ISTANBUL — Turkey is witnessing something of a battle royal. The country’s most popular soap television series, "Magnificent Century," is about Turkey’s most famous sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. The costume drama has been a hit not only inside Turkey, but also outside, from the Balkans to the Middle East. But Turkey’s prime minister sees the TV series as nothing short of historical heresy.
The legendary Roxelana, in an alluring dress, seduces Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire’s most famous sultan. It is a scene from "Muhtesem Yuzyil" -- or "Magnificent Century" -- Turkish television's historical soap opera. The steamy mix of intrigue in the harem between the rival concubines of the sultan and political rivalry at the court have made the program a smash hit. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not a fan.
Erdogan says that is not the Sultan Suleiman Turkey knows. That is not the lawgiver who spent 30 years of his life on horseback, not in a palace like in the TV show. The prime minister said he publicly condemns the show's directors and the owners of the television station.
He also said that he had called on the authorities to investigate the program. It remains unclear what law the show has violated. But Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist and columnist for the Taraf newspaper, says history is not on the side of "the pious prime minister."
"As the strong man of Turkey, like all strong men around the world, daring to rewrite history of his land, according to his beliefs, and very ethical in sense that, there is no irregularities of these emperors. They just [pray] and run the empire and are good guys. These are totally ahistorical; no such things existed. Like almost all emperors, not only Ottoman, like all mighty men in this world, had several women and had very luxurious life," Aktar said.
The confrontation between Turkey's most powerful man and its most popular TV soap opera has made headline news and dominates the country’s discussion programs. But most actors and the producers of the show have kept a low profile. They are aware that the future of the program could well hang in the balance.
Actress Nebahat Cehre did break the silence. She says one cannot have censorship in art. If they start doing that, where will it end, she asks. Muhtesem Yuzyil is just a story, she says. Children are curious about their country's history, and more and more history books are being published about the period.
Ironically, since the prime minister's attack on the show, Muhtesem Yuzyil has broken its own records, with viewer figures rocketing. But there is a sting in the tale -- one of the prime minister’s closest parliamentary deputies has promised that parliament will introduce regulations to protect the portrayal of historical figures.
That news is already on the streets of central Istanbul. As people head home, looking forward to spending a night watching "Muhtesem Yuzyil," there is a mixture of anger and resignation.
One man’s view is typical.
"Well, nobody forces anyone to watch it," he said. "But it's no surprise for our prime minister to take into every business whatever he can. But making a law against a TV series, which is really ridiculous, what kind of stuff our parliament does. I don’t know which parliament passes against a TV program. Isn’t it absurd?"
"Muhtesem Yuzyil," the TV show, like Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, could soon well become history itself, with the government claiming Turkey's historical heritage is too important to be in the hands of television soaps. But critics claim the sound of a new sanitized history being written can already be heard in the corridors of power in Ankara.