History Professor Christine Philliou discusses her academic journey and mentoring her students

May 3, 2024

Berkeley History Professor Christine Philliou uses her experience of having lived abroad immersed in other cultures and educational systems to enrich the learning experience for her students.

She received her bachelor's degree from Columbia University in Labor History and Modern Greek studies and received her master's and Ph.D. from Princeton University in Near Eastern Studies and History. She came to UC Berkeley in 2015 after teaching Ottoman and Modern Turkish history at Columbia University. 

Professor Philliou sat down with Berkeley Social Sciences to discuss her background, research, and accomplishments as an academic and mentor. This interview has been edited for clarity. 

Please tell us about your background and path to UC Berkeley

Christine Philliou: I grew up in the Boston area in the 1970s and 1980s, a golden age of "foreign exchange" and international education. My parents were involved in international education, and we had students and scholars in our home as far back as I can remember, often from Europe and many countries of the Middle East. I learned to see the world through an international lens, to value the exchange of ideas across cultures, and to see the commonalities, particularly between Greek culture, from my own family background, and areas in what we now call the "Global South." 

I went to Columbia University for my bachelor’s degree, studying labor history and Modern Greek studies, and lived in Greece and Turkey after graduating. Funnily enough, I swore I would never go to graduate school when I left Columbia, but while living abroad—especially in Thessaloniki in Greece and Istanbul in Turkey—I became fascinated with the history of the Ottoman Empire (1300-1922), a state which ruled over what are now Greece and Turkey as well as the areas we now call the Balkans and Middle East. Studying the Ottoman past helped me understand not just my family history, as the grandchild of Greek immigrants from the collapsing Ottoman Empire, but also some of the deeper reasons for the commonalities across these cultures, from Greek to Turkish to Arab and Armenian and beyond. It also gave me an unexpected new perspective on problems of race and ethnicity that I had studied while an undergraduate—these problems looked very different through a Balkan, Middle Eastern and Ottoman historical lens. 

I got my Ph.D. in history—not because I had always dreamed of becoming an academic, but because I had such a deep curiosity about this past, which was never taught in school when I was growing up, and the only way to satisfy that curiosity was with formal study. My research involved years of research in the Ottoman archives in Istanbul and other libraries in Greece,   France and the UK, as well as Romania, Bulgaria, Syria and Lebanon. 

What do you like most about working at UC Berkeley?

Christine Philliou: I value and deeply appreciate the diversity of ideas and perspectives on campus and the energy that everyone—students, faculty, staff and visitors—brings to the community, which is palpable to anyone who sets foot here. Everyone seems to have a mission and a sense of purpose here!

Tell us more about your students

Christine Philliou: I have always been impressed by my students' passion for learning about the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly. Berkeley students seem to feel an urgent need to understand the past and present of the region, often to figure out how they can contribute to solutions for the future. Their sense of curiosity, purpose and goodwill is inspiring to me. I sense their gratitude and relief when they see the complexity of human experience in the histories of the Middle East from multiple perspectives, especially in the Ottoman period, when social and political categories were much different and more varied than they seem to be today. Whether they are heritage students, students who have traveled to or lived in the region with their families, or students who only know about the region from what they read in the news, I see that every time a student learns to relate to the historical experience of peoples of the Middle East, a bridge is being built.

How do you mentor them?

Christine Philliou: Mainly by asking questions that throw them off of their footing, to get them to see beyond the conventional either/or understandings of history and of "other" cultures. 

“How does Turkish history look through the lens of Greek history and vice-versa?” “What is left out of one or another national history?” “At whose expense is any national history constructed?” “Where does Ottoman history overlap with and how is it suppressed in all of the national histories built in its wake?”

By encouraging them to step back and see the conflicts and relationships between disparate groups—whether ethnic, national, confessional or socioeconomic—I encourage them to formulate new questions. Such questions are the starting point of a messy, and sometimes scary process, but they lead to new kinds of conversations and insights, which, hopefully, they see the value of!

Tell us more about your research

Christine Philliou: I find the Ottoman past endlessly fascinating—insights pop up that are surprisingly relevant to contemporary conflicts and problems, whether regarding conversations about diversity and inclusion in the U.S. or regarding today's conflicts in the Middle East and Balkans, for example. But the way power worked, and the way the state was ordered, could not be more different from the U.S. today–there was no guarantee of legal equality and no democratically elected government for most of the Ottoman era. 

In my research I focus on: 1) how power worked in the Ottoman Empire and how that shaped the historical experience of Christians, as well as Muslims and Jews; 2) the Ottoman Empire as a zone of the interface between Europe and the Middle East, as those categories emerged from the 17th century to the present; 3) how European colonial projects and geopolitics did and did not determine the making of nation-states in the Balkans and Middle East out of the Ottoman Empire; and 4) the traces, patterns and memory of the Ottoman past in the region until today. 

More specifically, in my first book, Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution, I examined the case of Greek-speaking, Christian elites who were involved in the work of governing the Muslim-dominated Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th  centuries, as the idea of nationalism began to emerge. My second book, Turkey: A Past Against History, was a close look at the politics and culture of opposition and dissent in the late Ottoman Empire, as that empire attempted to transition to a constitutional monarchy, but ended up transitioning instead to the secular Republic of Turkey. Currently, I am writing a third book and directing a collective project–a granular study of the Greek communities of late Ottoman Istanbul to see the day-to-day workings of a multi-confessional society. What I try to do in all of my research is to question assumptions about the separateness of "Europe" and the "Middle East," and the process by which these national, regional categories and "area studies" divisions became reified from the 19th century to the present. 

What kind of impact has your research made?

Christine Philliou: Certainly my research has helped change the way students and scholars see the role of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, and the connectivities in Ottoman governance beyond the formal divisions between Christians and Muslims. Now, we can talk about a broader arena of experience in the Ottoman Empire, including those with and without formal power, and those who accumulated power without any official claim to a share in sovereignty—similar to the ways we have opened up countless new lines of inquiry about the experience of indigenous, Black, and other non-dominant groups in U.S. history. My research findings over the last 10 to20 years have coincided with a larger shift toward studying multi-confessional societies before the era of nationalism. My more recent work has helped change the way we look at the dissenting views within the Turkish national movement and the modern Turkish Republic, with repercussions on how we see the culture and politics of dissent and opposition in Turkey today.

What are your proudest accomplishments at UC Berkeley?

Christine Philliou: My proudest accomplishments include not only the discoveries I have made in my research and the research I have fostered in my students, but the intellectual communities I have helped to build—many workshops and conferences over the years, most recently about Digital Methods for the Study of Mobillities in the Aegean Region in conjunction with colleagues in France and Norway. I founded the Program in Modern Greek and Hellenic Studies at the Institute for European Studies; the Turkish Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Studies (TOPOS) initiative at CMES; and the İstanΠόλις collaborative research project I founded, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, in which many students and scholars participate from Berkeley, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere.