“It Is Interesting to Investigate How Modern Ideas of Security and Geopolitics Were Manipulated Through Global Entanglement” – 5in10 with Ilkay Yilmaz

İlkay Yılmaz is a 2020 Fellow of Europe in the Middle EastThe Middle East in Europe (EUME), a research program of the Forum Transregionale Studien, and affiliated with Freie Universität Berlin. During her Fellowship, İlkay is working on a project entitled “Security Perspectives and the Administration of the General Inspectorates in the Ottoman Empire (1878-1908)”. She received her PhD from Istanbul University in 2012. In 2014-2017, she worked as an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Science, Istanbul University. In 2014-2015 and 2017-2019, she was a visiting research fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient. Her research and teaching interests include state-formation, comperative empires, security policies and police institution of the late Ottoman Empire, the history of Ottoman passports, the Armenian Question, the administrative history of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic.

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

The world of a child is always full of curiosities and desires for discoveries and imagining. Curiosities towards new candies to taste, new games to play, new kids to meet, new stories or fairy tales to hear. My childhood was not an exception. I was curious about the outside world and my childhood environment was secure enough to let me pursue my curiosities. As a daughter of a sailor, my favorite game was to find the places from the atlas that my father was traveling to and then imagine those places and people who were living there. After learning how to read, my attention was directed to reading books from my parents’ library. Another important factor were the human stories that were told by the elderly women in my family. These stories belong to an oral history culture and involve very detailed encounters of the last 150 years of my family history, which is also a history of migration, poverty, and clashes between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. As a child, while these personal stories about migration and poverty were striking for me, I also learned at an early age that everyone could be poor or a migrant because of the experience of wars or other types of violence. In the end, I became a historian working on passport practices, violence and security policies during the late Ottoman Empire. 

How do you explain your current research project to your students?

I’m working on security infrastructures and the mentality of security in the late Ottoman Empire. In my PhD dissertation, which turned into a book, I discussed Ottoman travel regulations and passport practices through trans-imperial networks and techniques of security against revolutionaries at the end of the 19th century. I conceptualized the Ottoman government’s travel regulations as attempts to be part of the European security collaborations, which then created an inter-imperial criminal justice network against revolutionaries. The new threat perceptions of the Ottoman political elites – mainly based on political problems – directed their attention to the Armenians, Bulgarians, seasonal workers, foreign workers, anarchists and members of secret societies, and passport technologies became the core method of labeling these people during the late 19th century. In my new research, I’m focusing on the eastern provinces and analyze the interplay between European colonialism and Ottoman internal colonialism during the late 19th century. It is interesting for me to investigate how modern ideas of security and geopolitics were described and manipulated through global entanglements, and how colonial techniques that accelerated violence became the core of the security infrastructure. I am also interested in questions of how state actors, from different backgrounds and competing empires, interacted and inspired each other’s techniques and mentalities; how security knowledge is produced through these traveling techniques; and how this knowledge exchange created the temporal trans-imperial mentality of security, as the main legitimization factor of state violence. 

Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

I think that each of them had different effects on my academic life. During my BA, it was challenging and also instructive to be at the Istanbul University, which was the biggest, oldest and most crowded university in Turkey. I was studying political science back then and there was a lively discussion culture at the faculty against all those pressures. You could find students nearly from all political groups in Turkey at the campus. The discussions were always very challenging. The disciplinary investigations on leftist or Kurdish students were normal, in addition to the fact that the main campus was always under police surveillance. I can say that the campus was always in a state of exception, which was legitimized for security reasons. I learned a lot not only from the professors at the classrooms but also from other students in the corridors. The most inspiring books for me were Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and “The Question of Palestine”, both of which I read in a student club at the faculty. These two books triggered my curiosity to an alternative Ottoman historiography. Another important station for me was Leiden University. During my PhD, I went to Leiden University for one year of research, where people were talking about Armenian genocide and Kurdish issues in the classroom, not at the alternative/counter academic spaces created in the corridors or behind the closed doors. Then, I went back to Istanbul to finish the PhD and got an assistant professorship. My stay in Berlin is also important for my academic work. After the dramatic political events in Turkey, I started work at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient where I could discuss current methodological approaches and benefit from interdisciplinary discussions and exchanges with colleagues. Berlin is full of interesting academic events that also pave the way to be part of current academic debates and enables collaboration with the international academic community. I can say that EUME is one of those special places in Berlin, full of discussions and impressive colleagues.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods?

My most important research methods are digging the archives and reading memoirs. The collections of Ottoman archives in Istanbul are the most important sources that I use. With the digitalization of the Ottoman state archives, it is relatively easy to reach them. With the turn of digitalization, it is now also possible to reach newspaper archives or even some private archives relating to Ottoman past.  

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) have inspired you recently?

I am currently reading Houri Berberian’s “Roving Revolutionaries” which focuses on Armenian revolutionaries and their roles in the Russian, Iranian and Young Turk Revolutions between 1904 and 1911. It’s interesting to see the interconnected aspect of the revolutions through revolutionaries of a widespread minority group, to think about the mobility of ideas, arms and people, and to ask new questions on boundaries, political geographies and revolutions.


Citation: “It Is Interesting to Investigate How Modern Ideas of Security and Geopolitics Were Manipulated Through Global Entanglement” – 5in10 with Ilkay Yilmaz, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.03.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23476.


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