Mohammad Reza Shah's tomb in Cairo. Photo from Reza Pahlavi's site.
By the pale-green stone
I blinked at a portrait in a gold frame: a saluting monarch
By Cyrus Kadivar
November 9, 1999
No other country in the world has aroused such curiosity and fascination
than the land of Egypt. They have all come: conquerors like Alexander and
Napoleon, spies, archaeologists in search of hidden tombs, Victorian travelers,
writers in search of inspiration, and in recent times tourists, bankers
and arms dealers hungry for a last minute deal. Despite the poverty and
the decline in tourism in the aftermath of the Luxor Massacre when a dozen
of foreigners were gunned down by fundamentalist terrorists, Egypt's image
as the cradle of civilization remains intact.
Autumn has in the past been the preferred time for Europeans and Americans
to visit Egypt, when the days are crisp and sunny and the nights cool.
But as I got out of the plane the humid and polluted air seemed oppressive
and stifling. A large, sulfurous moon hung above me as I left the airport
for the Windsor Hotel in downtown Cairo where I spent four nights.
The Nile passes Cairo like a snake in a garden. Along its banks are
palm trees and tall modern buildings. In the daytime a purple-gray haze
covers the city. Everywhere I went it was the same incessant traffic across
bridges, the noise, the confusion. Though more than a thousand years old,
the "Mother of Cities" is yet young in historic Egypt. There
was a Dickensian quality about this place: the dense narrow lanes at the
Khan el Khalili bazaar, the garish cinema posters, the rubbish and the
stench of the busy streets, the jostling crowds, exhaust fumes, donkey
carts, the vendors and fly-infested marketplace, the dramatic gap between
rich and poor.
At sunset, I sailed on a felucca to the other side. In Zamalik, a wealthy
suburb, I found traces of nineteenth-century European Cairo with its straight
avenues and tall Parisian facades. An orange glow lights up the river.
By night Cairo is as sultry as any of the Egyptian beauties staying at
the luxury hotels, or sipping cocktails with their men in the promenade
garden of the Marriot.
It was my second day in Cairo and my taxi driver was eager to show me
around. Domes and minarets rose above the streets. I asked him if he knew
the Al Rafai Mosque. "Of course," he smiled. "You want to
see the tombs of King Farouk and the Shah? No problem."
When he discovered my Iranian origin he really opened up reminding me
of the old ties between Egypt and Iran. "We liked the Shah,"
he said turning a corner. "We felt sorry for him when the world closed
its doors on him. Only Sadat, a brave man, stood by him. He forced open
another door so that the Shah could die in peace here." It was midday
when I reached the side entrance of the Al Rifai Mosque.
With my heart in my mouth, I followed a young boy up the stony steps
where a sleepy guardian asked me to remove my shoes. Inside, an athletic
Iranian greeted me. He led me through a latticed wall with a small door.
He asked me to follow him across the rows of Persian carpets that covered
the grand prayer hall.
"It took eight years to gather the money to buy these carpets,"
he said sadly. "They are a gift from the Iranian people."
On my left a small wooden door carved in Mamluk style lay half-opened.
For a moment I hesitated to enter. It was as if inside this marbled room
lay something unexpected, supernatural, forbidden. In January 1979, the
Shah of Iran had flown out of Tehran for the last time, taking his wife,
Empress Farah, loyal retainers, and a handful of soil from his country.
He reached the end of his road in Cairo after eighteen months of wandering
in which he was shunted from country to country in search of a refuge.
At the foot of the imperial flag lay a simple slab of alabaster. Engraved
in the pale-green stone beneath the royal insignia in Farsi: Mohammed Reza
Pahlavi, Shahanshah of Iran. I sat quietly in a small niche beside the
Even now the Shah evoked and provoked intense emotion. The Shah's death
on July 27th, 1980 along the Nile had marked the end of a whole era in
my country's turbulent history, an era of high hopes and broken dreams,
and the start of a new age of revolution, war and exile.
I left the mosque from another door and into the October sunshine. For
the next three days I became a tourist again riding to the Pyramids and
relaxing beside the pool at the Mena House. When I got bored I explored
the Pharaonic treasures of the Egyptian Museum, snapped pictures of the
sand-colored Ibn Talun Mosque and toured the house of an eccentric Englishman
by the name of Gayer Anderson. It was a curious place with overhanging
mushrabia balconies and shutters, a Persian bedroom, hidden doorways, a
private courtyard, delicately carved wooden doors and a spectacular flat
Before leaving Cairo I decided to pay one final visit to the Al Rifai
Mosque only to find that the Shah's tomb had been sprinkled with rose water
and lit with four lustre candles. Around me stood large bouquets of yellow
carnations and jasmine. I blinked at a portrait in a gold frame: a saluting
monarch in a white, braided uniform, his chest covered in medals.
A group of tourists stood admiring the Tabriz carpet in the middle of
the room as the boys responsible for cleaning the mausoleum offered them
dates and Persian sweets. When they had left I spent a few minutes talking
to an Egyptian woman responsible for the mausoleum's restoration works.
Later a number of Iranians arrived: a cinema owner, a former volleyball
coach, a property manager, and a middle-aged journalist with his attractive
wife who had been a television presenter before the revolution. She arrived
barefoot and dressed in black. She crossed the marbled floor and sat beside
the tomb, weeping uncontrollably. "I don't come here only to mourn
the Shah," she said, drying her face. "I'm an exile. This is
the only place left for me. It symbolizes a country that no longer exists."
As the sound of the muezzin filled the corridors and hallways I felt
a serenity and peace that I had not felt for a very long time. I knelt
beside a giant Koran and lit a candle. A faint scent of orange blossoms
filled the air reminding me of our garden in Shiraz. On the long flight
back to London I reflected on my visit to Cairo and wondered whether a
day would come when the Shah's remains would be allowed to rest in Iran.
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