Sykes sounded appalled, and yet in truth he did not want this colourful, decaying society to disappear, depriving him of the glimpse into the medieval world it gave him on his holidays. As the influence of jockeying foreign powers began to manifest itself, he was delighted that ‘the dividers, T-square, and drawing board of the French engineer have been unable to crush out the originality of the illiterate Syrian Arab’. He ignored the fact that the railways, which the Ottomans were building with German help, were making cheap travel a possibility for Arabs whose horizons had previously been limited by how far they could walk or ride. Instead, he claimed, the steam engine had brought ‘not a single virtue’ and only a ‘host of new vices’ that included ‘alcohol, dirty pictures, phonographs and drinking saloons’. How a postal service, the telegraph, the railway, a thriving newspaper industry and growing literacy were about to change the Arab world for ever, he either could not see or did not want to say.
Sykes ‘allows his prepossessions to run away with his judgement’, wrote one critic, but beyond academic circles the shortcomings of his book – in particular its underestimation of the Turks – were largely overlooked. As another reviewer commented, ‘the facts which he has collected will be of the highest value when the settlement of the Eastern question comes to be undertaken’. The Caliphs’ Last Heritage helped earn Sykes the nickname ‘the Mad Mullah’ across Whitehall, a place on a committee considering the future of the Middle East, and now a summons to Number 10 to address the ‘Eastern question’, the long-running argument over who would take over when finally the Ottomans collapsed, and to which the British and the French were each certain they were the only answer.
Inside Number 10, four men in particular took a close interest in what Sykes had to say. The prime minister, Asquith, who was recovering from a nervous breakdown, did not want the row with the French to escalate. Kitchener, the minister for war, whose face and finger were now emblazoned on recruiting posters on streets across the land, had previously run Egypt. Lloyd George, the quicksilver minister for munitions, was violently anti-Turkish and liked the idea of further imperial expansion at the Ottomans’ expense. Balfour, the former Conservative prime minister, now at the Admiralty, felt the British Empire had reached its limits, and did not.
‘I feel we ought to settle with France as soon as possible, and get a definite understanding about Syria,’ Sykes proposed.
‘What sort of an arrangement would you like to have with the French?’ asked Balfour.
‘I should like to retain for ourselves such country south of Haifa,’ replied Sykes, gesturing to his map.
Balfour looked sceptical. ‘We have always regarded this 90 or 100 miles of desert upon her eastern side as a stronghold of Egypt; now you propose still further east of that to give us a bit of inhabited and cultivated country for which we should be responsible. At first sight it looks as if that would weaken and not strengthen our position in Egypt.’
Kitchener came to Sykes’s defence. ‘I think that what Sir Mark Sykes means is that the line will commence at the sea-coast at Haifa. ‘These Arabs’ – he jabbed at the Arabian peninsula – ‘will then come under our control.’
‘What do you mean to give exactly?’ pressed Balfour, referring to the French.
Sykes sliced his finger across the map that lay before them on the table. ‘I should like to draw a line from the “e” in Acre to the last “k” in Kirkuk,’ he said.
Lloyd George was enthusiastic about the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. ‘Do you propose that this should be the first step before you take any military action?’
Sykes did not want to tread on Kitchener’s toes. ‘I think it is essential that we should know where we are.’
Asquith had already warned of the dangers of disturbing ‘a hornet’s nest of Arab tribes’ by intervening in the Middle East but, exhausted, he was happy to delegate the matter and liked the simple line in the sand that Sykes had drawn. ‘We must have a political deal,’ he said, to end the meeting. ‘We must come to terms with the French, which means we must come to terms diplomatically.’ ‘I think I carried the day,’ an exhilarated Sykes wrote afterwards to a colleague; ‘you will observe I did not soar beyond very practical politics.’
© James Barr 2013