“Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (Magnificent Century), one of the most successful TV series of all time that captivated millions in Eastern Europe and Middle East entered its finale with a murder that changed the course of history. Millions watched in horror yesterday as deaf and mute executioners strangled Mustafa, the heir apparent, on orders of his father Sultan Suleiman aka Suleiman The Magnificent or “The Lawgiver.” As living testimony to the series’ effective depiction of this historical event, thousands of teary eyed Turks flocked to Mustafa’s long-forgotten tomb to honour his memory.
Mustafa was Suleiman’s first-born and, at one time, his father’s favourite son. He received special training in martial arts as well as humanities and literature. He excelled on the battlefield, in his understanding of state affairs, and as a poet, qualities that his father held in high esteem. He was brave, honourable, just, generous and charismatic. The people and the Janissaries, fighting core of the Ottoman army, loved him and bonded with him. They saw him as the next Ottoman sultan and the only one among five brothers that deserved to sit on the throne.
It was an unfortunate twist of fate that Mustafa’s biggest adversary was Roxelana, or Hurrem Sultan, Suleiman’s Ukrainian concubine that became his officially wedded wife and probably the most powerful woman in Ottoman history. Hurrem bore four younger sons to Suleiman and was determined to protect them at all costs from a predetermined fate that nobody seemed to have any control over, institutionalised fratricide. Since Sultan Mehmed The Conqueror (of Constantinople) passed his famous edict that the younger princes could be killed legitimately for the higher good of the state, the younger Ottoman heirs lived on a glorified death row. It’s controversial whether it was plots by Hurrem, played magnificently by Meryem Uzerli, or Suleiman’s paranoia of being dethroned by his prodigal son, or both, that led to Mustafa’s downfall. There’s no doubt, however, that Suleiman’s magnificent ego felt threatened by Mustafa who seemed to be a competitor to him in every way.
Suleiman, played magnificently (there’s no other word to describe it) by Halit Ergenc, was a ruthless embodiment of the French despot Louis IV’s famous words “L’etat c’est moi”, “I am the state.” His conflicted personality believed that there was a higher good of the state that necessitated even the sacrifice of close family members and friends that he loved. Although he was the law he chose to believe that there was a higher law of justice that even he had to obey. He had another one of his sons executed for rebellion, and sought a fatwa from the religious authority for the execution of Mustafa and Grand Vazir Ibrahim Pasha, his brother-in-law and one of the most brilliant soldiers and statesmen in the history of the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa’s execution opened the way to the throne for his younger brother and Hurrem’s son Selim. Selim II, aka Selim the Sod, was a frail wino and woman-chaser that didn’t like war or the sight of blood. He left affairs of state to his Grand Vazir Sokollu, a Bosnian Serb convert that proved to be an able statesman and military commander until his assassination in 1571, the year most historians mark as the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Selim’s ascension to the throne didn’t leave much Turkish blood in the Ottoman Dynasty that had been bred by slaves of the Harem for the past hundred years. Selim changed the traditional recruitment and training process of Janissary Corps, conversion of Christian children, that had made Janissaries the elite fighting force of the Medieval Age. He introduced an era of sultans that wouldn’t go to war at the head of the army. The Corps gradually became a hotbed of nepotism, rebellion and Islamic fundamentalism obstructing all efforts of reformation and progress, one of the main reasons that led to the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Magnificent Century is a an extravagantly posh depiction of Topkapi Palace and the Sultan’s Harem in the 16th century. While the script has been fictionalised for the sake of creating suspense and romance to hook the audience to the 2-hour episodes, some of the historical facts about events and characters have been disturbingly realistic, which must be attributed to the superb casting made between Turkey and Germany. Two superstars were born in Meryem Uzerli and Selma Ergec, Turkish German actresses that played Hurrem Sultan and Hatice Sultan. Halit Ergenc, Mehmet Gursun and Okan Yalabik in the roles of Suleiman, Mustafa and Ibrahim Pasha are poised to go down in history as some of the most unforgettable characters on Television for extraordinary acting, as surveys reported that Magnificent Century is one of the most watched TV series in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It was announced last week that China has also decided to air the program.
Magnificent Century received a big blow last year as Meryem Uzerli, or Hurrem Sultan, left the set and returned to Germany. It wasn’t discovered until a few months later that she’d been impregnated and abandoned by an undeserving Turkish playboy who didn’t want the child. Millions of viewers addicted to Hurrem’s beauty and charms had a most difficult time adjusting to her replacement and wished that she had been kept in an impregnable medieval chastity belt.
As TV series go, Magnificent Century had a sultan’s share of political controversy, and nothing is immune to politics or political interference in Turkey, especially words and pictures. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan criticised the program as displaying too much fornication and cleavage and not enough of the Ottoman Turks’ battlefield victories, an ominous cue that was immediately remedied by the producers with a more conservative attire for women, Muslim prayers, and abstinence. As suggested by the name of his Justice and Development Party, Prime Minister is said to be an Ottoman history romantic that sees Suleiman The Magnificent/Lawgiver as his role model for his preoccupation with justice and the rule of law.
Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen criticised Magnificent Century as disrespectful and misrepresentative of Ottoman history. Topkapi (Palace), he said, is this country’s heart. Cetin Altan, a famous Turkish writer and journalist once observed that if you want to know how we (contemporary Turks) got here, all you need to do is look at what went on at Topkapi Palace. Suleiman's Magnificent Century was only the beginning of that story.