Sabiha Fazila – The Queen who never was

Şehsuvar Hanım - Sabiha's great-grandmother (public domain)

On the morning of the 14th of July 1958, the world woke up to the shocking news of the murder of King Faisal II of Iraq. But probably, few people were more shocked than the beautiful fiancé of the young King, Princess Sabiha Fazila.

Educated in Britain at Harrow, along with his more famous cousin, King Hussein of Jordan, King Faisal of Iraq took the throne when he was 18, but his reign had begun fifteen years earlier when his father died in a car accident. Until the young king came of age, the regency was headed by the Crown Princess Abdallah. Highly intelligent, and leading a country blessed with a wealth of natural resources, Faisal seemed destined to build on his father’s and grandfather’s legacy. Marrying the right girl was a key element to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people and to secure the future of the dynasty.

A first candidate who seemed to fit the role was no other than the daughter of the Shah of Iran and former Empress Fawzia, Princess of Egypt: Her Imperial Highness Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi. But she refused the marriage proposal. Then, the attention of the King turned to another princess: Sabiha Fazila Khanum Sultan, the only daughter of Prince Muhammad ‘Ali Ibrahim Beyefendi of Egypt, and his wife, Her Imperial Highness Princess Zahra Khanzadi Sultan.

Beautiful, with a royal education and exquisite manners, Sabiha was perfect for the role of Queen of Iraq. After all, she was the great-granddaughter of Abdulmecid, the last Ottoman Sultan. The pictures published in the newspapers of those times show a very attractive and elegant teenage girl who apparently had all the right qualities to become a much-beloved queen. The wedding plans were in the making, and the King even ordered the renovation of a grand palace where he was supposed live a happy life with his bride. (Ironically, the very same palace would be used by Saddam Hussein and re-named the Republican Palace).

But fate had other plans. In July 1958, when disaster struck, Sabiha was not in Baghdad, thus escaping a sure death at the hands of the Iraqi Free Officers. The 23-year-old King was brutally murdered in the gardens of the royal palace, together with Crown Prince Abdallah, Princess Hiyam, Abdullah’s wife, Princess Nafeesa, Abdullah’s mother and Princess Abadiya, the King’s aunt. The officers behind this bloody seizure of power called themselves “Free Officers” and were inspired by the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his nationalistic rhetoric. The monarchy was abolished, and the Iraqi Republic was proclaimed.

Sabiha found herself a widow, without ever being married. Not the best start in life for a young innocent girl. However, she escaped a sure death in Baghdad, and she must have felt that was a gift from life. Eventually, Sabiha married Dr Hayri Ürgüplü, eldest son of H.E. ‘Ali Suat Hayri Ürgüplü, a senator in the Turkish Parliament. They had two sons and by all accounts a happy marriage.

But history is never fair; the beautiful Sahiba forever remained in the eyes of the public the Queen who never was.

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