When she died on 2nd July 2013, few could have appreciated the vast and extraordinary changes Princess Fawzia had witnessed during her 91 years. ‘Twice in my life, I lost the crown,’ she acknowledged, recalling her time as an important figure across the Islamic world. Her wealth of experience had taught the Egyptian Princess that the power behind great crowns could be both ephemeral and illusory, and so for her, their loss did not ‘matter.’
The eldest daughter of King Fuad of Egypt, and his second wife Nazli Sabri, Fawzia was born at the Ras el-Tin Palace in Alexandria, on 5th November 1921. Rarely leaving the confines of the palace, and brought up by her English nanny, Fawzia’s childhood was both sheltered and rarefied, leading the Egyptian writer Adel Sabit to comment, that she grew up a ‘supremely naive, over-protected, cellophane-wrapped, gift-packaged little girl.’
In April 1936, following King Fuad’s death, Fawzia’s older brother Farouk ascended to the throne, and the new King’s advisors were eager to strengthen Cairo’s relations with Tehran. With Egypt keen to assert its status in the region, particularly following the signing of the Treaty of Saadabad with Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan in July 1937, a match was suggested between Fawzia, and the son of the Shah of Iran. The prospect of Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s marriage was welcomed by his father, a soldier who had assumed power by overthrowing the Qajar dynasty in 1925. The Shah was minded to cement his own royal legitimacy and a union with the regal and established Muhammad Ali Dynasty of Egypt seemed ideal. Despite the Egyptian Prime Minister’s warning that a marriage between the Sunni Princess and Shia Prince was a ‘recipe for disaster,’ secular diplomacy won out over tradition, and their engagement was officially announced in May 1938. The couple married in March 1939 enjoying the splendour of two royal weddings, a Shi’ite ceremony in Fawzia’s new home of Tehran, following a Sunni union in Cairo with her Prince, the heir to the Peacock Throne.
Above: The Royal Wedding in Cairo (1939)
Celebrated around the world for her style and incredible beauty, some of the most high-profile photographers of the day clamoured to take pictures of the newly Iranian Princess, including Cecil Beaton, who proclaimed her an ‘Asian Venus’ raving about Fawzia’s ‘pitch-black hair’ and ‘perfectly-sculpted face,’ but noticing too that they were accompanied by ‘sad and mournful eyes.’
Although initially smitten with her new husband, Fawzia’s happiness was short-lived, and she soon discovered they had little in common. The birth of their daughter Princess Shahnaz, on 27th October 1940, failed to halt the growing distance between the royal couple. Fawzia was left feeling lonely and wistful for her old life back in Egypt, her latest gilded cage seemingly even more suffocating than the one she had left behind.
In 1941 the Shah abdicated in favour of his son, now making Fawzia Her Imperial Majesty, The Empress of Iran. Yet their new found status only left her feeling more trapped and isolated, and did little to stem her husband’s philandering. Influenced by the traditions of courtly France, a French education being commonly shared by the members and retinue of the Egyptian monarchy, Fawzia abandoned her attempts to learn Persian and stubbornly began to speak to the Shah and his courtiers almost exclusively in French, telling her husband whenever he tried to enter her room, ‘Pour l’amour de Dieu, partez!’
Fawzia would return to Cairo in 1945, suffering from malaria. Back with her family, she realised she could not return to Iran, and conscious of his sister’s physical well-being, King Farouk persuaded her to end her marriage and stay in Egypt. In 1948, a notice appeared in The Times, ‘The Empress Fawzia returned to Egypt to recuperate after a severe attack of malaria. It is announced that her doctors have forbidden her to return to the climate and elevation of Tehran, and so in full accord with the Shah and with good will on both sides, the marriage has been ended.’ As a condition of the divorce, Fawzia was forced to leave her daughter in Iran.
Above: King Farouk opens the Cairo Fair accompanied by Princess Fawzia (1949)
Merely months after her divorce was finalised, Fawzia remarried Ismail Chirine, a Cambridge-educated aristocrat and diplomat, who had previously served as Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian army. Fawzia went on to have another daughter and a son, and her second marriage lasted until Chirine’s death in 1994. The Shah remarried twice before he was overthrown in 1979, and he died in exile in 1980.
By the early 1950s, the people of Egypt were becoming increasingly resentful of their own royal family, with King Farouk viewed by many as an arrogant playboy, supported by a corrupt government. In July 1952, a military coup led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser resulted in a revolution. Farouk and his family fled to Monaco and then Rome, with Fawzia alone deciding to stay in her beloved homeland, adding for good measure that if only her brother had more carefully observed the verses of the Quran, ‘we would still be here as the ruling royal family.’ On 18th June 1953, Egypt was declared a Republic with Naguib invested as its first President.
For the next half a century, Fawzia lived a life of relative anonymity in Alexandria, walking streets she had mostly seen only from the palace windows as a young girl. She had also seen the vanquishing of dynasties and the downfall of Empires, but her country’s rich history, proved a solace to the former Empress. As she viewed the ancient pyramids and monumental tombs, she was was reminded that though their inhabitants were Kings and Queens on this earth, when they departed from it, they left ‘everything behind, even the crowns.’