Enjoy Istanbul with Marc Guillet

“Ottomania” is becoming omnipresent in Turkey

27 Feb
Written by Marc Guillet
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In: Disbook #2 The West Asia 2013 Edition

Disbook is a 300+ page magazine covering the new frontiers of television

Nothing else represents the current popular trend of all things Ottoman in Turkey better than the historical fiction television series ‘The Magnificent Century’. To learn more about the “Ottomania” Disbook had exclusive interviews with the producer, art director, costume designer and distributor of the hit series. Disbook presents an insight into the making of ‘The Magnificent Century’ and costume designer Serdar Basbug provided us with some of his beautiful sketches.


The first thing that struck me visiting Istanbul in the summer of 2006 after having spent seven years in the U.S. was the fast changing face of the city. Shanty buildings were destroyed. Green areas, playgrounds and parks were created. Ottoman mosques, cemeteries, wooden houses and imperial palaces were cleaned and repaired, spurred by a renewed interest in all things from Turkey’s Ottoman past.

I remember when I first came to Istanbul in 1983 how shabby, poor and neglected the buildings were and how grey and depressive many people looked. The Golden Horn had become an open, smelling sewage pool surrounded by slaughterhouses, factories and workshops. The Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky, who visited Istanbul in 1985, wrote his impressions in The New Yorker in a piece entitled “Flight from Byzantium”. One of the things that struck him was “How dated everything is here! Not old, ancient, antique, or even old-fashioned, but dated!”

Turkey has been a westernizing country since the establishment of the Republic of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923. Many traces of the Ottoman Muslim Empire were erased and the new Republican rulers decreed that Turkey had to become a modern European country as soon as possible with a new, modern capital, Ankara. They invested lots of money in prestigious buildings and Republican statues in Ankara. The ancient capital of the sultans, Istanbul, was neglected and looked down upon as a relic of the past.

“It comforts me to know that for the night at least we are safe from Western eyes, that the shameful poverty of our city is cloaked from foreign view,” Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk wrote in his autobiography ‘Istanbul: Memories of a City’.

Renewed interest in all things Ottoman

The renewed interest in all things Ottoman was a slow process that gained momentum at the end of the 1990s. The Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish), a centre-right conservative political party that advocates an Islamic inspired social agenda and a liberal market economy, jumped on the band wagon of the growing popularity of idealizing the Ottoman past. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his ministers started actively promoting this trend. As Islamic inspired politicians they identify and feel close to the era of the sultans and are proud of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage. It even permeates politics. The vision of Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, is often characterized as ‘neo-Ottoman’. He wants Turkey to regain as much influence as possible, through soft power, in the former territories of the sultans: the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. In solving the bleeding Kurdish problem the AKP government is inspired by the Ottoman concept of Muslim brotherhood between Kurds and Turks.

ottoman design When you walk the streets of Istanbul you will notice that the phenomenon of “Ottomania” is becoming omnipresent. New shops, restaurants and hotels have names from the time when Istanbul was still called Constantinople. Hotels with names like ‘Les Ottomans’, ‘Sultania’, ‘Legacy Ottoman’, ‘Sultan Palace’. In the Grand Bazaar, but also in posh neighborhoods like Nişantaşı, Teşvikiye, Osmanbey, Maçka, Pangaltı and Istinye you will find jewelry, clothes and other goods with Ottoman designs and colors. Bookshops sell more books on the history of the sultans. In 2009 Prime Minister Erdoğan opened the Panorama 1453 History Museum, depicting the siege and conquering of the Christian city of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II.

There is a renewed interest in recipes from the kitchens of the sultan’s palaces. More restaurants offer now dishes from the rich Ottoman cuisine with flavors from the Balkans, Persia, Arab countries and Central Asia. Recreations from the delicious food that was prepared in the kitchens of the royal palaces from the 15th to the 19th centuries, or traditional recipes that were rediscovered in villages in Anatolia. Recommended restaurants that offer these kinds of dishes are: Asitane restaurant, located in the Edirnekapi neighborhood next to the famous Chora Church; restaurant Çiya Sofrasi in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of the Bosporus; and restaurant Kiva, close to the Galata Tower.

The historical fiction Turkish television series ‘The Magnificent Century’ that kicked off in 2011 became an instant blockbuster, because it taps into the increased curiosity in the way the Ottomans were living. Nevertheless “everybody was astonished by the overwhelming success of the series. Not only in Turkey, but in many countries in the region”, says Izzet Pinto, CEO of The Global Agency that distributes the show to many countries. This prime time series and many other Turkish drama series are watched in almost 50 countries, even in Russia and Mongolia. They create a desire by lots of people in the region to visit Istanbul and Turkey. The number of tourists from those countries increased dramatically in the last years. The Touristic Hotels & Investors Association (TUROB) organized an award ceremony in the Hilton hotel of Istanbul in January this year to thank the producers, actors and actresses for their contribution to the increase of tourism. During the ceremony we were shown street interviews in many countries, from Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece to Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. In all countries people said they loved Turkish soap operas and mentioned the series ‘The Magnificent Century’ as one of their favorites and the actor who plays sultan Süleyman and the actress that plays his wife Hürrem as the ones they adore.

‘Turkish drama series are family oriented, conservative and have a slow pace’

IMG_7723 (333 x 500) The Magnificent Century is the most popular TV series in Turkish history. It is also a perfect example of what can be characterized as a typical ‘Turkish drama’. What defines this genre? “It is family oriented, conservative – so no nudity – has a slow pace, and has respect for Turkish cultural sensitivities,” says distributor Izzet Pinto.

This specific historical Turkish hit series is inspired by the life of Süleyman the Magnificent, “one of the most powerful and interesting sultans of the Ottoman Empire”, says producer Timur Savci. “It is the most expensive TV show made so far in Turkish television. I believed in it and it was my dream.” Savci explains: “We have 6000 m2 of interior and about 4500 m2 of exterior façade set area. The number of characters is about 70; extras are in the thousands. We have a 3-person scriptwriting team along with three history advisors, two of which specialize in political history, and the other advisor specializes in art history. We have two units and three cameras on set.”

Prime Minister Erdoğan and other conservative Turks are not happy with the Hollywood style portrayal of the sultan’s love life and other ‘facts’ that they didn’t read in their history books. The Prime Minister even asked the judiciary to “give a necessary verdict on this issue.”

The increasing success of blockbusters like the Magnificent Century in Turkey and the region shows that “Ottomania” as a trend didn’t run its course yet.

One of the examples is that the Turkish state-owned television station, TRT, will start examining the Ottoman Empire in a new animated TV series through the eyes of Çınar, a 10-year-old boy, visiting the Topkapı Palace Museum.

But the most fun, free and interesting example of learning more about Ottoman history I came across is the “Ottoman History Podcast”, a weekly podcast download available for free from the iTunes Store. Check it out!

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