Muhteşem Yüzyıl: Art, Mystery, & Love.

If someone had told me three years ago that I’d be hooked up on a Turkish soap opera, I’d laugh at their face.

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There came a time in Egypt when Turkish soap operas and series started to invade our televisions and channels. You could easily notice that almost everyone you knew watched a series or two and does so almost religiously.

It all started with the Turkish soap
It all started with the Turkish soap “Noor Wa Mohanad”.

There are some factors that led to the Egyptians’ fascination with such series. First, the plot lines are usually extremely interesting and well-constructed that one could hardly get his eyes off the screen. Second, the series usually feature marvelous scenery of nature, extravagant villas and apartments, and of course, handsome actors and pretty actresses.

One of the palaces featured in Turkish series. Marvelous!
One of the palaces featured in Turkish series. Marvelous!

Hence, it is easy to see why people get so attracted to Turkish series. Add to this the fact that Egypt has been through an age of cinematic and artistic recession that people must be thirsty for a good thing to watch. Of course, this does not mean that all Turkish series are awesome. On the contrary, some of them are really lousy. But we’re just trying to analyze a certain trend that emerged in the past few years.

What about my story with the Turkish series? I never actually was a series person, more of a movies person. But one of them managed to pull me in, to lure me into watching all its four seasons, and to leave me with a whole new perspective on Turkish drama. That one is: Muhteşem Yüzyıl, or as marketed in the Middle East, حريم السلطان.

Muhteşem Yüzyıl season 3 poster. Don't say you're not interested yet!
Muhteşem Yüzyıl season 3 poster. Don’t say you’re not interested yet!

“Muhteşem Yüzyıl” literally translates to Turkish as “Magnificent Century” or القرن العظيم. But of course, a series with that title would not be so appealing to the Arab audience and hence the alternative name. The century they are referring to is the period when Sultan Suleiman “The Magnificent” ruled the robust Ottoman empire (1520-1566). He was the tenth and longest-reigning sultan. During his reign, the Ottoman empire was at its political, military, and economic apex. He was well-known for his justice and supreme power. Moreover, he was able to expand the empire and conquer lands that were thought impossible to venture in. He was also a patron of culture, architecture, and poetry.

The real Sultan Suleiman
The real Sultan Suleiman “The Magnificent”.

What’s intriguing about this sultan is his marriage to a Russian girl from his harem who converted to Islam and gave birth to four sons and a daughter. Back then, it was not accepted that a sultan gets married to any of his harem girls. Thus, this girl, known as Hurrem Sultan, became one of the most influential women in Ottoman history. In a nutshell, the series revolves around the rise of Hurrem from a harem girl to a sultana and the conflicts that resulted.

The real Hurrem Sultan.
The real Hurrem Sultan.

Anyways, I’m not here to talk about the specific historical background of the series. If you are already interested, you can read more about the era of Sultan Suleiman here. What I want to do is pinpoint the elements that made me so attracted to that series. To begin with, the minute you turn on the series, you’ll be mesmerized by the extravagant palaces, the lavish gardens, and the exquisite clothes and accessories featured in the series.

Sultan Suleiman's palace room in the series.
Sultan Suleiman’s palace room in the series.

These Turkish folks have managed to subtly but successfully transfer the audience to the mysterious and enchanting era of the Ottomans. You’ll be equally amazed at the amount of clothes and jewelry and the exuberant furniture made for each episode and season. They have not overlooked even the most minute of details. Obviously, the production company was far from cheap when it came to that series.

Look at the intricate patterns and the vibrant colors of the dresses.
Look at the intricate patterns and the vibrant colors of the dresses.
An example of the accessories worn by the actresses in the series.
An example of the accessories worn by the actresses in the series.

Since it is a historical, but not a documentary, kind of series, it gives the audience a thorough overview about life under the Ottoman rule, Sultan Suleiman’s achievements, and the secret life of the sultan’s harem. Most of the names, events, chronological order, and relationships between characters are true to history. Of course, there are some events that are wholly the result of the writer’s imagination. However, the major things are true. You can know more about the historical figures and the actors here on the series’ official website.

What draws you even more to the series is the professionalism and the authenticity of the actors. They all seem to internalize their roles to a great extent, from the role of a harem girl in the background of events to the role of the sultan himself. They have the ability to act out the hardest and most complex of scenes with great skill. You cry, you fall in love, you grieve, you jump with joy with the characters.

One of the scenes in the series.
One of the scenes in the series.

Moreover, the fact that the series is over four seasons (without EVER becoming boring, which is something they deserve credit for), gives you a chance to know the characters up close and personal. You are familiar with how they feel, how they think, and what they want. You are able to closely monitor their developments, their ups, and their downs. The series leaves you emotionally involved with the characters to a degree you did not know was possible.

