Cover of Desert Borderland by Matthew H. Ellis
Desert Borderland
The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya
Matthew H. Ellis


March 2018
280 pages.

Cloth ISBN: 9781503605008
Digital ISBN: 9781503605572


Excerpts and More

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.

Matthew H. Ellis draws on a wide array of archival sources to reconstruct the multiple layers and meanings of territoriality in this desert borderland. Throughout the decades, a heightened awareness of the existence of distinctive Egyptian and Ottoman Libyan territorial spheres began to develop despite any clear-cut boundary markers or cartographic evidence. National territoriality was not simply imposed on Egypt's western—or Ottoman Libya's eastern—domains by centralizing state power. Rather, it developed only through a complex and multilayered process of negotiation with local groups motivated by their own local conceptions of space, sovereignty, and political belonging. By the early twentieth century, distinctive "Egyptian" and "Libyan" territorial domains emerged—what would ultimately become the modern nation-states of Egypt and Libya.

About the author

Matthew H. Ellis is the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation Chair in Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College.

"Desert Borderland offers a compelling challenge to conventional wisdom. Matthew Ellis complicates common understandings of the Egyptian nation-state to show how territoriality and sovereignty are the result of accommodation and contestation among multiple players. His work will be essential to future debates in geography, the history of law, colonial history, and late Ottoman and modern Egyptian history."

—Khaled Fahmy, University of Cambridge, author of Mehmed Ali: From Ottoman Governor to Ruler of Egypt

"Desert Borderland is an engaging and original work that highlights the role of local figures and their experiences in the making of modern Egypt and Libya. With meticulous research and a rich source base in multiple languages, Matthew Ellis challenges readers to consider if there is such a thing as a normative path to state-building."

—Janet Klein, University of Akron, author of The Margins of Empire: Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone