Conversations with Academics: Dr. Olof Heilo

The new episode of “conversations with academics” is with Olof Heilo in Lund – the city where he was born, went to school, and began his studies. He studied Ancient Greek and Arabic at Lund University and a year of Farsi at Copenhagen University, a combination that was made possible by the flexible system of Swedish higher education as well as the so-called Øresundsuniversitetet, a Danish-Swedish collaboration program. Having finished his Ph.D. in Byzantine history at the University of Vienna, Olof worked there for a few years as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Byzantine and Modern Greek History. In the meantime, he taught courses on the Modern History of the Middle East at the international master programme at the Center of Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) in Lund. Since 2016, Olof is the deputy director of the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul.

As a researcher, Olof has travelled in many Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and Eastern Mediterranean countries, with a special focus on Turkey. We talked with Olof about his research areas and his ideas on the differences between Turkey, Sweden, and other countries both in terms of academia and culture.



Akademisyenlerle Sohbetler: Dr. Olof Heilo

Olof Heilo ile bu sohbeti Lund’da, yani doğduğu, okula gittiği ve üniversite eğitimine başladığı şehirde yapıyoruz. Olof Lund Üniversitesi’nde Antik Yunanca ve Arapça; esnek İsveç yüksek öğretim sistemi ve Danimarka-İsveç işbirliğinin mümkün kılması ile bir yıl Kopenhag Üniversitesi’nde Farsça eğitimi aldı. Viyana Üniversitesi’nde Bizans tarihi üzerine yaptığı doktoradan sonra, Bizans ve Modern Yunan Tarihi Enstitüsü’nde doktora sonrası araştırmacı olarak bir süre çalıştı. Aynı zamanda, Lund Üniversitesi Orta Doğu Çalışmaları Merkezi (CMES) yüksek lisans programında Ortadoğu’nun modern tarihi üzerine dersler verdi. Olof, 2016’dan beri İstanbul’daki İsveç Araştırma Enstitüsü’nün direktör yardımcılığını yapıyor.

Bir araştırmacı olarak Türkiye’yi ve beraberinde birçok Doğu Avrupa, Orta Doğu ve Doğu Akdeniz ülkesini gezen Olof ile çalıştığı araştırma konularını ve Türkiye, İsveç ve deneyimlediği diğer ülkeler arasındaki akademik ve kültürel farkları konuştuk.

Could you tell us a bit about your research area? What kind of research projects have you been part of throughout your career?

My dissertation discussed the rise of Islam from a Byzantine viewpoint, a topic that had caught my interest already as a student. My work in Vienna was focused on Byzantine history and Byzantine Greek sources: I surveyed various historiographic texts from the seventh to the eleventh century for a project that was financed by the Austrian Academy of Science. Gradually, and thanks to my teaching in Lund, I became more focused on Ottoman history and the Modern history of Eastern Europe and the Middle East in general. An issue which I have kept returning to is European and Islamic constructions of history; I got the opportunity to develop it during a fellowship at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Together with a friend and colleague in Vienna, and supported by the project Many Roads in Modernity in Copenhagen, I have later had the opportunity to co-organise a conference on multinationalism in the late Habsburg and Ottoman empires, the proceedings of which have just appeared as a book (Narrated Empires, ed. J. Chovanec, and O. Heilo, Palgrave 2021).

At the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, I get to interact with visiting researchers, research projects, and project events from a wide range of research areas related to Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean: ancient, Byzantine and Ottoman history, various languages, and literary traditions, art, religion, politics, sociology, gender studies … Being in charge of the publication series of the institute mean being simultaneously publisher, editor, proof-reader, typesetter and advertiser of some of the output that this may result in. But I also get to take initiatives for arranging events, inviting scholars, or setting up projects, and during the years I have worked there I have had the opportunity to co-arrange a workshop, two summer schools, several lecture series, and most recently a series of online events aimed at young Turkish scholars and financed by the same Swedish initiative as Turkey without borders – Rememberings: Human Rights, Historical Trauma and the Future of Pluralism in Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean (

What did drive your passion to this specific area and especially Byzantine history?

Already as a kid, I had a strong interest in history in general, and especially in the history of southern and eastern Europe and the Middle East. As a student I came to focus on the history of the Byzantine Empire, I think, primarily because it is really in the middle of everything: it connects back to ancient Roman, Greek, Jewish and Christian history, forward to early modern and modern Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Russia … and of course Constantinople – Istanbul – lies at a geographical crossroad. It was so to say the ideal place to go when I felt that I could not make up my mind. I would probably consider myself a historian rather than a Byzantinist, but I keep coming back to Byzantium.

As far as you have observed, are there differences in the work life in Sweden and Turkey?

Having worked in three different countries and had the opportunity to closely observe yet a few others during travels for studies and research, I always find the question of cultural differences double-edged. On the one hand, differences get blurred: people are as they are, irrespective of the circumstances. On the other hand, there are patterns and even clichés that seem to get confirmed all the time. When you put the two together, a somewhat fairer picture may emerge.

Sweden and Scandinavia are generally averse to titles and hierarchies, even within academia. This is a big difference already when you come to Austria, where titles play a significant role and you must take great care to know your own place on the social and academic ladder. But of course, this does not mean that people higher up in the Swedish academic hierarchy are any less powerful than their Austrian or Turkish counterparts, or less prone to use their power. Something I noticed after I had been away from Sweden for a few years and returned to find myself in an environment of international scholars in Lund, was how often non-Swedish colleagues expressed frustration about a system that gave the appearance of being open and egalitarian, but which had its own, unreadable power structures.

