The Sultans of Soap

Actors of the popular Turkish soap opera "Nour"  Kivanc Tatlitug (L) and Songul Oden (R) attend the closing ceremony of the 7th Muscat International Film Festival in the Omani capital on March 31, 2012 (MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP/Getty Images) Actors in the popular Turkish soap opera "Nour," Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ (L) and Songül Öden (R), attend the closing ceremony of the seventh Muscat International Film Festival in the Omani capital on March 31, 2012. (MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP/Getty Images)

Actors in the popular Turkish soap opera "Nour," Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ (L) and Songül Öden (R), attend the closing ceremony of the seventh Muscat International Film Festival in the Omani capital on March 31, 2012. (MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP/Getty Images)

When one of Turkey’s leading TV stations pitched the idea of an Ottoman-era TV series three years ago, critics were skeptical. With all the sitcoms, talent shows and the action-packed drama Valley of the Wolves leading in the ratings, who would watch a show set in the era of Suleiman the Magnificent?

To great surprise, almost the entire Middle East and the Balkans tuned in. The Magnificent Century became one of the highest-earning TV series in Turkish TV history. It was a costly project, with an expensive talent pool, historical sets and war scenes. Even the harem costumes sparked a political debate in Turkey. The conservative ruling Justice and Development Party’s heavyweights criticized the cleavage on display, claiming Muslim women in the fifteenth century would never their display bosoms in that way.

Amid the storm of censorship, costumes went through some overhaul, and dialogue began to include more politics and religion and less romance—but the show was still a huge hit.

The Magnificent Century is just one example of how much the TV industry in Turkey has become the flagship of a cultural revolution in the Middle East. Turkish soap operas are now a USD 500 million business in Turkey. They are exported to 42 countries and employ about 6,000 people. Arab women are the biggest fans of Turkish soaps, as they portray women role models—as sultans, businesswomen and wives—that challenge the traditional family model. Not surprisingly, most successful Turkish soap operas are written, and some are even directed, by women. As Zainab Salbi, the founder of the Nida'a Network, a multimedia platform for Arab women, told Emirati newspaper The National, “Arab economies cannot develop without the inclusion of women. One way to do this is through the media to spread the message.”

The Forbidden Love was the soap opera that broke the barriers four years ago. As the name implies, it was a forbidden love story between a very young wife of a middle-aged businessman and her husband’s nephew. Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, who played the much-desired nephew, was dubbed the “Brad Pitt of the Middle East.” His face was on the cover of women’s magazines in Tunisia when I visited two years ago. The story originated from a novel set in late-nineteenth-century Istanbul, when European values empowered women but also kept them in their traditional roles at home. The Forbidden Love created a lot of anger in Muslim countries. Turkey was blamed for exporting non-Muslim values, but it still managed to carve out a different type of relationship model in Arab women’s minds.

The soaps have made Turkey a favorite tourism destination as well. Official figures from the Culture and Tourism Ministry show that the number of tourists coming to Turkey from Saudi Arabia rose by 88.74 percent on the year before, from Qatar by 102 percent, from Yemen by 106 percent, and from Israel 184 percent.

But not all is rosy in showbiz: this year’s TV season is off to a slow start in Turkey. Meryem Uzerli, the actress who portrayed the heroine of The Magnificent Century, Suleiman’s wife, Hurrem Sultan, has departed from the show. Since she left, the storyline has turned into a harem fight among the possible heirs and their favorites. In addition, its main competitor, Fatih, which tells the story of the conqueror of Istanbul, Fatih Sultan Mehmet, failed to capture a big audience in the first three weeks of its run. Younger viewers seem to be more eager to tune into talent shows or the Turkish remake of The OC.

Experts say Turkish soap operas will still reign in the old Ottoman territories for a while—but at home, audiences seem to be ready for something more hip and less traditional.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.


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