Author of ’The Great Turk’ says soap ’Muhteşem Yüzyıl’ does not tell true story

Author of ’The Great Turk’ says soap ’Muhteşem Yüzyıl’ does not tell true story

A portrait of Süleyman the Magnificent, made by Nakkaş Osman for the book ‘‘Kıyafetü’l-Insaniyye fi şema’ili Osmaniyye’’ written by the court historian Seyyid Lokman. (Photo: Today's Zaman)

December 17, 2012, Monday/ 16:15:00

Dutch journalist Henk Boom, the author of the book “De Grote Turk” (The Great Turk), has said the popular TV series “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (Magnificent Century), which portrays the life and luxuries of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, is rather odd and does not in any way tell the true story of the sultan.

In his book, Boom talks about the impact of Süleyman the Magnificent on the perception of Turks in Europe. The book was published in 2010 in Dutch and translated into Turkish last month.

Today's Zaman talked to the journalist about his book and what he thinks about the much-debated “Muhteşem Yüzyıl.”

According to Boom, who said he saw only one episode of the TV series, “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” did not convince him. “From what I heard from Turkish friends, the whole TV series is rather odd and does not in any way tell the true story of Süleyman the Magnificent. It is a soap opera like ‘Peyton Place' or ‘Dallas.' What can we expect? It is show business. It is more about money than about history,” the journalist stated.

“Muhteşem Yüzyıl” became the top issue of debate in the Turkish media in late November after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan severely criticized the series. The series is aired on Turkish networks as well as in many Balkan and Middle Eastern countries. It centers on the intrigues of the Ottoman palace. Erdoğan said “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” undermines the golden age of Turkish history. “They [foreigners] know our fathers and ancestors through ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl,' but we don't know such a Süleyman. He spent 30 years riding on a horse [to take Ottoman rule to all corners of the world],” the prime minister stated and added that he hopes that the judiciary will rule appropriately regarding the series.

Süleyman the Magnificent, known as Kanuni (Lawmaker) in Turkish for his complete reconstruction of the Ottoman legal system, reigned from his coronation in 1520 to his death in 1566. He led Ottoman armies to conquer Belgrade, Rhodes and most of Hungary. He also conquered most of the Middle East as well as large swathes of North Africa as far west as Algeria. In addition, the Ottoman fleet dominated the seas from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Journalist Boom, however, does not think that politicians should interfere too much in social discourse such as the discussion over “Muhteşem Yüzyıl.”

“I can understand that there are people, like Erdoğan, who think that their country is not represented the right way by a TV series like ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl.' Debate is always good. But politics should not interfere too much, or to say it better, not at all with regard to freedom of expression, even if it is a TV series with bad taste in a historical sense,” he noted.

Today's Zaman also asked the journalist why he chose to write a history book and what made him choose Süleyman the Magnificent as the hero of his book. Boom said his interest in history was reborn in Mexico. “When I was a small boy, I used to visit my grandfather at his house on Sundays. He had a marvelous collection of magazines from the years of World War I. I suppose my interest in history was born on those Sundays,” he explained and added that he initially wrote a book in which each chapter was dedicated to a personality who was living in 1506 like Erasmus, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Joanna the Mad of Castile, Philip the Handsome (titular duke of Burgundy), etc. “To tell you the truth, it was rather easy. In the years 2005 and 2006, the discussions started in Europe as to whether Turkey should be a member of the European Union. Because I already had a lot of information about what happened in the 16th century, I chose [as the hero of my new book] Süleyman the Magnificent -- at that time the enemy of [Holy Roman Emperor] Charles V. It looks strange that a journalist wants to write about an Ottoman sultan, but for me, it was the right thing to do and also a natural choice.

To write his book on the famous Ottoman sultan, Boom started investigating and reading about Süleyman the Magnificent and the time in which he lived. He read Turkish and Ottoman sources and conducted interviews with Turkish historians. “That is maybe the main difference between a historian and a journalist. A journalist conducts interviews; he asks other people what they think on certain matters. Besides reading, I combined my story with traveling. I traveled to the spots in Europe where Süleyman [the Magnificent] also traveled and followed his footsteps to find out what was left from those times and to talk with local historians to hear their story about what happened in the 16th century,” Boom stated.

