Lady Sykes lived in London, and Mark divided his time between her home and the East Riding of Yorkshire estates, 30,000 acres (120 km²), of his father. Their seat was Sledmere House. Lady Sykes converted to Roman Catholicism and Mark was brought into that faith at the age of three. For all practical purposes he was a "cradle Catholic".
Mark Sykes was left much to his own devices and developed an imagination, without the corresponding self-discipline to make him a good scholar. Most winters he travelled with his father to the Middle East, especially the Ottoman Empire. He also visited the Mediterranean, Egypt, India, the Caribbean, Mexico, the United States, and Canada. But all things Turkish appealed to him most.
Mark Sykes attended Cambridge University and by the age of 25 he had published at least four books; D'Ordel's Pantechnicon (1904), a parody of the magazines of the period (illustrated by Edmund Sandars); D'Ordel's Tactics and Military Training (date unknown), a parody of the Infantry Drill Book of 1896 (also with Sandars); and two travel books, Dar-Ul-Islam (The Home of Islam, 1904) and Through Five Turkish Provinces (1900). Sir Mark also wrote The Caliphs' Last Heritage: A Short History of the Turkish Empire, which was more of a travelogue than a history.
Sykes was very much a Yorkshire grandee, with his country seat at Sledmere House, breeding race horses, sitting on the bench, raising and commanding a militia unit, and fulfilling his social obligations. He married Edith Gorst, also a Roman Catholic. It was a happy union, and they had six children. Sykes succeeded to the baronetcy and the estates in 1913.
In 1912, Sykes was elected as Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Hull Central, after two close, but unsuccessful, tries in another constituency. He became close to Lord Hugh Cecil, another MP and was a contemporary of the volatile F. E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, and Hilaire Belloc, a naturalized British citizen from France.
Sykes was also a friend of Aubrey Herbert, another Englishman influential in Middle Eastern affairs, and was acquainted with Gertrude Bell, the pro-Arab Foreign Office advisor and Middle Eastern traveller. Sykes was never as single-minded an advocate of the Arab cause as Bell, and her friends T. E. Lawrence and Sir Percy Cox. His sympathies and interests later extended to Armenians, Arabs and Jews, as well as Turks. This is reflected in the Turkish Room he had installed in Sledmere House, using a noted Armenian artist as designer.
Sykes in 1904 wrote describing the Arabs as
... ready to riot and slay for the sake of fanaticism …. detesting Europeans with a bigoted, foolish, senseless hatred.
Since Britain was now at war with Turkey, a major rethinking of policy was needed. Sykes, through his connexion with Kitchener, was at the centre of this. Two conflicting positions were soon apparent. Some favoured the Arab cause in postwar settlements at the expense of Turkey, seeing the value of friendly client states in the coastal areas along the sea route to India and in the Persian Gulf which was assuming a new importance now that the Royal Navy had converted its ships to oil from coal. Others saw the need to retain a strong Turkey lest Russia enter the vacuum and seize Constantinople and the Straits.
Compounding this was the desire of France to secure lands in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where there was a significant Christian minority. Another ally, Italy, advanced claims to Aegean Islands and protection of Christian minorities in Asia Minor. Then Russian claims had to be considered, particularly with respect to control of the Straits leading from the Black Sea to the Aegean and protection of the Christian population of Turkish Armenia and the Black Sea Coast.
Another problem was the desire of Greece to regain historic territories in Asia Minor, and Thrace, claims that conflicted with those of Russia and Italy, as well as Turkey. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1916–1922), David Lloyd George, favoured the Greek cause.
Complicating all this was the desire of Jewish Zionists to have a homeland in Palestine.
In summary form; the conflicting interests of the Great Powers and aspiring nations during World War I were:
Russia vs Turkey vs Greece over Constantinople, the Straits and Thrace
France vs the Arabs vs Turkey over Syria
Britain vs France vs the Arabs vs the Zionists over Palestine
Greece vs Turkey vs Italy over Smyrna and south-west Asia Minor
Britain vs France vs the Arabs vs Turkey over Kurdish northern Iraq
France vs Turkey over south-eastern Asia Minor and Alexandretta
Russia vs Turkey over Armenia and the south-east Black Sea coast
It was the special role of Sykes to hammer out an agreement with Britain's most important ally, France, which was shouldering a disproportionate part of the effort against Germany in the war. His French counterpart was François Georges-Picot and it is generally felt that Picot got a better deal than expected. Sykes came to feel this as well and it bothered him. Particulars may be found in the article Sykes-Picot Agreement.
He died there in his room at the Hotel Lotti near the Tuileries Garden on 16 February 1919, aged 39, a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic. His remains were transported back to his family home at Sledmere House (in East Riding of Yorkshire) for burial. Although he had been a Roman Catholic, he was buried in the graveyard of the local Anglican St. Mary's church in Sledmere.
He was succeeded by his son, Sir Richard Sykes, 7th Baronet (1905–1978). Another son, Christopher Sykes (1907–1986), was a distinguished author and official biographer of Evelyn Waugh. Sir Mark's great-grandchildren include the New York-based fashion writer and novelist Plum Sykes and her twin sister, Lucy Sykes (Mrs. Euan Rellie), and their brother Thomas (Tom) Sykes.
Sledmere House is still in the possession of the family, with Sir Mark's eldest grandson Sir Tatton Sykes, 8th Baronet, being the current occupant. A brother is the photographer and writer Christopher Sykes (photographer); he or his son will eventually inherit the baronetcy.
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