“Venus” and the Kings in her life: Part I [2005]

ED. NOTE: I don’t always write about perfume. In fact, once upon a time, I wrote mainly about history under the name “Pandora’s Box.” A few are already posted and hidden in the archives, but I’m in the process of transferring over a few more articles — namely, a two-part series about Princess Fawzia of Egypt which was published back in 2005 — so that everything in one place. I certainly don’t expect anyone to read them, especially as they’re quite academic, very long, for a totally different audience, and have some wonky formatting after the transfer from the old royalty website. So, if your main interest is perfume, feel free to skip them.
Tuesday, 25 January 2005


The pantheon of beautiful, 20th century women includes the likes of Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and many others. Hollywood’s goddesses are well known, unlike one member of that illustrious group who has rightly been called one of the most beautiful women in the world. Her name was Fawzia, and she was both a princess and a Queen.

Princess Fawzia was the eldest daughter of King Fuad of Egypt, the first King of Egypt in the modern era. Her life was shaped not only by Egypt’s political situation but, also, by her brother who succeeded his father to the throne as King Farouk. Sometimes she was a political pawn of the men around her, at other times she was a victim of circumstances, but she was always subject to the politics of the region. For that reason, it’s important to understand both her family and her country’s situation.Fawzia Iran

It’s a complicated story so this will be the first of two parts. This week we will focus on Egypt’s royal family and the circumstances which led her to become Queen of one of the most powerful countries in the region. Next week, we’ll look at her personal life and her fate.

The Egyptian royal family was originally of Albanian (or more specifically, Macedonian) descent. The founder of the dynasty was Mohammed Ali, a Macedonian tobacco merchant who assumed power in Egypt in 1805 under the protective wing of the occupying French, led by Napoleon.SeeWilliam Stadiem, Too Rich: The High Life and Tragic Death of King Farouk, (Carroll & Graf, 1991). See also,http://www.egy.com/historica/94-06-11.shtml.

Mohammed Ali’s descendents didn’t have the French to worry about but, rather, the powerful Ottoman Empire. Fawzia’s grandfather, Ismail the Magnificent, refused to accept the Sultanate’s chokehold on his country but he was too clever to fight the more powerful Turks, at least not overtly. Instead, Ismail used a more circuitous, secretive method: money. He cleverly bribed almost all the influential figures at the Ottoman court and, thanks to their intervention with the Sultan, received several significant political concessions. He was also given the title of “Khedive” which Webster’s Dictionary defines as “a title used by the ruler of Egypt from 1867 until 1914 governing as a viceroy of the Sultan of Turkey.”

Khedive Ismail’s accomplishments were not limited to the political. He was passionate about modernization and is attributed with building modern Egypt, from its infrastructure to the industrial base to the famed Suez Canal. Three of his sons and one of his grandsons reigned after him, until the 147-yr old dynasty – and the monarchy itself – was overthrown in 1952.

Fawzia’s father, Fuad (or, alternatively, Fouad), was Ismail’s twelfth and youngest son. Both his life and the future of Egypt were changed forever by the outbreak of WWI and the subsequent destruction of Ottoman Empire. Like many countries in the region, Egypt was now under British influence. The country initially became a British protectorate and then, for a brief time, a Sultanate. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean that Egypt was independent, at least not in reality. By now, “it was well understood that the country’s nominal ruler could only be a puppet of the overbearing colonialist power.” See, Fayza Hassan, “Sent Away,” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, (7- 13 February 2002, Issue No. 572) at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002/572/sc52_1.htm

During this period, Fuad was a penniless prince in search of a role. The British transformed him into the Sultan of Egypt and then, its first King. Id. The British chose Fuad because he seemed the most suitable for the job but a more cynical interpretation is that he fit the criteria for governing one of Britain’s unofficial colonies. In heart, spirit, upbringing, values and perception, Fuad was more European than Arab. In fact, he had grown up abroad, spoke no Arabic whatsoever and completely despised the Arabs, including his own people. Id. It wasn’t uncommon for him to refer to Arabs as “ces crétins,” and other less polite epithets. Id. These things made him ideal to the British who felt pliant, submissive and Europeanized rulers were less likely to rock the existing political situation. They gave Fuad the position of Sultan and then, in 1923, the title of King.

