From the Mongol threat to palace intrigue and modern secular reforms, these Turkish historical movies with English subtitles deliver memorable and moving cinematography.
At the centre of the Islamic world from the fourteenth century to the early twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire played a profound role in Islamic history. With sweeping secularisation policies implemented by Ataturk from the 1920s, this rich centuries-old culture was upended in pursuit of a more Western and modern state. Yet Islamic religious and cultural heritage runs deep and still finds its expression today, among other places, in Turkish cinema, which has found considerable popularity in recent years beyond the borders of Turkey, with such historical drama series as Diriliş Ertuğrul. Here are five unforgettable Turkish historical movies with English subtitles together with a compelling Turkish historical drama series exploring the history and culture of this amazing country.
Five Turkish historical movies with English subtitles (… and a compelling Ottoman historical drama series)
1. The Last Seljuk Hero
An action-filled feature film with epic battle scenes, a fearsome enemy and a strong emotional undercurrent, The Last Seljuk Hero vividly portrays the fall of the Seljuk Empire to the Mongols and the resistance of Emir Karatay and the residents of Konya to their rule.
In 1243 a decisive battle was fought at Köse Dağ between the Mongols and the Seljuks, which sounded the death knell of the Seljuk Empire. Its remaining rulers became vassals of the Mongols and were divided into small emirates called the Anatolian Beyliks. One of these, the Ottomans, would eventually rise to power over all the others. Set at roughly the same time as the popular historical drama series Ertugrul, The Last Seljuk Hero powerfully dramatises this key moment, as a sophisticated empire fell to the ferocious Mongols and the groundwork was laid for another Turkic empire to rise.
2. Somuncu Baba – The Secret of Love
Somoncu Baba – The Secret of Love is a beautiful cinematic depiction of the life of the influential 14th century Sufi saint Hamid-i Veli, the Master Baker, known as Somuncu Baba. This is a spiritually uplifting Turkish historical movie with English subtitles, with mesmerisingly beautiful cinematography, set in 14th century Sufi lodges and against the backdrop of sweeping vistas of the Anatolian countryside and Golden Age cities.
The film also depicts the close bond of the master-disciple relationship between Somuncu Baba and the novice who was to become the Sufi saint Haji Bayram Veli. Haji Bayram Veli, considered one of the most important Anatolian spiritual figures, was the teacher of Akshamsaddin, who became the mentor of Mehmed the Conqueror. The film thus situates Somuncu Baba within a lineage of Sufi masters with an enduring legacy reaching to the present day.
3. Yunus Emre – The Voice of Love
Celebrated for his simple and direct verse composed in the Turkish of his day, rather than in Persian or Arabic, the Sufi poet Yunus Emre, born in 1238, has left an enduring mark on Turkish literature and culture. The Turkish historical movie Yunus Emre, the Voice of Love is based around what is known about his life, and explores his quest to understand divine love.
Living at the time of the Mongol invasion and the disintegration of the Seljuk Empire, Yunus Emre composed his verses in Old Anatolian Turkish, in the tradition of the Sufi folk poetry of Ahmed Yesevi. Under the Seljuks the official written languages used were Persian and Arabic, so his simplicity of style and use of the popular spoken Turkish language was unusual for the time.
The film takes us through a dreamscape of steppe landscapes, sometimes deep in snow, with visions of Hallaj and visits to spiritually important figures including Rumi. In his wanderings there are also meditative moments of reflection in which he spontaneously recites his verses.
4. Palace Spies
Palace Spies is a Turkish historical drama set in 18th Century Istanbul during the Ottoman-Persian War. The series follows Khalil, a wrestler whose father was an Ottoman spy in the Persian court. Upon his discovery and death he sends his son to Istanbul to warn the Sultan and unravel the treacherous mysteries occurring within the palace walls.
Sultan Ahmed III is faced with war after refusing the demands of the Persian Shah to return their land, but before it breaks out on the battlefield it wages within the palace walls. Persian spies have infiltrated the palace in an attempt to overthrow his regime from the inside and have wormed their way into the highest political positions with disastrous consequences.
This series is a gripping watch full of action, conspiracy and romance. It is beautifully shot and extravagantly costumed, creating a well-rounded and rich viewing experience modern audience have come to expect from historical dramas. This programme is an exhilarating viewing experience that pulls the audience into this critical time in Islamic history, a binge-able historical drama of the highest quality. The first episode is free to watch on Alchemiya.
5. Free Man – Bediüzzaman Said Nursi
In the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey underwent a brutally repressive programme of modernisation and secularisation, with Arabic script, turbans, and other religious customs outlawed. An influential figure who stood up to these tyrannical edicts was Said Nursi, a Kurdish religious scholar who believed in the compatibility of religion, modern science and progress. Free Man tells his dramatic story.
Exiled, imprisoned multiple times, placed in solitary confinement and under house arrest, poisoned and starved, his spirit and resolve remained unbroken. Free Man depicts the remarkable real-life story of Said Nursi. He has been compared to Ghandi for his peaceful resistance against sweeping modernisation and secularisation policies enforced by the nascent Turkish state which outlawed its own centuries-old customs and traditions. Said Nursi was a pivotal figure in the formative decades of the modern nation that replaced the remains of the Ottoman Empire. His life and works played a central role in ensuring the continuity of the practice of Islam in Turkey, and led to a religious movement which today has millions of followers globally.
Free Man combines the splendour and majesty of panoramic mountain and ocean views with the sparse aesthetics of bare village houses and prison cells. The film succeeds in achieving a poignant mixture of spiritual and visually poetic cinematography, while effectively telling the story of the struggles of this influential scholar and thinker to uphold religious freedom in the face of draconian secularisation mandates.
6. Suveydâ – when calling the adhan in Arabic was outlawed
Telling the story of a young boy and his grandfather as they grapple with coercive regulations to modernise and Westernise, Suveydâ is a lyrical and moving film that shows the effect of enforced secularisation policies in Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1923 the newly founded Republic of Turkey was recognised internationally, replacing the Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of Lausanne signed in Switzerland. Radical reforms to modernise, secularise and Westernise centuries-old Ottoman culture followed, to turn Turkey rapidly into a modern, secular, democratic state. While offering minorities and women more equality, these reforms were forcibly repressive in religious matters, adopting French secularism as a model to be emulated.
Set in 1928 in the village of Eregiz, the film Suveydâ focuses on the life of an eleven year-old boy called Hadim who is hoping to become a hafiz of Quran. He has a close relationship with his grandfather Mecid Hodja, who is the village Imam.
The new Turkish state brought in policies outlawing the use of Arabic even in religious rites, arguing that the Quran should be taught in Turkish so that it was better understood. Calling the adhan in Arabic was also banned. An edict was sent out from the religious affairs department saying that calling the adhan in Arabic was now outlawed, and giving a Turkish version to be called instead. The impact of this ban is powerfully portrayed in the film Suveydâ.
These Turkish historical movies with English subtitles and the Turkish historical drama series Palace Spies provide compelling and unforgettable cinematic experiences, while also being informative and giving historical context to the stories they tell.
You may also enjoy the historical drama series and animation about Rumi, together with Alchemiya’s selection of documentaries about this pivotal Sufi poet.
You can explore the Ottoman sacred music tradition in Breath of the Beloved, and discover Ottoman architectural and artistic heritage in the documentaries on the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts and on Sinan, the Ottoman Master architect. To explore Turkey further you can check out the travel series Inside Istanbul, and Alchemiya’s Treasures of Turkey collection.