Yet it faces one small pocket of resistance that could prove its undoing: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hates it.
Erdogan took time off at a ribbon-snipping ceremony for a provincial airport recently to describe the series as a travesty. It was wrong, he suggested, to reduce an illustrious history to a saga of household intrigues.
Suleyman spent “30 years on a horse,” he said, implying that the sultan would have had little time left to rip off so many bodices.
“We alerted the authorities,” Erdogan added. “We wait for a judicial decision on it,” he said. “Those who toy with these values should be taught a lesson within the remit of law.”
The law against bad taste does not appear to apply to architecture, however: while the prime minister rails against a television series for desecrating the past, he and the municipalities under his party’s control are busy parodying Turkish history with a slew of misguided construction projects attempting to revive the Ottomans’ glory.
“The Magnificent Century” raised howls of protest from the moment its first trailer appeared in January 2011. The notion of peering behind the arras at the sultan’s private lives came as a shock to Turks; they are used to seeing their great patriarchs as plaster saints. But now that the series is in its third season, there’s much less snogging and there are far fewer mind-boggling anachronisms.
So why the prime minister’s enduring outrage? One popular explanation is that he is trying to divert attention from more vexing issues. He has made controversial proposals like banning abortion and restoring the death penalty — measures he has no intention of seeing through — even as Turkey struggles with its intractable Kurdish problem and a slowing economy.
My own view is that Erdogan sees “The Magnificent Century” as subtly undermining his own authority. In the same speech in which he attacked the show, he defended his foreign policy against critics who say that Turkey’s pretensions to influence events in Syria or Gaza have outstripped its competence. In fact, Turkey’s current rulers do display neo-Ottoman aspirations that hearken back to a golden era.
And their way of expressing those may do a much greater disservice to Turkey’s past than “The Magnificent Century,” mawkish melodrama that it is.
One Ottoman tribute the prime minister very much does support is the construction of a vast mosque on Camlica hilltop, a parkland overlooking Istanbul. Its design is a copycat version of the high Ottoman style associated with the architect Sinan, who built the Suleymaniye Mosque above the Golden Horn.
Sinan’s mosque is a breathtaking solution to the problem of how to construct from stone a single symmetrical space topped with domes and semi-domes. Erdogan’s newly commissioned mosque is an obese counterfeit to be built from reinforced concrete. Even the Islamic press in Turkey is shocked by its banality.
Worse, the municipality of Istanbul is currently building a new metro line across the Golden Horn a mock-suspension bridge that is much bigger and louder than is needed to span the narrow body of water — and that will obstruct views of the time-honored silhouette of that real Ottoman masterpiece, the Suleymaniye Mosque.
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