If you were living in the Balkans right now, you’d be rushing home tonight to watch a TV show that is like Downton Abbey with turbans, only much more successful.

Suleiman, Hurrem, Ottomans“Muhtesem Yuzyil,” or “Magnificent Century,” is a lavish prime time soap opera about the life of Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem, the slave girl who became his wife.

Those of you who have read ‘HAREM’, or any of my posts on the subject, will know Suleiman ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566, at the very apex of its power and glory.

When ‘Magnificent Century’ first rolled, in January 2011, it attracted massive controversy.

Conservative and Islamic groups didn’t like to see the Sultan drinking alcohol – which is Hurrem, harem, Suleiman the Magnificentbanned in Islam – or see him sleeping with the concubines in the harem. (What did they think he did with them?)

RTUK, the government media regulator, claimed they had received 70,000 complaints after the first show and said the TV station owed the public an apology. Even Prime Minister Recep Erdogan waded in to the debate, called the show’s portrayal of Suleiman ‘disrespectful.’

Protesters gathered outside the TV station and hurled eggs. Halit Ergenc, a veteran Turkish soap opera star who plays the part of Suleiman, received hate mail and even death threats.

But the uproar boosted the show’s ratings and now Wednesday nights are harem night in Turkey and much of the Balkans.


photo: TIMS productions

When I attended the Belgrade Book Festival in October everyone was talking about it.

With the glamor, the gowns, the diamonds and double dealing, the show has an irresistible appeal and has made a star of a little-known Berlin-born actress, Meryem Uzerli, who plays Hurrem – the Laughing One – the red-haired slave who wraps the most powerful man in the world around her little finger.

Hurrem combined ruthless intelligence with the Meg Ryan ‘I’ll have what she’s having’Seraglio, harem, Colin Falconer knowledge of the dark arts to rise from concubine to the sultan’s legal wife – the only woman in Ottoman history to do so.

In an interview with Tempo magazine she said that modern women could learn a lot from Hurrem: “the most important being strategy. If you have those kinds of skills, you can get whatever you want.”


Hurrem had many female rivals, and her sons had to compete with others to become heirs to the throne, so the scriptwriters have endless possibilities for intrigue every week. As Miryam suggest Hurrem does have huge appeal for the modern woman, especially in the Middle East; slave by name but certainly not by nature. Arab women apparently love her.

Have the writers misrepresented history?

harem, Suleiman the Magnificent, HurremThe head writer for the series is a Ms Okay; she believes, as I do, that it is Okay to bring historical figures to life and attempt to make them human. In her view the real story of Suleiman took place not on the battlefield, but in the harem. This, she says, is where the turning points in his reign played out. I agree with her.

And this is where those who argue for historical accuracy lose their ground; because it is impossible to know exactly what happened in there.

Leslie Peirce, professor of Ottoman studies at NYU agrees that very little was written about women in those days – it was considered, ironically, disrespectful.

So much of we know about the harem and Hurrem’s rise comes from the Venetians (who had a colony in Stamboul at the time.) The rest is just speculation.

The series has made the Turks vitally interested in their own history again, and ticket sales for the Topkapi Palace, Suleiman’s palace and harem, have soared. ‘Magnificent Century’ has now held Turkey in thrall for 80 episodes and two years. From Croatia to Macedonia, it is a ratings monster.

But Prime Minister Erdogan won’t let this slide; he still wants to turn the public prosecutors loose.

photo: Tim productions

photo: Tim productions

He says there are too few battle scenes showing Suleiman’s glory; too many in the Harem. He wants much more violence; a lot less lovin’.

Public reaction against him has so far been so intense that no proceedings have been taken,but nevertheless ‘Magnificent Century’ will now end sooner than planned and RTUK have had some of the sexier scenes cut. Meryem must now wear her headscarf more regularly.

