Mausoleum of memories

The resting place of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah, at Al-Rifai Mosque in Cairo evokes so many memories about a particular period and family

Mausoleum of memories

On my recent visit to Cairo, I was particularly interested in visiting the resting place of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah within the compound of Al-Rifai Mosque, located at the citadel of Cairo, that was chosen as the centre of Old Cairo by Saladin.

I had remembered a documentary on tv showing how the Iranian Royalists still visit the tomb of the Shah, as if it was a shrine, to take inspiration and to hope for the return of Royalist rule in Iran.

How strange that the place where the Shah is buried was the same mosque where his father Reza Shah Khan Pahlavi (1878-1944), was buried twice. Even in death Reza Khan did not get peace.

During the Second World War, the British and the Russian had occupied Persia, as it was called in those days. Churchill considered Persia as a ‘bridge’ between the British Empire in India and Europe. While the Allies wanted to use Persian soil for their troop movements, Reza Khan wanted to stay neutral. In fact he had promised the Germans full passage, if needed.

Not getting their way, the British wanted no part of it. They insisted that Reza Khan abdicate and his son Mohammad Reza was placed on the throne. Reza Khan thus, was forcibly exiled and died in 1944 while living in South Africa. Since the British refused to have him buried in Iran, he was interred at the Al-Rifai Mosque in Cairo. His remains stayed at Cairo until Iran became independent.

The British had promised Reza Khan that the Pahalvi dynasty will continue to rule Iran after they departed. Moreover, the Second World War had exhausted the British and they were busy getting rid of their colonies as they did with India.

Eventually, the younger Mohammad Reza Shah took over the throne as an independent monarch and regained Iranian independence. In 1950, he transferred his father’s remains to Tehran and built a mausoleum on his grave. Please note that both father and son share the same name, Reza Shah.

The mausoleum stood as an icon in the southern suburbs of Tehran among other holy and famous gravesites of the past. It was later destroyed by the Islamic republic in 1979 using bulldozers and dynamite. I read conflicting reports that the body was removed from the mausoleum shortly before the Iranian Revolution in January 1979 and was buried yet again in Al-Rifai Mosque. But when I inquired, I could not get this information confirmed. There is an interview on the internet in which the wife of late Shah Mohammad Reza Shah (the son), Queen Farah asserts that the body was never removed. Therefore, I wonder if the grave exists at all. The revolutionaries might have destroyed it. However, considering the Islamic respect for the dead, it is possible that the tomb is now yet another unmarked grave as the rest who are buried in that cemetery.

Be it the father or the son, here is the similarity with what happened to Bahadur Shah Zafar.


Mohammad Reza Shah (the son) also died in exile following the Khomeini revolution. After leaving Iran in January of 1979, the exiled monarch could not find a country where he was permanently welcomed. He temporarily sought refuge in Egypt, Morocco and Bahamas. After his visa expired, he was given shelter in Mexico. From there he went to Panama. He was reluctantly allowed in the US for medical treatment as Iranian government relentlessly sought his extradition. It is speculated that the Iranian hostage crisis may have been precipitated by the fact that US allowed Shah to enter the US for medical treatment.

Even in Panama, when the authorities were looking at the possibility of arresting the Shah and his wife, the wife of Anwar Sadat, Jehan Sadat came to their rescue.

Nowhere to go, and ill with Waldenstrom’s hyperglobulinemia, in the end Anwar Sadat allowed the royal couple to come to Cairo. The Shah lived in Cairo from March of 1980 till he died a few months later. He was buried in the same Al-Rifai Mosque where his father had been buried as well near the grave of the last monarch of Egypt King Farouk.

As I entered the Al-Rifai Mosque, I asked the guard about the location of the tomb. As if I had asked him a strange question, the English-speaking guard seemed confused for a moment and then asked me to wait. After asking another guard, he came back and smiled and pointed me towards the side of the mosque where, eventually, I was directed to a large room and on to my right there was a tomb that had been roped off to the side in a corner.

An Imperial Iranian flag was there and I did not find any visitors as proclaimed by the television show that I mentioned above. There were no guards, no pomp and the place was deserted. The lonely grave of the King of Kings, The Light of the Aryans, The Head of the Warriors, The descendent of 2500 years of Persian Monarchy, the Emperor who occupied the throne of Cyrus the Great, Darius, Xerxes, and the Peacock Throne, His Imperial Majesty, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi lay in silence, forgotten by the oblivion of history.

I raised my two hands and quietly recited Al-Fatiha, my prayers that I thought the man who was buried there needed the most, more than his jewels, crowns, an empire, emaralds and diamonds.

The last king of Egypt, Farouk, also was exiled by the Egyptians by the predecessors of Gamal Abdul Nasser after the Egyptian revolution of 1952. Although he lived in exile, his remains were brought back to Cairo and he too is buried in the Al-Rifai Mosque.

Farouk’s sister Princess Fawzia was married to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi who was then Crown Prince of Iran. In a political move to increase his stature in the Arab Sunni world, the elder Reza Shah had arranged this union between his son, a Shi’a Muslim with that of a Sunni princess. Princess Fawzia bint Fuad also belonged to the great Egyptian Mohammed Ali Pasha dynasty and was thought to be one of the most beautiful women of her time.

Her picture appeared on the cover of Life magazine and with her "perfect heart-shaped face and strangely pale but piercing blue eyes" she was named "Asian Venus."

The marriage did not last long and resulted in the birth of Princess Shahnaz. Princess Shahnaz lives in Switzerland. Her mother being an Egyptian princess with ancestor like Mohammed Ali Pasha, she has Turkish, Albanian, Azerbaijani, French and Persian roots.

Later, the Shah married another Iranian aristocratic lady, Suraya Esfandiari Bakhtiari whose mother was German. When the union did not produce any children due to her infertility, under pressure from palace advisors, a weeping Shah went on air to declare that he was divorcing Suraya. The talk all over the internet is that he truly loved Suraya. Prior to that, all attempts to convince Suraya to allow the Shah take a second wife were flatly rejected by Suraya. According to the male progenitor system of Iranian monarchy, the Shah needed a male heir and Princess Shanaz could not inherit the throne. In the end, Shah divorced Suraya to marry Farah Diba.

Suraya moved to France and even tried to act in movies but did not recover from the trauma and remained depressed in her loneliness. She is buried with her German parents in Germany.

Ironically, in the end, his Egyptian connection would come to Shah’s rescue and he would be buried in the same place where his brother-in-law Farouk of Egypt is buried.

Funny, that in death both brothers-in-law have their burial place under one roof.

What a twist of fate!

In case of the Shah, the tragedy has followed him even after his death. His youngest daughter princess Laila died of a drug overdose in 2001. As if it wasn’t enough, his youngest son Ali committed suicide in in 2011.

His wife Queen Farah was invited by Ronald Reagan to live in the United States and she spends her time between her Paris home and homes in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Mausoleum of memories