New Delhi: Since the pandemic began, Benazir Fatma, 32, an IIT-Roorkee alum, has been practically living in the 13th century. Through dozens of episodes spread over five seasons, the Turkish fictional drama Resurrection: Ertuğrul — set in a time of multi-ethnic empires, pitched battles, the setting and resetting of borders, and the state making constant demands on individuals to declare their loyalties — has fired her imagination.
When her son turns one in September, Benazir, who stays in Ranchi, said she will dress him up as an “alp (a type of soldier in Ertuğrul)”, complete with a cap and wristband.
Rizwan Malik of Delhi came up with a different sort of tribute, and set up the ‘Ertuğrul Family Restaurant’ at Shahdara in August 2020, a year after the last episode of the series aired. The restaurant, which offers north Indian cuisine, names its dishes in deference to the series.
“The Ertuğrul Malai Chicken is our bestseller,” Malik said.
Just like Babar is the “father” of the Mughal empire, Ertuğrul, a figure about whom not much is known, is widely believed to be the father of Osman I, leader of the Turkish tribes in Anatolia that constitutes much of modern-day Turkey. Osman I is considered the founder of the Ottoman empire that ruled large areas of West Asia, eastern Europe, and north Africa for over 600 years.
The series first started streaming on Netflix in 2014; its final episode was aired in May 2019.
The country-wise viewership figures from 2014-2020 of the series’ YouTube channel reportedly reveals that India is at No. 2, with the show notching over 125 million Indian viewers as of the second quarter of 2020. Pakistanis are the top viewers with a viewership of over 390 million in the same period, and Turkey residents come in third with 119 million.
Indians of all ages, and from across the country, who have discovered the series since last year said they are drawn to it because of the similarities with their own history, culture, and the eternal curiosity multi-ethnic societies have about the place of origin of people who have governed them.
In his 2013 book Time in Early Modern Islam: Calendar, Ceremony, and Chronology in the Safavid, Mughal and Ottoman Empire, author Stephen P. Blake noted that the “three Islamic empires of the early modern period shared a common Turko-Mongolian heritage”.
Of these, while the Mughal empire (1526–1739) held sway over the largest population, the Ottoman empire (1300–1923) survived the longest.
“Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, was a Chagatai Turk from Fergana in Central Asia. Of the five dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate, at least three had Turkish origins,” said medieval Indian historian Ali Nadeem Rezavi of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
“They ruled from the 13th to the 16th century or for 300 years. A lot of traffic happens in 300 years in terms of language, memories, and traditions. The Mughal empire also lasted for over 300 years — the curiosity about Ertuğrul, especially in north India, is thus quite understandable.”
The Turkish series’ popularity in India was first noted in Kashmir in the immediate aftermath of the scrapping of Article 370, which was followed by a curfew and public shutdown. As many people had downloaded the show in the months before, young Kashmiris beat the internet shutdown by passing the series to each other on flash drives.
Sara, 24, a Kashmiri student studying in Delhi, described herself as an “Ertuğrul addict”. “I think this is a meaningful series and Engin (Engin Altan Duzyatan, who plays Ertuğrul) is a good person. I follow him on Instagram,” she said.
Urmila Bhadoria, a Kanpur-based retired healthcare professional, 60, who tuned into the show in 2021, said Ertuğrul is a good example of how to do a historical series.
“I mean I, of course, like Mughal-e-Azam,” said Bhadoria. “But in our movies, we have only seen how Salim loved … I would have liked to know how he ruled.”
Sweta Kushwaha, a PhD cinema studies scholar at JNU, who is currently writing a paper on the Turkish show Fazilet Hanim ve Kizlari (Mrs Fazilet & Her Daughters), said she loves Ertuğrul for similar reasons.
“Historical dramas like Ertuğrul are a wonderful study of human relations and palace intrigues,” she added.
Bhadoria is, however, quick to add that she also has a soft corner for the actor who plays Ertuğrul. She keeps downloaded pictures of Duzyatan as Ertuğrul on her tablet — visuals of Ertuğrul as a man of action, a fond husband, and his interventions at council meetings.
