SYKES, Percy Molesworth

, Sir (1867-1945), soldier, diplomat, traveler, and writer who wrote extensively on Iran. 

 

SYKES, Sir Percy Molesworth (b. Canterbury, England, 28 February 1867; d. London, 11 June 1945), soldier, diplomat, traveler, and writer who wrote extensively on Iran. He was the only son of the Rev. William Sykes, chaplain for British forces, and brother of Ella Sykes. Born into a family that had prospered during the Industrial Revolution, Sykes was educated at Rugby School and the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. On receiving his army commission, Sykes joined the 2nd Dragoon Guards (The Queen’s Bays), a well-known British cavalry regiment, in India, but he soon tired of regimental life and after undertaking with a fellow officer a brief secret mission to Samarqand in November 1892, he all but abandoned regular soldiering for intelligence-gathering journeys and consular work in Persia.

The first such journey was made in 1893 en route to India from home leave. He traveled by train and ship to Bandar-e Gaz on the Caspian and then 1,300 miles on horseback through Qučān and lawless Turkoman country to Mashad, then to Torbat-e Ḥeydari and across the central salt desert (Dašt-e Kavir) to Kerman, and on to Shiraz and Bušehr. On this journey he met and struck up a warm friendship with the governor of Kerman, Prince ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Mirzā Farmānfarmā, which was to prove invaluable in the years ahead. The governor invited Sykes to return and join him on a tour of his district. Thus it was that after only a few months in India Sykes returned to Persia, landing at Čāh-Bahār on 15 October 1893 with instructions “to join the Farman Farma, Governor of Kerman, during his tour with a view to use my influence in establishing more friendly relations with him and at the same time to do any exploration that might be possible” (Sykes papers, printed report on his third [sic] journey in Persia). This time he was not alone but accompanied by Surgeon-Major G. W. Brazier-Creagh of the Indian Army medical staff and a well-equipped retinue of Indian guards and servants. Before joining Farmānfarmā at Bampur in February, Sykes and Brazier-Creagh explored, surveyed, collected geological specimens etc. in the Sarhad, being much helped by the governor’s instructions to tribal chiefs to cooperate with them. Both men wrote long, detailed accounts of the Sarhad and Persian Baluchistan (Sykes papers).

Back in London on leave, Sykes was ordered to open a British consulate in Kerman to cover both that province and Persian Baluchistan, areas of growing political and commercial interest to the Government of India. Accompanied by his sister Ella, he arrived in Kerman in March 1895 and remained nominally there for ten years. Apart from home leave, he did much traveling, encouraged trade with Quetta, and undertook a number of special assignments far from Kerman, including trips to Kuhak on the Baluchistan frontier for demarcation negotiations with Persian authorities (February-March 1896); to Ahvāz and Šustar to enquire into the maltreatment of British subjects and to consider improvements to the recently opened “Lynch” road (June-September 1896); to the Makrān to search for the murderers of a British subject, followed by two months surveying and mapping the Bašāgard plateau between Mināb and Čāh-Bahār (November 1897-April 1898); to Sistān to establish a British vice-consulate ahead of the Russians at Naṣratābād (Zābol), after which he spent over a year exploring and mapping Sistān and Qayn (September 1898-December 1899).

During home leave in 1897, Sykes lectured at the Royal Geographical Society in London on “Recent Journeys in Persia,” the first of his many lectures on Persia during the next 43 years. On his next home leave in 1901-1902, following a few months active service with British forces in South Africa, he was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and married the 21-year old Evelyn Seton, of an ancient Scottish family, with whom he returned to Kerman in January 1903.

In February 1905 Sykes was instructed to take “temporary” charge of the British consulate-general in Mashad. He traveled there with his wife and baby son via Yazd and Ṭabas, remaining in Mashad as “H. M. Consul-General and Agent for the Government of India in Khorasan” until November 1913. During these years he traveled much, reported on Russian activity in Central Asia, and acted as intermediary between the Mashad authorities and the Afghans in Herat. At the same time he reported on Russian attempts to restore Muhammad Ali Shah in Khorasan, producing evidence of the Shah’s undertaking to grant Khorasan to Russia if he were restored.

