Unpacking the newfound Pakistani love for Ertugrul

Aqsa Hakeem explains why Pakistani audiences are seeking out a very particular, fictionalized memory of the Ottoman Empire

Unpacking the newfound Pakistani love for Ertugrul
Pakistan’s latest obsession with a Turkish TV series Dirilis: Ertugrul comes as no surprise given our eagerness to consume anything remotely similar to our brand of “Islamic Idealism”- a Pakistani habit that goes back a long way. But the cherry on top has to be PM Imran Khan’s over-enthusiastic endorsement of the show, which has stirred up a hornet’s net on social media, dividing people across the political spectrum. On one hand we have the overzealous fans, on the other hand we have the critics who are skeptical of the state-patronage that this show has received.

For those still living under a rock; Dirilis Ertugrul is a historical drama based on the life of medieval Oghuz Turks, and features Ertugrul Gazi, father of Osman I (founder of the Ottoman dynasty), as its protagonist. It narrates the struggle of a brave Muslim warrior who is caught up in fights against various enemies (non-Muslims, of course). His quest to save his religion and tribal customs brings him face to face with the Crusaders, Mongols and the Byzantines in drawn-out and highly fictionalized conquests. He is portrayed as the savior of the Islamic world against the infidels.

Newly constructed statues of Ertugrul are appearing in Pakistan

So what is it about a drama that has every one mired in a debate? Or are we reading too much into a “harmless” show that just got popular?

Partly the trouble with this show lies in the manner it has been promoted by Prime Minister Imran Khan himself. He is all praise for it, citing it as a great source of historical knowledge for the youth, when in reality not much is known about Ertugrul Gazi as a historical figure and the show is anything but an accurate account of events. However, this hasn’t dissuaded the PM from issuing recommendations in its favour. On multiple occasions he has publicly urged the youth to watch the show and learn about the ‘true’ Islamic culture, values and history. In fact, upon his request the state-run PTV is now airing a dubbed translation of the series in Urdu for local audiences.

But what is there to ‘learn’ from a show that is mostly a figment of a screenwriter’s imagination? Blurring of lines between fact and fiction comes with a heavy price in a country where our impressionable minds are held hostage to conspiracy theories, and as if that wasn’t enough on its own, now we will be fed historical exaggerations as facts in the guise of entertainment.

Pakistan’s own history is a mystery to most Pakistanis and we always end up looking elsewhere for cultural validation. Sometimes it’s the Arabs, on other days its the Persians or Turks. Seven decades have passed and we still haven’t recovered from the ‘Mohammad-Bin-Qasim-ization’ of our history and culture. To add to that confusion, we have now provided official endorsement to a project that is purely revivalist in nature and presented it as a source of historical facts.


While Dirilis Ertugrul might be an entertaining show, it is more than just a thrilling story of medieval tribal power games. Beyond the flashy sword fights of fictional Oghuz Turks lies a cleverly crafted cultural propaganda. Therefore it becomes imperative to consider the political context TV shows like Ertugrul operate in.

Any one familiar with Turkish shows would probably know about the extravagant drama serial Magnificent Century (aired as Mera Sultan in Pakistan). In a matter of few years it became one of the most widely watched Turkish shows all over the world. However, the show that chronicles Suleyman I’s romantic life was deemed too ‘risque’ for public consumption. Suleyman I’s character in Magnificent Century was heavily criticized by the conservative elements of Turkish society and the state. The show received thousands of formal complaints calling it out for the “inaccurate” depiction of the Ottoman history, one that stood in contradiction to what they saw as conventional Islamic values. Conservatives staged protests outside television stations to take it off air. People objected to the revealing gowns used as costumes for female actors.

The conservative elements of the Turkish state felt the need to control the narrative. Hence, three years after Magnificent Century came another drama serial in the form of Dirilis Ertugrul. It is a show, which was primarily created as a state-backed response to counter the narrative broadcast through Magnificent Century. As a result, a sanitized and family-friendly version of the Ottoman history was produced, with a plotline that combines ideas of Islamic idealism and pan-Islamism.

Even in Pakistan social media users have voiced similar concerns in their comments on Magnificent Century’s Youtube channel (Mera Sultan). Viewers are seen endorsing one dramatized version of Ottoman history (Ertugrul) and discarding the other (Magnificent Century) as insidious propaganda against Islam. Their ire is targeted at the “immorality” shown in Mera Sultan, whereas Ertugrul with its forced piety and glimpses of performative religion is celebrated as a “true” representation of Muslims.

And then there are those who yearn for a modern-day Ertugrul Gazi. They imagine him as this messiah-cum- leader who will put an end to Muslim persecution, from Kashmir to Palestine, and will end up restoring the lost glory of the Islamic world. It seems the heady doses of Pan-Islamism injected through Ertugrul have made us nostalgic for a glorious heyday.

Our fascination with one brand of Ottoman history (Ertugrul) and contempt for the other (Magnificent Century) has also exposed our misperceptions about modern Turkey, which is a secular republic. No wonder some Pakistani fans were taken aback upon discovering the actual lifestyles of their favorite Turkish actors. In the past few weeks Ertugrul’s leading cast has been at the receiving end of moral policing from their Pakistani fans. Esra Bilgic, who plays Halime Sultan, was bashed on Instagram for dressing immodestly. The lead actor was lambasted on Instagram for keeping a pet dog indoors when in reality Turkey has to be one of the most animal-friendly countries. It’s very common to see stray dogs and cats sleeping inside shops and cafes and at times you will even find them sleeping outside mosque doors.

As a matter of fact, even the Ottoman Empire wasn’t monolithic. From the day it was established till the day it was abolished, it underwent major structural changes. The same empire that took over mantle of Islamic caliphate ended up decriminalizing homosexuality as part of its Tanzimat Reforms in 19th century. Under these reforms education was secularized and non-Muslims were granted equal status. One is left to wonder if a show based on the Tanzimat period will have as much of our attention as Dirilis Ertugrul?

The fanfare surrounding Ertugrul has revealed our own cultural anxieties and fantasies. At a time when we should be working towards finding amicable solutions to our problems, the show has awakened our pan-islamist fantasies. For a nation that is always so out of touch with its reality, is it then wise to promote another country’s revivalist project rooted in centuries-old history and plenty of historical exaggerations as our own?