Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari

Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari  (22 June 1932 – 26 October 2001) was the second wife and Queen Consort of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the late Shah of Iran.

Though her husband’s title, Shahanshah (King of Kings), is the equivalent of Emperor, it was not until 1967 that a complementary feminine title, Shahbanu or Shahbanou, was created to designate the wife of a Shah. Until then, wives of Shahs, including Soraya, bore the title Malake, though in the popular press they frequently and incorrectly were called Empress.

Born in Isfahan, Iran, (the village of Farsan) Soraya Esfandiary was the eldest child and only daughter of Khalil Esfandiary—a noble of the Bakhtiari tribe of southern Iran who was the Iranian ambassador to West Germany in the 1950s—and his Russian-born German wife, Eva Karl. She had one sibling, a younger brother, Bijan.

Her family had long been involved in the Iranian government and diplomatic corps. An uncle, Sardar Assad, was a leader in the Iranian constitutional movement of the early 20th century.

In 1948, Soraya was introduced to the recently divorced Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Paris, by Forough Zafar Bakhtiari, a relative, when she was still a student at a Swiss finishing school. They were soon engaged (the Shah gave her a 22.37 carat (4.474 g) diamond engagement ring).

Soraya married the Shah at Golestan Palace in Tehran on 12 February 1951; originally, the couple had planned to wed on 27 December 1950, but the ceremony had to be postponed due to the bride being ill.

Though the Shah announced that guests should donate money to a special charity for the Iranian poor, among the wedding gifts was a mink coat and a desk set with black diamonds sent by Joseph Stalin; a Steuben glass Bowl of Legends designed by Sidney Waugh and sent by U.S. President and Mrs. Truman; and silver Georgian candlesticks from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and the 2,000 guests included Aga Khan III.

The ceremony was decorated with 1.5 tonnes of orchids, tulips, and carnations, sent by plane from the Netherlands, and entertainment included an equestrian circus sent from Rome. The bride wore a silver lamé gown studded with pearls and trimmed with marabou stork feathers, designed for the occasion by Christian Dior. She also wore a full-length female white-mink cape.

Though the wedding took place during a heavy snow, deemed a good omen, the imperial couple’s marriage had disintegrated by early 1958 owing to Soraya’s apparent infertility, for which she had sought treatment in Switzerland and France, and the Shah’s suggestion that he take a second wife in order to produce an heir. She left Iran in February and eventually went to her parents’ home in Cologne, Germany, where the Shah sent his wife’s uncle, Senator Sardar Assad Bakhtiari in early March, 1958, in a failed attempt to convince her to return to Iran. On 10 March, a council of advisors met with the Shah to discuss the situation of the troubled marriage and the lack of an heir. Four days later, it was announced that the imperial couple would divorce. It was, the 25-year-old queen said, “a sacrifice of my own happiness.” She later told reporters that her husband had no choice but to divorce her.

On 21 March 1958, the Iranian New Year’s Day, a weeping Shah announced his divorce to the Iranian people in a speech that was broadcast on radio and television; he said that he would not remarry in haste. The headline-making divorce inspired French songwriter Françoise Mallet-Jorris to write a hit pop song, Je veux pleurer comme Soraya (I Want to Cry Like Soraya). The marriage was officially ended on 6 April 1958.

According to a report in The New York Times, extensive negotiations had preceded the divorce in order to convince Queen Soraya to allow her husband to take a second wife. The Queen, however, citing what she called the “sanctity of marriage”, stated that “she could not accept the idea of sharing her husband’s love with another woman.”

In a statement issued to the Iranian people from her parents’ home in Germany, Soraya said, “Since His Imperial Majesty Reza [sic] Shah Pahlavi has deemed it necessary that a successor to the throne must be of direct descent in the male line from generation to generation to generation, I will with my deepest regret in the interest of the future of the State and of the welfare of the people in accordance with the desire of His Majesty the Emperor sacrifice my own happiness, and I will declare my consent to a separation from His Imperial Majesty.”

After the divorce, the Shah, who had told a reporter who asked about his feelings for the former Queen that “nobody can carry a torch longer than me”, indicated his interest in marrying Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, a daughter of the deposed Italian king Umberto II. In an editorial about the rumors surrounding the marriage of “a Muslim sovereign and a Catholic princess”, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, considered the match “a grave danger.”

Granted the style and title Her Imperial Highness Princess Soraya of Iran, the former queen moved to France.

Princess Soraya launched a brief career as a film actress, for which she used only her first name. Initially, it was announced that she would portray Catherine the Great in a movie about the Russian empress by Dino De Laurentiis, but that project fell through. Instead, she starred in the 1965 movie I tre volti (The Three Faces)  and became the companion of its Italian director, Franco Indovina (1932–1972). She also appeared as a character named Soraya in the 1965 movie She.

After Indovina’s death in a plane crash, she spent the remainder of her life in Europe, succumbing to depression, which she outlined in her 1991 memoir, Le Palais Des Solitudes (The Palace of Loneliness).

During her last years Princess Soraya lived in Paris on 46 avenue Montaigne. She occasionally attended social events like the parties given by the Duchess of Rochefoucault. Her friend and event organizer Massimo Gargia tried to cheer her up and make her meet young people. Princess Soraya was known to have taken Internet Lessons at the Cybercafe de Paris (now Cremerie de Paris). She was a regular client of the hairdresser Alexandre Zouari. She also enjoyed to go to the Bar and the Lobby of the Hotel Plaza Athénée located opposite her apartment. She was often accompanied by her former Lady in waiting and loyal friend Madame Firouzabadian Chamrizad. Another friend was the Parisian socialite Lily Claire Sarran. Princess Soraya did not communicate with the Shah´s third wife Farah Diba even both of them lived in Paris.

Princess Soraya died of undisclosed causes in her apartment in Paris, France; she was 69. Upon learning of her death, her younger brother, Bijan (1937–2001) (who died in Paris one week after Soraya), sadly commented, “After her, I don’t have anyone to talk to.”

After a funeral at the American Cathedral in Paris on 6 November 2001 — which was attended by Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, Prince Gholam Reza Pahlavi, the Count and Countess of Paris, the Prince and Princess of Naples, Prince Michel of Orléans, and Princess Ira von Fürstenberg — she was buried in the Westfriedhof, a cemetery in Munich, Germany, along with her parents and brother. In 2002, her tomb was defaced with the words “miserable parasite,” followed by the phrase “Didn’t work from the ages of 25 to 60.” The vandalism was erased, but made headlines throughout Europe.

Since Soraya’s death, several women have come forward claiming to be her illegitimate daughter, reportedly born in 1962, according to the Persian-language weekly Nimrooz; the claims have not been confirmed. The newspaper also published an article in 2001 which suggested, without proof, that Princess Soraya and her brother had been murdered.

The former queen’s belongings were sold at auction in Paris after her death, for more than $8.3 million. Her Dior wedding dress brought $1.2 million.

Leave a comment


  1. Thank you so much for the great story!!

  2. welcome dear

  3. Oh my God ! She was very beautiful !


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