As a young officer in India, Sykes had begun learning Persian. He never lost his early interest in the country and its people, whom he liked and considered “the finest and most gifted race in Western Asia” (Ten thousand miles, p. 457). His first book, Ten thousand miles in Persia, was published in 1902 and its chapters on travel, tribes and history marked Sykes as a scholar no less than an observant and tireless traveler. His second book, The Glory of the Shia World was a rather heavy-handed attempt at a light-hearted account of Persian customs and scenes, as observed in Kerman, Baluchistan and Khorasan. The description of the Imam Reżā shine in Mashad was almost certainly provided by an Indian member of his staff as the only time Sykes entered the shrine, but not the ḥaram, was after the Russian bombardment in 1912. Sykes’ two-volume A history of Persia, published in 1915, was updated and reprinted in 192, 1930 and 2004 as well as translated into Persian. It describes in considerable detail the geography, legends and history of Persia from the earliest times of Elam and Babylon. A Persian bibliophile has described it as “probably the best history of the country we have today in any language other than Persian” (Ghani, p. 363).

Sykes was in England at the outbreak of World War I. After two minor military appointments and six months in temporary charge of the British Consulate-General in Kashgar, Chinese Turkestan, he was sent to Persia from India with the brevet rank of brigadier-general “to create a force for the restoration of law and order” (A History of Persia, 2nd ed., II, p. 452) in south Persia where the British had suffered a number of humiliating reverses at the hands of the Persian Nationalists and German agents under Wilhelm Wassmuss (1880-1931), who was active in fomenting agitations and organizing attacks against the Allies from 1915 to 1918. Sykes landed at Bandar ʿAbbās in mid-March 1916 with six officers (three of them Indian), 20 Indian NCOs and 25 sowars. They were the nucleus of the 6000-strong South Persia Rifles, recruited locally as Sykes marched with his men to Kerman, Yazd and Isfahan, before establishing his headquarters in Shiraz where his old friend, Farmānfarmā, was now governor-general.

Despite the mixed fortunes of his force and strong criticism of his leadership by the Government of India and others, Sykes remained in charge of the South Persia Rifles with the title of Inspector-General until he was recalled to London at the end of 1918. He himself considered his mission a success and proudly dedicated the second edition of his History of Persia to the officers and men through whose “valour, resourcefulness, and cheerful endurance a gravel peril was averted and a difficult task was successfully accomplished.”

Sykes’s egotism, lack of humor and controversial performance in Persia had not endeared him to his superiors. A letter to the Times criticizing the terms of the Anglo-Persian Treaty of 1919 enraged Curzon, its progenitor, and in 1919, though only 52, he was retired and not again employed in any official capacity. He spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing, mostly on Persia, and serving as honorary secretary of the Royal Central Asian Society.

Bibliography:

WORKS

Books:

Ten thousand miles in Persia, London, 1902.

The Glory of the Shia World, London, 1910.

A History of Persia, 2 vols., London, 1915, 2nd ed., 1921.

Through deserts and oases in Central Asia, London, 1920 (with Ella Sykes).

Persia, Oxford, 1922.

The Rt. Hon. Sir Mortimer Durand. A Biography, London, 1926.

A History of Exploration. London, 1934.

The Quest for Cathay, London, 1936.

Explorers all. Famous Journeys in Asia, ed., London, 1939.

A History of Afghanistan, 2 vols., London, 1930.

Articles and Lectures:

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London.

“Anthropological notes on southern Persia,” vol. 32, 1902.

“The Gypsies of Persia,” vol. 36, 1906.

“Notes on a collection of bronze weapons,” vol. 37, 1907.

“Notes on musical instruments in Khurasan,” vol. 39, 1909.

“Notes on tattooing in Persia,” vol. 39, 1909.

Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, London.

“Historical notes on south-east Persia,” 1902.

“Inscription at Kal’ah-i-Sang,” 1908.

