Matthew Ellis

Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation Chair in Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs

on leave Fall 24

BA, Williams College. MPhil, University of Oxford. MA, PhD., Princeton University. Dr. Ellis specializes in the social, intellectual, and cultural history of the modern Middle East. His first book, Desert Borderland: The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya (Stanford University Press, 2018), examines lived experiences of territoriality in the Eastern Sahara in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the role these experiences played in facilitating the emergence of Egypt and Libya as modern, bordered political spaces. His broader intellectual and teaching interests include: the politics and culture of nationalism; modernity and identity formation in the Ottoman and post-Ottoman Middle East; cities and imagined urbanism; nostalgia and the politics of collective memory; popular culture; British, French, and Italian imperialism and decolonization; and the history of mass media and propaganda. Dr. Ellis has published articles in The International Journal of Middle East Studies and History Compass and contributed a chapter to The Long 1890s in Egypt: Colonial Quiescence, Subterranean Resistance (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). He has received several fellowships supporting his research, including grants from Fulbright, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Research Center in Egypt. Most recently, he was the recipient of the Paul Mellon/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Rome Prize in Modern Italian Studies, awarded by the American Academy in Rome for the 2020-21 academic year. Dr. Ellis is currently at work on two research projects. The first is a study of Italian imperial citizenship in Libya, with a particular focus on the ways the colonial government responded to the challenge of Libyan mobility as tens if not hundreds of thousands of Libyans fled Italian rule and took refuge in neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. The second aims to provide an intellectual genealogy of American mass media and propaganda in the middle decades of the 20th century, paying special attention to how social scientists conceived the relationship between mass persuasion and nation-building in the era of decolonization. SLC, 2012–

Undergraduate Courses 2024-2025


Global Environmental History

Open, Seminar—Spring

HIST 3044

As climate change has emerged as a fixture in our news cycle, week after week, our society has grown increasingly aware of the various impacts that humans have had on the environment—to say nothing of the extent to which environmental transformation has been fundamentally reshaping human experience. As obvious as these interactions might seem to us today, it was only in recent decades—inspired by the new environmentalism of the ’60s and ’70s—that historians and social scientists began to explore how to narrate the past by focusing primarily on human beings’ complex, ever-evolving relationship with the nonhuman world. This course will provide a broad introduction into this new “environmental history,” adopting a global lens through which to excavate the historical relationship between the human and nonhuman worlds. Along the way, we will explore a number of approaches to three broad themes: the effects (both intended and unintended) of human societies on the environment; the role of nonhuman “nature” in the unfolding of human history; and the evolution of ideas (religious, cultural, intellectual) about nature and the environment. Though we will trace these themes fairly far back into history, the course will focus most of its attention on the so-called “Anthropocene” era—the period since the Industrial Revolution in Europe—which witnessed the rapid globalization of capitalist modernity and the advent of expansive overseas colonial empires. This seminar will participate in the collaborative interludes and other programs of the Sarah Lawrence Interdisciplinary Collaborative on the Environment (SLICE) Mellon course cluster.


Previous Courses


After Colonialism: Development, Modernization, and National Culture in the Middle East During the ‘Long 1950s’

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

The 1950s were a transformative decade in Middle Eastern history. On the one hand, it was a heady period of national liberation. Egypt, under Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser and the Free Officers, shook off the last vestiges of British imperial influence and led the rapidly decolonizing Arab world in calling for the region’s complete political and economic independence from the West. Israel, for its part, flexed new muscles as a fledgling independent state and strove doggedly to fortify both the bounds and bonds of the nation. On the other hand, the 1950s witnessed the emergence of a new mode of state-society relations across the Middle East, predicated on a firm ideological commitment to government-led modernization. This course will provide a close examination of the dynamics of postcolonial nation-building and modernization in the Middle East during that pivotal decade by focusing on the interplay of politics and culture—particularly in Egypt, Israel, and Turkey, each of which pursued strikingly parallel paths of modernization and national development in the 1950s with profound consequences for the future of the region. Special attention will be given to cultural production (cinema, music, literature, radio, popular newspapers, and magazines) as a critical lens for understanding how the contours of modern citizenship and national belonging were similarly negotiated and contested throughout the decade.