One of the most touching scenes in the entire series.  Watch the series to see for yourself !
One of the most touching scenes in the entire series.
Watch the series to see for yourself !

And for someone interested in the intricacies of human relations and psychology like me, this is the ultimate treat. I personally felt some void after the series was over. Moreover, I never cried as much in any series before (I’m not gonna tell you what I was crying about though :D)

If you are an artistic person, you’ll instantly be magnetized by the beautiful symphonies played during the series. Each symphony is a work of art, seriously. The fact that a specific piece of music is related to a certain event or special moment in the series makes you all the more attached and fond of it.

Ibrahim Pasha, the Grand Vizier, playing the violin.
Ibrahim Pasha, the Grand Vizier, playing the violin.

What is even more interesting is that they do not use modern instruments or highly technical beats in the series’ music, which further reinforces the historical and classical atmosphere of the series. I actually downloaded some of these masterpieces on my cell phone and I listen to them whenever I feel like I want to engage myself in some ethereal music (Some of my thoughts about music in this previous post). You can listen to some of these tracks here:

Another thing that attracted me to the series is the diverse image of beauty they deliver. Despite the fact that the series is set in a period in history that did not allow the actresses to wear makeup on the set (the obvious kind at least), each actress possesses a different and unique of beauty. They do not all have the same Hollywood smile, or slim physique, or long straight hair, or any of the other archetypal attributes of beauty we are bombarded with nowadays. Chapeau!

From left to right: Hurrem Sultan, Hafsa Sultan, Mahidevran Sultan, and Khadija Sultan.
From left to right: Hurrem Sultan, Hafsa Sultan, Mahidevran Sultan, and Khadija Sultan.
From left to right (top): Mihrimah Sultan, Nurbanu Sultan, and Mihronissa Sultan. (Bottom): Fatimah Sultan and Shaherezad Sultan.
From left to right (top): Mihrimah Sultan, Nurbanu Sultan, and Mihronissa Sultan.
(Bottom): Fatimah Sultan and Shaherezad Sultan.

Last but not least is the timeless love story of Sultan Suleiman and Hurrem Sultan, which is what Arab ladies swoon over…that and the incredibly handsome actors (including me tbh).

Center: Sultan Suleiman. Top to bottom (right): Prince Beyazid and Prince Mustafa. Top to bottom (left): Prince Saleem and Prince Cihangir.
Center: Sultan Suleiman.
Top to bottom (right): Prince Beyazid and Prince Mustafa.
Top to bottom (left): Prince Saleem and Prince Cihangir.
Left to right: Prince Mohammed, Bali Bey, Yehia Chalijali, and Ibrahim Pasha.
Left to right: Prince Mohammed, Bali Bey, Yehia Chalijali, and Ibrahim Pasha.

They both fought hard battles and compromised a lot of important things for their love to thrive. And don’t think that their life was all roses and poems; there came times and months went by when they would not look at each other’s faces or communicate with each other by any means. However, it was an against-all-odds kind of love but not the cheesy type. He wrote her heartwarming poems, chanting about his eternal love for her, and she did the same.

The timeless love story between Suleiman and Hurrem.
The timeless love story between Suleiman and Hurrem.

You can clearly see that their love was one of the main motives behind some of the major decisions they made. One’s existence and well-being depended on the other. She turned his life upside down and he did the same to her, in a good way. It was one of those stories that filled your heart and stomach with butterflies. Of course, they are other heart-wrenching love stories in the series that also take your heart to places faraway, but that was the major one which other stories revolved around.

The love story of Prince Mustafa and Mihronissa Sultan.
The love story of Prince Mustafa and Mihronissa Sultan.
The love story of Prince Saleem and Nurbanu Sultan.
The love story of Prince Saleem and Nurbanu Sultan.

All in all, I can honestly say that I enjoyed every second of watching that epic series. The series plays a huge role in inciting people’s curiosity about the Ottoman history and makes them more keen to read and learn more about it (Yes, I’m talking about myself here). Moreover, it made people all the more interested in paying a visit to the timeless city of Istanbul and see the magnificent palaces shown in the series such as the Topkapi Palace and the different mosques built in honor of the sultan, sultana, and princes. Consequently, we can clearly see how Turkey succeeded in utilizing a tool as powerful as drama to provoke people’s interest in its heritage and attract tourists to its amazing monuments. I recommend watching “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” for anyone who wants to take a trip down the history lane and enjoy some superb acting, a suspenseful plot, and soul-cleansing music.

Topkapi Palace.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.
Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.
Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

– All images are hyperlinked to their original sources.

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