I think this can partly be observed also in language use. It is often claimed that “all Scandinavians know English”, and I think it is true that foreigners in Sweden who have a basic grasp of English will find it comparably easy to communicate with the locals. But as someone has said, sometimes the worst enemy of communication is the erroneous assumption that it has taken place. As someone who only speaks rudimentary Turkish, I can feel frustrated by the reluctance of many Turkish academics to use English in communication; but I also think it saves them from a trap into which many Scandinavian academics are prone to fall when they overestimate their own ability (and that of their counterpart) to speak English on a more advanced level: that of talking past each other without being aware of it.

I often wish that my Turkish was much better and that I did not have to rely on English in my interaction with colleagues in Istanbul. I know just enough of the language to follow the fantastic output of Turkish scholarship in book titles, lecture announcements, and exhibition plans, but not really to dive into it. But since it is my job to first and foremost assist Nordic scholars and Nordic research in Turkey, I have accepted my status as a partial outsider in this academic environment.

What did you like about working in Istanbul?

First of all, the privilege to just be there. I cannot heap praise on the city without resorting to clichés so I will refrain from that. Being situated within the Swedish Consulate General at the heart of Beyoğlu and in the immediate proximity of other international institutes, the institute is an extremely stimulating environment to work within, but one needs to take precautions lest it turns into a bubble: sometimes it can feel more like working in an international and globalised academic community than in Turkey. For that reason, a regular part of my life in Istanbul consists of long city walks and explorations with friends and colleagues, deep into the street grids of old Istanbul. Sometimes I feel that my background as a Byzantinist has taught me more than anything else about local and contemporary Istanbul: in this city, the past is deeply imbedded in the present, and you cannot access it like you would at a museum where it is clinically separated from the world. Ancient ruins are part of modern structures, from shisha bars to car repair shops, or serve as storages or shelters for the homeless; the traces of various communities from the past live their own lives in the midst of the Turkish city or areas now inhabited by refugees. And despite my shortcomings in the language, I think the sum of all these walks has given me a strong feeling of being safe and at home in Istanbul – that I get to be part of the city and call it my own.

I perceive Turkey as a rather introverted country. If you come from northern Europe, the Mediterranean world can sometimes be felt to be very intrusive – people are used to physical closeness and prone to interact. Sometimes they can also be very loud. Turkey is different in this concern, I feel. People there do not push themselves on you, and there is a feeling of caution and carefulness in everything they do. At the same time, they navigate an urban environment much better than northerners, who tend to be rather clumsy. Even if you are traveling in the metro or you are out in the street, the sound level is moderate. These are all characteristics that I appreciate about Turkey.

And then there are the cats, of course. They also make Istanbul what it is.

What kind of a future do you see for the Research Institute in Istanbul? What will it bring to the bridge between Turkey and Sweden?

Like many northern European institutes in the Mediterranean, the SRII was founded primarily for the convenience of northern scholars in what they felt to be a foreign environment, not to promote academic exchange on an equal level. In this concern, I think, there will always lie something ‘colonial’ over the way in which such institutes were initially conceived. Fortunately, times have since changed, and the internationalization of academia in general means that it is now virtually impossible to discern a clear boundary between what is ‘Nordic’, ‘Turkish’, or ‘international’ scholarship. We remain a platform for scholars affiliated with Nordic universities who come to Turkey, but we are just as much an interaction place for various scholars who are in Istanbul. Our somewhat secluded location within the consulate prevents us from admitting spontaneous visitors, but this also ensures that we remain as a safe and calm environment for pursuing research and exchanging ideas. Working with the consulate also gives us a unique opportunity to strengthen contacts between academia, culture, and civil society in Turkey and Europe. Humanities need to take a more prominent place in contemporary debates, but also learn from them. Simplified narratives of the past, for instance, have become an increasingly prominent feature of right-wing and populist rhetoric in recent years; for that reason, it is more important than ever for historians to take a stance, wring history out of the hands of the historicists, to speak with Karl Popper. I hope that we can see more initiatives at the institute in the next few years that will aim to diversify the way in which we think of phenomena like Modernity, the Ottoman Empire, Europe, Colonialism, Islam, or Orientalism. At the moment, of course, much depends on when and how the pandemic will abate; until then, we have to resort to online platforms. At least I think the themes of our lectures series in recent years show in which direction we are moving – “Women’s Voices”, “Continuity and Change”, “Classicism(s) and Orientalism(s)”, “Narrative and Politics”. And apart from the Rememberings project on cultural pluralism in the Eastern Mediterranean, we are co-hosting a big project on how stories and tales travelled across Greek, Arabic, Georgian and Slavonian literature in the Medieval world. A major EU project on migration, RESPOND, has just been concluded, with the SRII as one partner institution and a team of Swedish, Turkish and international investigators studying migration routes, mechanisms, and agents in Turkey and beyond. Five long-time research fellows – in fields ranging from religion to linguistics – are waiting to resume their work here as soon as travel regulations get eased.

Do you have any advice for someone who will throw themselves at the academic culture in Sweden?

I think it is difficult to give general advice; circumstances can vary a lot depending on universities and fields of studies, and of course not least on the stage of the academic career. Just as in the cases above, it is easy to end up with clichés when trying to describe a culture in a few words. For southerners coming to the north, it is probably always worth considering the degree to which physical distance puts its mark on the mentality, but that is such a general statement to make that I am not sure if it is really useful. As for scholarly milieus, I think the perhaps most important caveat I can provide is to not always get deceived by an appearance of directness or lack of hierarchies. Especially in small and old academic environments, long-established power structures and peer networks can be strong. This said, entering any new place with an open mind is probably the best advice one can give.

Interview by/ Söyleşiyi yapan: İpek Sezer