In this podcast interview, Prof. Elena Isayev discusses ancient concepts of mobility, migration and place, and how they can be of value in reframing how we think about and respond to different experiences of migration today.
An ancient historian by training, Prof. Isayev‘s early research focused on social organisation and mobility in southern Italy from the 4th to the 1st centuries BC. She has since drawn on that deep history to apply a ‘long durée perspective’ to contemporary understandings of mobility, migration, displacement and belonging. She has published a wide range of books and articles, including Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy (2017), a volume with Evan Jewell, Displacement and the Humanities, and the ground-breaking article ‘Between hospitality and asylum: a historical perspective on displaced agency‘. She has founded or contributes to a range of interdisciplinary projects which experiment with new conceptual frameworks for visualising migration in order to influence policy-making and practice in the 21st century. These include Routes, Imagining Futures, Campus in Camps, and the Al Maeisha project. Her research has been influential in shifting habits of viewing, imagining and representing displacement, refugees, asylum-seekers and mobility as an experience.
During the podcast, Prof. Isayev shares valuable insights into ancient experiences and discourses of migration. As she argues, ‘a high level of human mobility was not exceptional among Mediterranean communities. Indeed, it was built into the way that society functioned…’. Building on this, she unsettles all sorts of modern assumptions. She discusses the language used in different periods and places to define (and sometimes exclude or demonise) people on the move. In talking us through the ancient Greek concept of xenia (hospitality), she asks important questions about networks of connection, reciprocity, interdependence, moral responsibilities, shifting definitions of sovereignty, and why some migrants were/are seen as ‘threats’. Along the way she makes important points about changing concepts of space and place. Unsurprisingly, migration was conceived differently in a time before formal borders; similarly, belonging and inhabiting were conceptualised and experienced differently, which in turn shaped how ‘inside(rs)’ and ‘outside(rs)’ were perceived.
Prof. Isayev talks about a range of forced migrants: slaves, people fleeing war, people displaced by environmental crises. As she explains, our ancient sources spend relatively little time reflecting on their fates. Even so, she is able to dive into texts that show how ancient asylum-seekers appealed to different people and places, and to reflect on the various ways in which they were treated, and how hospitality was politicised. She ends by drawing parallels between ancient asylum-seekers waiting in the liminal spaces of Greek sanctuaries, who had to be resourceful in appealing to potential hosts, and long-term inhabitants of refugee camps in Palestine, who challenge their existence as liminal by employing ‘innovative, influential, exceptional politics’ to expose the refugee camp not as external to society but part of its making.
We would love to hear how Prof. Isayev’s reflections on ancient discourses and experiences of migration resonate with you. What key differences should we take into account when comparing ancient and modern migrations? What fresh perspectives can antiquity offer on contemporary definitions and challenges? And just how far back in history is it useful to go? Please share your thoughts with us via our feedback form.