Contending Sovereigns, Contentious Spaces: Illicit Migration and Urban Governance in the Late Ottoman Empire


  • Hatice Ayse Polat University of Cambridge



The spatial turn in social sciences have aptly demonstrated that the economic globalisation of the 19th century and the global spread of modern statecraft had happened through, rather than to the people who had began to move en masse. With an epochal rise in the circulation of people, objects and practices during the late 19th century, the imperial powers that inhabited the eastern Mediterranean would begin to deploy a variety of spatial techniques on vagabonds, prostitutes, and orphans at the face of their penetration into the city. The new underclass of les Échelles du Levant had transformed their adopted cities, for having provoked the imperial statesmen to adopt modern techniques of urban governance in regulating their circulation within and without the Ottoman Empire. In this research paper, I will present the Ottoman Empire’s interventions into the global economy of sex work, of which fin-de-siècle Istanbul had become a nodal city. The administrative practices surrounding the -categorically migrant- body of the prostitute went into circulation after and owing to the way their trans-regional migration and trans-local connections transformed the urban landscape. I shall try to demonstrate how the the imperial state tried to intervene and control their illicit circulation on two levels, within the spatial politics of urban governance (1) and through the imperial contestations in the field of international law (2). Corroborating the heterogeneity of the coloniser and the colonised, there is an evident affinity between the scope of such transnational historiography and the aspirations of postcolonial theory. I aim to situate my subject of research accordingly, to show how the colonial and imperial statesmen cohered together at the face of an increasingly mobile and heterogenous world of women. 

Author Biography

Hatice Ayse Polat, University of Cambridge

Ayse Polat is a frst year PhD student at the History Faculty at the University of Cambridge. She holds a BA in Political Science and Sociology (Double Major) from the University of Bogazici in Istanbul. Her dissertation inquires into the networks of illicit migration - i.e. ‘people smuggling’, ‘white slave trade’, ‘human traffcking’ - engendered by non-elite migration into
and through Beirut and Alexandria in late 19th century. She intends to account for the transformation of labour regimes - in domestic, manual, and sex work – in fin de siècle Eastern Mediterranean, within which both the middlemen and the migrants were embedded.