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Villa Danesh
Mystery solved: Prince Arfa's house in Monte Carlo

November 21, 2003
The Iranian

Mirza Reza Khan Arfa'-ed-Dowleh, a.k.a. Prince Arfa', was born in 1846 to Mirza Hassan Khan, son of Mirza Ibrahim Khan chief minister of the Khan of Erivan before the second Russo-Persian campaign. With the occupation of Russia of the former Persian territories north of the Aras River, Mirza Hassan Khan left Erivan for Tabriz where he settled and raised a family.

Mirza Hassan Khan was a learned man and his son Reza also achieved fame for, among many other things, his knowledge of languages and his erudition. His diplomatic and political achievements aside, Mirza Reza Khan is remembered for having invented a reformed alphabet which he had named "Rushdiyeh" complementing and adapting the Arabic alphabet to better suit the Persian language. For this achievement, Mirza Reza Khan was given the title Khan by then crown Prince Mozaffar-ed-Din Mirza and given the honorary function of "Adjutant of the Crown Prince" as well as receiving the order of the Lion and Sun, fifth class, from Mozaffar-ed-Din Mirza.

Mirza Reza Khan went on to become official representative of the Persian government, First Secretary and later Consul-General of all the Caucasian region, and finally Ambassador Plenipotentiary for the government of Persia to the Sublime Porte. He received the title "Prince" from Mozaffar-ed-Din Shah, one among a handful of individuals during the Qajar era to receive such a title without himself being of royal blood, and he served loyally four Qajar shahs from Nasser-ed-Din Shah to Soltan Ahmad Shah Qajar in various capacities from advisor to ambassador to minister.

Prince Arfa's son, General Hassan Arfa' relates the story of his father and that of his own life in his book Under Five Shahs (John Murray, London, 1964) from which the above information is partly culled. We can turn to General Arfa's account in that book also to solve the "mystery" of the house in Monte Carlo mentioned in Faryar Mansouri's photo essay, "Home of the unknown".

While relating the events of his childhood and youth, General Arfa' writes:

"In the autumn [of 1909], according to my father's wish, my mother took me to Paris, and I was sent to private school in the Passy district not far from the Bois de Boulogne, where several Iranian students were already studying so that I met young Iranians of my own age for the first time. ... It was at this time that my father, after having served for ten years as Ambassador in Turkey, decided to retire to a villa he had built in the Principality of Monaco on the lower slopes of Mont Turbie on a site dominating the whole Principality and the coast of the Riviera to Bordighera in Italy. ... In December 1910 I arrived at the Villa Dan[e]shgah, which means the House of Dan[e]sh [Learning], this being the pen name of my father . ...

I entered the Monaco College, situated on the rock in the old town between the Prince's palace and the Oceanographic museum, to which I had to walk twice a day from our villa down the steep steps to the low-lying district of la Condamine and then climbing up the rock and back. I was young and it was good exercise.

I liked to stroll on the terraces behind the Casino and sit at the Café de Paris, listening to Frantz Lehar's Viennese waltzes played by tziganes and watching the endless procession of people of all nationalities and the gorgeously dressed, beautiful ladies. At that time the visitors to Monte Carlo were chiefly Russian Grand Dukes and aristocrats, petty German rulers, Britons and a few Americans. The German Emperor and king Gustav of Sweden were frequent visitors and played baccarat at the Sporting Club. This kind of atmosphere was not very suitable for a schoolboy, and I often missed classes under one pretext or another, and sometimes without any pretext at all. My father was not very strict nor did he take much notice of me. He kept open house, and usually we had Iranian or Turkish house guests from Istanbul, Iran or Tiflis staying at the villa" (pp. 22-25 [Brackets mine])

Prince Arfa' is shown in this picture (below) in 1902 at the height of his career as ambassador in Istanbul with the uniform and decorations of high Qajar officials:

In this rare picture (below) taken at funeral procession of Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar in San Remo, April 1925. Prince Arfa' ed-Dowleh, visibly aged, stands behind and in between Soltan Ahmad Shah (from the left, first person, front row) and Soltan Ahmad Shah's brother Soltan Madjid Mirza (second person, front row).

Prince Arfa' ed-Dowleh was a trusted companion of Soltan Ahmad Shah during some of the most crucial times of Soltan Ahmad Shah's exile, including of course the above scene at the funeral of his father, Mohammad Ali Shah. Prince Arfa' ed-Dowleh's was also present at the historic meeting in Geneva in 1925 where the return of Soltan Ahmad Shah to Tehran was discussed in light of a telegram sent to him by Mustafa Kemal together with a guarantee of troops and assistance if Soltan Ahmad Shah wished to invoke the help of Turkey. This meeting is, among others, attested to by Ambassador Anoushiravan Sepahbody in his notes published by his son Ambassador Farhad Sepahbody. (See my earlier article on Soltan Ahmad Shah, "Persia's Honor: Remembering Soltan Ahmad Shah.")

Prince Arfa' ed-Dowleh's son, General Hassan Arfa', did not have the same connection or loyalty to the Qajars as his father had. He felt that he owed his career to the Pahlavis, to whom he became and remained a most loyal and devoted subject. His views on the matter are expressed eloquently in his autobiography quoted above. General Arfa' also published a short biographical note on Reza Shah for the Encyclopedia Britannica, which shows the extent of his dedication to the first Pahlavi king in particular.

Mansouri's photo essay on the Villa Danesh is especially poignant . A year or so ago I became aware of a news story that this very villa was to be sold and razed to the ground to make room for a modern structure. At the time I felt a huge sense of loss because of the historic meaning of this place in light of everything I have tried to relate here.

Although the building remains intact today, I cannot rest assured that it will not be brought down and replaced with a modern structure. At any rate, much gratitude is owed to Mansouri for preserving the memory of this unusual fantaisie orientale in the midst of all the occidental splendor that is Monte Carlo, at a time when so much else of that time has already disappeared and is barely a faint memory in the minds of only a handful aged survivors who can still bear personal witness to that Ancient regime.


Manoutchehr Eskandari-Qajar is professor of Political Science and Middle East Studies at SBCC. He is also President and Founder of the International Qajar Studies Association (IQSA) and President of the Kadjar Family Association (KFA).

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By Manoutchehr Eskandari-Qajar





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