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Sentimental journey: for many thousands of Iranians who were forced to leave Iran following the fall of the Shah in 1979, the Rifa'i mosque in Cairo has become a place of pilgrimage.

In a conversation with The Middle East, Empress Farah Pahlavi spoke candidly of her husband's final days

The kelidar or holder of the key to the Rifia'i Mosque is a 53 year old disabled man with protruding eyes and wrinkled face that breaks into a smile at the sight of visitors. Mahmoud Abdul Hafez takes great pride in his ancestral role as he hobbles around with the help of his stick, opening the creaky wooden doors to the royal crypts, many of which are damp and poorly lit by ancient hanging lamps with Arabic verses.

For the Iranian exiles flocking to the Rifa'i mosque the most important key Mahmoud holds is the one with which he unlocks their past. For those embarking on the sentimental journey to the mosque, there is a sense of undertaking a sort of pilgrimage.

The sight of the mosque is reassuring. Overshadowed by the Grand Mosque of Sultan Hussein and dominated by the Citadel, the Rifa'i mosque is situated in an area covering 1,767sq metres mid flanked by four massive columns. Pointed arches divide the royal mosque into three porticoes. Two marble columns, one white and the other dark green, stand at the sides of the great dome. Once past the guarded metal gates the shady grounds are lined with eucalyptus trees in pots that flank the massive stairways leading up to the mosque and into the prayer hall with its minbar decorated with mother of pearl.

Commissioned by the mother of the Khedive Ismail as a dynastic mosque that would house, in addition to the Sufi relics, the tombs of the royal family, its construction was painfully slow and eventually halted completely in 1880. After 25 years of inactivity work on the mosque resumed when Abbas Hilmi entrusted Max Herz Bey, the Austro-Hungarian architect, and his Italian assistant Carlo Virgilio Silvagni, with the enormous task. Most of the materials were imported from Europe. Finally inaugurated in 1912, the mosque came to represent a turning point in the cultural and political history of Cairo.

Beyond the latticed wooden frames that separate the grand prayer hall from a smaller one reserved for ceremonial visits and graced by seven Persian carpets donated to the mosque by grateful Iranian exiles, is a large door beautifully carved in oriental style. Behind it, lies a vast marbled room.

The lights from above cast a sombre glow illuminating the multicoloured carved stones that pattern the inner walls. To the right of the mausoleum stands the former Iranian flag emblazoned with a fierce lion holding a sword with a rising sun behind its back. In a niche is an open Koran set in an inlaid wooden case.

On the marbled floor beside an enormous silk carpet lies a pale green tombstone carved with the imperial coat of arms and an inscription in Persian that reads: His Imperial Majesty, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shahanshah of Iran.

After more than two decades of theocratic rule in Iran nostalgia for the monarchy is increasing steadily. For those Iranians who find themselves in this mausoleum there is poignancy for an emperor who reigned for 37 years during which Iran was all island of stability and progress in a volatile part of the world.

The Shah left his homeland on 6 January 1979. In Aswan, Egypt, President Sadat received him with open arms. It was the only real welcome he would receive over the next 18 months as he searched for a secure exile for his family. America, which had advised him to leave Iran, would not accept him and Britain, Germany and France also turned their backs, anxious not to upset the ayatollahs.

Cast adrift by his former allies, the Shah was forced to travel from Morocco to the Bahamas, Mexico, New York, and finally to Panama where he narrowly escaped being extradited to Tehran by revolutionaries baying for his blood. By the time the Shah accepted President Sadat's offer of refuge in Egypt, he was a dying man.

At Cairo Airport President Sadat and his wife Jehan were on hand to offer a state welcome to the exiled monarch and his empress. Even after 23 years the sad memory of those days has not faded for generations of Iranians.

Seated on a floral sofa in the main salon of one of several residential palaces where she is staying as a guest of the Egyptian government, the Shah's widow is grateful for the hospitality she receives. "In Egypt," she says, "we always know that we are among friends."

In a conversation with The Middle East, Empress Farah Pahlavi spoke candidly of her husband's final days. She recalled the night she was summoned to his bedside at the Maadi military hospital near the Nile.

Surrounded by his family and loyal members of his entourage, the emperor passed away on the morning of 27 July, 1980. "At the end it seemed as if His Majesty had resigned himself to rise above all the betrayals and pettiness of life," she remembered. "As for myself I had to take care of so many things that I did not even have time to mourn."

At 65, Empress Farah is an elegant and stoical figure whose presence continues to attract the loyalty of Iranian exiles across the globe. She has never forgotten that hot day in Cairo when she walked behind the Shah's flag-draped coffin during a three mile journey that was to carry the emperor's mortal remains from the Abdeen Palace to a "temporary" grave at the Rifa'i Mosque where once upon a time the embalmed corpse of Reza Shah, Mohammed Reza Shah's father, had also been deposited pending reburial in Iranian soil.

"His Majesty had great ambitions for his people," she says. "I became his wife and Queen at a time when everything in our country was taking off at great speed. We worked very hard to bring a better life for everyone. After the tragic events in our country I owe it to him and my compatriots to honour his memory. I believe that light will triumph over darkness and that one day my husband will be buried in his own homeland."

The day after our conversation, Empress Farah laid flowers at the tomb of the late President Sadat, in what has become an annual event. Later at sunset, the Empress and Jehan Sadat attended an Islamic memorial service at the Rifa'i mosque. As usual, many Iranians travelled from afar to be with them. In the mausoleum, four golden candlesticks had been placed around the Shah's tombstone. The Empress knelt and placed a kiss on the soft stone, her eyes closed in prayer.

The day after the ceremonies the mosque seems quiet. The rooms are scented with jasmine and filled with flowers sent from Iranians around the world. Hanni, Mahmoud's son, reminds visitors of Egypt's links with Iran. "King Farouk's sister, Princess Fawzia was once married to the Shah of Iran," he says pointing to the white stone belonging to Egypt's last king whose resting place is in a chamber adjacent to that of the Iranian monarch.

The large wooden doors to the royal crypts are shut with several turns of the key. Mahmoud was 30 years old when he buried the Shah in an underground chamber located a few feet beneath the tombstone. He is convinced that Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was a 'good king' who died in peace and that his soul is with other 'good kings' history has not always treated with the respect they commanded in life.
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Title Annotation:Mosaic
Author:Kadivar, Cyrus
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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