The New Yorker examines Magnificent Century, a hit TV show that reimagines Turkey’s imperial past
On the way to the Sultan’s harem, I saw two beautiful slave girls walking across a parking lot clutching their tiaras and squinting unhappily into the sun. It was a hot August day in Istanbul, with an intermittent gusting wind. An attendant ushered me into a warren of royal chambers. I crossed the marble flagstones of a capacious Turkish bath, and proceeded down the passageway known as the Golden Road, through which a lucky concubine, having received the purple handkerchief indicative of the Sultan’s favor, approaches the privy chamber. On a gilt desk lay an imperial seal and two sticks of wax. An adjacent bedroom, lavishly appointed, had been occupied by the Sultan’s mother, until her death, toward the end of Season 2.
“Magnificent Century,” a soap opera set in the court of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, has been breaking Turkish television records since its première, in 2011. Every Wednesday, more than a third of prime-time viewers tune in to watch the latest ninety-minute episode. Süleyman, who reigned from 1520 to 1566, is known in Turkey as the Lawmaker, renowned for his innovative legal code, for the opulence of his court, and for expanding the Ottoman Empire from Transylvania to the Persian Gulf. It was Süleyman’s Army that defeated the Hungarian forces at the Battle of Mohács and launched the first Ottoman siege of Vienna, though the plot of “Magnificent Century” focusses more on the life of the harem, and the intrigues among Süleyman’s wife, concubines, mother, sisters, children, and viziers.