His greatest handicap during his research about the time of Süleyman the Magnificent was, according to Boom, his inability to understand Ottoman Turkish and modern Turkish besides several other languages. “To study Ottoman history, you have to be a linguistic millipede because you have to understand Ottoman Turkish, modern Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, Greek, German, Latin, etc. Nobody is that well equipped with languages. I managed to do my job with translators or translated manuscripts,” he said.

Boom also said his book, "De Grote Turk, is a mixture of investigative journalism, travel journalism and history. “My book is therefore not a biography in the traditional sense of the word but a journalistic product, following a great -- I think the greatest -- sultan the Ottoman Empire ever had. Altogether, it took more than five years to conclude the investigation and to write the book, first of course in Dutch,” the journalist added.

The book was also translated into German.

Book draws both negative, positive feedback in Europe

Boom said his depiction of Süleyman the Magnificent as an Ottoman sultan who was responsible for the growth of the empire not only in terms of geographical size but also of culture has drawn both negative and positive feedback in Europe.

“I knew my book would draw negative criticism in the Netherlands, especially from people who are against the influence of Islam [in Europe]. And I got some negative criticism mainly because people were convinced that I was misled by Turkish propaganda. However, it is just the opposite. Most of the history in which Turks played a leading role, especially in the 16th century, has been poisoned by the propaganda of the Catholics, the Protestants and even by a Dutch humanist like Erasmus,” the journalist said.

He also later got positive criticism. “Those people [who gave positive feedback] understood that my story about Süleyman [the Magnificent] was worth reading. The fact that my book has been nominated for the best journalistic book of the year and for the prestigious Dutch AKO-Literature Prize are also evidence that my version has been accepted. And it is more than that. Now there is a Turkish translation of my book. With that, I think my efforts to tell the story of Sultan Süleyman in another way has been rewarded in Turkey. In Austria, my book has been nominated for the best cultural-historical book of the year. In one review, however, an Austrian journalist wrote that the book was actually a shame. No, not for me, but for Austrian historians because it was a Dutch journalist who published for the first time a complete other history about what happened in 1529 in Austria, denying that Süleyman really wanted to conquer Vienna, which most European historians have written in their books. So all together I think  -- at least I hope -- that my book did contribute to a better understanding of Turkish history, not only for Dutch and German readers, but also for Turkish emigrants who live in the Netherlands and Germany,” Boom noted.

Today's Zaman also talked to Boom about some practices during Ottoman rule, such as the “devşirme system,” an Ottoman recruiting system whereby boys of non-Muslim origin were taken from their families and placed into the army and the government. Boom said there are differing views about the system in Europe, but his personal opinion is that the devşirme system was less cruel than similar methods applied by other empires.

“Each culture, each kingdom, each religion has its own traditions, habits and points of view. From a Western point of view, the devşirme system is condemned as inhuman and as an abuse of human rights. But one shouldn't put make his own remarks on certain events in the history of another culture without any effort to understand that culture. Of course, it seems cruel that non-Muslim boys were taken away [by the Ottoman army] from villages that were conquered by Turks. But people who condemn the devşirme system turn a blind eye to what Spanish soldiers did in Mexico and Peru and what Catholics did to Protestants, especially in the Netherlands and Germany. In that sense, the devşirme system was less cruel, and I really believe that some poor farmers were happy that their sons could receive an education and make money in Constantinople, although it was always a tragic moment for any mother and father to lose their sons,” Boom explained.

‘Girls were educated under best conditions in harem'

Boom dedicated a section of his book to the harem, the section with probably the most allure for readers.

Harem refers to the sphere of women in the Ottoman palace where men were forbidden to enter. It was a place where a woman was trained according to her abilities so that she could appear in public as a royal wife. Some became spouses of the sultan, and some others were matched with men who were raised in a parallel structure to the harem, the Enderun School, which trained future bureaucrats.