Fuad’s consort was an Egyptian commoner called Nazli. She had been educated in Paris, spoke French as fluently as Fouad, and was a Francophile to the tip of her elegant fingers. She was initially reluctant to marry the Sultan and future King, but agreed to meet him after some persuasion from her father, the Minister of Agriculture. She found him irresistible. They were married in an intimate ceremony on May 24, 1919 and nine months later, she gave birth to a son, Farouk. Farouk was followed by four daughters, all of whose names began with the Sultan’s lucky letter “F.” One of these was Princess Fawzia who was born on November 5, 1921, two years before her father’s elevation to king.

Fawzia’s life was inextricably entwined with that of her brother, Prince Farouk. In many ways, understanding Farouk is the key to understanding Fawzia. His personality was the key not only to his own fate, but also to that of Fawzia and his country. His decisions changed her life but they also led to the end of the monarchy. For that reason, it’s worth digressing a bit to explore his character and the politics of the region.

Farouk, Egypt’s Last King

King FaroukPrince Farouk ascended the Egyptian throne in 1936. The new King was only sixteen and controlled in political matters by a triumvirate of councilors who essentially acted as his regents. Farouk wouldn’t come into complete independence for another few years, when he was 18. In the meantime, he decided to enjoy his new position and the great wealth which came with it. Extravagant, self-indulgent and impulsive, the teenage King led a very glamorous, lavish lifestyle. He would jet off to Europe for parties or wild shopping trips where he would order numerous Rolls-Royces in one go, to add to the hundreds of cars he already owned. He bought an enormous yacht in the blink of an eye, and ordered huge pieces of jewelry from Van Cleef & Arpels. He owned thousands of acres of land, dozens of palaces, and priceless antiques. He was famed as one of the world’s largest collectors of paperweights, stamps and other objets d’arts.

It never seemed to be enough for him. “As he got older, the king began pilfering objects and artifacts while on state visits abroad, including a ceremonial sword from the Shah of Iran and a priceless pocket watch from Winston Churchill. Common people were also often the victims of the kleptomaniacal monarch, and by mingling with commoners Farouk soon became a highly-skilled pickpocket. His well-known panache for thievery soon earned him the nickname ‘The Thief of Cairo.’ This excess would be one of the leading sparks that triggered the 1952 military coup.”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farouk

The story involving the Shah’s sword is quite shocking. The tale reportedly unfolds as follows: the Shah’s father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, had died in Johannesburg in 1944. His body was flown toEgypt en route to Iran. During the stop over in Egypt, King Farouk asked to be left alone with the coffin for few moments. When the coffin arrived in Tehran, it was discovered that jewel-embedded sword belonging to Reza Shah was missing. It had been in the coffin in Johannesburg, and the coffin had never been left unattended with the exception of that brief interval with King Farouk. It seemed obvious to all what had happened.

Slippery fingers notwithstanding, King Farouk initially showed great promise, at leastKing-Farouk-of-Egypt-006 when he ascended the throne. In those days, he had everything in his favour: youth, good looks, a slim athletic form, charm, wit and fluency in Arabic. In fact, he was the first modern Egyptian King to speak his countrymen’s language. Many of those who met him at the time also pronounced him intelligent, including France’s hero and President, Charles de Gaulle, who called him “prudent, well informed and quick-witted.” Denys Johnson-Davies, “An affection for monarchy” (reviewing Philip Mansel’s Sultans in Splendour: Monarchs of the Middle East 1869-1945, (Parkway Publishing, 2000), Al-Ahram Weekly, (14 – 20 June 2001), http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2001/538/bo2.htm. One historian succinctly analyzes the King as follows: “Torn between East and West, the mosque and the nightclub, he was a monarch in search of an identity.” Id. (quoting Philip Mansel).