Decolonization and the End of Empire

Open, Large seminar—Spring

Among the most salient features of the new international order that was ushered in by the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations in 1945 was the emergence of an unprecedented global wave of decolonization that would last for roughly three decades. As many leaders of the international community consigned the “age of empire” to the dustbin of history, the world witnessed, in rapid succession, the dissolution of European overseas imperial configurations and the consequent formation of myriad new nation states across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. This seminar provides an in-depth historical inquiry into the global phenomenon of decolonization in the post-World War II era. The course will adopt a comparative and transnational lens, exploring—through a wide range of both secondary and primary sources—the complex historical processes that attended decolonization in the British, French, Italian, Dutch, and Portuguese imperial domains. Particular attention will be paid to the following questions: Why did European imperialism end when it did, and how did the politics of anti-colonial nationalism vary across the different empires? How did nationalist movements and local elites negotiate the end of imperial rule, and what challenges did they face in their attempts to build postcolonial societies? What role did international organizations such as the United Nations play in constructing the new decolonized world order? How did the Cold War impact decolonization? How did decolonization work within nascent frameworks in post-World War II international law, particularly concerning the legal status of postcolonial national citizens as well as migrants? And finally, to what extent has decolonization led to a truly “decolonized” world order? Or, to what extent have older imperial discourses, ideologies, and cultural prejudices persisted into the era of postcolonial independence and self-determination? Conference work for this seminar will take the form of small-group work: Each group will undertake research relating to the experience of decolonization in a different European imperial context (British, French, Italian, Dutch, or Portuguese).



Sophomore and Above, Large seminar—Spring

This course provides a broad historical and theoretical inquiry into the phenomenon of nationalism—one of the most enduring ideological constructs of modern society. Indeed, the organization of the globe into a world of bordered territorial nation-states—each encapsulating a unique social identity—is such a taken-for-granted feature of contemporary geopolitics that it is easy to forget that nations did not exist for most of human history and that nationalism dates back only to the mid-to-late 1700s. And yet, despite many predictions of its imminent demise at different moments in history—Albert Einstein quipped, famously, that nationalism was an “infantile disease” that humanity would eventually outgrow—nationalism remains, perhaps, as powerful an ideological force as ever in the United States as elsewhere. This course will examine a range of foundational questions about the emergence of nations and nationalism in world history: What is a nation, and how has national identity been cultivated, defined, and debated in different contexts? Why did nationalism emerge when it did? Who does nationalism benefit, and how do different social groups compete for control over national identity and ideology? How and why did nationalism become such a vital feature of anticolonial political movements beginning in the late-19th century? Is nationalism fundamentally a negative force—violent and exclusionary—or is it necessary for forging cohesive social bonds among diverse and far-flung populations? The course will begin with the emergence of nations and nationalism in Western Europe but will then move on to explore its evolution and spread to all parts of the globe, exploring a number of case studies along the way. The course will conclude with a brief survey of the state of nationalist politics today, with a particular emphasis on Brexit and white nationalism in the United States.


Palestine/Israel and the Politics of History

Open, Seminar—Fall

This course provides a comprehensive introduction to major topics and debates in the historiography of Palestine/Israel from the mid-19th century to the present. The course has two broad goals: first, to delineate significant trends and transformations that defined the political, economic, cultural, intellectual, and social history of that contested land in the modern period; and second, to explore the evolution of—and fraught political debates surrounding—varying interpretations of this history. Themes to be covered include: Ottoman Palestine in the 19th and early 20th centuries; Jewish modernity and the origins and trajectory of Zionism as an ideology and political movement; the emergence and development of Palestinian national identity and nationalism; British colonial rule and the Mandate system; the historiography of partition and its consequences; the construction of Israeli national culture and identity after 1948; the politics of memory among Israelis and Palestinians; regional war and diplomacy; the role of the United States and the global ramifications of struggle in Palestine/Israel; and various aspects of state and society within Israel, with a special focus on the diversity of its ethnic and religious composition. It bears saying that this is not a course about the “Arab-Israeli conflict” or even primarily about “conflict,” as such; rather, this course provides an integrative approach to Palestinian and Israeli history—emphasizing the construction and articulation of multiple visions for forging collective identity within Palestine/Israel, as well as strategies for establishing and asserting control over it. To this end, we will pay particular attention in this course to cultural sources—especially literature and film—as a way to capture the complexity of voices and identities that claim this land as their own.


Propaganda and Mass Communications in Modern History

Intermediate, Large seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: one year of college-level course work in history and the social sciences

This seminar provides an interdisciplinary analysis of the phenomenon of propaganda and mass communications within modern society. How does propaganda “work”? How should we characterize the individuals and institutions that shape and disseminate it? What are the specific languages and visual symbols that propagandists have typically used to persuade and communicate with mass audiences? How have both “democratic” and “authoritarian” societies sought to generate consent? And how, in turn, have individuals and social groups drawn the line between what is truth and what is propaganda? Although the manipulation of information for political ends has been intrinsic to human societies across history, this course focuses on the so-called “axial age of propaganda,” beginning with World War I, which saw the emergence of tightly organized, large-scale, government-sponsored propaganda efforts across Europe and the United States. This course will utilize a variety of case studies to explore the symbolic content of specific kinds of propaganda and the institutional milieux that produce it, paying attention to propaganda that seeks both to overthrow social structures and to maintain them. We will place special emphasis on the interwar period, when—amid the onset of totalitarian regimes in Europe—the very nature of “public opinion” and mass society were hotly debated by intellectuals and interpretive experts. The course will also closely investigate the emergence of mass communications “experts” during World War II and trace their role in shaping social-science research throughout the Cold War. Finally, the course will consider the ubiquity of propaganda in contemporary society, focusing on the role of image-making professionals working in the spheres of political campaigning, advertising, and public relations.


