Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Woman Who Above All Desired Power

Note: this is a review of sorts and it contains spoilers.

And 9 rings were given to the race of men who above all else desire power

I think most of the readers will remember this quote from the screen adaptation of LOTR
(these words aren't in the book, btw). Through the ages, there have been a lot of men like this, but there also was one woman whose ambition, will to power and mental capacities were at least equal to the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) of these men. Though her reign was many centuries ago, she is still so popular in that part of the world, that recently they made a whole TV series about her.

I'm talking about The Magnificent Century, the most famous of the Turkish TV series, which ran for 4 seasons, had 139 (!) episodes of about 1.5 hour each and was watched by approximately 200 million people all over the world. It's loosely based on the real events which took place during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, hence the name. I'm not really going to discuss the historical Suleiman or the lady who became his wife, but the rather the way they were presented in the series.

First about the plot, I'll try to be as brief as possible but keep in mind the length of the show:)

The story begins when 26 year old Suleiman learns about his father's death and that he is the next sultan. He has to leave the palace where he enjoyed a rather quiet existence with his consort and their young son, his only heir and moves to the capital where he meets a young Christian slave Alexandra whose family was killed by the slavers. Her slain parents come to her at night and make her promise she'll take revenge and thus her war with the whole dynasty starts.

She uses Suleiman and his feelings for her to raise to the heights of power previously thought impossible for one of her status and position. She bears him 4 sons (5 in reality, but the last one died in infancy) and 1 daughter and he frees her and makes her his lawful wedded wife. Still, Hurrem (Alexandra's new name after she converted to Islam) isn't happy because it's Mustafa, the sultan's eldest son who is the crown prince, and not one of her own. And the laws of the Ottoman Empire are harsh: there can be only one, the next sultan will kill his brothers to avoid strife. When the princes grow up, the real fight for power begins...

Sounds exciting, isn't it? And yet, I will admit: I haven't watched the whole show. I watched Season 1, parts of Season 2 and 3, and mostly read about Season 4. I have 2 reasons for it: first, did I tell you it was a soap? I simply have no patience for 139 episodes filled up with epic cat fights and deep drama:) My second reason is the fact that there are really no positive characters in the show, and if there are, they die prematurely of unnatural causes. Evil gets rewarded in the end and about the worst of Hurrem's sons gets the crown (chiefly due to the intrigues of his European convert wife who was always the brain behind his actions).

While it's historically correct, the producers of the show took already less-than-sterling characters and made them even worse. All the women are insufferable b*tches. Those who aren't in the first season, become so as the story progresses. Take the Sultan's first consort, for instance. Mahidevran actually inspires sympathy as she lost everything what was dear to her and was reduced to poverty and nearly begging, until Selim (the next sultan) came to power and restored her rights. And yet her nastiness in the show makes it difficult to feel any sort of pity for her.

Queen Mother in reality was quite friendly to Hurrem, but in the show she is the perfect evil mother-in-law who is so blinded by her hatred of her daughter-in-law that she is ready to sacrifice the lives of her own grandkids when she accuses her of adultery.

Hurrem herself is shown in a sympathetic light (and despite her obvious evilness one can't help rooting for her as we witness her fighting against the incredible odds) but in history this lady had a functioning brain and even ruled the Empire while her husband was busy fighting wars. The whole story of her relationship with painter Leo (who never really existed) is an example of an abysmal stupidity. Her daughter was more interested in political intrigues than in family life but she didn't kill her husband etc etc...

Not that the men are any better. Sultan Suleiman, the ruler of half the world, at home is totally under his wife's thumb and doesn't even realise it. Under her guidance, he alienates his whole family, causes his sister's death by his actions, kills his best friend and executes the most worthy of his sons. He also cheats on her despite all promises while in reality, all historians agree that his marriage was monogamous.

Mustafa is really good and noble, too good for this world actually; loves his brothers and promises not to kill them, loves his wife, loves his kids (probably loved his dog, too, if he had one) that's why he dies. Ibrahim, Suleiman's best friend was a corrupted, power hungry official, but the producers also made him a sadistic bully and an adulterer who broke his wife's heart and ruined the life of his mistress. There is really no historical evidence that he ever cheated on his wife and he wasn't even married to the same lady as in the show. Etc. etc...

Here you can watch a video which is a great example of what one can expect from the series: Hurrem beats up Suleiman's sister Hatice for using black magic on her to revenge the death of her husband Ibrahim. It has English subtitles, btw. Yet, my favourite moment is this one: Hurrem triumphs over her enemies in the end of the second season. Her monologue is like a summary of her whole character, where  lust for power and revenge combine perfectly. It's not enough for her to rule in the palace, she will rule the world, her enemies will kneel before her and those who stand in her way will die by fire.

