ALL HISTORY is contested. This is pointedly true in Turkey, a country which for decades wilfully ignored its imperial history, but which has – all of sudden – rediscovered its Ottoman past. Increasingly, Turks are taking pride in an era when the Turkish polity was the dominant player in the broader region, when the sultans, ensconced in the so-called Sublime Porte, called the shots in southeastern Europe, the Middle East and north Africa.
This is yet another aspect of neo-Ottomanism, a multi-faceted concept, which for some means a projection of soft power, for some signals resurgent expansionary intent on the part of an ‘Islamist’ government and for others Turkey’s re-acquainting itself with its neighbours.
In the cultural sphere, neo-Ottomanism means renewed appreciation for and use of the motifs, iconography and tropes of Turkish history. It also means soap operas. And the biggest soap opera inside and outside of Turkey at the moment is Muhteşem Yüzyıl (literally “Magnificent Century”), which depicts the life of Sultan Süleyman I, widely regarded as the greatest of all Ottoman sultans.
So, what’s to be contested? Plenty, it seems… Rather than allowing the Turkish viewing public an escapist, broadly fictionalised, weekly instalment that allows them to muse on the glories of the House of Osman, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has weighed in, decrying the series. He declared that the government had issued warnings to the producers and had suggested the judiciary rule against the series. Erdoğan’s beef appears to be with certain historical inaccuracies and the show’s unhealthy preoccupation with the goings-on of the harem and depiction of Süleyman engulfed in miscellaneous palace intrigues rather than in the saddle, where, as Erdoğan has it, he spent 30 years, on campaign, extending the boundaries of the realm and the glory of Islam.
Blogger and academic Ece Algan has posited that Erdoğan sees himself as a latter-day Süleyman, the man who will lead the Turks to another cultural and geo-political zenith, thus tawdry portrayals of Süleyman detract from his image as a statesman, a world leader.
Whatever the case it seems to have escaped Erdoğan’s notice that Muhteşem Yüzyıl is a soap opera. Aimed at a mass market. The show is about entertainment, not historical accuracy, nor projections of soft power. In fact, a real-life descendant of the Ottoman sultans has remarked as much. The son of the last Ottoman şehzade (prince), Osman Selaheddin Osmanoğlu, told Hürriyet Daily News he watches the show “but I don’t take it seriously since it is only a soap opera”.
And an entertaining soap it is. (Plenty of episodes, beginning with the first, are viewable online.) It doesn’t qualify as a bodice ripper (Islamic sensibilities are at work here, whether historically accurate or not!!), but there’s plenty of sumptuous costumes, the full measure of outlandish Ottoman headgear, elaborate sets, hammy acting, battle scenes and cheap-looking CGI. All of this, as well as requisite plot lines involving the duplicity, conniving, emotional manipulation and rampant bitchiness (counterpointed by macho posturing) from the assembled cast. It amounts to a hell of a lot of fun.
There is an element of Orientalist fantasy to it all, which perhaps explains some of its appeal to modern Turkish viewers. Indeed, Orientalist stereotypes – intrinsically negative – creep into many portrayals of Turkey in popular culture. Of these, Lauren Rosewarne notes the swarthy, soccer-obsessed, underhanded baddies in recently released Taken 2, which is set in İstanbul. Of course, the (Western) hero here is honourable and upstanding, in contradistinction to aforementioned baddies. (For some added locational authenticity (!), Taken 2 features a fight scene in a hamam.)
Orientalist considerations aside, TV viewers are lapping up Muhteşem Yüzyıl. It has attracted a domestic and international audience of some 150 million, much of it, ironically enough, in former Ottoman possessions of the Balkans, but also in central Asia, southern Europe and the Arab world. The size and spread of this audience isn’t lost on Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry who appeared somewhat bemused at Erdoğan’s recent outburst and pointed out the economic benefits of such a wildly popular show.
That said, the series has no shortage of detractors within Turkey. Thousands have registered their displeasure with the Turkish broadcasting watchdog, noting the perceived decadence and licentiousness of the intra-palace goings-on as portrayed. Perhaps it is to this gallery that Erdoğan is playing. Alternatively he may be attempting to distract attention from more pressing, intractable political issues. Or it could be just more evidence of a worrisome authoritarian streak, which seems to becoming more pronounced after a decade in power. (Witness his ramming through planning of a controversial, oversize mosque – for some, large to the point of vulgarity – on İstanbul’s Çamlıca hill.)
Concerns with the themes and impact of Turkey’s historical soap operas are not restricted to elements within Turkish society. The Macedonian parliament has moved to ban Turkish shows on the grounds that due to the popularity of Turkish buy-ins Macedonian-made shows aren’t getting a look in, but also because, in the words of the Information and Society Minister, “to stay under Turkish servitude for 500 years is enough”.
Exactly how watching a foreign-made TV programme amounts to servitude may not be immediately obvious to all, but in this corner of the world memories are long and often nationalism-infused, so even innocuous phenomena like soap operas may be seen as the vanguard – or aftertaste – of cultural subjugation. Like I said, all history is contested, and agenda driven. Now, it seems, so is the mundane act of sitting down to watch the tellie.