Can a smash TV soap bring closure for historical wrongs and succour from contemporary turmoil? The Turkish series on the 16th-century Ottoman monarch Suleiman the Magnificent certainly tries.
From the Arab world to the Balkans, the story of the sultan’s harem and his romance with a Slav beauty has captivated nations that suffered under Ottoman domination.
“This series is a real phenomenon,” says Khulud Abu Hommos, the executive vice president of the OSN network.
The Magnificent Century – or Harrem Al Sultan (The Sultan’s Harem) in its dubbed Arabic version – tells the tale of Suleiman and Roxelana, against a background of palace intrigue at the peak of Ottoman power.
A sumptuous costume drama, more than 300 episodes have been broadcast so far in what Hommos says is “the highest ever watched drama show on OSN” – though she declined to give figures.
“It is also a kind of fairy tale – mixing romance with history,” she says, but “it has political relevance”.
“In the Arab world, where people are frustrated with the political situation, it gives them pride in Muslim history – it portrays Muslim leaders as just and fair.”
As for Michel Naufal, an expert on Arab-Turkish relations, fascination with the Turkish series is the result of “a sort of reconciliation with the past”.
“Abuses, repression and the Turkification of the Young Turks” linger on in the memory from the final years of the Ottoman Empire, before its collapse in the wake of the First World War, he says.
But with the series, “people are rediscovering the good side of the Ottoman Empire, this federation before federalism, an empire where ethnic and religious communities coexisted,” he says.
The story of a slave girl conquering the heart of one of the empire’s most famous sultans, of their marriage and a son lining up as the successor, has held Arab audiences spellbound for more than two years.
The elaborate sets and costumes have swept the fashion world in Arab countries.
“Women are buying apparel like those of actresses in the series and asking me to imitate their hairstyles,” says Maro Dheini, who runs a hairdressing salon in Dubai.
But photographs on Facebook of a glitzy Suleiman-themed party attended by families close to the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the war-battered country have stirred anger on social media.
Balkan countries struggled for almost 500 years for freedom from the Ottoman Empire, only to find themselves glued to television screens for Suleiman the Magnificent’s exploits.
From Albania in the south to Croatia in the north, the series often beats the most popular western or local shows in the ratings.
Both private and several state-run television stations have broadcast the series, with regular reruns.
In the tiny Adriatic state of Montenegro, ratings show that an average of 57,000 people, or about nine per cent of the population, watch every episode.
“Viewers can identify with characters, cultural stereotypes ... Hundreds of years under Turkish rule mean that we, here, share similar values,” says the film and television critic Vuk Perovic.
In Croatia, the first territory in the Balkans freed from Turkish rule in the early 17th century, The Magnificent Century holds a 21 per cent audience share. Its popularity has boosted efforts to rebuild a 16th century wooden bridge named after the famed sultan in the town of Osijek.
Suleiman’s rule in Serbia was marked by the fall of Belgrade in 1521. Local historians say the “ruthless” sultan forced more than 2,000 Serbian families to work in Turkey.
“In the show, the Turkish army’s relations to the local population is more subtle and benign, in discord with historic data,” says the history professor Ema Miljkovic.
But viewers seem indifferent to such complaints, as audience figures show that even on its third rerun, Suleiman commands a share of about 20 per cent.
Aficionados are organising a themed New Year’s Eve party near the walls of Belgrade’s Kalemegdan fortress, which failed to stave off the sultan’s occupation of the city.
Two Albanian actors in supporting roles, Nik Xhelilaj and Almeda Abazi, only add to the popularity of the Turkish series back home.
In Macedonia, the communications professor Dona Kolar Panov says: “The show is a popular topic to reflect on shared cultural traditions in the region, but also to overcome the past marred with nationalism, political violence and wars – to finally put to rest the Balkan ghosts.”
The sociologist Klime Babunski from Skopje also stresses cultural familiarity.
“We have all grown up with tales from the Ottoman Empire era, either through the education system or from folk tales,” he says.
In Kosovo, scene of the Kosovo Polje battle, where the Serbian kingdom was defeated by the invading Ottoman troops in 1389, the show has united ethnic Albanians and the minority Serbs.
Although they watch it on different channels, subtitled in their own languages, fans share their opinions on the internet.
A magazine in the ethnically divided northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica recently reported: “It’s a quarter past eight in the evening. Streets on both sides of the town are empty. Worshippers are glued to the screens. Congratulations, Suleiman!”
• Season 3 of Hareem Al Sultan screens from Saturday to Wednesday at 11pm on OSN Ya Hala!
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