Princess Fawzia of Egypt

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Princess Fawzia of Egypt passed away on this day in 2013. The eldest daughter of Sultan Fuad I of Egypt and Sudan and Queen Nazli, she was the sister of the future King Farouk and was of Albanian, Turkish, French and Circassian descent. Growing up between Cairo and Alexandria, Princess Fawzia was educated in Switzerland and fluent in Arabic, English, French, Turkish, and Farsi. In 1939, she married Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, who soon acceded his father, making her Queen Fawzia. The couple had one daughter, Princess Shahnaz, but as she was deeply unhappy in Iran, she returned to Egypt in 1945, with the divorce finalizing three years later, the official reason given that the climate endangered her health. Princess Fawzia remarried the following year, to Colonel Ismail Chirine, and had two children, remaining happily married until his death in 1994. After the divorce of her brother and the banishment of her mother, Princess Fawzia acted as the First Lady at the Egyptian Court for a couple of years right before the abolition of the Monarchy in 1953. She was one of the few members of the Royal Family who continued to reside in Egypt until she passed away in 2013.

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In 1939, when Princess Fawzia of Egypt married the crown prince of Iran, Mohammed Reza, the teenagers united two great Muslim lands. Each side had political and personal motives for welcoming the union: for the Egyptian King Farouk, the princess’s brother, the marriage asserted a constitutional monarch’s power in a region lorded over by the British. For the shah of Iran, formerly an ordinary soldier, the century-old Egyptian royal family conferred aristocratic legitimacy on his own. At the wedding in Cairo, guests received bonbon boxes made of gold and precious stones; flower-filled floats paraded down the wide avenues; fireworks were set off over the Nile.

The 17-year-old princess grew up in sophisticated, exclusive Cairo speaking French, English and Arabic. She was a knockout: a more luscious version of Hedy Lamarr, a softer Vivien Leigh. Cecil Beaton photographed her for the cover of Life magazine. Her life was chronicled in newspapers worldwide, which referred to her as “one of the world’s most beautiful women.”

When the crown prince became shah, Fawzia became the empress of Iran; their daughter was Princess Shahnaz. Yet rumors of Fawzia’s marital unhappiness reached Cairo. A member of the Egyptian court was sent to Tehran, where he discovered Fawzia to be neglected and gravely ill: Her shoulder blades, he reported, “jutted out like the fins of some undernourished fish.” King Farouk demanded that the two divorce. Princess Shahnaz stayed in Iran.

In time, Fawzia married again, in 1949, to a royalist officer named Ismail Cherine, and had two more children. The Egyptians, most of whom were poor and disenfranchised, had by then turned against the royal family. King Farouk was viewed as a corrupt and incompetent playboy, a monarch beholden to an occupying foreign power. In 1952, a military coup led by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser was widely heralded among Egyptians (and much of the world) as an act of emancipation. Farouk boarded the royal yacht and sailed to Italy, never to return to the throne. Fawzia, unlike most of her relatives, stayed in Egypt with her family. They settled in a villa in Alexandria, where she lived a quiet, almost anonymous life in reduced circumstances, melting into the background of a rapidly growing city.

In 1976, President Anwar Sadat, in an act of conciliation, invited Princess Shahnaz, her family and their friend, an Iranian architect named Keyvan Khosrovani, to be his guests at a royal palace in Alexandria. One day they visited Fawzia in her villa and had tea in her sitting room, looking through giant photo albums and gazing out on a garden of date trees. As they were leaving, Khosrovani recalls, Queen Fawzia remarked, “Of course because you have called on me, I should call on you in return.” Princess Shahnaz and Khosrovani were surprised: the palace they were staying in had once been Fawzia’s own home. She had not been there in 24 years.

When some of her former servants heard about her visit and showed up to see her, according to Khosrovani, many of them had tears as they embraced their princess. “Come now let me show you the palace,” Fawzia said, and led the way up the stairs to the coronation hall. She pointed to the verses of the Quran written in the walls above. “I am afraid I think my brother did not read carefully all the verses,” she said. “If he had, we would still be here as the ruling royal family.” Later she added: “Twice in my life, I lost the crown. Once I was the queen of Iran, and once I was the princess here.” She smiled. “It’s all gone now. It doesn’t matter.”

In a century, Egypt went from monarch to military coup, then from socialism to oligarchy, then from dictatorship to revolution again. Amid these waves of transformation, a queen became a mere shadow. In the violent, uncertain days of early July, when the Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was being deposed by the Egyptian Army, Princess Fawzia of Egypt, the onetime empress of Iran, died in Alexandria and was buried in Cairo. “When you visit the tombs of kings and queens, you see they leave everything behind,” she said the day she led her visitors through her old palace, “even the crowns.”

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