In 2011 a Turkish television network and TIMS productions launched a television soap opera called The Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyıl in Turkish) that lasted for four seasons and came to an end in 2014. Shatha Almutawa writes that “hundreds of millions of viewers watched the show, not only in Turkey, but also in Pakistan, Bosnia, Croatia, China, and other countries, including several in the Arab world (where it was called The Sultan’s Harem and dubbed in Arabic). This month it began airing in the United States on MundoFox, dubbed in Spanish.” The soap opera has captivated major countries and their audiences. However, there was local pushback when the show first aired on Turkish television (see The New York Times articles and The New Yorker for examples). The Magnificent Century came under attack by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. In a New York Times article titled “Will Turkey Surrender its opportunity to lead?” readers learn that Erdogan had threatened the makers of the soap opera. According to the new sources, “[Erdogan] complained that the series, which exaggerates the palace intrigue, romance, and sex life of Suleiman the Magnificent… was historically inaccurate.” The depiction of men and women in the television series has challenged the conservative notions about gender that are held by the Turkish government. The depiction of women within the television series is different from the way in which women are represented in Arabian Nights.
“[Erdogan] complained that [The Magnificet Century], which exaggerates the palace intrigue, romance, and sex life of Suleiman the Magnificent… was historically inaccurate.”
The global recognition for the television series suggests that there is a Western fascination for the Arab. In the television show, the 16th century Ottoman Empire is very optimistic. Rather than always highlighting the oppression faced by women, the show makes the women seem as if they are seductive and this is Sultan Suleiman’s weakness within the television show. In other words, the image of the women within the television show is an optimistic view, but one that exposes women as vulnerable. The life in the harem, a special location within a palace that houses the Sultan’s concubines, wives, and female servants. In the television show, the woman appears to have more agency over her body and her decisions. In particular, this is seen through the actions taken by one of the women actresses, however, is significant to note that most of the female characters are very assertive. The role of women within the show is optimistic and perhaps the myth being created is that women during the 16th century Ottoman Empire were subtly subverting the patriarchy. Especially since the Sultan Suleiman is falling, and perhaps manipulated, by his concubine Alexandra. Similarly to Scheherazade from Arabian Nights, Alexandra takes advantage of the social system in order to survive. However, Arabian Night the women lack any form of agency. In particular, they are seen as evil and wicked beings whose promiscuity is a tragic flaw. In contrast to the show, the women in Arab literature are more reserved and less willing to take major risks, that is all except Scheherazade. For instance, the prologue of Arabian Nights “The Story of King Sharhrayar and Shahrazad, His Vizier’s Daughter” explains that both kings kill their wives because women are unfaithful. Scheherazade supports the negative view of women when she recounts the story of “The Tale of the Merchant and his Wife.” In the story, Scheherazade explains that the merchant disciplined his wife after she was coercing him to confess a secret that would result in his death. In Arabian Nights women are a bad omen that requires discipline. This is present in certain parts of The Magnificent Century, in particular when Alexandra quarrels with Sultan Suleiman’s first legal wife. However, her actions are depicted as excusable and necessary because of her conditions and the nature of the harem.
There is a disconnect between the Arab and Western worlds, but this show allowed a Western audience to essentially be fed a modern myth regarding the Ottoman Empire. The television show is exciting because it shows strong and powerful women taking action during a time when the role of women was more subverted. However, it is important to note that the role of women within the Sultan’s harem was different in comparison to the quotidian women found outside of the harem. This nuanced distinction of roles is seen through the development of Sultan’s Suleiman’s favorite concubine, Alexandra, who eventually rises through the ranks. In the show, Alexandra converts to Islam, is renamed by the Sultan as Hürrem (the joyful or cheerful one), gains her freedom, becomes legally married to the Sultan, and most importantly; gives birth to several male heirs. However, western viewers need to look at the show more critically than they have been because the Turkish government criticized the show for its “inaccurate” and “insulting” depiction of history and Sultan Suleiman. As a Western audience, we must not forget that the show is fiction and that its representation of history may be inaccurate, even though the show was inspired by real events and real historical figures who are highly recognized in academia, history, and popular culture. In what follows I suggest that the show is pushing its viewers, both in Turkey and beyond, to recreate the ancient myth of the Ottoman Empire in hopes of replacing it with a modern myth reflective of our time. The role of women has increased significantly in the Western world and has not improved in Turkey. According to a BBC report “Women challenged Turkey traditions for the right to work” women in modern-day Turkey lack agency because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric towards women is legitimatizing the subverted position of women. Erdogan creates a myth about the qualities he believes the ideal woman should have. Erdogan says to women who are not mothers are “deficient” and he has been known to urge women to have at least three children. Additionally, he has publicly denounced the use of birth control and called it a treasonous act. In the television series, we get a more progressive view of what could be and not what actually was.
The show has become part of what is known as Ottomania, a Turkish trend that is fully invested in all aspects of the Ottoman Empire. Western reports of this trend have specifically cited that the soap opera The Magnificent Century has helped propel a national interest towards the Ottoman Empire. However, this interest is meant to also correct the inaccuracies found within the soap opera. During the first episode of the show, the viewers are prompted with a message that reads: Bu dizideki olay ve karakterler, tarihten ilham alınarak kurgulanmıştır. [The events and characters of this show have been fictionalized through inspiration from history.] Due to the strict censorship laws that exist within Turkey, the producers found it necessary to indicate that the show is a fictional representation of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Suleiman. Modern-day portrayals of the Arab world sometimes fail to capture the accurate myth. In the show, rather than preserving the myth in its entirety, the soap opera drama alters the myth. The true treatment and view of women during this period is veiled because of the television series depiction of women. In essence, popular culture creates a new myth.
The video below is a quick summary of one of the most influential women of the Ottoman Empire. Additionally, the speaker of the video focuses on creating a myth about Roxelana as a Ukrainian girl who gained power in the Ottoman Empire. The speaker’s depiction of the life of Roxelana is melodramatic and optimistic. The description essentially captures the liberal tones of the television series and it is perhaps a form of pride for Ukrainians to claim Roxelana since she is a popular historical figure, and perhaps most importantly, she was a woman leader. The myth created in the video helps women and Ukraine feel a sense of empowerment. Rather than including historical portraits of Roxelana, the video contains a lot more of the scenes found in The Magnificent Century. This choice is significant because the show also has an optimistic view about women that challenges the conservative view of Turkey’s subversion of women. In essence, the myth of the television show has changed the way in which viewers interpret history. Instead of thinking that women within the harem experienced subversion, viewers are led to believe that the men were the ones who were actually under subvertion. Sultan Suleiman’s desire to marry Alexandra (Roxelana) shows that he is easily persuaded, and perhaps manipulated, by women’s sensuality and sex. His desires weaken and undermine the historical myth about his “magnificence.” In the show, women are the true agents of their destiny and of the harem.