The Emergence of the Modern Middle East

Open, Seminar—Year

This course provides a broad introduction to the political, social, cultural, and intellectual history of the Middle East from the late 18th century to the present. After a brief conceptual overview, the course draws upon a wide array of primary and secondary sources to illuminate the manifold transformations and processes that have contributed over time to shaping what has meant to be “modern” in this remarkably diverse and dynamic region. Particular attention will be paid to the following themes: the question of modernization and reform within the Ottoman and Qajar empires; the experience of different forms of European imperialism in the Middle East; the integration of the Middle East into the world economy; World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; state-building in both colonial and postcolonial contexts; transformations in religious thought; changing family norms and gender roles and the genesis of Middle Eastern women’s movements; nationalism; class politics, social movements, and revolution; Zionism and the Israel-Palestine conflict; post-World War II geopolitics and the Cold War in the Middle East; Nasserism and pan-Arabism; the role of US power in the Middle East; the origins and spread of political Islam; the political economy of oil; globalization and neoliberalism; and the impact of various new cultural forms and media on the formation of identities across the region.


The Middle East and the Politics of Collective Memory: Between Trauma and Nostalgia

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall

In recent decades, historians have become increasingly interested in the unique role and power of memory in public life and have sought to understand the innumerable ways that collective memory has been constructed, experienced, used, abused, debated, and reshaped. This course will focus on the rich literature on historical memory within the field of modern Middle Eastern history in order to explore a number of key questions: What is the relationship between history and memory? How are historical events interpreted and rendered socially meaningful? How is public knowledge about the past shaped and propagated? How and why—and in what contexts—do particular ways of seeing and remembering the past become attached to various political projects? Particular attention will be paid to the following topics: the role of memory in the Palestine-Israel “conflict”; postcolonial state-building and “official memory”; debates over national remembering, forgetting, and reconstruction following the Lebanese Civil War; Middle Eastern diaspora formation and exilic identity; the myth of a “golden age” of Arab nationalism; Turkish nostalgia for the Ottoman imperial past; and the role of museums, holidays, and other commemorative practices in the construction of the national past across the region. Throughout the course, we will attend to the complex interplay between individual and collective memory (and “counter-memory”), particularly as this has played out in several formulations of Middle Eastern nationalism.


Women and Gender in the Middle East

Open, Seminar—Spring

Debates over the status of Middle Eastern women have been at the center of political struggles for centuries—as well as at the heart of prevailing Western media narratives about the region—and continue to be flashpoints for controversy in the present day. This course will explore the origins and evolution of these debates, taking a historical and thematic approach to the lived experience of women in various Middle Eastern societies at key moments in the region’s history. Topics to be covered include: the status of women in the Qur’an and Islamic law; the Ottoman imperial harem; patriarchy and neopatriarchy; the rise of the women’s press in the Middle East; women, nationalism, and citizenship; the emergence of various forms of women’s activism and political participation; the changing nature of the Middle Eastern family; the politics of veiling; Orientalist discourse and the gendered politics of colonialism and postcolonialism; women’s performance and female celebrity; archetypes of femininity and masculinity; and women’s autobiography and fiction in the Middle East. Throughout, we will interrogate the politics of gender, the political and social forces that circumscribe Middle Eastern women’s lives, and the individuals who claim authority to speak for women. The course will also briefly examine gender and sexuality as categories for historical analysis in the modern Middle East.


‘In an Antique Land’: An Introduction to Middle Eastern Studies

Open, Large seminar—Fall

This course is designed as a broad overview of the cultures, religions, history, and politics of the region typically referred to as the “Middle East”—one of the most complex and least well-understood areas in the world today. Rather than viewing the Middle East as a unified whole—and in sharp contrast to prevailing Western media images of the Middle East as hyperpoliticized, overly ideological, or inherently violent—the course adopts a multilayered, bottom-up approach in order to emphasize the region’s fundamental underlying social and cultural diversity. Topics to be covered in this course include: the origins and spread of Islam and “Islamicate” civilization; an overview of the region’s major ethnic and linguistic groups, including Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, among others; the evolution of Middle Eastern empires and their political structures and institutions; the varied geographies of the Middle East (ranging from empty deserts to storied metropolises); the dynamic impact of key forces of modernity (such as capitalism, globalization, and nationalism) across the region; gender and the status of women and the family in the Middle East; and the consequences of various 20th-century wars and conflicts (ethnic, sectarian, revolutionary) for Middle Eastern history and politics. 


Additional Information

Selected Publications

Desert Borderland: The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya

Desert Borderland: The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya

Desert Borderland investigates the historical processes that transformed political identity in the easternmost reaches of the Sahara Desert in the half century before World War I. Adopting a view from the margins―illuminating the little-known history of the Egyptian-Libyan borderland―the book challenges prevailing notions of how Egypt and Libya were constituted as modern territorial nation-states.