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Iran – the “Hello” edition

Romance, jewellery, fashion, celebrity…

The Iran Crown Jewels is the largest collection of its type in the world. It includes crowns, thrones, thirty tiaras, aigrettes, swords, shields, dining services and a jewel encrusted globe, assembled over 2,500 years.

In Safavid times (1502-1736) the Shahs cruised around Europe, the Ottoman Empire and India looking for sparkles with which to decorate their capital, Isfahan. Mahmud Afghan plundered some of the assorted goodies when he invaded in 1722, but Nader Shah Afshar was a master collector – he despatched courtiers to ask for the return of the jewels, then, when spurned, sent in the heavies who convinced Mohammed Shah of India to hand over the Darya-ye Nur (Sea of Light) and Kuh-e Nur (Mountain of Light) diamonds, plus a Peacock Throne and assorted other pretties.

Typically, Nader was murdered (1747) and Ahmed Beg plundered the treasury and somehow the Kuh-e Nur – the world’s largest cut diamond, was spirited back to India only to be ‘confiscated’ by the sticky-fingered Brits during the Punjab Conquest and then dropped into Queen Victoria’s lap by the British East India Company. Well into her reign by 1850, the Koh-i-noor was not shiny enough for Picky Vicky, so in 1852, she had it reshaped, reducing its weight to a paltry 108.93 carats and decreeing that it was only to be worn by reigning Queens.

A foreign visitor to Tehran, Sir Kenneth Porter, reported on the coronation of King Fath Ali Shah, who reigned from 1797-1834. He was mighty impressed with the action:

"The Royal Procession made its appearance. First the elder sons of the King entered...all grown to manhood. They were all superbly habited, in the richest brocade vests and shawl-girdles, from the folds of which glittered the jewelled hilts of their daggers. Each wore a robe of gold stuff..deeply collared with the most delicate sables. Every one of them..wore bracelets of the most brilliant rubies and emeralds, just above the bend of the elbow. The personal beauty of these princes was even more extraordinary...with a fine line of features, large dark eyes full of lustre, graceful stature, and a noble object of admiring wonder in themselves.

After the mullahs, sages, astrologers appeared, there was the clangour of trumpets and the 'appalling roar' of two huge elephants, announcing the King's arrival at the gate".

Porter continues his account:

“He entered…with an air and step that belonged entirely to a sovereign…such perfect majesty, and he seated himself on the throne with the same indescribable, unaffected dignity. He was one blaze of jewels. A lofty tiara of three elevations was on his head..entirely composed of thickly set diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds, so exquisitely disposed as to form a mixture of the most beautiful colours…Several black feathers, like the heron plume, were intermixed with the resplendent aigrettes of this truly imperial diadem, whose bending points were finished with pear-formed pearls, of immense size. His vesture was of gold tissue, nearly covered with a similar disposition of jewellery: and, crossing the shoulders were two strings of pearls, probably the largest in the world….but for the splendour, nothing could exceed the broad bracelets around his arms, and the belt which encircled his waist: they blazed like fire.. The jewelled band on his right arm was called the Mountain of Light, and that on the left, the Sea of Light; and which superb diamonds, the rapacious conquests of the Nader Shah had placed in the Persian regalia..” (after sacking Delhi)."

The Darya-ye Nur is an uncut pink diamond weighing in at 192 carats, cut from the great table diamond of 400 cts, the “Crown of the Moon”. Its sister diamond is the Nur-Ul-Ain (Light of the Eye) which tips the scales at somewhere between 175-195 cts.

The other masterpiece of the Crown jewels is the Globe of Jewels, made in 1869 and encrusted with 51,366 precious gems: it weighs in at 34kg. The globe’s design uses emeralds for the seas, rubies the land, except for Iran, Britain and France, all of which are set with diamonds.

So there was always plenty of jewellery for the ladies of the royal household to choose from, which was just as well in the case of the aforementioned Fath Ali Shah, as he burdened his household with 200 wives and 170 kids! (Obviously a few wives failed to pull their weight in the breeding department, or maybe they were just overlooked on his horizontal folk-dancing card.)

The last of the Shahs was a bit more temperate in the wife stakes, only managing three. The first, Egyptian princess Fauzieh, decided Tehran was a backwater beyond the pale and scampered back to Egypt without issue.

Reza was then in search of a new wife. Well, not him personally – the task of finding a suitable consort fell to his mother and sister, Princess Shams(!).

