For the first time ever, I have engaged in the somewhat dubious activity known as binge-watching. Truthfully, I just couldn’t help it and trust me neither will you. Resurrection: Ertugrul – a number one show in its native Turkey – is turning out to be a genuine sensation for Muslims in the West, starved as we are of decent dramas that seek to reflect our values. Anyhow – and I am rather shocked myself to say this – I have watched, or rather, greedily devoured, the first 25 episodes over the past week on Netflix and can’t wait to watch more.
Set in the year 1225 C.E. in an unspecified location that appears to be in Anatolia, Resurrection: Ertugrul is inspired by the life of Ertugrul, a scion of the Turkmen Kayi tribe and the son of its leader, Sulayman Shah. Ertugrul was the father of ‘Uthman, after whom the ‘Uthmaniyyah Khilafah (Ottoman Empire) was named. His descendants would go on to rule a huge part of the Muslim world for around 600 years.
The very beginning of the first episode sets the defiant tone of the series. It is almost as if the creators of the series took on a wager:
“In secular Turkey I bet you can’t begin your series by mentioning God’s name!”
“Oh yeah? We are Muslims. We will say “God is great. God is One” loudly not once, but 15 times, right at the outset. Watch us.”
And that’s just what they do! I won’t reveal how they integrated that into the storyline but it is artfully and very cleverly done.
The setting of the drama near the beginning of the 13th century allows the writers to introduce a number of plot elements including famine, the upheaval caused by the Mongol invasions, the petty rulers of the Muslim city states, Crusader intrigue (it is set less than 40 years after Salahuddin al-Ayyubi liberated Jerusalem), the Black Death and perhaps most joyfully, the regular appearance of the Sufi saint, Ibn al-Arabi who lived in the region at this time.
As we begin the series, the Kayi tribe are dealing with a famine and are about to face the onset of a harsh winter in which their flocks and almost certainly many of the weaker members of the tribe will face death. They have to look for a way out.
It is a running theme of the series that the Kayi tribe constantly faces problems. However, as the physicist David Deutsch says in his magnificent book The Beginning of Infinity: “Problems are inevitable. Problems are soluble.” Ertugrul, his father Sulayman Shah and the Kayi tribe face trouble after trouble but they prepare and plan to deal with each one of them with resolution and firm faith in God that justice must prevail.
Set against the Kayi tribe are not just the scheming Crusaders of the Knights Templar who want the Vatican to launch a new Crusade to recapture Jerusalem, but also their Muslim collaborators who treasonously deal with the Crusaders for personal profit at the expense of the interests of the wider Muslim world.
Ibn Arabi regularly pops up, (one reviewer likened him to a Muslim Gandalf) to offer insights from the Qur’an and the lives of the Prophets to bolster the faith of the characters.
Another enigmatic character is the mysterious Afsin Bey of whom one character says after he has once again gone missing for a few days:
“You know how Afsin Bey is! We cannot hear from him unless he wants us to. He puts on his shroud and infiltrates into the heartland of the infidels. We do not know whether he’d surface in Frank territory or in a Persian city.”
To compound the problems of the Kayi tribe, the ruler of the Muslim city state of Aleppo where they want to move their tribe to shelter from the famine is a drip of a man who prefers writing love poems to focusing on the well-being and safety of his people who are being continually undermined by Knights Templar infiltrators.
The series is very well made and the gripping nature of each episode leaves the viewer wanting to watch more. Some of the CGI effects which are occasionally a bit ropey can be forgiven.
The acting throughout is of a very high standard and the costumes look gorgeous on the screen. A lot of care has clearly gone into the production of this series.
The huge success of Resurrection: Ertugrul should perhaps be viewed in light of recent changes in Turkish society. Following the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war, Turkey became so aggressively secular that it actively sought to undermine religious values and actively discriminated against practising Muslims with bans on bearded Muslim men and employing Muslim women wearing the headscarf in the civil service etc. Recent years have seen a gradual reversal of these policies with the electoral success of the Islam-oriented AK Party under the leadership of President Recep Tayyib Erdogan.
Interestingly, I noticed that towards the end of the credits, Kemal Tekden is listed as a producer (it is his Tekden Films that produced the series). Kemal Tekden also just happens to be an AK Party MP. Turkey has developed a very successful export market for its TV dramas with a recent story claiming that Resurrection: Ertugrul has now been exported to over 60 countries.
If you haven’t watched any of Resurrection: Ertugrul yet – get on to Netflix and give it a chance now. You may surprise yourself.
Update: 15th March 2018 Almost four weeks after writing the above I have completed watching both Seasons One and Two of Resurrection: Ertugrul. Definitely got my money’s worth out of my Netflix subscription this month. The episodes just seemed to get better and better, and the themes grander and grander. Your heart will soar each time you see Ertugrul paying attention to Ibn al-Arabi’s aptly timed reminders from the Qur’an. You will shake your head in anger when you see how otherwise noble people are corrupted by gold and the promise of positions of state. Now – when are Netflix going to upload Seasons Three and Four?
Update 29th April 2018 The Turkish broadcaster TRT World has uploaded a cool promotional video highlighting some of the reasons why overseas audiences have become so hooked on the Resurrection: Ertugrul series.
Update 6th July 2019 About three months ago, Netflix uploaded Seasons Three and Four, and I have just recently completed watching Season Three. I did not binge-watch the season this time but restricted myself to watching an episode a day (more or less), usually on the commute back from work. Season Three finds Ertugrul Ghazi and his Oba (tribe) in the dangerous frontier territory under constant threat from the Byzantine Emperor’s local Governor Vasilius who wishes to rid the surrounding land of the Turks. Ertugrul on the other hand wishes to expand the territory under the rule of Islam and restore justice to those suffering under Byzantine rule and their high taxes and oppression. However, as ever, there are nominal Muslims who would rather seek personal gain and position by allying themselves with the Byzantines and seeking to thwart Ertugrul. The acting and production values are absolutely top notch and the sets are a joy to look at. As ever, the reminders from the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad and indeed earlier prophets and the struggles they faced while always trusting in God are very welcome.