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For Queen's Sykes
Sir Percy Sykes: British spy in Iran

April 6, 2004

Persia in the Great Game
Sir Percy Sykes Explorer, Consul, Soldier, Spy
by Antony Wynn.
John Murray Publishers; London, 2003

This book is the story of the larger than life character of Sir Percy Sykes. Sykes was a spy sent by the British government to protect their interest in Persia from 1890s up to World War I. Sykes was given a mammoth task of preventing the expansion of Russia to Persia, Afghanistan and India.

Persia at the time became the playground of Germans, Russians and the British agents. All of them tried to impose their influence in the region and outsmart the other ones. It is interesting to note how well Sykes was received by Farman-Farma who not very long into their friendship entrusted him with large sums of money (equivalent to $7 million today) to invest for him aboard.

Once again the corruption and ineptitude of Qajar kings of the period and their governors is blatant throughout the book. Their proclivity to take side and swap side with foreign powers or better say the highest bidder is flagrantly described. Their willingness to give away regions of the country on request, and their laziness to restore security in the country torn apart by nepotism, corruption, tribal wars and bandits is nothing short of treachery.

However, the redeeming features come in the latter pages. For example, the demonstration of Constitutionalist women outside the Majlis in Tehran. According to Shuster, it was the first political gathering of women in modern history.

The other very interesting revelation is the coming to power of Reza Khan. Smyth who promoted him to the head of the Persian Cossack, writes in his recently come-to-light personal diary, that contrary to the common belief that the British government brought him to power, in fact they knew nothing of his movements. Wynn writes that Smyth tells us in his diary that Reza Shah acted on his own initiative with only his encouragement on a personal level.

The book is as much about the adventurous life of Sykes as it is about another turbulent episode in Persian history. In fact the two are so intertwined that you cannot separate them. Perhaps no other foreign agent has engaged so deeply with various strata of Persian society ever. The book also contains dozens of fascinating period photographs. It's an intriguing read by both academic and the layperson alike.

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Farid Parsa left Iran in 1981 and lived in Europe for three years. He immigrated to Sydney in June 1984, where he has lived eversince. He has studied mass communication, theology and Theatre at tertiary level. He is currently employed as senior staff with the State Library of NSW, Sydney.

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