Enter Soraya Esfandiari Bakhtiari – the Bakhtiari family were aristocrats from Isfahan, and always close to the political sphere of influence. Soraya’s dad was partial to blondes, a quest which took him to Germany, where he met 16yo Eva Karl. They were married in 1926, returned to Isfahan, and Soraya was born on their sixth wedding anniversary, a traditional good omen. When the first Shah Reza set about persecuting, imprisoning and executing any perceived opposition, he had the Bakhtiaris in his sights as one of the semi-autonomous tribal heavies that needed to be crushed, so Eva headed back to Germany with Soraya in tow for ‘health reasons’.

Soraya had a charmed childhood, adored by her grandfather. She claimed she was going to grow up to be either a princess or an actress. Finishing school in Montreux, then Lausanne, completed her fluency in French, after which she spent the summer of 1950 in England to improve her English in the company of her cousins.

The Shah’s mother, a long-term friend and confidante of the vast Bakhtieri clan, decided there must be a suitable candidate among the girls of that family and it didn’t take long for word to reach her that Soraya might be worth checking out. Photos were sent to Tehran, but before they arrived, Princess Shams met with Soraya in London and sent a message to the QM: “We don’t need to see another girl. This woman is born to be queen – she’s beautiful, very well educated, has excellent mannerisms“. With orders for Soraya to present herself in Tehran, Soraya claimed in her memoirs to be ‘reluctant but curious’, but that didn’t stop her from cutting a swathe, along with the Princess, through the shopping high spots of London and Paris in preparation for her Tehran visit, with Dior and Chanel couture being particular favourites.

On arrival in Tehran, after a couple of preliminary dinners at the Queen mum’s apartment, the Shah dropped by. Princess Shams had warned Soraya that her brother was ‘not particularly handsome’, but when he arrived in the full dress uniform of an Iranian Air Force General, sparks flew and a good time was had by all. Soraya retired for the night, but the Shah must have had some trouble sleeping, because at 2am, he rang her father and asked for permission to marry. The engagement was announced the next day (October 11, 1950).

The wedding was set for February 12, 1951, but in December, Soraya was struck down with typhoid, and was still very weak when the marriage took place in the Hall of Mirrors at Golestan Palace, with 1600 guests. Her wedding dress was by Dior, made from 37 yards of silver lame, set with 20,000 feathers and 6000 diamond pieces. A mink jacket warded off the chill, but the dress was too heavy for her to manage, so her lady-in-waiting cut yards of petticoat from under the skirt.

The high life in Tehran was interrupted when the CIA and MI6, with the Shah’s co-operation, kicked off the coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh over the oil industry nationalisation in 1953. The Shah and Soraya fled to the Caspian Sea, then left for Rome with his personal pilot and checked into the Excelsior (where else?). There’s a papparazzi photo of Soraya in Rome looking every inch a celebrity in a one-shouldered spotted dress and sunglasses of the style that Jackie Kennedy later adopted, but underneath the glamour, the Shah admitted that, if things didn’t work out, he didn’t have much money, and they might have to live on a farm in the USA with his mother and sister! The very thought!

However, the coup succeeded and in August, Mossadegh was out of business and the Shah received a telegram from his flunky, General Zahedi to the effect: “The people of Iran have risen. We are all awaiting Your Imperial Couples’ safe and speedy return to the capital“.

The General was swiftly appointed the new Prime Minister, and many of Soraya’s family were subsequently appointed to court positions, including her cousin Teymour Bakhtiari, formerly a brave commander of the armoured brigade, who found a new career as head of SAVAK, the Shah’s ‘internal security’ force (i.e. the bunch of Gestapo-like thugs with the charter to ‘remove’ any opposition to the Shah’s regime).

Soraya’s dad was appointed Ambassador to Germany – a purely ceremonial position as he did no work whatsoever. But Soraya’s days were numbered. She was infertile. With no direct heir, the Shah was able to appoint a brother or cousin as heir, so the Shah solved the problem by appointing Ali Rezi. Unfortunately Ali was careless enough to get himself killed in an air crash, so the need for an heir became urgent. Several solutions were canvassed – half-brother? a second wife? – but none were palatable, so on 14/2/58, the couple separated and Soraya left for St Moritz, thence to stay with her German family.

The two remained soulmates (that’s “Hello”speak) for life. Soraya’s divorce settlement was generous, with several top-ups over the years. The title of Imperial Princess was decreed upon her, and she was given a diplomatic passport. Nearly twenty years later, the Shah gave her an apartment on Avenue Montaigne (handy for shopping at Dior and entertaining friends over cocktails at the Plaza Athenee down the street).

