Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attack on a television dramatization of the court intrigues of Süleyman the Magnificent clearly indicates that “official historiography” - which concerns the writing of national myths rather than true history - is very much alive in Turkey. For nearly 80 years, the Kemalist establishment plugged its own version of historic events. In doing so, it ensured that this version and the name of its principle hero, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, were protected by law.
A key element of Kemalist historiography, on the other hand, was the discrediting of religion, which was seen as the main reason Turkey had missed the industrial revolution and all that followed it. This is why the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 with an ingrained hatred of Kemalist historiography, and set to whittling away at this by highlighting the negative aspects of the Republican era; including previously taboo topics such as atrocities against the Kurds in the 1930s.
This approach by the AKP also resulted in a more open reading of Turkish history. Touchy topics, including subjects like the Armenian massacres of 1915, started to be discussed in ways that were previously unthinkable. Turkish liberals were among those praising the new approach to history that was unfolding under the AKP, with many believing that Erdogan was indeed moving the country toward the freedoms he promised.
Meanwhile the AKP also worked to revive public interest in Ottoman history, with special emphasis on the Islamic nature of the empire. This interest in turn led to a succession of films and television series depicting historic events to do with the Ottomans. One of these, “The Magnificent Century” (Muhteşem Yüzyıl), dealing with the rule of Sultan Süleyman, went on to become a blockbuster television series, not just in Turkey but even in countries where the Ottomans remains an object of cultural vilification.
“The Magnificent Century” proved in this way that an expensive production with dazzling sets, flashy period costumes, and a plot tinged with political intrigue and sexual innuendo will sell no matter what. The British series “The Tudors” is, of course, another example.
The AKP, however, did not consider the possibility that this new interest in Ottoman history would also lead to renditions that are out of tune with its own version of history. But the tables have turned now, and Prime Minister Erdoğan, clearly disturbed by the depiction of the Harem conspiracies and the sexual antics during the rule of Sultan Süleyman, is now lambasting the “Magnificent Century.”
“We do not have such ancestors. We do not recognize such a Sultan Süleyman,” he declared during a recent public event, calling on the authorities to act against the series. It did not take long for AKP sycophancy to kick in, with a deputy from Erdoğan’s party announcing he would prepare a bill aimed at legally protecting Turkish history against such series.
In short, the tendency towards “official historiography” has resurfaced in Turkey under another guise, indicating that for all the government talk about “expanding freedoms,” little has changed in this country when it comes to the basics. Most historians agree, of course, that “The Magnificent Century” is rife with inaccuracies, and most British historians said the same of “The Tudors.”
It is, however, well known that the Ottoman court was a place of intrigue where even fratricide, along side other mortal sins, was a regular occurrence. But none of that is the point here, since we are not dealing with history per se, but a fictional dramatization jazzed up to bring in ratings.
One can criticize “The Magnificent Century” on aesthetic grounds, of course. What is disturbing, however, is that the AKP should be trying to ban even fictional accounts of historic events if they do not fit with its own world view. In doing so, it shows that it is no different to the Kemalists whose historiography it purports to detest.