Some time ago I was doing a research on Princess Fawzia of Egypt, and I came across a photo in which she appears together with a tall, elegant lady. My first assumption was that she was one of the Princess’s ladies-in-waiting, then I discovered that the attractive lady was a Princess in her own right with a fascinating family history.
Princess Neslişah Sultan was the granddaughter of Sultan Wahideddin, the 36th and last Ottoman ruler, therefore an acknowledged descendant of the Ottoman dynasty who once ruled over half of the world. At her death, in 2012, in Istanbul, the Turkish authorities organised a national funeral and recognised her as being of the same bloodline as Sultan Mohamed Al-Fatih and Suleiman the Magnificent, important figures of the Ottoman history.
She was also very much part of the Egyptian modern history. Few people would recall nowadays that in 1940s, Neslişah was on the front pages of Egyptian and foreign magazines, which rightly described her as one of the most beautiful women in the world. Often accompanying the Princesses of the Egyptian royal house to public events, Neslişah was a magnetic figure. Tall, elegant, imposing, with exquisite manners, she represented the essence of true aristocracy, turning heads everywhere she appeared.
Princess Neslişah married Prince Abdel-Moneim Abbas Hilmi, the son of Egypt’s last Khedive, in 1941. However, her husband was only third in line to the Egyptian throne and part of a family branch which was sidelined after Khedive Abbas Hilmi was sent into exile and Sultan Fuad took over. But as history is often unpredictable, she assumed an unofficial role of Egypt’s first lady for a short period of time, in 1952, following the abdication of King Farouk and the appointment of her husband as the head of the regency council. For a period of nine months, she represented the last symbol of the royal Egypt.
Educated in France and with German governesses, Neslişah was destined to be more than a beautiful cover-story princess. Her work was not limited to traditional ribbon-cutting ceremonies and diplomatic receptions. She was a volunteer of the Red Crescent, the Mubarra (state hospitals), the Children’s Welfare Association and other such humanitarian societies in Egypt. In a sense, she set the example for all aristocratic ladies in Cairo of the 1940s with her charity work.
Her life was marked by repeated exiles: in 1924, her family had been deported from Turkey when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared the country a republic; in 1953, the Egyptians attempted to displace her from her adopted country. It was as if her own destiny was played between two countries taking turns in welcoming and sending her away following unpredictable twists of history. But her discipline and sense of duty always won the day. Assuming the role of head of the imperial Ottoman family in Egypt, after the death of her father, Neslişah was undeterred by Nasser’s secret services who constantly harassed the remaining members of the royal family after 1953.
The abolition of monarchy in Egypt in 1952 left a whole social class without the means to survive. But worse than that was the lack of a reason to survive. The new republic needed working classes to help build the new Egypt and the faith in the King and country was replaced with the faith in social equality and people’s ownership of national property. Not much to do for a royal Princess…The choice she was facing was either to leave Egypt and start a new life somewhere else or to stay behind and stand by her family. Only in the late 1960s, she finally decided to go to Turkey but Egypt was never far from her heart.
Sources say that her parting comment was: “I am very worried about Egypt and pray with all my heart that all goes well. Regime changes can be very complicated”. A prophetic statement for what was to come in the following decades.