Sunday, May 31, 2015

Magnificent Century: The TV Show Iran, Israel, Vietnam and the Rest of the World is Watching

Turkish television's Magificant Century has reportedly over 200 million viewers worldwide.

In our current age of interconnectivity, the vast majority of media is almost universally accessible, at least by those privileged enough to have internet access. We are no longer surprised to find out that Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones is almost as popular in England or Russia as it is in the United States or Canada. But while downloads and online streaming have increasingly allowed us to make educated forays into foreign cinema and television, those of us in the English-speaking world often remain woefully ignorant of trends – or manias even – sweeping the rest of the world. Just recently, as the result of a spontaneous Facebook post, I discovered that my guilty television pleasure is in fact a worldwide phenomenon. For years now I have been captivated by the show known in English as Suleiman the Magnificent or, more literally translated from the original Turkish (Muhteşem Yüzyıl), Magnificent Century. I watch it dubbed into Syrian Arabic, where it goes by the title Harim as-Sultan (The Sultan’s Harem); it has also been made available (dubbed or subtitled) in over a dozen other languages. The plot of the show is deceptively simple: it is the story of Sultan Suleyman (1494-1566, reigned 1520-1566) and his relationship with Hurrem Sultan, the Christian slave girl who eventually became his wife and a powerful political influence.

Produced by Tims Productions, Magnificent Century originally aired in Turkey in 2011 on the Show Channel and moved to Star TV in 2012. The first three seasons were directed by the Taylan brothers (Durul and Yagmur), who have worked on a number of hit television shows and movies in Turkey, while season four has been taken over by the lesser known Mert Baykal and Yagiz Alp Akaydin. It boasts an impressive cast, including Halit Ergenc as Sultan Suleyman, the German-Turkish Meryem Uzerli as Hurrem Sultan, and Nur Fettahoglu as Mahidevran Sultan, Suleyman’s first wife, Selma Ergec as Hatice Sultan, Suleyman’s sister, and Selim Bayraktar as the Chief Eunuch, Zumbul Aga.

Nur Fettahoglu, Meryem Uzerli, Feliz Ahmet and Selma Ergec
Turkish television serials have become a phenomenon since they exploded onto the Arabic satellite television scene in 2007 with Noor (Turkish; Gümüş). Dubbed into Syrian Arabic rather than the more traditional (but completely formal) classical Arabic in which most pan-Arab television is delivered, it was set in the 21st century (also unusual) and it boasted real production values, high quality acting, and contemporary themes that included class relations, religious and secular values, and even pre-marital sex and pregnancy (which, remarkably, did not always turn out badly). An hour of Turkish television drama usually costs at least $100,000 – that may seem like nothing compared to the 6-million dollar (!!) price tag for an episode of Game of Thrones, but it is light-years more than the 35- to 50-thousand that is standard for Arabic-language television. When I was first introduced to Turkish shows via Noor I was living in Damascus, and my Syrian friends and I became so obsessed that we ended up taking up a table in a café in the shadow of the Ummayid mosque just to watch the broadcast.

Magnificent Century is set in the 16th century rather than the 21st, but many of the themes are of equal contemporary interest – as least as far as can be judged by the worldwide response to the show! It is available, translated or dubbed, in Arabic, English, Farsi, Spanish, Lithuanian, Italian, Russian, French, Vietnamese and Hebrew (to name just a few). There are well over 200 million viewers worldwide, and in Iran, where it is the most popular show on television, I have been told that it has even inspired whole ranges of women’s accessories. (As it should, since the costuming puts both Mad Men and Game of Thrones to shame. I cannot adequately communicate how much I want to wear tiaras now – and if you type ‘muhtasim yuzil’ or ‘harim sultan’ into Etsy.com, you too can find the Ottoman-inspired hairpiece of your dreams.)

This show is Game of Thrones without the rape, Mad Men without the self-conscious need for redemption… it is a soap-opera with world-historical scope and a historical drama unafraid to step in and fictionalize its characters. The theme song competes with the notoriously chilling chords familiar to viewers from Game of Thrones, and while the credits are eerily similar in style to the hit HBO series, it should be noted that Magnificent Century began to air in January 2011, almost four months before Game of Thrones.

