A handsome ottoman prince is hunting in a forest when a cavalcade of horsemen rides up bearing a fateful message. Meanwhile, a slave ship full of nubile Russian women destined for the harems of Istanbul creaks its way across the Black Sea. So begins Magnificent Century, Turkey’s answer to Showtime’s The Tudors. A bodice-ripping historical soap opera based on the life of the 16th-century Suleiman the Magnificent, it’s just one of more than 100 shows produced last year by Turkey’s booming TV-drama industry. The programs are becoming a wildly popular cultural phenomenon across the Middle East, bringing in their wake a renaissance in Turkey’s soft power and ushering in a low-key social revolution among the housewives of the Arab world.
Last year the final episode of Turkey’s rags-to-riches soap Noor clocked 85 million viewers from Syria to Morocco. “These serials have a huge impact,” says Izzet Pinto, CEO of Turkey’s Global Agency, which distributes Magnificent Century and 1001 Nights, another Turkish blockbuster set in modern-day Istanbul. “In the Balkans, newborns are being named after 1001 Nights characters.” The secret is familiarity. “Neither the characters nor the subject matter nor the featured locations are foreign” to viewers, says Kemal Uzun, director of Noor. “They do not feel like outsiders to what is taking place. We are close cultures, close geographies; we have close ties.”
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