On a trip to Istanbul two years ago, outside a restaurant a stone’s throw from the Blue Mosque, the waiter arrived. As he leaned forward to pass a menu, the name on his silver badge caught my mother’s eye: “Your name is Turgut?! Like the character in Ertuğrul?” In a split-second, the two had plunged into an impassioned exchange in broken Turkish and English about a hit series of which I had never heard. To my horror, my mother began yelling “Haidar Allah!” and “Ey Vallah” – expressions from the series, I later learned – to the delight of our waiter, who grinned a wide, Cheshire cat smile.
The series my mother was referring to was Diriliş: Ertuğrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul). Set in the 13th century, it is a historical drama loosely based on the life of Ertuğrul Ghazi, the father of Sultan Osman, who founded the Ottoman empire.
Engin Altan Düzyatan plays the heroic, hirsute Ertuğrul, gallantly fighting an array of pugnacious Crusaders, Templars, Byzantines and Mongols. As the son of the tribe’s leader, Suleyman-Shah, Ertuğrul carries the fate of his people, the Kayi tribe, on his rippling shoulders, but he carries a heavier burden in his heart: his undying love for his “wide-eyed gazelle”, the Seljuk princess Halime Hatun, played by Esra Bilgiç.
With plenty of romance, opulent costumes, a sweeping musical score and bloody battle scenes, the five-season show, as well as bearing the hallmarks of a Ridley Scott epic, has been dubbed the “Muslim Game of Thrones”. Its positive depiction of Islamic rituals and scripting, which often includes words of wisdom from Ibn ‘Arabî of Andalucía – one of the greatest Muslim philosophers – has helped it to carve out a unique place in the entertainment landscape. Therein lies its global appeal to the Muslim diaspora.
Since its release in 2014, the Turkish TV series has captured audiences in Latin America, South Asia and Africa. Nelson Mandela’s grandson and Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, are among its burgeoning army of fans. The English subtitled version released on Netflix in 2017 has beguiled English-speaking audiences across the UK and the US. The series is now so popular that it has been dubbed into six languages and broadcast in 72 countries. On YouTube alone, Ertuğrul has surpassed 1.5bn views.
Its maker, Turkish Radio Television (TRT), describes it as a show with an “ability to connect global audiences through shared values. The strongest sentiment that fans express about the show is that they’re able to see themselves in the hero characters of the show. Often the stories we see in big productions lack nuance in how they portray narratives and characters that don’t fit a typical mould.”
Indeed, for Tausif Khan, a 30-year-old senior manager at a consulting firm in the UK, it was the first time he saw his own cultural and religious history powerfully reflected. “If you’re white, you get Downton Abbey and all these period dramas,” he says. “Whenever I see historic dramas about British Asians, it’s always ‘poor Asians’ in the 1970s being attacked by the National Front. The only story we’re allowed to have is: ‘I’m so confused about my identity.’ Then you’ve got films like Blinded by the Light and The Big Sick, stories about a brown person who needs to marry a white person in order to be happy.
“Ertuğrul is the Muslim world’s Black Panther,” Khan adds. “It’s not because a Muslim audience is brainwashed by Islamic rhetoric. It’s because we want to see brown people on TV who are portrayed in a good light and are proud of their culture.”
The stereotype of Muslims in films, diagnosed by British actor Riz Ahmed as “the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner”, persists in Hollywood and television; Homeland and Bodyguard are just two recent examples. Shaf Choudry, the co-founder of The Riz Test, which measures the portrayal of Muslims on film and TV, said the majority of films submitted failed because they used Islamophobic tropes and stereotypes.
“The most frequently submitted ‘pass’ by a long way is Ertuğrul”, said Choudry. “Riz Test reviewers often submit Ertuğrul reviews with explanations of how refreshing it is to see nuanced Muslim characters on screen with high production values.”
The absence of sex scenes means the series may be more accessible to younger viewers, too – although there is still a healthy smattering of gore. Thirteen-year-old Aminah Shahid, from Bradford, became so infatuated with the show that her mother bought her Ertuğrul-themed pillows. She began learning Turkish after rewatching the show 12 times. “I got obsessed. It’s probably why I need glasses!” she says.
Its depiction of politically engaged women with agency has not escaped the notice of its female fans – and runs contrary to much of the negative stereotyping surrounding Muslim women. In the pilot episode, Halime wields a sword and defends herself against a man who sexually assaults her. Hayme Ana, the gracious first lady of the tribe and Ertuğrul’s mother, often advises her husband and sons at pivotal moments in the series. Antagonist Selcan Hatun is another strong female character, led by an insatiable ambition and desire for revenge.
“The women of Ertuğrul are depicted as strong, resolute and nuanced,” says Hind Makki, a journalist and the co-host of Ertuğrul podcast Bey Watch. “They are not mere love interests – they are warriors and leaders in business and politics. Still, they are circumscribed by the patriarchy of their time and place – and being or becoming a wife and mother is the most important milestone of their lives.”
The series has found renewed popularity during lockdown, especially in Pakistan. In October last year, the prime minister, Imran Khan, urged state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) to broadcast the series dubbed in Urdu, reportedly because its promotion of Islamic values and positive depiction of Muslims could be an antidote to Islamophobia. Since PTV uploaded the series on to YouTube on 25 April, coinciding with the first day of Ramadan, the channel gained 5.74 million subscribers.
Yet despite its global fanbase, the series – part of the Turkish genre of “dizi”, sweeping epic dramas with seemingly infinite episodes – is not without its controversies.
In 2018, audiences across the Middle East were deprived of all Turkish TV dramas, including Ertuğrul, after they were banned by MBC, the largest private media network in the region. In Egypt, religious scholars cautioned against the dangers of Turkish soft power cultivated by its TV shows.
Domestically, the show has become entangled in a culture war between religious conservatives and secular critics. Parallels between the nationalist sentiment evoked by the drama and Turkey’s political reality under president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been made. Erdoğan’s presidency has been mired in accusations of autocracy and censorship following the failed coup of 2016.
At an award ceremony in Turkey in the same year, Erdoğan extolled the series for “entering the nation’s heart”. But Sevda Alankuş, a professor at Yaşar University in Turkey, said that a “discourse of populism fed by nationalism and conservatism” and fuelled by Erdoğan’s government was being deployed through popular culture dramas such as Ertuğrul to “rewrite history”. TRT isTurkey’s public broadcaster.
Yet its popularity shows no signs of dimming. Turkey is now second to the US in worldwide TV distribution, according to the Turkish culture and tourism ministry, exporting nearly 150 series to more than 100 countries. TripAdvisor is saturated with humorous requests from internet literate children organising Ertuğrul-themed holidays to Turkey for their parents. Sogut, the first Ottoman capital where Ertuğrul himself is buried, is now a tourist destination because of the series. As fan gatherings erupt from London to Cape Town, Ertuğrul is a cultural behemoth that seems unlikely to disappear any time soon.