An action drama that originally aired on Turkish state TV from 2014 to 2019, Resurrection: Ertuğrul is often described as cultural propaganda on one side, while also being likened to HBO’s eight-season blockbuster (and eventual fail) of the Westeros kind on the other. The truth, as always, appears to lie somewhere along the imprecise lines that connect the two.
For starters, purely as binge-TV, Ertuğrul is almost instantly at least as good as Game of Thrones was in its early days, if not better. Narrating the story of Ertuğrul Bey – scion of the nomadic Muslim Oghuz tribe Kayi, and later, father of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman empire – the show is a generous extrapolation from what is currently documented as just a few undetailed pages of Turkish history during the Christian Crusades in Europe and the Middle-East in the early half of the previous millennium.
These few pages are the basis for a mammoth five-season, 448-episode show that spans the active life of a saviour-hero. (This is the Netflix breakdown for the screen-addled audience of today, with episodes around 45 minutes in length. The original Turkish airing split the show into 170 feature-length episodes.)
Created by Mehmet Bozdağ, the show harks back to a time when the now-ravaged Aleppo in Syria was a cultural and economic hub; when Abrahamic religions warred to gain control of the Mediterranean; when expansionist Christendom began to lay the insidious foundation of modern-day Islamophobia. As a result, the show has a consistently strong moral core (leaving aside the eternal debate over who defines morality in the first place).
The lead character Ertuğrul, played by the stoic yet incessantly charismatic Engin Altan Düzyatan, is the quintessential paragon of virtue. Season 1 revolves around his tribe’s search for a new home, this quest taking him to places with lurking Templar knights and other enemies. On one of his hunts, Ertuğrul comes across three strangers – father, daughter and son – being transported as prisoners by a group of Templars. He rescues the strangers and brings them back to his tribe, setting off a chain of events that will impact not just his own heart, but also the future of his tribe, the Kayis.
Led by Ertuğrul’s aging father Suleyman Shah, the Kayi tribe is first and foremost beholden to their customs and traditions; everything else comes later. As is the tale throughout history, it is these customs that eventually become the cause for familial politics, fratricide, expansion, and conquest.
It is a show that glorifies valour and bravery, but also warmth and tenderness, rooting all these traits front and centre in the culture to which the protagonist belongs.
This, of course, is backed up with some terrific action sequences that largely eschew gore in favour of style and slickness.
Even though every episode of the show begins with a note pointing out that the events depicted are based on ‘our’ – Turkish – history, the show is best viewed as popcorn television, with evil schemers and their machinations having ramifications that fundamentally alter the course of alt-history.
It may or may not be revisionist – because there is a genuine dearth of facts pertaining to that period – but it certainly offers a perspective of Islam that the non-Muslim world would do well to consider. There are villains and plotters on all sides, but Ertuğrul and the Kayis walk away with a white man’s share of the whistle-podu moments of the show. (Thankfully, they say ‘reverse racism’ is not a thing.)
The societal order depicted in the Kayi tribe is one that is intensely patriarchal, but does not fundamentally hate women as many in the present day, particularly online. The men are warriors, the women are caregivers. Gender roles may be rigid, but that does not stop Ertuğrul and his paramour, the mysterious outsider Halime, from bending and breaking the rules, as lead romantic pairs in pop culture usually do.
There is also a conspicuous lack of sex in the show; obviously, one might add. Instead, passionate love is expressed through short bursts of philosophical expression exalting the virtues of the other, and acts like Ertuğrul gifting Halime a wild mare that few can tame, suggestively named Sultan.
Conflicts abound from many quarters for the Kayi tribe; from brothers claiming its leadership from their father, to marauding Crusaders at many a turn; from messianic prophecies that guide the actions of clerics and mystics, to the ‘Black Death’ – the bubonic plague, which killed many millions in Eurasia at the time. Immense in scope and story, Ertuğrul is at once pulpy, poetic, arcane, and artistic.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the show is the staggering scale of production. For a show with a total runtime of close to 400 hours, nearly every frame is gorgeous, with impeccable production design and lush visuals of the open Steppes, embellished with visual effects when required; not to mention some memorable background music. Despite its monumental length, the writing and craft on display ensure that even halfway into the first season the pace of the show never drops.
It also manages to set delicious expectations for the drama and intrigue to follow, promising ever-more devious villains and spectacular war scenes. (Up until midway through the 76-episode first season, where I am currently at, the action has been restricted to highly localised battles and hand-combat.) There are no dragons, but with dragon-hearted lovers and leaders – both driven by social and political ambition – who needs winged mythical creatures?
The show achieved mass success in Turkey, was hailed by their autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and was subsequently both appreciated and reviled in the wider Muslim world. Most recently, it found bombastic success in Pakistan after their prime minister, no less, recommended the show to his citizens.
These, of course, are the political footnotes that invariably accompany any work of creation that causes an impact. If one side sees the show as an expression of soft power, the other side views the reaction to the show as yet another way of attacking their ideology. For content creators, particularly those with a nationalist or activist bent, Ertuğrul has to be the current gold standard for the astonishing amount of work that goes into creating a product that can establish a mindset-altering cultural impact.
Viewed as a fictional show, however, Resurrection: Ertuğrul offers the hungry binge-watcher cheer-worthy characters and a multi-threaded story of potentially epic proportions. Personally speaking, I have watched enough to know that, at least right now, I fully intend to follow through all the way to the end. With over 400 episodes more to go, an episode or two of Ertuğrul feels like a something fun to return to everyday, amid all the other bingeing.
All images from YouTube. TRT Ertugrul by PTV
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