Still, the show has much to offer to those who enjoy drama and the acting is very good. It also illustrates the nature of power in this world. One doesn't get power by being nice and good, one gets power by being ruthless, cruel and lacking conscience. Somewhere there is a lesson for all of us:) You can  currently watch the series on YouTube with English subtitles. If you are interested, here's the link to Episode 1.


  1. This series sounds like it was heavily influenced by Machiavelli's "The Prince"-- one of the 'darkest' books that I have ever read. It was one of the few books I've read that I felt like I had to wash my hands after handling it.

  2. Well, I've never read the book but I had similar feelings watching the show. My husband really liked it, though, especially the cat fights:)

  3. Costumes give me creeps. Cannot watch.

    For me, it is really important that historical shows are accurate with everything. That is why I like BBC-shows: they are rather exact with costumes and props and they also fim so slowly you have time to notice: "A-ha! I saw this same pot stand in Hercule Poirot!"

    I also hate it when people do not act accurately. If american films Jane Austen, all women laugh too much and loud and make too much faces. And all characters are too feminist.. I Hurrem's case, of course, there is no need for that. Feminists must love her.

    But I might still try to watch couple of episodes. When I was young, I used to daydream a lot and in one of my fantasies I (or my historical alter ego) was kidnapped and sold to slavery. But I was saved by some Varanger from Emperors Varangian Guard before I had to marry some infidel. :)

  4. I think I've read that one. They shouldn't be sperging out about it, imo, as I doubt historically appropriate costumes were anywhere near the producers' top priority.
    (no offence to those readers who really have Asperger meant:)

    I bet they dislike it because of the way it portrays toxic femininity, that's why it's not really as popular in the USA as one could expect. According to Hollywood tropes, a woman is the boss but also simultaneously the victim:) Also Hurrem was a proud mother of 5 which makes them rather uncomfortable, prob. And she used her charms and her kids to get the power.

    The real feminist lady is Shah Sultan (or however her name is spelled), one of Suleiman's sisters. She has these nice feminist scenes with her husband when she basically tells him, "on your knees, slave!" He did slap her in the end and was sentenced to death, but she interfered and he was exiled instead, which isn't sufficiently feminist,either, I guess:)

  5. She didn't give him any for 5 years, either as she was in love with Ibrahim, just like her other sister. Ibrahim was a sort of macho, after his death they all teamed up together to take out Hurrem but ultimately failed. They got her kidnapped by robbers though and there are various theories of what these robbers were doing to her, but when she was finally rescued, Suleiman took her back:)

  6. As an afterthought, a lady whose life was the closest to the modern feminist career script, was probably Hurrem's daughter Mihrimah, who spent most of her time in political pursuits and accompanied her father on all state business trips. She was considered the most powerful woman of her time. Still, in real life she appeared to have loved her husband, while in the show she was in love with another, her mom forced her into a convenience marriage and later she killed her husband to revenge her brother's death. She also betrayed Mustafa and was the cause of his death, which again, is a speculation.

  7. Housewife OutdoorsJuly 23, 2019 at 4:45 AM

    Whoa. That sounds a lot like "Angelique" books. Are you familiar with them, written at 60's or so by Sergeanne Colon? She was not hungry for power, but there was so much action and schemery and all. Hurrem looks a lot how I imagined Angelique to look.

    I wonder if in Ottoman Empire being hungry for power was the only way to survive, if you were second wife? Maybe she and her sons would have been killed, if she wouldn't have claimed all the power she could get?

    I must say it sounds very unlikely a woman that smart, living in a world like that, would risk everything+her life being unfaithful and having a lover.

  8. Yes, I know Angelique:) The difference is that Angelique didn't like it in the harem and wanted to escape, while Hurrem did everything possible to stay. BTW, she wasn't his second wife, she was his only wife. He never married his first consort, she was just a slave, though some historians claimed he had been planning to do so before he met Hurrem. Her affair was of an emotional sort, but it was still unbelievably stupid considering her enemies who just needed an opportunity to destroy her but in the end, she survived. That's what's so incredible about her, Suleiman was so blind that whatever she did, he always believed that she was the victim and everybody else was just mean to her for no reason at all:)

  9. I mean, there was death penalty for hitting anyone of the royal family, and yet she beat Suleiman's sister unconscious, let her servant throw her into the bushes, went back to bed and then when the sister came by and accused her, told her husband how very sick she was and she could never do such a thing,and he believed her!

    Also Mustafa was really a nice guy, he is still loved and remembered and I don''t think he would have allowed any harm to happen to them. In the show, they motivate her actions by love she had for the Sultan, but the real character still comes through:)

  10. Just a p.s., the real life Hurrem was undoubtedly the force which caused the death of Ibrahim and consequent execution of Mustafa, so to portray her in a more favourable light, the authors of the show did their best to show everyone else equally bad:)

  11. It is, but unfortunately it's also soapy!!!