The King also had political ambitions. While most people know General (and President) Nasser was a passionate proponent of Pan-Arabism, it could be argued that the real pioneer of Arab nationalism in Egyptwas none other than King Farouk. He dreamed of a restored Arab Caliphate – with himself as the first incumbent. He sought to unify Arabs and even held a conference of Arab nations in the 1940s to start that process.

Unfortunately, the King’s controlling interest was his own hedonistic pleasure. He was easily distracted from regional politics and domestic governance. In fact, one might argue that Farouk’s political aspirations existed only in his head, a sort of delusional wish to be bigger than he actually was or was capable of being. The simple fact is that he was a man with a short attention span for anything other than food, expensive toys, or corporeal, fleshy pleasures. Soon, Farouk gained notoriety as a dissolute, corrupt and – according to some – unusually degenerate wastrel.

It didn’t help that one of the first things he’d done as King was to sign a treaty granting Britain continued domination over the country and, in particular, rights to the Suez Canal. It definitely did not help that, at the time, Egypt was in the throes of a fiercely nationalistic, anti-colonial movement. Unfortunately for Farouk, his reign occurred during a turbulent time in Egyptian and Middle East history which was marked by the creation of the Arab League, the first Arab-Israeli conflict, and heated nationalist opposition to the British. William Stadiem, Too Rich: The High Life and Tragic Death of King Farouk, (Carroll & Graf, 1991).

Still, the ultimate blame lies on King Farouk himself. If he’d exerted himself, he might have been the nationalistic political leader that Egypt desperately needed and wanted. But Farouk was a materialistic womanizer and corpulent spendthrift who was too weak to act on his intellectual goals, and too undisciplined to control his gargantuan appetites.

Two Different Monarchies, Two Different Courts

King Farouk’s political dreams – as well as his perception of himself as political powerbroker – received a considerable boost from another monarch’s dynastic aspirations. Reza Shah had ascended the Persian throne after a British-backed coup toppled the long-standing Qajar monarchy. Concerned about succession and the future of his new dynasty, he sought a suitable bride for his oldest son, the Crown Prince Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The ideal candidate would have a royal lineage and pedigree which would enhance the position of the upstart Pahlavi monarchy, as well as political connections which would help Iran’s power in the region. See, H.I.H. Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, Faces in a Mirror: Memoirs from Exile, (Prentice Hall, 1980).

Prss FawziaHis eye fell on Fawzia, a princess of the blood and the favorite sister of a King. But not just any king; it was Egypt’s King. Thanks to the efforts of Fawzia’s father, the Egyptian Royal Family was no longer bankrupt but wealthy beyond belief. Furthermore, Egypt itself was one of the most powerful nations in the region, matched only by Iran or, as it was known then, Persia. Historically, relations between the countries were competitive and politically charged:

Egypt and Iran [had] been competing centres of civilization and military power from ancient times. Both were conquered by Arab/Muslim armies from the Arabian peninsula in the mid-7th century and subsequently incorporated into the universal Islamic empire. In the medieval and early modern period they represented rival centres of Islamic learning and cultural tradition, as well as competing poles of regional dynastic power.

As long as Egypt and Iran were governed by monarchies, their relations in the 20th century could be described as relatively cordial. For a long period they shared a common interest of struggle to throw off the yoke of colonial interference and domination from Great Britain.

Dr. William Millward, “Egypt and Iran: Regional Rivals at Diplomatic Odds,” Canadian Security Intelligence Service Publication (Commentary No. 22, May 1992).

Prss Fawzia 2Then there was Fawzia herself. The Princess has been described, at various times, as “shockingly beautiful,” “exquisitely stunning,” or “heartbreakingly beautiful.” She was universally called one of the most beautiful women in the world. And, indeed, she was. She was almost the spitting image of the famed Hollywood goddess, Hedy Lamarr, but with more delicate features. The renowned society photographer, Sir Cecil Beaton, raved about her as follows:

If ever Botticelli were reincarnated and wished to paint an Asian Venus or primavera [Spring], here is his subject. He would delight in the Queen’s features contained in a perfect heart-shaped face: strangely pale but piercing blue eyes; crimson coloured lips curling like wrought iron volutes; and the way the dark chestnut hair grows beautifully from the forehead.

