The Sykes-Picot Illusion
By Robert Zaretsky May 12, 2016
The appalling churn of events in the Middle East has blasted to smithereens not just untold human lives, but also stories we had long told ourselves about the region. Chief among these fictions is the desirability — which we so often confuse with inevitability — of the nation-state. In other words, a political construct endowed with a recognized state, institutions, and borders. Like a desert mirage, Middle Eastern nation-states have been evaporating before our eyes, leaving us to confront a bloody and battered reality.
Thanks to history’s cunning, this month marks the centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the invariably credited source of this particular fiction. The nation-states that are neither nations nor states — as we now see with Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon — were the offspring of two mid-level government representatives, the Englishman Mark Sykes and Frenchman Georges Picot. They made for an odd couple. Sykes was a dashing, ne’er-do-well aristocrat who, before entering politics, published accounts of his travels across the Ottoman Empire. Picot, on the other hand, hailed from a family of professional colonialists, dedicated to France’s “civilizing mission” to the world’s benighted peoples. Behind closed doors, the two men redrew a map of the region to reflect their nations’ imperial ambitions.
Much has been written about the historical consequences of the map annotated and, in the lower right-hand corner, signed by Sykes and Picot. A single sheet of paper, covered by a web of continuous and dotted lines enclosing the pastel-colored British and French zones, has borne a tremendous burden. Nearly everything that has since gone wrong in the Middle East has been laid at the feet of the map’s creators. Like “9/11” or “Auschwitz,” “Sykes-Picot” has become a sinister synecdoche for a world-historical event of the first order.
But the meaning of this map — or, for that matter, any map — runs deeper than we suspect. Of course, we tend to think of maps as mirrors of nature, faithful renderings of land and water, mountains and plains, as objective as an MRI of our digestive tract. Unlike a cigar, however, a map can never be just a map. Over the last few decades, a new generation of geographers has, in effect, remapped their profession. They argue that cartography, notwithstanding its use of calipers and computers, is less a science than it is an art, one that projects our collective fears and hopes, aspirations and anxieties onto paper or screen. The grids and colors, legends and dimensions are rhetoric by other means, a particular representation of reality designed to persuade or seduce the viewer.
For this reason, maps are no more transparent than a Giotto portrait or Greek pottery. The work of human intelligence, they necessarily obscure as much as they reveal, and offer only opacity when we hope for insight. This calls into question our assumption, both as their makers and viewers, that we control maps. But the late geographer Brian Harley burst that bubble several years ago. Maps, he argued, also control us through their internal logic. It makes us, he declared, “prisoners in its spatial matrix.”
This has tremendous implications for the ways in which we might think of the legacy of Sykes-Picot. “To those who have strength in the world,” Harley once observed, “shall be added strength in the map.” At the most superficial level — maps are profound in their superficiality — we see this demonstration of strength in the lines etched by Sykes and Picot. The diplomats diced and sliced the carcass of the Ottoman Empire according to their governments’ geopolitical aims, while dismissing the religious and historical realities on the ground. As David Fromkin notes in his definitive study “A Peace to End all Peace,” France no less than England was deluded in its belief that the Muslim population wished to be ruled by them.
But cartographic delusions were hardly new. From the medieval Crusades and through the Enlightenment, the West mapped the East according to its desires and dreams. In his classic work “Orientalism,” Edward Said dwells on the “imaginative geography” that has long framed the West’s perception of the Middle East. It is an outlook, Said argued, that allowed us “to manage — and even produce — the Orient.” While his claim lacked nuance, it underscores a fatal Western habit: to draw boundaries where none before existed and define others by names no one had before recognized.
As a result, by 1915, when Sykes convened a governmental committee to map Britain’s aims in the Middle East, he was simply joining a long tradition. Not surprisingly, his committee erased the borders and place names established by the Ottoman rulers. Turning to the ancient Greek and Latin texts they had swotted as students, they cobbled together words from Greek and Latin, baptizing the newly-created regions as “Mesopotamia,” “Syria,” and “Palestine.” (A corruption of “Philistia,” the swath of land once occupied by the Philistines.) It was as if Britain’s battle for the Middle East was lost in the classrooms of Eton.
The Sykes-Picot map conveys another cartographic illusion: the etching of lines and coloring of regions seem to suppress the agency, or freedom, of the human beings living in those demarcated places. Yet, the imposition of the Sykes-Picot map inspired the rise of nationalist movements, as well as pan-Arabism, across the region. As early as 1917, even Sykes recognized that his map was an artifact of a bygone era.
Moreover, even today we tend to assume the Middle East settlement of 1922, for which Sykes-Picot is a cornerstone, was entirely the work of the Western powers. We came, we mapped, and we conquered. Yet as revisionist historians persuasively argue, local actors — Muslim and Christian, Arab and Turkish and Persian — all played pivotal roles in these events. The maps were indeed drawn up in the smoke-filled rooms of Paris and London, but acting upon them were those whose lives they pretended to determine.
In his novel “A Mapmaker’s Dream,” James Cowan recreates the life of Fra Mauro, a 16th century monk who wishes to create a map of the world without ever leaving his cell. Gazing at his creation, the monk realizes: “I begin to see a portrait of myself.” When you next gaze at a map of the Middle East, the trick is to glimpse not just a portrait of Sykes and Picot, or those of their descendants. Instead, it is to see the countless faces of those whose lives will always resist the abstractions of lines and hues.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College. His most recent book is “Boswell’s Enlightenment.” The views expressed are the author’s own.