Mark Sykes

Soldier, Orientalist, Diplomat 1879 - 1919

It might be the destiny of the Jewish race to be the bridge between Asia and Europe, and to bring the spirituality of Asia to Europe and the vitality of Europe to Asia.

Mark Sykes

Not quite 40, Mark Sykes was already a Member of Parliament, retired military officer, established Middle East authority, seasoned diplomat, and intrepid traveler. His contemporaries thought that his career was destined for even greater things. Sadly, he died of influenza while attending the post-WWI Paris Peace Conference on February 16, 1919.


WWI diplomat and strategist

Mark Sykes was already a Member of Parliament, reserve military officer, established Middle East authority, seasoned diplomat and intrepid traveler before he reached the age of 40. His contemporaries considered his career destined for even greater achievements.

Entrusted with key British diplomatic and military missions during the Great War, Sykes crafted a then-secret agreement with François Picot (1870-1951) of France concerning the disposition of Greater Syria and Mesopotamia—territories Ottoman Turkey was expected to lose when defeated.

Sadly Sykes died of influenza at the Lotti Hotel in Paris on February 16, 1919 while attending the Peace Conference.  He was felled by the influenza pandemic that claimed more lives—between 20 and 40 million—than the catastrophically costly world war that had just ended.

Kitchener to Asquith

Sir Mark Sykes began his career as a soldier in the 1902 Boer War in Southern Africa. Later on he trekked through Syria, Mesopotamia and Kurdistan.

He met Prime Minister Arthur Balfour in 1904-1905 when Sykes was Parliamentary Secretary to George Wyndham, Chief Secretary for Ireland. Balfour sent him to Constantinople as honorary attaché to the British Embassy, a posting which further catalysed his interest in the region.

In 1915, appointed as one of the two assistant secretaries to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s Cabinet, he was responsible for providing the Cabinet with intelligence summaries on the Middle East.

Also during the First World War Sykes served briefly on the Western Front before being attached to the general staff of Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War. With communications poor, Kitchener sent his protégé to the Middle East and India instructing him to come back with a first-hand report about the situation on the ground.

Upon his return to London in 1916 Sykes helped set up the Arab Bureau in Cairo in preparation for Britain’s post-war Middle East policy. The Bureau brought together the resources of the India Office and military and naval intelligence under the auspices of the Foreign Office.

Sykes-Picot Agreement

Mark Sykes took part in secret Anglo-French negotiations held in London which culminated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In January 1916 London and Paris agreed in principle on a proposed division of Turkish territories. The arrangement was outlined in a May 9, 1916 letter prepared for French Ambassador to Britain Paul Cambon and British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and ratified on May 16, 1916.

Regarding Palestine—seen as part of Greater Syria—the agreement would have established zones of French, British and international jurisdiction. France and Britain agreed to create Arab protectorates within their zones. Besides France and Britain, the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement assigned a sphere of Mideast interest to Czarist Russia.

However, Britain promptly reconsidered the idea of splitting Palestine with France. After all, its soldiers—and not those of France—were nearing Palestine. The French were bogged down in Europe and Russia, for its part, was in the throes of a revolution. Moreover, London’s key regional interest was the Suez Canal and a Jewish Palestine could well serve as a strategic bulwark to secure this vital waterway between Europe and India.

A committee authorized by Asquith’s government made clear on June 30, 1915 that “Palestine must be recognized as a country whose destiny must be the subject of special negotiations in which both belligerents and neutrals alike are interested.”

Sykes and Zionism

In the last two years of the war, Sykes was assigned to the War Cabinet Secretariat where he wrote communiqués lauding the principle of self-determination—having the Arabs, Jews and Armenians in mind. Sykes read, in January 1916, a memorandum Herbert Samuel had sent to all members of the Cabinet the year before recommending that Britain become a champion of Zionist aspirations. At Samuel’s initiative Moses Gaster, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, began to engage Sykes on Zionism.

On February 7, 1917 Sykes met in London with nine pro-Zionist leaders including Nahum Sokolow and Chaim Weizmann. In part this was to foster the view that the Jewish people preferred British rather than French suzerainty over Palestine. By this point Sykes had become most sympathetic towards Zionism and had basically dissociated himself from the deal he had struck with Picot the year before. He had come to believe that were Britain to show support for the Zionist cause it could more easily disentangle itself from Sykes-Picot.

Actually his Zionist interlocutors were unaware of Sykes-Picot. Chaim Weizmann learned of the deal from Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott only on April 16, 1917. His response was to inform British officials that the Zionists indeed favored a Palestine solely under British protection. By this time London was seeking world Jewish support for its control over the Holy Land.

Sykes anticipated that the Zionists, Arabs and Armenians would work together in a post-Ottoman Middle East, such cooperation being of mutual benefit while also serving British interests.

As a well-placed Catholic layman Sykes used his influence in Rome in 1917, making the Zionist case to the Vatican authorities especially in connection with Palestine’s holy places.

He played a leading role in the final Zionist draft of a proposed British statement on Zionism submitted to Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour on July 18, 1917 and ultimately issued on November 2 of that year.

Afterwards Sykes told a Zionist gathering on December 2, 1917: “It might be the destiny of the Jewish race to be the bridge between Asia and Europe, and to bring the spirituality of Asia to Europe and the vitality of Europe to Asia.”

First visit to the Holy Land

Born in London, Sykes was raised a Roman Catholic and educated in Monaco, Brussels and Cambridge. As a child he travelled extensively with his father, Sir Tatton Sykes, to Turkey and its environs. He paid his first visit to Palestine when he was around eight years old, according to Nahum Sokolow’s History of Zionism.

He married Edith Gorst, a fellow Roman Catholic whose father was active in Conservative politics. The couple had six children.

His passion for travel led him to write, among other works, Through Five Turkish Provinces (1900) and The Caliph’s Last Heritage (1915).

At his untimely death he was a Conservative MP for Hull, which he had represented since 1911.

Writing in 1919 Sokolow predicted that Sykes would be immortalized in the annals of the Zionists: “His life was as a song, almost as a Psalm. He was a man who has won a monument in the future Pantheon of the Jewish people and of whom legends will be told in Palestine, Arabia and Armenia.”

Learn more about Mark Sykes

Mark Sykes: Portrait of an Amateur by Roger Adelson

Mark Sykes: His Life and Letters by Shane Leslie

The Papers of Mark Sykes British Online Archives