The last king and queen of Afghanistan – Royal Central


By Robert Knudsen. Photographs of the White House. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston – Public domain via Commons Wikimedia

The last king and queen of Afghanistan were exiled in 1973, and with the abolition of the monarchy, Afghanistan became a republic.

The last king of Afghanistan was Mohammed Zahir Shah, who succeeded his father in 1933 at the age of 19, following his assassination. The young king had studied in an English-speaking and then French-speaking school in Kabul before being sent to France to study at the Institut Pasteur and at the University of Montpellier. However, for almost 30 years the real power rested with the uncles of King Mohammad Hashim Khan and Shah Mahmoud Khan, who served as the country’s prime ministers.

In 1931, then still a prince, he married his first cousin Humaira Begum. They then had six sons and two daughters, with their eldest son only living until the age of nine. Humaira did not play a mainstream royal audience during the early part of her husband’s reign, as the royal audience of Queen Soraya in exile was seen as one of the main causes of the discontent. However, that changed after WWII and Humaira established the Women’s Welfare Association, and once again, women of the royal family appeared in public office – although they still wore the veil initially. Finally, in 1959, she and her eldest daughters appear unveiled alongside the Prime Minister’s wife.

Afghanistan remained neutral during World War II, although it experienced some internal revolts, and the need for modernization was recognized. During the Cold War, Afghanistan received help from both sides. In 1964, a new constitution introduced free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women’s rights and universal suffrage.

On July 17, 1973, while the king was abroad for eye surgery, his cousin Mohammad Daoud Khan staged a coup. From Italy, the king then sent his abdication the following month, claiming that he respected the will of the people. Humaira and several other members of the royal family, who had remained in Afghanistan during the coup, were first placed under house arrest before finally being allowed to join the king in Italy.

The last king and queen of Afghanistan would spend their exile in a four-bedroom house north of Rome. They received financial support from the Shah of Iran and depended on the generosity of friends.

Humaira tragically died just weeks before she was allowed to return to Afghanistan in June 2002. Her husband was able to return at the age of 87 after the end of the Taliban regime. Some have talked about restoring the monarchy, but in the end that did not happen. Humaira’s body was airlifted to Afghanistan and she was buried in the royal mausoleum in Kabul.

The exiled king outlived his wife for another five years – dying on July 23, 2007 inside the presidential palace compound in Kabul. He too was buried in the royal mausoleum. His son, Crown Prince Ahmad Shah, succeeds him as King of Afghanistan. He lives in the United States.

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