The Sultan’s Reign ends with a Bang

Still from Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyıl/TIMS Productions)

Still from Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyıl/TIMS Productions)

It was almost an impossible dream in the beginning. When a small, newly-formed local TV production company embarked on a journey to tell the story of the longest living Ottoman Sultan in history, most critics scoffed at the idea. Even the poster and teasers for the show resembled the popular British TV drama The Tudors. However, after four seasons and hundreds of millions of viewers around the world tuning in to watch it, Magnificent Century, portraying the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, has set a new standard for Turkish television.

The grand finale of the TV drama aired last Wednesday. According to Sina Koloğlu, a TV critic for Milliyet newspaper, that single final episode generated 2 million US dollars of advertising revenues—a record breaking amount.

Though the show could not yet be compared to Game of Thrones, it was the most expensive TV production in Turkish history. For every episode there was a 130-strong production team that included twenty-five people for costumes alone. For the 139 episodes, there were almost fifty main characters. From popular models to international celebrities, people literally lined up to appear, even if just as an extra, in Magnificent Century. It was not only a television phenomenon but also an artistic endeavor that, some have said, has raised the bar for historical dramas in Europe and the Middle East.

Magnificent Century, just like the intrigue in the Sultan's harem it portrays, was not without political controversy. Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, criticized the first and second seasons of the series for having “too much cleavage.” Erdoğan also referred to the popular TV drama in his political rallies, criticizing the producers for portraying too much romance and intimacy in the show. “Our ancestors did not live in the Topkapı Palace that long,” he said. “They raced from one war zone to another to create an empire. This TV series portrays them as if they lived in [the] harem all the time. This is not our history.”

The success of Magnificent Century came from the very heart of Turkish society’s need to understand its past and to come to terms with its mistakes. The show’s chief screenwriter, Meral Okay, who died of cancer before the third season started, had conducted months of research into Sultan Suleiman’s character and his love for his only wife, Hürrem Sultan. “He was not just a warrior or a statesman,” Okay said. “He was a wonderful poet, a master of jewelry and a truly passionate lover. It blows my mind to read the poems he wrote to Hürrem. He was a man with all good things and weaknesses too.”

Okay’s passion to put the story into human terms and to fill it with female energy paid off so well that TIMS Productions, the company behind the show, is now considering a follow-up series about a young concubine, named Kösem, and her rise to power.

According to a number of TV columnists the show, Kösem Sultan, will be the next big thing in the historical drama line-up. Originally from Greece, the real life Kösem’s birth name was Anastasia and she was sent to the Topkapı Palace in 1605 at the age of fifteen. The wife of a Sultan and the mother of two others, she ruled the Ottoman Empire as regent twice.

TIMS’s choice to continue the Ottoman saga with a powerful heroine may also be the sign of the times. As Turkish women seek role models to challenge the conservative political atmosphere, Kösem Sultan may become the Katniss of The Hunger Games or the Khaleesi of Game of Thrones for the Middle East.

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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