Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 March 2006
Issue No. 784
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (631)

Royal mix

The marriage of the crown prince of Iran, Prince Mohamed Riza Pahlavi, and Princess Fawzia, the sister of Farouk I, the king of Egypt, was unique not only in Egyptian history but in that of the entire region. professor Yunan Labib Rizk explains

Click to view caption
Prince Mohamed Riza Pahlavi and Princess Fawzia were married in 1939

The phenomenon of marriage between royal families has not existed in the Arab East except in rare cases. The most famous of these was the marriage of Qatr Al-Nada, the daughter of Khumarawey, to the Abbasid caliph. This wedding was known for its unprecedented (and never subsequently matched) exorbitant cost, and it is even said that it was one of the causes behind Egypt's bankruptcy.

In contrast, royal marriages in Europe have been widespread in both the Middle Ages and the contemporary period. In fact, members of royal families marrying outside their ruling class used to be an exceptionally rare occurrence. It was as though they formed a race in whose veins ran different blood -- blue blood, while red blood flowed through the veins of the rest of humanity -- or perhaps even no blood at all.

The phenomenon began in the feudal age as an alternative to warring between princes and feudal nobles with the goal of expanding property. It sometimes occurred that two such families would intermarry with the goal of unifying their feudal estates following the decease of the parents. This was known as a "marriage of interests".

Yet this phenomenon persisted after the feudal age ended and nationalist states were formed, and there came to be families who seated their children on thrones in more than one country. Perhaps the most famous family in this regard was the French Bourbon family, whose royalty also sat on Spanish thrones. Or perhaps the German Sax-Coburg family, from which descended the most famous queen of England, Victoria (1837- 1901). She herself married a German prince, and was the queen whose name was connected to the building of a British empire during the second half of the 19th century. The family held onto its German name until it was changed in 1917 during WWI and the reign of one of her sons, George V, when it became Windsor.

It is intriguing that this queen, who reigned over England for more than half a century, bore nine children who married among a large number of European royal families in Germany, Russia, Denmark, Greece, and Romania. It seemed at one point as though most of those seated on the continent's thrones were either maternal or paternal cousins. Also astonishing is that this queen was the grandmother of one of the most famous emperors of Germany following its independence, Emperor William II. He engaged Britain in war following the decease of his grandmother by a decade and a half in what was known as the Great War, and whose name was changed to WWI following the outbreak of WWII.

When such marriages stopped serving interests after most of the kings of Europe became "those who reign but do not rule" and when princes began to mix with the people and most monarchies were replaced with republican systems, this phenomenon began to recede. Princes began to marry girls from among the people, from both the upper and middle classes. Some of these marriages gained wide-scale fame, such as the marriage of Prince Rainier of Monaco to the famous American actress Grace Kelly, and the marriage of Prince Charles to the beauty Diana. These marriages received a warm welcome among the people, even if they ended tragically as the latter did.

The special conditions that produced this phenomenon in Europe didn't exist in the Arab world, perhaps because the members of ruling families were intent on staying alive and thus kept a tight seal on their family secrets. Divulging them might have put their standing in danger or at the least may have been unbecoming. The notion of political unity through "marriages of interest" was not even on the agenda of those ruling families. Disputes between them were of such magnitude that it made it difficult for their elders to meet, let alone arrange marriages. Another reason may have been that the political map of the states drawn on the Arab world following the end of the colonial period instated a number of inimical thrones -- those of ashraaf (descendants of the Prophet Mohamed), Saudis, the Mohamed Ali family in Egypt, and the royal family of Morocco in the far west, of whom very little was known in the east.

In addition to all these reasons, the spirit of tribalism held sway, especially among the kingdoms of the eastern Arab world. This tribalism was characterised by traditions prohibiting the marriage of daughters outside the family. This prevented even consideration of such marriages of interest. Moreover, there were striking cultural differences between the ruling family in Egypt and the other families in the East's kingdoms, making it nearly impossible to forge successful marriages between them.

For all these reasons, the royal marriage of the crown prince of Iran, Prince Mohamed Riza Pahlavi, and Princess Fawzia, the sister of Farouk I, the king of Egypt, was unique not only in Egyptian history but in that of the entire region.

Before going into the details of this unusual story, it is essential to point out that the Egyptian princess descended from a much more deeply rooted family than that of Riza Pahlavi. She was a granddaughter of Mohamed Ali Pasha, who had succeeded in establishing his throne in Egypt more than 130 years earlier. The Iranian prince, in contrast, was the son of Shah Riza Pahlavi, who had taken the country's throne in an overthrow during the period following WWI (1926). He had removed the last of the ruling Al-Qajar family and sat himself on the "peacock throne". Perhaps his move to intermarry with the oldest royal family in the Arab and Islamic world stemmed from a desire to establish his nascent family and endow it with a royal character.

