Matthew Ellis

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

BA, Williams College. MPhil, University of Oxford. MA, PhD, Princeton University. Specializes in the social, intellectual, and cultural history of the modern Middle East. Research addresses the relationship between nationalism, territoriality, and political identity in Egypt and in the late Ottoman Empire. His first book, Desert Borderland: The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya (Stanford University Press, forthcoming March 2018), examines the impact of various state-making projects on local experiences of place and belonging in the desert region, linking Egypt and Libya during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Broader intellectual and teaching interests include: the politics and culture of nationalism, modernity and identity formation in the Ottoman and post-Ottoman Arab world, cities and imagined urbanism, nostalgia and the politics of collective memory, popular culture, the historiography of borderlands, comparative British and French empires, and the history of geography and cartography. Articles published in History Compass and The Long 1890s in Egypt: Colonial Quiescence, Subterranean Resistance (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). Dissertation research was supported by grants from the Social Science Research Council and the American Research Center in Egypt. Recipient of a Fulbright-IIE grant to Egypt. Member of the American Historical Association and the Middle East Studies Association of North America. SLC, 2012–

Undergraduate Courses 2017-2018


Propaganda: A History of Spin

Intermediate , Joint seminar—Spring

This seminar provides an interdisciplinary analysis of the phenomenon of mass persuasion in 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 affect 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. The course 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. 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 both to propaganda that seeks to overthrow social structures as well as to maintain them. 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. Specific case studies may include: The U.S. Committee on Public Information during World War I, the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda, Stalinism and the Soviet Union, state control of culture under the Deutsche Demoktratische Republik (East Germany), McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist, ISIL, and Breitbart News and Trumpism.

Related Disciplines

Middle Eastern Nationalisms

Advanced , Seminar—Fall

Students are expected to have completed previous coursework in either Middle East Studies or modern history, though exceptions can be made with permission of the instructor.

This course provides an intensive theoretical and historical inquiry into the phenomenon of nationalism as it has played out in the Middle East since the late 19th century. What is a nation? How are nation-states built and sustained? How did the nation form first take shape in the Middle East, and what are the broad challenges and historical mechanisms that have governed its evolution across a variety of specific contexts? The course will be broken into two main sections. Part I will examine the current theoretical literature on the origins and spread of nationalism, introducing students to key scholarly debates and innovations that transcend Middle Eastern historiography. Part II will develop and apply the themes and theoretical concepts from Part I by exploring specific Middle East case studies, focusing both on state-sponsored nationalism as well as on popular practices and experiences of nationhood and national identity. Brief attention will also be paid to professional history-writing in the Middle East since the 1930s, specifically the role of nationalist historiography in partitioning the Middle Eastern past.

Related Disciplines

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 post-colonial 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-WWII 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.

Related Disciplines

Previous Courses

First-Year Studies: Place, Landscape, and Identity in the Middle East

Open , FYS—Year

What does it mean to “belong” to a place, and how do people’s sense of belonging affect their worldviews? All too often, the Middle East is portrayed in Western media as a place defined by perpetual conflict and upheaval. By the same token, prevailing interpretations of Middle Eastern history and society tend to present the region’s inhabitants as intensely ideological—at once primarily motivated by, and inured to, oftentimes violent struggles in the service of broad political forces for change (of which Islamism represents, perhaps, the most commonly cited example). In this course, we will attempt to challenge such widespread conceptions of the Middle East as a hyperpoliticized region by approaching it through an entirely different optic—the relationship that various Middle Eastern societies have forged with the places and spaces they inhabit. How have different environments and landscapes—from the Sahara Desert and the ancient and continuously occupied cities that dot the region (such as Baghdad or Damascus) to the lush Nile valley—shaped the way that people in the region think about their identity? How have denizens of the Middle East negotiated their local identities with broader regional geographies, and how did the onset of imperialism and nationalism affect this dynamic? How has a fundamental concern with place, landscape, and identity been represented in Arab, Persian, and Turkish literature and art over the centuries? What is the proper relationship between geography and history, and how can an exploration of this relationship help us make better sense of the experience of various Middle Eastern societies? This course will provide a broad overview of Middle Eastern history from late antiquity to the present, focusing throughout on people’s subjective relationships with the varied geographies of the Middle East as its central framework for unpacking the region’s diversity and complexity.


Palestine/Israel and the Politics of History

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

The approach of this course is chronological but also cumulative—meaning that each new phase in this complex history must be evaluated in light of what has come before. For this reason, no additional students will be admitted for the spring semester.

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 this 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.

Related Disciplines

From Medina to Metropolis: The City in Middle Eastern History

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

The Middle East has a long and rich urban tradition, boasting some of the world’s oldest cities. At the same time, the cities of the region have undergone profound changes over time, particularly as a result of the range of global forces, patterns, and linkages that are intrinsic to the process of “modernity” (a conceptual category that will be examined at great length). This course explores the lived experience of urban space as a lens through which to view broader transformations in the social, political, economic, and cultural history of the Middle East from late antiquity to the present. The course will also introduce students to some recent developments in urban theory and different methods that scholars have adopted to capture various aspects of city life, particularly in the modern period. To this end, the approach of the course will be interdisciplinary, drawing from such fields as art history, anthropology, sociology, geography, comparative literature, film studies, and political economy to explore the historical development of Middle Eastern cities through a variety of frames. In our effort to think beyond the “hard city” of bricks and mortar, particular attention will be paid to the cultural imagination and expression of various Middle Eastern cities in literature and film—our main “primary sources” in this course. Throughout the course, we will examine what cities have meant for Middle Eastern society and culture in a variety of contexts; study how various individuals and social groups across the region have experienced and used urban space; explore how writers, artists and filmmakers have attempted to imagine and render their urban milieus; and consider the extent to which the Middle Eastern experience of urban modernity has paralleled others around the globe. Cities to be covered include: Cairo, Istanbul, Damascus, Mecca, Baghdad, Tehran, Isfahan, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Aleppo, Alexandria, Beirut, Algiers, Marrakesh, Aden, Izmir, and Dubai.

Related Disciplines

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 flash points 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.

Related Disciplines

Additional Information

Selected Publications

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.