Forget About 'Game of Thrones': Turkish Telenovela That Enraged Erdogan Is a Hit in Israel

‘Magnificent Century’ has become an international sensation, with Israelis proving particularly avid fans of the soap opera. Set during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, it has even earned comparisons to ‘Sex and the City.’

Muhsin Akgun

The staff at Israel’s Channel 9 TV has been inundated in recent days by hundreds of worried viewers, demanding to know what has happened to the television show they are addicted to: where it has gone and, above all, when it is coming back to their screens.

Muhsin Akgun

The show to which they have become addicted to is the Turkish soap opera “Muhtesem Yüzyl” (“Magnificent Century” in English; “Hasultan” – “The Sultan” – in Hebrew).

A year after it began broadcasting here – after previously delighting viewers in Turkey and the Arab world, winning hearts from Cairo to Kosovo – in Israel, too, there are enthusiastic fans. It is unlikely anyone could have conceived the high ratings for Channel 9 – which broadcasts mainly in Russian, and appeals to Israel’s large Russian-speaking population – for a Turkish-speaking soap about the life of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. In Israel, it’s dubbed in Russian, but viewers of the digital broadcast can avoid the dubbing and watch the series with Hebrew subtitles.

At its peak, according to Channel 9 data, the program hit an audience share of nearly 5 percent. Among Russian speakers, that share was 7 percent. These are high figures for what is, for most Israeli viewers, an obscure niche channel.

But the most surprising factor is the makeup of the audience: It’s not only Russian-speaking Israelis who have become addicted to it. About 40 percent of the program’s viewers are native-born Israelis.

Some of them, according to Channel 9, are household names – among them Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) and MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah). Rumor has it that former government minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer never misses an episode.

They, like the addicted viewers complaining on Internet forums about the program’s disappearance, will be pleased to hear that it will return soon, screening the conclusion of the current season.

“We had to stop broadcasting the program for technical reasons,” explains Channel 9 CEO Victoria Gordin. “In the meantime, we have slotted in another series and will bring ‘Magnificent Century’ back at the end of February. But people are simply driving us crazy. There have been hundreds of appeals – to us, to the Communications Ministry, to the Cable and Satellite Broadcast Council. My secretary is busy all day long answering phone calls [about it]. Yesterday, someone called on behalf of the CEO of the [Israel] Airports Authority to ask what’s happening. It’s total madness!”

The concubine who rose to greatness

The madness, it turns out, isn’t unique to Israel. In January 2011, the series debuted on Turkish television network Show TV and became an unexpected, albeit controversial, hit. Maybe it’s the gorgeous costumes and sets; maybe it’s the fast-paced stories and good-looking actors; or maybe it’s simply because the plot is rife with intrigues, politics and emotions.

The plot begins in 1520, when the young Suleiman receives word that he has become the sultan after his father’s death, and the story going on to detail events around the palace and harem.

The 46 years of the sultan’s rule are a broad canvas for the series’ creators, focusing on the establishment of the Ottoman Empire and his relationships with women – particularly the concubine Alexandra, who converts to Islam for him, changes her name to Hurrem and becomes his powerful wife. One way or another, the series – which The New York Times dubbed “‘Sex and the City’ in the Ottoman Empire’ – became a sensation.

A year after it first aired, it was the subject of public criticism from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The prime minister at the time, he was furious with the representation of the sultan – generally recognized as the greatest of Turkey’s historic leaders – as a man dominated by passions, and Erdogan looked into the possibility of legal action against the series’ creators and the Turkish broadcast authority.

The cast of ‘Magnificent Century. Photo by Muhsin Akgun

In a speech about his country’s foreign policy in November 2012, Erdogan addressed critics who were wondering why Turkey was preoccupied with issues in Iraq, Syria and the Gaza Strip, and replied that the source of their criticism was because “they know our history from ‘Magnificent Century.’ We don’t know a Suleiman like that. He spent 30 years on horseback, not in a palace.”

The Turkish opposition, however, accused Erdogan of wanting to become a sultan himself – like in the era prior to the secular revolution led by first President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – a political leader who is also a religious authority.

It can’t be said that Erdogan’s displeasure had any impact on the series’ popularity. Turkey’s television and radio ombudsman did announce that his office had received more than 70,000 complaints about the series, some of them because the sultan was shown imbibing alcohol or lusting after women. But the viewing data showed a different picture. According to Nielsen Report figures, about a third of the prime-time television audience in Turkey watched the show. And despite vociferous demonstrators outside the Show TV studios who threw eggs and shouted “Allahu Akbar,” the number of viewers in the Arab world, the Balkans and some Eastern Europe countries (including Russia and Ukraine) has been estimated at 200 million.

Jewels and costumes

Though the series has been broadcast on Star TV since 2012 and, according to some fans, has become more moderate, its popularity remains undimmed. Indeed, it seems to have influenced an entire cultural move – both in Turkey and elsewhere. In 2012, filmgoers flocked to cinemas to see “Conquest 1453,” which describes the fall of Constantinople that same year. Another TV series, “Once Upon a Time in the Ottoman Empire” (also 2012), deals with events in the 18th century. Its creators even spoke of their desire to build an amusement park in the spirit of the empire.

On the Internet there’s a line of jewelry for men and women to buy, based on designs from “Magnificent Century.” And as if that weren’t enough, last month an exhibition opened in Istanbul showcasing costumes, sets and props from the series, which is slated to travel to the countries where the series has been a big hit.

And those countries are numerous. In general, the Turkish television industry – which produces many series – is a vibrant export industry. But what happened in the wake of “Magnificent Century” in a number of these countries was completely unexpected.

In Greece, for example, its huge popularity led both Anthimos, the bishop of Thessaloniki, and the Golden Dawn political party to condemn the series and its viewers because, in Anthimos’ words, “When we watch it, we tell Turkey we have surrendered.” And in Macedonia, the huge success of this and other Turkish series, and the fear that a Turkish influence will seep into the country, led to the passing of a law whereby there will be a gradual decrease in the number of Turkish series broadcast there.

So what is the secret of the series’ success? Even your correspondent, who is not a fan of telenovelas, has found herself drawn to the screen. Starting with the opening scene, the sultan’s majestic, mysterious life is depicted as a juicy affair. It is also slickly shot and festooned with the very best things Turkish dinars can buy.

“I don’t watch it continuously – an episode here, an episode there – but it catches your eye, even if you only watch it in Turkish,” concurs Channel 9’s Gordin. “It’s a series with a lot invested in it, including the costumes and sets, and it draws you in. To be honest, it deals with intrigues, especially among women, in the Ottoman Empire – and, to my mind, that explains the attraction in Turkey and the Arab world. This is what excites everyone so much. Suddenly, women’s power – even if only behind the scenes – comes into focus.”

Channel 9 only acquired the first three seasons of “Magnificent Century.” Because of its high cost and the series’ owners playing hardball, broadcast rights for the fourth season are still being negotiated. If a deal is not completed, the protests are likely to continue. “Just write that the series will come back at the end of February,” pleads Gordin. “This week, someone called to ask if the sultan’s son will succeed his father, because he can’t wait two months [to find out]. People have gone nuts.”