In turn, the political conditions in Egypt encouraged the acceptance of this liaison. This was particularly so after King Farouk had dismissed the fifth El-Nahhas government on 30 December 1937, and Mohamed Mahmoud, the new prime minister, conducted the first forged elections in the country, which did not please the Wafdists. This situation compelled the king to attempt to preoccupy the people with the marriage to the shah's royal family.

From the beginning, it was clear that this was a royal marriage to the core. The bride and groom were in their budding youth and not yet in charge of their destiny. The young prince was born in 1919 and had not yet reached 20, while the young princess was two years younger, 17 years old. Moreover, they didn't know each other. Perhaps their marriage's uniqueness is what inspired Al-Ahram and other Egyptian newspapers to devote large sections of their pages to it. But let us begin the story from its start.

IN A NEWS ITEM that probably appeared ordinary at first glance, Al-Ahram published on the front page of its Wednesday, 16 March 1938 issue a photograph of the Iranian legation's headquarters and standing before it the Iranian minister plenipotentiary "his Grace Jawad Sanki Khan", accompanied by Mohamed Sherif Sabri Pasha. The occasion was a reception held for the birthday of the shah of Iran. Those with behind- the-scenes knowledge noticed the presence of Sherif Sabri at the head of the congratulating Egyptians, which was significant given that he was the maternal uncle of King Farouk and had been among the three administrators of the throne during the period prior to the Egyptian king assuming his constitutional powers. Suspicions were further raised when the Iranian minister plenipotentiary held a sumptuous tea party that evening in the Semiramis Hotel to which he invited approximately 700 guests headed by ministers, politicians and senior members of the royal court. Those following the matter had a right to imagine that there was something behind all this.

Suspicions turned into predictions when, four days later, Al-Ahram wrote, "on the occasion of the birthday of His Majesty the Emperor the Shah of Iran, His Majesty the King had the kindness of sending a telegram to His Majesty in which he expressed his congratulations on this happy anniversary." Those following the matter waited to see what would happen next, but not another peep was heard for a little over two months.

Then in its Tuesday, 24 May issue, Al-Ahram raised the lid when it published on its front page two pictures side by side. The first was of a somewhat handsome young man, "His Emperor's Highness Prince Mohamed Riza." The second was of a young girl with two braids, "Her Royal Highness Princess Fawzia." The large headline read, "A blessed royal engagement -- marriage of the two royal families in Egypt and Iran."

Of the first picture, the newspaper told his year of birth and mentioned that he had a twin sister, Princess Ashraf. The paper reported that he had six brothers and two sisters, and that he had become the crown prince following the declaration of his father as the emperor of Iran. After completing his primary education in Tehran, he travelled to Switzerland in 1929 where he enrolled in the Rosai Institute and spent five years completing his secondary education. He then returned to his country and at the time the article was published was on the verge of completing his military studies. "His Highness is a skilled athlete. He is tall and full-shouldered and has strong muscles. He is known for his democratic and flexible nature, and he is well- read in French literature. Moreover, he is fluent in English, French, German and Russian." As typical in such cases, the papers, including Al-Ahram, listed the extraordinary characteristics of the personality under discussion.

Of the second picture, the paper reported that she was born in the Ras Al-Tin Palace and that she "joined beauty with a fine nature and a superior royal upbringing with an elevated culture and distinguished qualities." It is amusing that, when putting forth the happy news, Al-Ahram published a photograph of Fawzia next to that of the Iranian prince and the next day apologised to its readers because it had actually printed a photograph of Princess Faiza rather than Princess Fawzia, who was much prettier than her sister.

The newspaper added on this occasion that an agreement was being made with an upper class woman to teach Farsi to the princess proposed to marry the Iranian crown prince.

English papers did not overlook the occasion. The Daily Telegraph wrote that Princess Fawzia would find life in Tehran's palaces much freer than the life she had grown accustomed to in Egypt. The Daily Sketch let its imagination fly and wrote that in her bridal procession the princess would approach the Iranian crown prince riding a coach set with pearls, and that the bride's gown would be woven of gold threads and its hems embellished with diamonds, sapphires and pearls. French newspapers followed suit, and one printed a large headline for the news that "The daughter of pharaohs reigns in Iran." The article noted that this marriage would receive wide-scale consent among their two peoples and would have an impact both politically and in terms of religion.