William Shawcross, The Shah’s Last Ride: The Fate of an Ally, (Simon & Schuster 1988), at 58.

Her slim, elegant figure was shown off to advantage by the latest in sophisticatedFawzia French fashion, and her cosmopolitan attitude was mixed with a keen sense of fun and a passion for living. Yet, paradoxically, she could also be extremely reserved. Those attributes, when combined with her air of regal aloofness, made her an irresistible challenge to men.

Reza Shah looked no further and the negotiations began. King Farouk was overjoyed by the prospect of having the Crown Prince (and future Shah) as his brother-in-law. The marriage promised him the opportunity to expand his influence and role in Middle Eastern affairs, and he wasted no time pushing his 17-year old sister into the Prince’s arms.

Unfortunately for Fawzia and her future happiness, the two capitals and royal courts could not have been more different. Fawzia’s future sister-in-law, Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, knew both cities (and courts) very well, and her eyewitness accounts illustrate the enormous gulf separating the two. Quite simply, one court glittered with the height of European sophistication, while the other was a comfortable, somewhat middle class atmosphere, in a provincial backwater. Princess Ashraf, supra, at 16-17, 56-57.

The Egyptian Royal Family lived in Abdin Palace which was Eastern in style on the outside, but thoroughly European on the inside. Savonnerie carpets, oversized Persian rugs, antique tapestries and remarkable examples of inlaid ivory worked framed a magnificent array of European antiques and objets d’arts. Id. In contrast, the Pahlavis – under Reza Shah (if not under his son) – “lived comfortably but simply, probably no better than a prosperous European family of the haute bourgeoisie.” Id. at 56.

The respective courts paralleled their monarch’s lifestyle. In Cairo, “the Egyptian court evoked the glitter and splendor of the oriental fairy tales, with perhaps a soupçon of Versailles. Poets, artists, musicians, intellectuals and aristocrats mingled at lavish balls and soirees, and witty repartee – in English, Turkish, Italian, Arabic, and French – was raised almost to an art form.” Id. at 56-57. Princess Ashraf, who was hardly an unsophisticated peasant girl herself, was amazed. Even the women were dressed and made up like their European counterparts. Cairo’s royal court was truly Paris in the Middle East.

Just as the Egyptian court glittered, so too did Cairo which, by Middle Eastern standards, was a very advanced metropolis. As Princess Ashraf explains, in those days, Cairo was

like an enchanted city, beautiful, mysterious and exquisitely alive. Against the other capitals of the Middle East, which were just trying to rouse themselves from the darkness of the past, Cairo was like a sparkling jewel: a cosmopolitan city rich with ancient tradition, yet bursting with the intellectual and creative impulses of the twentieth century.

Id. at 56.

In contrast, Tehran was “not a very inspiring sight.” Id. at 17. In those days, the capital was provincial and rough, both in terms of architectural layout and cultural attractions. As Princess Ashraf explains, entertainment was limited to the traditional oriental bazaars, “which looked exactly as they must have centuries ago; a few shops which stocked imported goods; a few segregated cinemas, where women sat in one section, the men in another, watching old American movies…; and the Muslim theater, which was devoted to dramatizing the life and death of the martyrs of [Persian] religion.” Id. at 17-18. This was the sum total of Tehran’s cultural life, as well as its tourist attractions.

The city itself was even worse. Many of the houses were hovels made of mud or brick. The streets, which were unpaved and unappealing even in daylight, were taken over by bands of wandering bandits and cutthroats after dark. People did not dare take leisurely strolls through the streets. They were more likely to be found in the teahouses or opium dens. Id.

This then was the world which Princess Fawzia was entering. It was a far cry from her life in Cairo and its Europeanized royal court. In Part II, we’ll examine Fawzia’s life in Iran, the circumstances which led to the first royal divorce in the history of Middle Eastern monarchies, and what happened to her when the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown.