Why No Bio-Pic? – Ella Sykes

Why am I surprised that on the same day I stumbled across two women who are ignored for developing bio-pics about their adventures?

Ella Sykes traveled widely with her brother, Sir Percy Sykes, on his diplomatic missions in central Asia. She was the first western woman known to have ridden from the Caspian Sea to India, and published five books on the topic.

Ella Sykes paid two visits to Persia, spending nearly three years there in all. The first took place in October 1894, when Percy Sykes invited her to accompany him on his trip to the districts of Kerman and Baluchistan, where he was being sent to establish British consulates. She spent two years in the interior of Persia and was one of the first European women to visit these parts. Ella also traveled with her brother on his subsequent missions along the Persian Gulf, visiting the major coastal settlements on the way, and spent the winter of 1896-97 with him in Tehran before returning to England at the end of February 1897. She paid her second visit to Iran some ten years later when she stayed with her brother in Mashad.

Ella shared her brother’s interest in and affection for Iran and its people. This is evident in her three books about the country. In, Through Persia on a side-saddle (1898),she vividly describes her first visit, her long horseback travels and life in Kerman where she was probably the first European woman ever seen. The book received favorable reviews as “a very readable narrative” (The Times, p. 7) The Story Book of the Shah (1901), intended for young readers, recounts some of the legends in the Shah-nama. The book is well illustrated and has decorated chapter headings by her sister Ethel. Persia and its People (1910), was written after Ella’s visit to Mashad and is a useful, though dated, introduction to the country, with chapters on its history, government, religion, antiquities, flora and fauna, Mashad, etc. Subsequently, she published several articles and lectures including “Persian family life” in the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society for 1914, where she had been a founder member since 1905 and was twice elected to its council, in 1916 and 1921.

In 1911, wishing to discover what opportunities there might be in Canada for Britain’s “surplus” of educated women, she worked there as a home-help for six months. In the spring of 1915, she again accompanied her brother, this time to Chinese Turkestan where for six months he was in charge of the British Consulate-General in Kashgar. Ella did not marry or have children and towards the end of her life gave much time to volunteer work with girls, primarily as honorary secretary of the Girls’ Friendly Society in South Kensington. She died at her home in London on 23 March 1939.

Through Persia on a Side-Saddle is a notable travelogue of the first recorded land journey of a western woman from the Caspian Sea to India. With a keen eye toward the lives of women she encountered on her way, Sykes wrote a detailed account of an adventure that no other woman had experienced. The freshness of her observations comes through in her fluid and empathetic style. Starting her observations with the preparations in London, Sykes takes the reader on a lavishly descriptive journey of a world that no longer exists. Tracing her route to Tehran, she offers a full disclosure of her experiences in the capital of Persian. From there the reader is taken along to India and back to Tehran, and eventually, London. Giving a woman’s perspective on an ancient center civilization, this volume proudly joins the Gorgias Historic Travels in the Cradle of Civilization series.

Ella Constance Sykes (d. 1939) was a world traveler and the first female member of the Geographical Society. She was also a member of the Central Asian Society and served as secretary to the Royal Asiatic Society.

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