On 27 May the news was officially announced in Tehran. It was also announced that an eminent Iranian delegation was on its way to Egypt to engage Princess Fawzia to the crown prince, and that it would stay in the Antoniaidis Palace in Alexandria. At the same time, the Egyptian royal cabinet issued an announcement that stated, "The cabinet of His Majesty the King announces the agreement of His Majesty, our lord the exalted King, to the engagement of his Highness Mohamed Riza Pahlavi, the crown prince of Iran, to Her Royal Highness, His Majesty's sister, Princess Fawzia." Al-Ahram wrote that Iran's newspapers had published articles explaining its historical relationship with Egypt.

For the occasion, Al-Ahram published an entertaining study on the "blessed marriage," as it put it, which included a survey of royal marriages in the East. The study commenced with a note that a royal wedding between ruling families had not taken place for epochs in the Islamic East. "It is said that in the era of Ottoman rule, it never occurred to the sultans of the Ottoman family, who extended their rule over seven seas between the East and West, to marry among the Muslim kings and emirs and form between them political-familial ties that would make them a front that could turn back Western ambitions. If they had followed the developments of the age they would have done that and served a good deed to their Eastern peoples and to themselves."

It then went on to interpret what it called "reasons for this shortcoming among these sultans," which it deemed were two. The first reason, predominant in the early period, was the distance between countries and the difficulty of transportation between them. The second, most common in the latter period, was fear of the outcomes of marriage. The study corroborated this when it stated that Sultan Abdel-Hamid I had not allowed the nobles of the sultanate's lands to be granted the title of emir, even those "of the elite and rulers of the region." This rule also applied to the members of the sultan's family itself. Al-Ahram concluded that no one could cross the limits placed on them without encroaching on the sultan and ruling independently.

It then addressed the philosophy of marriage in the sultan's family, a matter subject to the wishes of the ruler himself and not closely related to the interests of the country. "The marriage of princesses took place on the basis of a selection that included a sense of personal reward to one or both of the spouses-to-be. Consideration was not given in the selection of in-laws to lineage. The honour of marrying one of the sultan's family was granted to those who had found favour with the sultan due to a service rendered to him, his throne, or his caliphate. Those who married princesses were called 'damada', and how many damadas there were among military men and politicians."

All of this addressed marriage in the Ottoman era, after which Al-Ahram turned to some information on marriage in the shah's family in Iran. It admitted at first that its information was limited in this regard, although it had noted a difference between the two families. Riza Pahlavi had succeeded in renewing and modernising the throne and matters were progressing on the basis of unifying the interests of it and the nation. He viewed royal marriage as a tie between the life of princes and princesses and the life of the state and the interests of the country, "and those responsible for inaugurating this new era in the Islamic East are Shah Riza Pahlavi, the reformer of Iran, and King Farouk I, the reformer of youth."

On this occasion, Al-Ahram also observed the differences between royal weddings then and those in the days of absolute rule when people had viewed them with admiration. After representative systems were introduced and became well- established, people came to view such weddings with the emotions of love and devotion before admiration.

LET US RETURN ONCE AGAIN to the "blessed royal engagement". As congratulations were showered upon the royal palaces in Abdin and Tehran by public personalities, representative organisations, and others, preparations were made to receive the Iranian delegation on its way to Egypt, and which was led by Prime Minister Mahmoud Jum and the head of the crown prince's royal court. The delegation began its journey in Tehran on 5 November, and passed through Baghdad and Beirut while preparations were underway to renovate the Antoniaidis Palace in Alexandria for the delegation to stay in and as a venue for the engagement.

A number of shops that made world flags became preoccupied with preparing Iranian standards. The "lion and sun" flag was made for the palace and some other places in which large parties would be held, while a simpler flag of red, white, and green without the lion and sun was also stitched.

This occasion brought up the issue of the sectarian difference between the two intermarrying families, they being Iranian Shiites and Egyptian Sunnis. It was decided that Sheikh El-Murghani himself would write the marriage contract, "so as to do away with what is being said about the difference in the official religious schools of the two countries. In fact, all traces of differences between schools of Islam in Egypt and Iran have been obliterated since His Highness Riza Khan occupied the throne of Iran. The appearance of unveiled women before men is not prohibited in that country."

In Egypt, joy overcame the popular masses to the point that some composed songs for the occasion. Some of the newspapers, however, and particularly those inimical to the palace and supporters of the Wafd Party, published exaggerations concerning the imminent marriage. One of the papers printed a photograph of a handsome young man who looked as though he had spent a long night among bottles of champagne and attributed it to the Iranian minister plenipotentiary. He had to hold a press conference to confirm that the picture was not of him and to request journalists to refrain from publishing imaginary news devoid of any truth and to not copy from the European papers "for they create in his country elephants and carriages embellished with gold and precious stones and other mounts taken from scenes in a thousand and one nights, in which they want to make the beloved prince and princess their characters."