The journalist said he thought like most Western and European people about the harem before conducting research for his book. “For me, the harem was a secret and mysterious place where the sultan could pick any girl he wanted. After reading many books about the harem, especially the book of Lesley Peirce, I learned that harem was a well-organized part of the palace of the sultan where girls were educated under the best possible conditions,” Boom stated.

“Muhteşem Yüzyıl” is also a subject of criticism for depicting harem women as passive, oppressed, depraved and highly sexualized figures.

Boom also pointed to the success of a harem girl, Roxelana, who became Süleyman the Magnificent's legal wife, who enabled her son to succeed his father to the throne.

“In a break with Ottoman tradition, Süleyman married a harem girl, Roxelana, who became Hürrem Sultan; her intrigues as queen in the court and power over the sultan [Süleyman] made her quite renowned. Their son, Selim II, succeeded Süleyman following his death in 1566 after 46 years of rule,” Boom said.

Roxelana acquired the name “Hürrem Sultan” after marrying Süleyman the Magnificent. Becoming a legal wife of a sultan, a first since the Ottoman Empire's second sultan Orhan Gazi, strengthened Hürrem's position in the palace and led to one of her sons, Selim, inheriting the empire. Historians also say Hürrem acted as Süleyman's advisor on matters of state and had an influence upon foreign affairs and international politics.

The adventures of Hürrem Sultan and her relations with Süleyman the Magnificent are the main subjects of “Muhteşem Yüzyıl.”

Boom went on to explain that the story of Hürrem Sultan is alluring for the audience because it is about human beings and therefore attractive for TV producers. “With Hürrem, or Roxelana, we see a new chapter in Ottoman history. If we are to trust the story, Süleyman fell in love with Hürrem and didn't want any other woman or wife. With that attitude, he was the first sultan in Ottoman history to do so. But unfortunately, he already had one son from another woman before Hürrem made her entry into the harem [at Topkapı Palace]. There begins the story of jealousy, power and intrigue. It happened everywhere in the world, nowadays and in those times,” he said.

According to Boom, Hürrem was a smart woman who was looking for power, especially in the sultan's later years. “Thanks to Hürrem, it was Selim [not Süleyman's oldest son, Mustafa] who succeeded his father. Together with the intrigues in the palace, Hürrem not only became very powerful, but her personality opened a new era in the Ottoman Empire -- that of the valide sultan [mother of the sultan].”

Valide sultans in time gained increasing influence over their sons, the sultans, and they eventually led to the demise of the Ottoman Empire, according to historians.

Boom also added that Sultan Süleyman is remembered in the world for his nicknames. “He is remembered as ‘Kanuni' in Turkey because he overhauled the legal system in the Ottoman Empire. In Europe, he is remembered as the ‘Magnificent' because the Ottoman Empire reached a golden age during his rule.”

Boom presented copies of his book's Turkish version to a number of top Turkish politicians, including EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış and Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay. “When I presented him the book, Bağış was very surprised and asked me to sign it for his son. I hope the book can make a small contribution to improving relations between Turkey and Europe. A couple of days later, I met with Mr. Günay during the inauguration of an exhibition at the Topkapı Museum where I presented him my book as well,” the journalist noted.

Boom also said he gave a copy of the Dutch version of his book to history Professor İlber Ortaylı last year. “And the first copy of the Dutch version was for the Turkish ambassador to the Netherlands, Uğur Doğan,” he added.

The journalist is currently working on an exhibition about high-profile women in the history of Anatolia and Turkey. “I am preparing the exhibition with my wife. We have been working on the exhibition for more than two years. The exhibition is scheduled for November 2014,” he said.

How to get the book

The Turkish version of “The Great Turk” was released by the Kitap Yayınevi publishing house. Readers can find it in large bookstores such as D&R and Dost Kitabevi. It is for sale in İstanbul, Ankara, İzmir and several other big cities. For more information, readers can call Kitap Yayınevi at 0212-294 65 55. The book can also be purchased from the Internet.

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