‘Happy to have fans in India’
Engin Altan Duzyatan, 42, a prominent Turkish actor-producer, told ThePrint in an exclusive video interview that he “is happy to have fans in India”. Playing larger-than-life characters has made him “a better person”, he added.
“The core values — the feeling for family, friends, and one’s country — are the same (everywhere). These kinds of series have a positive effect on other cultures that watch them. They arouse curiosity for others,” Duzyatan said.
For many viewers, Ertuğrul is a close look at political Islam, which has given rise to regimes seen as progressive and liberal (for example, Akbar’s during the Mughal era, and Jordan under Abdullah II), as well as bigotry.
“In the serial, it is always explained on what occasions the sword has to be picked up or not,” said Bhadoria. Ertuğrul is shown to be harsh on oppressive Muslims, and he gives positions of responsibility to non-Muslims too, she added.
Dr M.V. Shobhana Warrier, who teaches modern Indian history and ancient world history at Kamala Nehru College, Delhi, said she was curious to see the portrayal of political Islam and jihad “from the other side” in Ertuğrul.
“So far, courtesy Hollywood, we have only seen the Crusades and the Holy Roman Empire, so I wanted to see how they constructed the ‘other’,” she added.
Ertuğrul, Warrier said, was another kind of imagining of “the past” — the past of West Asia, a region perennially in turmoil.
“In our history books, we have studied the Crusades, and through the historical fiction of Ertuğrul, we are seeing how Islam responded to the Crusades and it wasn’t uniform, mind you.”
She said the subalterns, the tribes, and the imperial state of the Sultanate of Rum (founded in 1075, Ertuğrul served it in the 13th century) — the predecessor of the Ottoman Empire — all acted according to their own compulsions.
‘Ertuğrul is no superhero’
It was also interesting for Warrier to see a popular rather than an academic representation of the dynamics between a state and a people.
“The negotiations of Ertuğrul’s tribe with its own identity vis-a-vis other tribes; with rogue Christians such as the Templars; with the wheelers and dealers of the state to which it wants to be joined; the way the many Turkish tribes offer up their children, men and women, to the state in return for land and power — all of it was nicely done,” she said.
Unlike The Crown, the Netflix series that chronicles the life of the British monarch Elizabeth II, Ertuğrul is not centred on one individual or overly personalised, she said. “One always felt that Ertuğrul, as a character, was constantly looking beyond his tribe, his wife, his children, and reaching out to make wider connections,” she added. Next semester, she plans to ask her students to watch it.
What many Indians also warmed up to is the portrayal of women in the show. “The show has numerous women such as Hayme Hatun or Aslihan Hatun, who head the tribes or are assigned the second-in-command positions and are accepted as such by men, or choose to work on the sidelines but still ensuring their tribes/families remain safe,” said Kushwaha.
Ertuğrul’s connect with the world and the resonance of its many strong women characters with Indians is instantaneous. Recent scholarship has brought to the fore what was perhaps only known in academic circles — the women of the Mughal court were power centres and no wallflowers.
Baburnama, the first documented history of life at court and of nomadic life — not unlike Ertuğrul‘s — reveals how Babur’s aunts, sisters, grandmother and nieces would freely give their opinion and influence policy, succession, and essentially the flow of power.
Indians have also liked the lyricism in the serial and the treatment of its romantic scenes. “The love between Ertuğrul and (wife) Halime is shown with so much decency. There is no bed scene!” said Bhadoria in appreciation and lament.
Rezavi added that Ertuğrul does not come off just as a champion of Islam. “Unlike western fantasies like the Game of Thrones, there is no magic in this serial. Ertuğrul is no superhero. This is a hero who gets hurt, is outsmarted, but keeps trying to overcome the odds,” he said. “It is Ertuğrul who makes things happen, not Ibn Arabi, the holy man, or his prayers. In this world, just invocation of religion would not have worked. Prayers alone don’t move mountains.”
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)