TV drama challenges historical narrative of Ottoman conquest in the Arab world

The serial points out that the “glories” of the Ottoman Empire were not so glorious, especially crimes committed against Egyptians and the Ottomans’ theft of Egyptian wealth.
Sunday 10/11/2019
Egyptian actor Khaled El Nabawi  performs in “Kingdoms of Fire.”    (Courtesy of Mohamed Suleiman Abdel Malek)
An Arab narrative. Egyptian actor Khaled El Nabawi performs in “Kingdoms of Fire.” (Courtesy of Mohamed Suleiman Abdel Malek)

CAIRO - The Middle East Broadcasting Centre is preparing to broadcast “Kingdoms of Fire,” the largest historical drama production in the Arab world in decades.

The serial, which stars many Arab actors, brings together TV professionals from the United Kingdom, Italy and Colombia who promised to keep Arab viewers glued to their televisions through the show’s run.

“This is what we are actually hoping for,” said Mohamed Suleiman Abdel Malek, an Egyptian screenwriter of the serial. “Arab viewers usually prefer this type of work.”

The serial focuses on the Ottoman conquest of Egypt and the end of the Mamluk state in the Arab country. It is centred on the period before the arrival of the Ottomans in Egypt, the bravery of Mamluk ruler Tuman bay II and atrocities the Ottomans committed against Egyptians.

It is probably the first Arab TV work to address that period from those angles, depicting transformations in the Arab region during the early years of the Ottoman occupation of Egypt in 1517. The Ottoman-Mamluk rivalry for controlling the Arab region had been seminal in determining the Arabs’ national identity. 

“This type of drama is very important because it gives young viewers a chance to know history,” said Egyptian TV and cinema critic Tarek al-Shenawi. “This type of work has almost disappeared from the Arab artistic scene because of the huge amounts of money its production requires.”

It cost the UAE media platform Genomedia $40 million to produce the serial, making it the most expensive drama production in the Arab region in decades.

The serial is directed by British director Peter Webber, who is best known for his debut feature film “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and the horror film “Hannibal Rising.”

Egyptian actor Khaled El Nabawi plays Tuman bay II, who became sultan of Egypt after the army of Qansuh al-Ghawri was defeated by Ottoman ruler Selim II at the Battle of Marj Dabiq in 1516.

Tuman bay was popular among Egyptians because of his reputation for being virtuous and uncorrupted. He avoided most mistakes previous Mamluk rulers were notorious for.

Tuman bay’s army was defeated by Ottoman troops. After the occupation of Egypt and Tuman bay’s execution in Cairo, the Ottomans punished Egyptians for showing loyalty to their fallen ruler.

The serial is the first collaborative Arab drama work, at least at this high level, in decades. It shows what Arabs can do at the TV and drama level when they join hands. Its makers say it is the first move in a large project for defending the Arab national identity.

“Young Arabs get their knowledge from drama works, not from books,” Abdel Malek said. “This is why we have to utilise this media and not let one party present its own view though it uncontested.” 

Abdel Malek worked with history books, many of which contrast the view of the era Turkey puts forth, to determine facts about the Ottoman presence in Egypt. “It [the serial] corrects some of the lies propagated about the Ottomans by Turkish

drama,” he said.

“Our absence from the artistic stage gave the chance for Turkish drama to fill the minds of our youngsters with purely Ottoman ideas like the need for re-establishing the caliphate,” Abdel Malek said. “This is a battle for the minds of our people, which is why we have to have a national project through which we can present history as it really happened.”

Recent developments, including the Turkish political war on some regional countries, Turkey’s occupation of Arab land in Syria and Iraq and the desire of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to revive what he considers the glories of the Ottoman Empire are pitting Arab and Turk historical narratives against each other.

The same developments have created a regional cultural conflict in which various countries try to assert the value its culture and history.

The serial reminds that the “glories” of the Ottoman Empire were not so glorious, especially crimes committed against Egyptians and the Ottomans’ theft of Egyptian wealth.

The Middle East Broadcasting Centre planned to start broadcasting the serial on November 17. Genomedia has aired ads for the serial, giving viewers an insight into work.

In scenes included in the promo, the makers of “Kingdoms of Fire” depend on modern sound effects and actors appear in a new light. The programme’s creators amassed a huge cast, especially for battle scenes. Scenes of Tuman bay II riding a horse and exhorting his soldiers in the face of the Ottomans are heart-rending.

Shenawi, however, advised viewers to judge programmes by the artistry of their making, regardless of historical or political backgrounds.

“Viewers should judge art by artistic standards, not by anything else,” Shenawi said. “They have to let their minds and hearts then judge the events because works of art always transcend political and religious boundaries.”