Andrew Lycett

Meet the man who created the Middle East

When turbaned warriors from Daesh (or Isis) advanced on Raqqa in Syria two years ago, they whooped wildly about having ‘broken the Sykes-Picot Agreement’. They were celebrating the destruction of national frontiers which had stood for nearly a century, since the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1918.

They were also venting their spleen against the two villains (as they saw it) of the piece — one British, Sir Mark Sykes, and the other French, François Georges-Picot, who, after months of diplomatic haggling, had drawn metaphorical lines in the desert sand to reach their secret 1916 agreement apportioning Ottoman lands and creating the modern Middle East.

In doing so, Sykes and Picot set aside promises of an Arab homeland made to Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Together with the Balfour Declaration, their pact not only perpetuated western influence in the region but advanced the cause of Zionism.

Christopher Simon Sykes, best known as a photographer of country houses, had long been curious about his reviled grandfather Mark who died, exhausted, in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919. (I don’t know the author; Christian names are the easiest way of distinguishing the two men.)

By all accounts, Mark was remarkable, with his fierce curiosity, sense of humour and passion for the Arab world, which he vividly conveyed in hundreds of letters to his beloved wife Edith, many of them lavishly illustrated with line drawings or cartoons.

His father Tatton Sykes, the fifth baronet, was a neurotic who escaped the drudgery of running Sledmere, his large Yorkshire estate, by embarking on lengthy trips to the Middle East. Hearing of his own father’s death while in Egypt, his only comment was: ‘Oh, indeed. Oh, indeed.’

He often dragged along young Mark on his travels. The boy’s initial education had been among the books in the library at Sledmere, where the grounds fostered his love of military games and fortifications.

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