If you watch Game of Thrones and love it, I would like to introduce you to the Turkish version, Diriliş:Ertuğrul (pronounced Ar-tu-ro in Turkish). The titular character, Ertuğrul, is the name of the man who would eventually become the founder of the Ottoman Empire. A five-season series (with season five set to be released October of this year), this show is popular not only in Turkey but internationally. TRT World (Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) is the public network that features this show, but do not despair if you aren’t residing in Turkey: you can watch the first two seasons in English on Netflix!
Why is this Turkish series, set in 13th century Anatolia (modern day Turkey) an international hit, East and West? For one thing, the costumes are amazing (you can buy the famous Ertuğrul warrior hat online and of course, in Turkey). And, women are portrayed as powerful leaders and courageous warriors fighting for their tribe. For example, Hayme Hatun, the matriarch and leader of the Kayi Tribe after her husband dies, kills invading Mongols in her tent while protecting her baby grandson at the same time. Interestingly, the women do not wear the hijab, but colorful headgear that changes with the season. The scenery is also beautiful, with many breathtaking geographic locations portrayed, from mountainous steppes to grasslands and forests teeming with a rich, green color.
The show promotes the values of chivalry, courage, bravery, and other moral qualities. Sufism, the form of Islam that emphasizes one’s interior world and inculcates a God-conscious, mindful life, is portrayed with the anachronistic Andalusian Ibn Arabi. Ibn Arabi is the wise man, the shaykh, or scholar who shows up (in perfect timing) to give Ertuğrul and his tribe, the Kayis, guiding wisdom while the Crusaders and the Mongols try to exterminate them.
Ertuğrul is unique because it provides an interesting point of view that we never get to see in (mainstream) media.
In Hollywood, or in European historical dramas, the Crusaders are never depicted as the bad guys, because Christianity is the predominant faith in their audience. Instead, Ertuğrul centers around the pre-Ottoman Empire made up of Anatolian tribes, the Oghuz Turks.
When I visited Turkey in summer 2017, peoples’ ringtones on their cellphones were set to the Ertuğrul theme song. Indeed, TRT interviewed viewers of Ertuğruland the reasons for enjoying this series were: the rightful Muslim representation, “You have people who look like us, think like us, and even breathe like us”; it is clean and fun entertainment; one 74-year old English woman said that although she is not Muslim, she appreciated learning about Sufism and its teachings depicted in the series.
Personally, Ertuğrul is an escape from everyday life, especially our modern world with its emphasis on individualism over the family. As someone who has studied World History, I appreciate that historical fiction brings the past to life and teaches us 21st century peeps a thing or two, even if we disagree with their worldview, customs, and cultures. This show depicts the medieval Muslim world with its nuance, diversity and certainly pays homage to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire.
The series does romanticize many historical facts, but it is refreshing to see Muslims – who are pretty much portrayed in Hollywood as terrorists and/or existential threats – as the heroes. Not all of them are always necessarily innocent, but they are all depicted as complex characters, the way they deserve, the way all human beings are.
There is love, betrayal, adultery for the sake of power, jealousy, family feuding, but redemption, forgiveness, mercy and the seeking of justice, especially for the oppressed portrayed in the series.
There is an underlying Turkish nationalism component, in addition to the unifying calls for Islam internationally since the Ottoman Empire was the last standing Islamic caliphate in modern history.
I now understand why former First Lady Michelle Obama wanted to get early access to Downton Abbey – when you love (read: are obsessed with) a show, like me, you will do anything to watch it. I even paid a friend to translate seasons two and three for me, just so I could watch it!
So, friends, open up your Netflix, drink some Turkish tea and buy some Turkish delight while checking out this international Turkish sensation. It deserves all the attention that Game of Thrones gets.