The TV producers are right to be worried. Ten years ago, when I went to Istanbul for a book tour, my publisher had just been released from prison. Over lunch he described how he had been tortured by the police. I won’t go into details but let’s say the fried meatballs he ordered as an appetizer lost some of their allure.

And this was one of Istanbul’s leading businessmen.

Another reason why Turkey won’t find itself in the EEC anytime soon.

The controversy over Magnificent Century has spread around the Middle East.

Harem, Colin Falconer, Suleiman the MagnificentIn Iran the Islamic judiciary had all the dubbing actors working on the series arrested a few weeks ago.

My HAREM was first published here in the West twenty years ago and remains in print or is due for re-release in all of the 14 countries where it was sold. (the great thing about writing history – it doesn’t date!) It was number one in Serbia last year. Though my stance is pretty much the same as the writers of this series I have received no death threats, no hate mail.

It’s why I love free speech and living in a democracy – for all its faults. For as Meryem Uzerli says, Hurrem is a woman for our times.

I believe that as the cultures of Islam and the West inevitably clash over the coming decades, it is in our attitudes to women that the focus will be most intense.

And I’m sure Hurrem’s ghost will be watching us, and laughing.

Historical Fiction, Colin Falconer, Harem


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About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. prue batten says:

    The story presents in the most basic sense, like Jodhaa and Akbar on the subcontinent. I believe when that movie was released, similar complaints about disrespect to both Hindi and Muslim faiths were expressed. Personally I loved that movie and I suspect I’d enjoy Magnificent Century as well, simply because both countries, and their faiths interest me. I’ve just downloaded Harem, Colin, thank you so much and am looking forward to reading.

    • Thanks Prue – yes, ‘respect’ is important, but sometimes the word is used to enshrine a prejudice or a creed, as the Turkish prime minister is seeking to do here. Like you I’m fascinated by different faiths and different cultures – and I think it should remain self evident that any play/book/TV show should be allowed to explore all its aspects. Hope you enjoy HAREM!

  2. Any society that would rather show more blood and guts than love scenes concerns me. Just sayin’

  3. The show sounds awesome! Wish we could get it here in the states. Oh, and what Prudence said…agreed.

    You are so right about historical fiction. It doesn’t date! I had never really thought of it that way. 🙂

    • What I’ve seen of it – and I don’t speak Turkish – it’s very melodramatic. True soap opera. But it’s also very courageous, in attempting to show their Turkish audience some of the things they weren’t taught in school, and it has revitalized interest in their heritage. And in line with that Prudence said – it is typical of right wing mouthpieces everywhere that they are not offended at all by violence in film/books but love scenes send them into a lather. It speaks volumes about their psychology, no matter what nationality they are …

  4. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    This is enormously interesting. Great write up, considering history and all. I love things with psychology in them, as it has me thinking – you know, about people.

    This is great!

  5. filbio says:

    This show sounds amazing. I wish it were shown here in the U.S. Terrific post overview of it too!

    • You can watch it on YouTube. Audra at Unabridged Chick above has the links if you want to watch. It’s very well produced and like any good soap, if you watch the eyes you don’t have to understand the language!

  6. My wife and I just took a trip to Turkey in December and was introduced to this show when our guide asked if we could end early on Wednesday to ensure he wouldn’t miss an episode! We tuned in and despite not speaking Turkish, were drawn in by the gorgeous costumes, obvious drama, and sexiness. So disappointed to hear the show is ending sooner than planned!

    For those curious, a good portion of the show seems to be available with English subtitles on YouTube! We’ve been watching it now and are totally addicted.

    • Thanks for the link ! I see they do have full episodes on youtube. As you discovered the whole of the Balkans comes to a halt on a Wednesday night when she show’s on! It’s a true phenomenon.

  7. Carolyn says:

    I also watched this show in the summer while in Greece and just love it. I hope it would be broadcast in the U.S. Too bad only 1 episode with english subtitles.

  8. elsa says:

    Any sex scenes like in Tudors or Game of Thrones ? Or else I find it hard to follow !

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