Admittedly, there are occasional scenes in which the acting falls a bit flat (the main female character’s sobs in the first episode seem a bit onion-induced). And there are also moments that might induce uncontrollable laughter in the North American or European viewer – personally, the first time I saw the Sultan’s council assembled the plethora and extravagance of the hats almost made my cry with laughter. But these are not melodramatic flourishes: they are a mostly accurate representation of the ways that clothing indexed hierarchy in the Ottoman court. The Ottomans regulated dress quite strictly, with hats serving as a fast and efficient means of distinguishing nobles from councilors from servants from slaves from merchants, Muslims from Christians from Jews, and on and on and on… and this was just for the men! In the women’s world, hats also separated slaves from concubines from wives, and all of those from maids of different types of work.

Halit Ergenc and Meryem Uzerli in  Magnificent Century.

This is a viscerally enjoyable show, a love story, but with more than enough content for viewers who want more cerebral pleasures – viewers receive, in addition to court intrigue, a certain education in the foreign policy of the Ottoman Empire under Suleyman, particularly in relationship to the French and the Germans who posed the only real threats to Ottoman dominance. There are extremely complicated gender and sexual dynamics within the woman’s palace and between the women and men at court: while the woman are indeed formally, and often in actuality, subordinate to the men, their ability to exercise influence in both positive and negative ways in quite remarkable. There is also a sub-theme (whether the producers of the show intended it or not) of sexual identities. I find the Chief Eunuch, Zumbul Aga, to be one of the most remarkable characters in the show. Though he is often played for comic relief (when one of the teachers in the harem explains to the concubines-in-training what a eunuch is, complete with hand gestures, they cannot stop laughing), he is also the one person essential to any sort of plan or conspiracy, and his importance is established by the third episode of the first season of the show. And it quickly becomes apparent that, to some degree, it is a desire for respect (by men to men) that determines to whom Zumbul Aga gives his loyalty.

In many ways the story remains faithful to historical fact, as least as far as such facts are known. The details of the life of the Sultan and Hurrem Sultan, Suleyman’s military campaigns, and the life and death of his children, are all (so far) close to what is known in history. Where the show excels is in imagining (with no pretension to historical accuracy) the sort of people and personalities who could undertake the kind of adventures and intrigues that Suleyman and Hurrem undertook. I can only imagine one of the creators of the show thinking: what would it take for a Christian slave, woman, and peasant from beyond nowhere, to become the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire? The answer that the team behind Magnificent Century gives is not always pretty or nostalgic. Not surprisingly, the Christian slave does not become the Sultan’s favorite, fend off all challenges, and see her son become the Sultan in his turn, by being a sweetheart. Suleyman is also a complete character – educated, religiously faithful, patient (patience he apparently acquired when being trained early in life in the production of jewelry). He is also authoritarian, expansionist, with a libido that sometimes overwhelms that legendary patience.

Engin Gunaydın and Selim Bayraktar in Magnificent Century.
It should be noted that this multi-faceted portrayal of one of the most celebrated leaders in Turkish history has drawn some fairly harsh criticism from Turkey’s current leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In 2011, as the show began to air, he called on the network broadcasting the show to apologize for having inaccurately infringed upon “the privacy of a historical person,” adding that it constituted “an effort to show our history in a negative light to the younger generation”; in 2012, he threatened to take legal action against the show. These criticisms should of course be understood in the context of Erdogan’s own efforts to reappropriate (and potentially re-Islamize) the Ottoman history of Turkey for his own purposes. But criticism of the show has not been confined within the borders of Turkey itself; in Greece, both Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki and the notoriously right-wing fascist Golden Dawn political party (currently on trial in Greece) have criticized the show and those who watch it for “surrendering” to the Greeks. In Macedonia, Magnificent Century has been seen as such an efficient vehicle for Turkish culture and influence that in 2012 the Macedonian government passed a bill that will gradually see all Turkish television removed from Macedonian broadcasts: “They’re all fascinating,” Macedonian Information and Society Minister Ivo Ivanovski said, “but to stay under Turkish servitude for 500 years is enough.” It has been a more unqualified hit in Israel for the largely Russian-language Channel 9 TV station. Haaretz newspaper reported in late 2014 that the show had a wide and enthusiastic following among non-Russian speaking Israelis, as well as some politicians: former Transportation Minister Israel Katz (Likud), MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah), and former government minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

For English-speakers, the best way to view Magnificent Century is probably on YouTube, where most of the episodes are available with English subtitles. Greek viewers can download most of the episodes from file-sharing sites, and Arabic-speakers have a plethora of access points, from regular YouTube streams to the more high-def subscription service offered by smartphone apps. Frankly, at this point someone simply needs to give Magnificent Century Chinese subtitles just to make it truly world-dominant. However you watch it, watch it you should – it is fascinating, it is informative, and most of all, it is just plain fun.

Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

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