“Historical notes on Khurasan,” 1910.

Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, London.

“Our recent progress in southern Persia and its possibilities,” 1905

“Tamerlande,” vol. 2, 1914.

“Persia and the Great War,” vol. 9, 1922.

“Cyrus the Great, Darius, Xerxes and their contact with Hellas,” vol. 20, 1933.

“A summary of the history of the Assyrians in Iraq,” vol. 21, 1934.

“In the footsteps of Marco Polo, vol. 22,” 1935.

“The Emperor Heraclius and sea power,” vol. 23, 1936.

“The heart of Asia and the roof of the world,” vol. 24, 1937.

“Afghanistan: the present position,” vol. 27, 1940.

“Exploration in Baluchistan,” vol. 28, 1940.

“The role of the Middle East,” vol. 28, 1940.

“German diplomacy in the East,” vol. 32, 1945.

Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, London.

“Recent Journeys in Persia,” vol. 10, 1897.

“A fourth journey in Persia,” vol. 19, 1902.

“Did Marco Polo visit Baghdad?,” vol. 26, 1905.

“A fifth journey in Persia,” vol. 28, 1906.

“A sixth journey in Persia,” vol. 37, 1910.

“A seventh journey in Persia,” vol. 45, 1915.

“South Persia and the Great War,” vol. 58, 1921.

Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, London.

“Kerman and Persian Baluchistan with special reference to the journeys of Alexander the Great and Marco Polo,” vol. 45, 1897.

“Geography of Southern Persia,” vol. 50, 1902.

“The Parsis of Persia,” vol. 54, 1906.

“Khurasan, the eastern province of Persia,” vol. 62, 1914.

“The heart of Asia and the roof of the world,” vol. 73, 1925.

The Scottish Geographical Magazine.

“The geography of Southern Persia as affecting its history,” 1902.

“Twenty years travel in Persia,” 1914

Other journals.

“Southern Persia and Baluchistan,” Transactions of Liverpool Geographical Society, 1902.

“A travers la Perse orientale,” Tour du Monde 2, Paris, 1905 (Long 5-part serialized article based on Ten Thousand Miles in Persia, tr. into French by M. Jacottet).

“A tour of south-east Persia with an account of the ancient cities of Narmashir,” Report of 76th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1906.

“A pilgrimage to the tomb of Omar Khayyam,” Travel and Exploration, 1909.

“Persian Manners and Customs,” Persia Society, London, 1913.

“The defence of Abadeh,” Blackwood’s Magazine, 1922.

“The British flag on the Caspian,” Foreign Affairs, New York, 1923.

“The Renascence of Persia, The Nineteenth Century, London, 1930.

“New light on the battle of Marathon,” Great Britain and the East, 1936.

BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCES

Archival sources:

India Office Library and Records, London, especially series L/P and S.

Public Record Office, Kew, U.K., especially series FO 60, 65, 371 and 800/204.

F. Saferi, The South Persia Rifles, doctoral thesis, Edinburgh University, Scotland, 1975.

P. M. Sykes papers and W. Haig papers, St. Antony’s College, Oxford,

Published sources:

Martin Bunton, Sykes, Sir Percy Molesworth (1867-1945),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 2004;online ed., May 2006, available by subscription at www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36395 (accessed on December 15, 2008).

C. Ghani, Iran and the West, London, 1987.

A. Hardinge, A Diplomatist in the East, London, 1928.

W. J. Olson, Anglo-Persian relations during World War I, London, 1984.

C. Skrine, World War in Iran, London, 1984.

E. Sykes, Through Persia on a side-saddle, London, 1898.

D. Wright, “Sir Percy Sykes and Persia,” Central Asian Survey 12/2, 1993, pp. 217-31 (includes complete list of Percy Sykes’ works).

A. Wynn, Persia in the Great Game: Sir Percy Sykes: Explorer, Consul, Soldier, Spy, London, 2004.

(Denis Wright)

Originally Published: December 15, 2008

Last Updated: December 15, 2008