Sykes, Sir Mark°

views updated


SYKES, SIR MARK ° (1879–1919), British traveler and diplomat. Sykes was born in London and educated in Monaco, Brussels, and Cambridge. He served as a soldier in the Boer War (1902) and traveled for some time in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Kurdistan. Several years later he was appointed honorary attaché to the British embassy in Constantinople. In 1915 his special knowledge and qualifications, particularly with regard to the Middle East, won him an appointment as one of the two assistant secretaries to the British War Cabinet, a position in which he prepared regular intelligence summaries on the Middle East for the Cabinet's information. Thus, too, he came to participate in the Anglo-French talks in London on the "Syrian" question, talks that culminated in the *Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.

It was at some time between the provisional signing of the agreement in January 1916 and its official ratification in May of that year that Sykes first read the memorandum sent by Sir Herbert *Samuel to all members of the Cabinet the year before, suggesting British sponsorship of the Zionist cause. With the encouragement of Samuel, Moses Gaster, the chief Sephardi rabbi, began an exchange of views on Zionism with Sykes. Eager to see Britain gain a firm foothold in Palestine, Sykes felt that if Britain were to show active sympathy for the Zionist cause, it might be able to extricate itself from the Palestine provisions of the Sykes-Picot Agreement by pointing out that the Jews were overwhelmingly in favor of British trusteeship in the Holy Land.

In 1917 he first met Chaim *Weizmann and Nahum *Sokolow. By that time he had become attracted to Zionism per se, because he viewed it as a movement that would lead the Jews away from urban commerce and back to what he considered the healthier life and attitude of the tiller of the soil. He envisioned an eventual partnership between the Zionists and the Arabs and Armenians (whom he considered friendly toward the Entente) to preserve the stability of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. At his first important meeting with nine Jewish and Zionist leaders in London on February 7, 1917, Sykes stated his conviction that the Arabs would come to terms with Zionism, particularly if they received support from the Jews in other matters. While in Rome in 1917, Sykes used his influence as a distinguished Catholic layman to explain to the Vatican authorities that Zionism would not clash with Christian or Catholic wishes concerning the holy places in Palestine. He participated in the drafting of the *Balfour Declaration; the final Zionist draft, submitted on July 18, 1917, had his approval, and Leopold S. Amery, a secretary of the War Cabinet, was to stress in future speeches and writings that the issuance of the declaration was due in large measure to Sykes's faith and energy.

Sykes addressed many Zionist meetings and, in a speech on December 2, 1917, said: "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." At the same time, he was on friendly terms with the Arabs. As a staff member of the Foreign Office he went on several missions to Egypt. In 1918 he went to Aleppo with the hope of reconciling French and Arab aims. His death, from influenza, at the Paris Peace Conference was greatly mourned by Zionists the world over.


L. Shane, Mark Sykes (1923); C. Sykes, Two Studies in Virtue (1953); L. Stein, The Balfour Declaration (1961); R. Adelson, Mark Sykes. Portrait of an Amateur (1975); I. Friedman,The Question of Palestine, 1914–1918. British-Jewish-Arab Relations (1973, 1992).

[Isaiah Friedman (2nd ed.)]