After her divorce, Soraya cruised around the traps of Rome, Cologne and Morocco. Michelangelo Antonioni cast her as the lead in his film “3 Faces of a Woman”, but the Shah was so incensed he bought up all the copies (Soraya kept one copy, which was sold with her effects in Paris in 2002).

In the late 60’s, Soraya had a passionate affair with Franco Indovina and they had five happy years together until he was killed in a plane crash in Italy in 1972. After a period of solitude, Soraya returned to high society in Paris, with a villa in Marbella to escape the winter. She and the Shah had never been out of contact since their divorce, and were reputedly planning to meet when he died in exile in 1980. She died of a brain haemorrhage in October 2001, aged 69, at 46 Avenue Montaigne. Her funeral was held at the Cathedrale Americaine de la St Trinite on Avenue Georges V, attended by the Count of Paris (Henri d’Orleans) and Beatrix of Belgium. Her coffin was draped in blue silk with a single rose atop.

Soraya’s replacement as the Shah’s consort made a better fist of things. Born in 1938, Farah Diba’s father died when she was ten, so she was raised by her diplomat grandfather, who had been ambassador to the Romanov court. She was still studying Art and Architecture at the Sorbonne when she was introduced to the Shah during a reception at the Iranian Embassy. They were engaged in November ’59 after a courtship organised by Princess Shahnaz(!). Farah jumped straight into the saddle, with Reza born in ’60, Farahnaz ’63, Ali Reza ’66 and Leila ’70.

Farah Diba was actually a good sort. She took on humanitarian causes and women’s rights, and championed Iranian heritage through sponsoring the Carpet Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Her formal attire and court dresses always included traditional Iranian motifs and were usually made from Iranian silk (the silk from the Caspian coast is reputedly the finest in the world). She also spent between US $2-5B assembling a fine collection of modern art.

The Shah was obviously pleased with her contribution: in the 1967 Coronation Ceremonies, Farah Diba was crowned Shahbanou (Empress), the first in the modern Iran era. She was also made Empress Regent, effective until Reza reached 21. They needn’t have bothered – the Pahlavi dynasty ended with the 1978 revolution.

The Shah’s extravaganza celebration of 2,500 years of the Persian throne in 1971, with 60 Monarchs/Heads of State among the 5000 guests, food flown in from Maxim’s in Paris, and guests housed in an elaborate tent city at Persepolis (marble bathrooms included), was intended to promote Iran to the rest of the world and to nurture Iranian nationalistic pride and fealty to the Shah. Certainly the world’s media lapped up the spectacle, but internally, it was a public relations disaster and may have been the turning point in bringing about the demise of the Pahlavi dynasty.

The Shah and his family left Iran on January 16, 1979 and he died of cancer in Egypt the following year. Farah Diba, now in her mid 70’s, lives in Washington and Paris. Reza is a pilot in the USA, and Farahnaz also lives in the US. Ali Reza, who suffered depression, suicided in 2011 and Leila died of a drug overdose London in 2001, so it’s a rather Hamlet-esque tragedy of “royal crime cannot come to good” dimensions.

A final note on fashion, which sometimes takes on the strangest turns. Iranians have an addiction for nose jobs. There are 3000 cosmetic surgeons in Tehran alone, and it’s ‘in’ to wear the giveaway strip of plaster across the bridge of one’s schnoz. 90,000 rhinoscopies are performed each year. Thanks to the clerics’ iniquitous dress edicts, the shops are either full of shapeless gear or raunchy formal fashion. Female-only afternoon tea parties are part of the social calendar, where these concoctions are paraded, giving matriarchs of marriageable sons the opportunity to assess the anatomical marketplace.

It didn’t used to be this way. From his accession after the fall of the Qajar dynasty in 1925, Shah Reza 1’s modernisation/westernisation push outlawed the hijab and chador. Reza was a friend and admirer of Kemal Ataturk, but didn’t possess Ataturk’s finesse in bringing about sustainable westernisation.

So, with the clerics back in charge and the Supreme Leader vesting in himself veto powers over any edict passed by the country’s governing council, it’s full circle back to traditional dress for the women of Iran. After ten days wearing this garb in Autumn, when it’s been 30C plus every day, I’m really angry on their behalf. It’s as hot as hell under the obligatory headscarf, long sleeves and buttock-covering smocks/coats, impossible to move freely if wearing a chador, and a damned nuisance meeting nature needs in the ubiquitous a-la-Turque dunnies. Enough!

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