The reign of the Ottoman sultan Suleiman I and his love life were the inspirations for the Turkish TV soap opera Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century), which ran for four seasons starting in 2011, and came to a close this year. 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 show begins with Prince Suleiman’s ascension to the throne as sultan. This is the beginning of his reign, and also the beginning of many complicated palace intrigues that would end with him ordering the killing of his own son. Many of the dramas of his life as sultan are planned carefully by the feisty Ukrainian slave Alexandra with whom he falls in love and later marries.
Viewers are introduced to the heroine in the first episode, when her family and community are massacred by the Tatars in front of her, and she is taken as a slave. German-Turkish actress Meryem Uzerli captivated viewers as she enticed and later manipulated the sultan.
Magnificent Century was filmed at Topkapi Palace, which was built over an 18-year period, from 1460 to 1478. The palace is now a museum and an archive open to the public. It has become a major tourist destination for Arabs who watched the show, helping divert Arab tourists to Turkey from the European destinations that were more popular before Arabic TV channels began broadcasting Turkish TV shows.
The ornate set is matched by delightfully elaborate costumes. The wardrobes of the countless slaves are as intricate as those of the main characters. Since the sultan’s hobby was jewelry making, his mother, sister, wife, and even some slaves wear dazzling pieces throughout the show.
The show grabbed the attention of the Western press because it captured the Turkish fascination with the Ottoman past, and also Arab fascination with Turkey. Despite its popularity and success, the show was criticized by Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as misrepresenting Suleiman the Magnificent. Many viewers were offended by the portrayal of this icon’s private life, and some were upset by the revealing dresses, bathing scenes, and intimate kisses on the screen.