I recently got caught up in the Turkish television series Diriliş: Ertuğrul, translated as Resurrection: Ertuğrul. So caught up, that this usual non-watcher just finished season one, which has 76(!) ~40-minute episodes (broken down from its original, 26 episodes for shorter-attention-span Americans).
I didn’t know anything about the series when I started it; I was just hooked by the drama, the characters, the scenery, the language (Turkish is very similar to Azerbaijani, so it brings me back to my years spent in AZ in the Peace Corps), and the fascinating depiction of a different culture and era.
Set in the 13th Century, the show follows the family of Ertuğrul Bey (bey being the Turkic title for chieftan) of the Kayı tribe, a nomadic Turkic Muslim people in Central Asia. After becoming hooked on the series, I learned that Ertuğrul’s character draws from the historical Ertuğrul, the father of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire.
Perhaps the first remarkable thing about Ertuğrul, the series (I have a hard time with the title “Resurrection”), is its depiction of Muslims as the moral, virtuous heroes, out slaying those depraved, infidel Crusaders and other corrupt enemies. There is a big emphasis on honor in the show, and that honor is tied to family and religion. “Trust in God, follow God’s path,” Ertuğrul, his father Suleyman Shah, and other virtuous characters often say. Even as a nonbeliever, the show made me feel inspired to be a more noble, fair, and righteous person (even if, in the series, being honorable often involves chopping off another person’s head).
It was only after I finished episode 76 that I discovered that I was far from alone in enjoying Ertuğrul. It has amassed millions of fans around the world, most notably, perhaps, in Pakistan, thanks to a push from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to dub the series in Urdu. Khan believed the show would serve the political purpose of teaching Islamic history and ethics, as a counter to Islamophobia. Aided in part by the coronavirus lockdown, the series in fact became, says haaretz.com, “the go-to Muslim household show to watch in India.” It has also, incidentally, become hugely popular in Azerbaijan, after state television AZTV was granted the broadcasting rights to it in 2020 (my host families and friends in Azerbaijan often watched Turkish television programs, as Turkish is close enough to Azerbaijani for them to understand without translation). So great has been its reach, in fact, that the Guinness Book of World Records has listed the show as the best dramatic work in the history of global drama.
But is Ertuğrul really just a well-made, captivating historical drama that teaches about Turkish history and Islamic culture? The series was funded and produced by Turkish state television TRT, and Turkish President Erdoğan visited the set of its filming with his family more than once. Many Internet sources suggest that it is part of the Turkish administration’s strategy of soft power diplomacy to gain popular support, as all the while they crack down on critics by less-than-commendable tactics like jailing journalists.
In 2020, Diriliş: Ertuğrul was banned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with even a fatwa (a legal pronouncement in Islam) issued against it. At first, this seems counterintuitive: why would Muslim countries object to a show that valorizes Muslims and fosters Islamic pride? But as Pakistani scholar-writer Pervez Hoodbhoy explains in his critique “Dangerous Delusions,” “Arabs cannot celebrate Turkish imperialism.” Part of the message of the show is the greatness of the Ottoman empire, and to highlight its connection with the modern-day Republic of Turkey. At the beginning of each episode, viewers are reminded, “The stories and characters depicted here were inspired by our history.”
Does knowing more about the background and reception of Ertuğrul diminish its appeal? I admit I am a bit less interested to watch the remaining seasons now that I know more about the political agenda behind the series. But still, I love imagining life in those tents, seeing the role of women, strong despite the clear gender role division, witnessing the bravery of the warriors, the nobility of sacrifice and sustained effort, and picturing faith as a guide and companion in hard times. Hearing those Ottoman titles, such as bey (chieftan), hatun (lady), and alp (warrior), is also interesting and reminds me of how I was called Carla muəllimə, or teacher, in Azerbaijan.
If you haven’t yet seen it, don’t let me ruin it for you. Try out the first episode, and prepare to be hooked.