanted, “God is great,” the Guardian reported.

One of the show’s main plot lines follows the romance between Suleiman and his slave-girl-turned-queen, Roxelana. Female characters like Roxelana, who are intelligent and independent-minded, have become regular features of Turkish soap operas, which are often broadcast to millions of viewers across the Middle East. Fifty million women, for example, reportedly tuned in for the finale of the soap opera Noor in 2008. With such massive audiences—and taboo subject matter—Yasar says many believe these shows are challenging gender assumptions in the Arab world. “They show that women can be strong and Muslim at the same time,” he says.

But in Turkey, Muhtesym Yuzil is part of a wider “Ottomania,” says Yasar. The state broadcaster recently debuted its own show about the era, called Once Upon a Time Ottoman. Yasar says Turkey’s rising influence as a regional power is responsible for this renewed interest in the country’s imperial history, and that this, more than anything, is behind the controversy in how that history is portrayed. “You’ll see young people in Turkey wearing The Empire Strikes Back T-shirts that have the emblem of the Ottoman Empire,” he says. “Turks are proud of that.”