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Resurrection: Ertugrul

Ertugrul bey, you are as strong as steel.
No blade can blunt or block your slashing sword.
You are of all the Turks the greatest lord,
And all the other beys at your feet kneel.
And should one not, your dagger’s edge he’ll feel
Cold on his throat — he’ll gather no reward
In Heaven when his blood is spilled, outpoured
From severed veins. His martyrdom you’ll steal.

But having sung your praises now I say:
Why are the Templar and Byzantine Knights
You fight, such awful swordsmen? Not a scratch
Your Alps receive while killing them. Oh pray
Tell me, is this your dream? One-sided fights?
In dreams the strongest foes we all outmatch.

— D.N. O’Brien

The Netflix TV series “Resurrection: Ertugrul”, or to give it its Turkish name: “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” is a very entertaining, if perhaps somewhat inaccurate (as far as we know) portrayal of the Oghuz Turk hero and leader, Ertugrul of the Kayi tribe. His tribe had been driven out of present Kazakhstan, or maybe present day Iran, in the time of his father, Suleyman Shah, either by the Mongols or other Turkmen tribes.

Ertugral was the father of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, and we know that because Osman I had coins minted showing Ertugrul as his father — virtually nothing else is known about Ertugrul.

Turkish folk law however, paints a very heroic and colourful picture of Ertugrul and his Kayi tribe, and it seems the writers of the TV series (5 series to date, each of some 90 episodes) have drawn from this rich source (plus their copious imaginations) to produce an action-packed, often bloody, and always profoundly Islamic spectacle.

The show is not just about Ertugrul of course. In the first series he is just one of two young brothers, sons of Suleyman Shah, but as time goes on he becomes the central character. There are other major characters — I won’t go into that here as the plots can be very complex, but suffice to say, there are good and evil Turks, evil Mongolians and Christians (yes pretty much only evil), and of course beautiful women (Turks and Christians). The Islamic scholar and mystic, Ibn Arabi, drifts in and out, and seems to have a personal interest in Ertugrul and his tribe. His long lectures to enraptured audiences can get a little painful at times, but there is the FF button on the remote.

The basic story outline is that the Turks are moving further into Anatolia and coming into contact with the Byzantine Empire frontier and this is resulting in clashes with the Christians. Initially the clashes are with Templar Knights and they are characterized as very evil indeed, but later the fighting is with the knights of the Byzantine Empire. At the same time they are having to fight off the advancing Mongols to the north and east. It is an imaginative prelude to Osman I establishing his initially quite small Ottoman Empire in Anatolia — an empire which would spread far and wide in the centuries following his death.

The acting is excellent, (I’ve never seen actresses who are better at crying than these Turkish women), the fighting (mainly sword-fighting, and I’ll come to that later in more detail) scenes are bloody and skillful, and the acrobatics of the guys who’ve just received a killer chop to the throat or chest, spectacular — I didn’t realize that a sword-fighter who receives such a blow does 2 or 3 midair spins before landing (awkwardly) or that a fighter receiving an arrow in the chest flies 6 feet off the ground — the stunt men are brilliant. The main actors themselves seem to do their own stunts, and their horse-riding skills are quite remarkable.

Ertugrul is usually accompanied by a small but incredibly skilled and deadly (and lucky) group. There are about 10 or so in the group but I’ll only mention 2 here, as the others tend to change from time to time as they are either killed (rare) or move on to somewhere else. These two are Turgut, a big handsome Alp (Alp is Turkish for hero) who swings his battle axe with deadly results, and Bamsi, a strange sort of bumbling but good-natured fellow who takes great delight in removing numerous infidel heads with his two swords. He finishes up the chief Alp of the Kayi tribe strangely enough.

I’ve seen this group and even fewer beat off and kill scores of Christian Knights without any of them suffering so much as a minor flesh wound. Their fighting skills have to be seen to be believed, (Or not believed). The skills of the Christian Knights (apart from their commanders) are pitifully inadequate, despite hours and hours of practice. On top of that they wear white robes with a great big red cross emblazoned in the center — a handy aiming point for a Turk arrow or scimitar.

I’m presently up to episode 28 of the 4th series and have noticed a gradual but interesting change in one particular aspect of the show. Perhaps you guessed it — religion.

The show is always very pro Islam and there’s no doubt of course that it is propaganda, but with each new series the Islamic component increases. The shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” increase greatly in number and frequency, and “Inshallah” becomes the most common word uttered. The Christians meanwhile are becoming more and more evil and the (good) Muslims more saintly and admirable.

Still, I guess it was made mainly for a Turkish audience and that country has plenty of problems. Maybe this is more than just TV; perhaps it is an attempt to instill pride in the Turkish people as a whole through Islam. Maybe insulting the non Muslims in Turkey is not a problem, and I guess if you really believe in the writings of the Koran and Islam’s other holy books — if you really believe that Muhammad rode to the seven heavens on a winged horse, plus all of his other miracles, you’re not going to be too worried about the feelings of a few billion people outside of Turkey.

From all accounts the further east one goes in Turkey the more religious, the more fundamentalist the people are, and the faster they are reproducing. The western Turks are generally much more moderate apparently, more Western, and like the West not doing much in the way of breeding — I dare say they are worried about being swamped by their eastern cousins. On top of that they have the Kurds and what’s left of ISIS and the Syrians, plus their own internal tribalism to worry about.

But if this show is anything to go by, if these Turks can really handle being outnumbered 10 to 1 and still win, then we had better watch out if they decide to resurrect their Empire, their Caliphate! After all, Ertugrul often talks of conquering the whole world in the name of Islam.

That said, it’s still a damn fine show! — I’ll bet President Erdogan doesn’t miss an episode.

— D.N. O’Brien