A quasi-historical blend of documentary and dramatic reenactment

Unlike previous films, Netflix's Rise of Empires aspires to be both a documentary and historical epic, ending up as a strange mix of the two. At best, the documentary side seeks to provide additional narrative and drama to the reenactment, making for a better story without really providing any historical perspective.

While Netflix won widespread praise in recent years for the depth and diversity of its original programming, critics consistently noted the lack of a six-episode docudrama celebrating the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. 

Now, at last, Netflix has responded. Rise of Empires: Ottoman, released in January 2020, finally brings the Fetih to an international audience, complete with action, romance and a series of interviews with Ottoman historians. Anecdotally, at least, the response has been overwhelming. Two people I know have already watched it who aren’t actually Ottoman historians themselves, and a third says they’re definitely planning on it. 

Traditionally, of course, the Conquest of Constantinople has proved a more popular topic for film and television in Turkey than abroad. In 1951, Istanbul’un Fethi [The Conquest of Istanbul] was Turkey’s biggest budget movie to date. With an official endorsement from the Turkish government and military, it won praise from many reviewers, but also generated less enthusiastic feedback from some nationalists and historical purists. One critic, History World editor Niyazi Ahmet Banoglu, wrote that the trend toward big-screen Ottoman romances “exploit[ed] the people's love of history just to make a few cents.” (“And the decor! the costumes! They are painful. Bad replicas of a few outfits or backgrounds from Topkapı palace make these films so laughable you want to cry.”) 

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"A scene from a historical film whose every scene is ahistorical." Tarih Dunyası, "They Are Killing History," (26 November, 1952).

More recently, the 2012 film Fetih 1453 was again touted as Turkey’s biggest budget film to date. The director described it as an unabashedly patriotic endeavor and defended his cinematic license, saying “I’m not a teacher, I’m a director.” If nothing else, he was clear about his aesthetic vision: a call for battle-scene extras reassured potential applicants that it was fine to be ugly, just so long as you could grow a beard. In addition to the staples of the conquest genre, Fetih 1453 features an Ulubatli Hasan romance and highlights Fatih’s role as a devoted father, someone who was never too stressed by siege planning to find a moment to play with his son.

So where does the Netflix series fit in this tradition? Unlike previous films, Rise of Empires aspires to be both a documentary and historical epic, ending up as a strange mix of the two. At best, the documentary side seeks to provide additional narrative and drama to the reenactment, making for a better story without really providing any historical perspective. The result is a work that is too ahistorical to be history but too historical to be that much fun.

For example, the first episode sets the stage for Fatih’s conquest of Istanbul by asking the experts just how great a city it is. We learn in rapid succession that Istanbul is a jewel, the promised land, the center of the world, a hinge, the body of the butterfly, the largest city in the Mediterranean and, above all, a concept. 

So far, so good. If anyone doubted why Fatih wanted Istanbul, now we know. But when it comes to how he succeeded where so many others failed, the next five episodes don’t provide any real answers. In trying to explain why Fatih won, the series’ experts sound a bit like coaches doing a post-game interview. We’re left with the vague sense that Fatih ultimately beat the Byzantines because he wanted it more. Mehmet, we learn, has pizzazz, luck, and sense of destiny riding with him: “Somehow, everything Mehmet does, the timing is right.” Also, there was some prophecy involving a blood moon. And cannons. The cannons helped. 

That the show prefers great man history and speculation about Fatih’s psychology to structural explanations of the Ottomans’ victory is hardly the historians’ fault. Michael Talbot and Emrah Safa Gurkan are clearly enjoying themselves, while Karen Barkey gamely tries to put the whole business in a more scholarly light.

On some of the highly charged ideological questions about the conquest, Netflix avoids taking a firm stand. There's plenty of cross versus crescent and a healthy dose of Allahu Akbars, but also enough pride and power to make it clear that religion wasn’t what it was all about. There’s plenty of enlightened Fatih. We find out about all the languages he knows, as well as the fact he's read the Bible, and aspires to create something bigger than just an Islamic or Turkish empire. He impales people, but only off camera, and has grand plans for Istanbul, but the show ends before we find out about them. Moreover, while the narrative is not militarist in an ideological sense, it slips into militarism by way of narrative convention. The people pushing for pragmatism and compromise turn out to be the traitors, and as viewers we’re grateful their caution didn’t carry the day.

When it comes to sources, the show is either too cavalier or, alternatively, not cavalier enough. We get some apocryphal stories presented as fact, but don’t get to hear any of the more speculative but entertaining stories that abound about the conquest. For example, it’s entirely possible that, as depicted in the final episode, the last Byzantine Emperor disappeared into the smoke of battle. But no one really knows. And there’s a much better tale: a janissary proudly brings Fatih the emperor’s severed head and Fatih immediately has the janissary’s head similarly removed. “I am the new emperor of Rome,” he declares, “and I must avenge the death of my predecessor.”

There are, nonetheless, some real historic insights. Mehter certainly makes more sense described as a form of psychological warfare than music. And, well, if you were still wondering where the Byzantine Empire went, now you know. 

In the end, only one inaccuracy feels truly troubling. The show unapologetically downplays the size of Fatih’s nose, presenting it, in direct contradiction to the extant historical evidence, as surprisingly normal-sized. It is an odd and unnecessary concession to vanity. If the story of the conquest teaches us anything about history, it’s that a great man should have a great nose. 

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