As the Iranian delegation passed through Beirut, the famed writer and historian Najuib Al-Rihani was able to meet the Iranian prime minister. A long discussion was held between the two men, during which Al-Rihani requested that the link between Arab and Iranian cultures be tightened and that Arab youth learn Farsi. The prime minister responded by saying that Arabic is taught at Tehran University, which was understandable given that it is the language of the Holy Quran, in contrast to the status of the relationship between Arab and Farsi.

In Alexandria, preparations were completed to receive the Iranian delegation. The wooden fence erected around the statue of Khedive Ismail was removed and the garden around the statue of Saad Zaghloul landscaped. The police music brigades and some local music groups were asked to practice playing the Iranian anthem.

Al-Ahram 's Saturday 11 June 1938 issue marked the arrival of the Iranian delegation, whose news occupied most of its pages. It wrote that the interest of Alexandria's masses in the delegation's arrival had increased with the approach of the Marco Polo steam boat to the port. It arrived an hour ahead of its schedule to 400 prominent personalities awaiting it, led by Said Zulfiqar Pasha, the head security official representing King Farouk, the prime minister, Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha, and the head of the royal cabinet, Ali Maher Pasha. The Iranian prime minister then headed to the grand palace that had been prepared to receive the delegation.

Al-Ahram found no fault on this occasion in pointing out that the Antoniaidis estate had been transformed into an official guest house some years earlier, and that since the municipality had assumed its possession, a number of prominent guests had stayed in it and its splendid garden. The first of these was the brother of the deposed shah of Iran, followed by Sultan Abdul-Majid following his departure from Turkey, the king and queen of Italy in 1933, and the year before that the Saudi crown prince.

On 13 June, the Iranian delegation visited Muntazah Palace to present its engagement gifts. According to the statement from the royal cabinet, these presents were three unparalleled precious pearl necklaces, a diamond ring, a mirror, a hand- printed Quran whose pages were embellished with ornamentation that made it a splendid artistic treasure, and a unique necklace of rare emerald. This was all accompanied by a flattering letter from the prince's two sisters expressing the utmost friendship and sincere love they held for the bride.

During this period, Egyptian newspapers closely followed the news of the Iranian prince and Egyptian princess. As usual on such occasions, this news was not devoid of a certain amount of exaggeration.

As for the prince, the first page of Al-Ahram 's 5 October 1938 issue printed a large picture of him on the occasion of his graduation from the military academy in Tehran. In the photograph, his father, Emperor Riza Shah, placed a medal on his chest for being the first of his class. This was natural, for who is more deserving of being first than the crown prince?

Even the sports page in the newspaper did not fail to celebrate the occasion. Under the headline, "His Highness the crown prince of Iran leads the country's youth" was an article stating that he held the most prestigious of sports medals. "He is passionate about riding horses and when he was 12 had a horse carriage that he drove himself. He is one of the greatest fans of cars and the most skilled at driving them. He often traverses the gardens of the royal palace in Tehran at the speed of 130 kilometres per hour."

Yet all of these celebrations did not deflect attention from an issue the Iranians considered vital -- the necessity of the Egyptian princess obtaining Iranian citizenship before the marriage. The law required that holders of Iranian citizenship have Iranian nationals as mothers and an attempt was made to amend the relevant legal article. The "law tailors" found a happy solution by annexing a new article to the constitution so that a mother could become Iranian simply by bearing an Iranian child. "This article would apply to a mother who was not issued, prior to her marriage to the emperor or the crown prince of the Iranian throne -- for reasons necessitated by the interests of the state -- an emperor's decree granting her Iranian nationality, based on a request by the government." When an opinion was sought concerning the new law, the members of parliament unanimously agreed to it.

Nothing else remained to be done other than to hold the engagement. A magnificent party was held, following which Princess Fawzia travelled to the Iranian capital for a marriage that did not last long.

Farouk's sister found herself besieged in the emperor's palace among a number of princesses who treated her with hostility. This was strange to the spoiled princess, whose marriage lasted only 10 years. She returned to Abdin palace at a time when Farouk's relationship to his wife Queen Farida had soured immensely, and an agreement was made between the two rulers to announce the divorce of the Egyptian queen and the Iranian emperor at the same time, 1948, but that's another story.

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