Every nation has a trove of stories – alluring, magnetic narratives that are retold time and again. In Turkey, over the past decade or so, Ottoman history – the opulence, conquests and power – has been one of the most popular storylines across media, especially on TV.
“The recent interest in Ottoman stories and Ottoman narratives is not something out of air or without context – it has a historical background,” Burak Ozcetin, Associate Professor at Istanbul Bilgi University told The Listening Post‘s Meenakshi Ravi. “Turkey is a society in constant change, constant flux. In times of crisis especially, history plays a significant role in creation of identities. The rising interest in the Ottoman past in terms of TV dramas has been a really, really important phenomenon.”
The demand for Ottoman stories on TV has gone far beyond Turkey. With five seasons, more than 400 episodes and hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide, Dirilis: Ertugrul, or Resurrection: Ertugrul, is one of Turkey’s biggest television exports yet, and has helped put Turkey among the top exporters of TV content in the world. Set in the 13th century during the founding of the Ottoman empire, the show has helped launch a wave of nostalgia and fascination for the era that has become known as “Neo-Ottoman Cool”.
“‘Neo-Ottoman Cool’ is a term that I and my colleague Marwan Kraidy coined to reflect that new image of Turkey that started perhaps around 15 years ago,” says Omar Al-Ghazzi, Assistant Professor at London School of Economics and co-author of the academic article Neo-Ottoman Cool: Turkish Popular Culture in the Arab Public Sphere. “It demonstrated that shift of perception from Turkey as an enemy to Turkey as a model … Turkish soft power was perhaps at its height with the rise of President Erdogan – this went hand-in-hand with the popularity of Turkish popular culture, particularly Turkish TV series.”
“Dirilis: Ertugrul being popular specifically in the Middle East and the Muslim world is fascinating,” says Senem Cevik, Lecturer in International Studies at UC Irvine. “A show that is produced by a Muslim country, a Muslim regional power is very important, and having those characters in the shows that are powerful, strong, defenders of their nations and their tribes is something I think I would say the Muslim world is looking for.”
For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK Party, reconnecting with the Ottoman era has been central to their messaging. Erdogan has pushed a notion of continuity from the Ottoman sultans through to himself and TV dramas such as Dirilis: Ertugrul and Payitaht: Abdulhamid – both commissioned by Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT – have aligned nicely with the AK Party’s communications strategy.
“They are, in a way, rewriting the Ottoman history for the current Turkish public. They’re trying to showcase a type of history that is continuous from the Ottoman Empire to the current Turkish republic in a way that it elevates the Ottoman history,” says Ozcetin. “‘Neo-Ottoman Cool’ is directly related with the Turkish Republic’s quest for enlarging its sphere of influence in the region, both politically, economically and culturally.”