A commoner and young architecture student, she was chosen to replace the King Shah Mohammed Reza’s second wife, Soraya Esfandiari Bakhtiari, after she failed to produce an heir to the throne. Their engagement in November 1959 was announced to the world via the cover of Life Magazine where the glamorous ‘soon-to-be’ Queen was pictured wearing a stunning dress by Dior.
Just 10 months after the wedding she gave birth to a son solidifying her position; the occasion was marked by dancing in the streets. A succession of children followed; another son and two daughters.
After the birth of the Crown Prince the Queen was free to dedicate more time to activities that interested her. As time progressed the she became much more involved in government affairs. Using her husband’s influence and proximity she drew attention to causes that concerned and interested her, particularly in the areas of women's rights and cultural development.
During the early 1970’s, her humanitarian role earned her immense popularity. She travelled a great deal within Iran, visiting some of the more remote parts of the country. Wherever she went, people cheered her and struggled to touch her. She would meet with local citizens earning her the title ‘The Empress of Hearts’.
Her popularity was not just confined to Iran, it was told that Charles de Gaulle liked her more than any other first lady, even more than Jacqueline Kennedy!
The Imperial Government in Tehran was aware of her popularity this was exemplified when she was crowned as the first Shahbanou, or Empress, of modern Iran. The naming of a woman as Regent was highly unusual for a Middle Eastern or Muslim Monarchy.
Located nearby, in a beautiful piece of 1970’s contemporary architecture, is the Queen’s personal library. The interior is designed by Aziz Farmanfarmayan and consists of three levels: the main reading room, a balcony and an underground basement for storing artefacts and paintings. Untouched for over 35 years the library is a fascinating time capsule, the collection of over 22,000 books reveals and typifies the Queens interests.
Mainly comprising of books about art, philosophy and religion, a quick glance across the shelves reveals a sneaky peak at how Iran’s future could have turned out radically different had the royal family not been ousted. Books about Islam share shelf space with titles like ‘Eastern Religion and Western Thought’ and ‘Western Modern Art’.
The library also houses a fascinating collection of autographed books, including a Walt Disney signed book presented to the young Prince, that highlight the relationship Iran had with the U.S. at that time.
The Queen’s interest in Contemporary art is also expressed throughout the entirety of the palace although the majority of the collection is now housed in a designated gallery. Impressive works by Warhol, Dali and Picasso share wall space with a fine collection of Iranian contemporary art from the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Her love of contemporary art was exemplified in 1976 when Empress Farah commissioned Andy Warhol to do her portrait after they met at a White House dinner hosted by President Ford. In the summer of 1976 Andy Warhol spent a week in Tehran to photograph the Empress with his Polaroid camera.
The Queen was not only interested in contemporary art she took an active interest in promoting traditional Iranian art and culture to the world. Under her direction and through her patronage numerous organizations were formed to promote Iranian heritage inside and outside Iran. She oversaw the return of hundreds of historic Persian artefacts from foreign institutions and private collections and built national museums to house the recovered antiquities.
The Last Empress of Persia is now in her 70’s and has lived in exile since the Iranian revolution in 1979.