They called her “the Princess with sad eyes”, “the Queen of sorrow”, but it all started differently in a time when happiness seemed the only natural option. The Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was, in 1948, recently separated from his first wife, Princess Fawzia of Egypt, when he met Soraya, a beautiful young lady, half Iranian and half German.
Brought up between Isfahan (Iran) and Europe, Soraya was a happy, carefree teenage girl when the sister of the Shah, Princess Shams met her in London and considered her “a rare pearl” just right for her brother. It was essential for the Shah to re-marry as his marriage to Fawzia produced only one daughter who could never inherit the Iranian throne. But he didn’t need much convincing. Soraya was absolutely charming. Two days after her return to Tehran from Germany, Soraya was invited to dinner with the Queen mother, Tadj ol-Molouk, at the royal palace. The next day, her father told her: “The Shah liked you very much. Are you ready to marry him?”. The engagement was announced after 24 hours.
Aged 18, Soraya became the future wife of the ruler of Iran and received at her engagement a magnificent diamond ring. Unfortunately, just before the wedding, Soraya contracted typhoid fever and became bedridden for several weeks. The legend says that the Shah brought her a jewel every day and placed it on her pillow.
The wedding finally took place on February 12, 1951. The event was a grand one but also a difficult physical test for Soraya. Weak and frail from weeks of serious illness, she barely made it through the long and exhausting wedding ceremonies.
The first months of the marriage were the perfect fairy tale. Two young people in love, completely happy with each other and looking forward to establishing their own family. That was not to happen for the next seven years or…ever. Three years into the marriage, the palace circles began to lose patience. The Queen didn’t seem to show any signs of pregnancy, and her doctor said that it might take years until this would happen.
The Shah was increasingly depressed over this situation which put a strain on his marriage to Soraya. Matters got worst when his younger brother (and heir to the throne up to that moment) died in a plane crash. Iran became the only monarchy in the world without an heir.
Familial and political pressure mounted on the young couple who had no solution other than to divorce in 1958. Soraya had been Queen of Iran for seven years. With the support of her husband, she got involved with charity organizations in Iran and people appreciated her work and her down to earth manners. She genuinely cared about the cause of poor, uneducated people in her country and tried to bring her contribution where it was needed.
Divorce meant not only leaving her country (she was exiled to Switzerland) but also the man she loved deeply. At 26 years old, she was forced to start a new life in a new country all alone. But the Shah supported her and allowed her to live a comfortable life. Sources close to the royal family said that he never stopped loving her, and he would have never divorced her but for the pressure of his position.
Soraya became a style icon and socialite famous for her collection of jewellery and her royal past. She had a brief career as an actress (known only as Soraya) and starred in the 1965 Italian movie “The Three Faces” and became the companion of its director, Franco Indovina. For a short moment, it looked as if life and love were smiling again to Soraya. But Indovina died in a plane crash, and Soraya succumbed to depression. She ended her artistic career and took up residence in France. Occasionally, she attended social events in the French capital but became an increasingly rare presence as time went on.
The former Queen of Iran died in Paris, at the age of 69. Her story inspired and impressed many people. French songwriter Francoise Mallet-Jorris to write “Je veux pleurer comme Soraya” (I Want to Cry Like Soraya), a rose was baptised with her name and an Italian/German television movie about the princess’s life, Soraya (the Sad Princess), was broadcast in 2003, starring Anna Valle as Soraya and Erol Sander as the Shah.
Soraya Esfandiari Bakhtiari remains one of the saddest and most beautiful figures of royal history, a victim of times and mentalities like so many other women who did not have her outstanding public status.