Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary

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Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary
Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari-045.jpg
Queen consort of Iran
Tenure12 February 1951 – 15 March 1958
PredecessorFawzia Fuad of Egypt
SuccessorFarah Pahlavi
Born(1932-06-22)22 June 1932
Esfahan, Iran
Died26 October 2001(2001-10-26) (aged 69)
Paris, France
(m. 1951; div. 1958)
FatherKhalil Esfandiary Bakhtiary
MotherEva Karl
ReligionShia Islam, later Christianity
OccupationActress (1965)

Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary (Persian: ثریا اسفندیاری بختیاری, romanizedSorayâ Esfandiyâri-Baxtiyâri; 22 June 1932 – 26 October 2001) was the queen consort of Iran as the second wife of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom she married in 1951. Their marriage suffered many pressures, particularly when it became clear that she was infertile. She rejected the Shah's suggestion that he might take a second wife in order to produce an heir, as he rejected her suggestion that he might abdicate in favor of his half-brother. In March 1958, their divorce was announced. After a brief career as an actress, and a liaison with Italian film director Franco Indovina, Soraya lived alone in Paris until her death.

Early life and education[edit]

Soraya in childhood with her mother, c. 1935

Soraya was the elder child and only daughter of Khalil Esfandiary Bakhtiary (1901–1983),[1] a Bakhtiari nobleman and Iranian ambassador to West Germany in the 1950s, and his Russian-born German wife Eva Karl (1906–1994).[2]

She was born in the English Missionary Hospital in Isfahan on 22 June 1932.[1][3] She had one sibling, a younger brother, Bijan (1937–2001). Her family had long been involved in the Iranian government and diplomatic corps. An uncle, Sardar Assad, was a leader in the Persian Constitutional Revolution of the early 20th century.[4] Soraya was raised in Berlin and Isfahan, and educated in London and Switzerland.[3]


In 1948, Soraya was introduced to the recently divorced Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, by Forough Zafar Bakhtiary, a close relative of Soraya's, via a photograph taken by Goodarz Bakhtiary, in London, per Forough Zafar's request. At the time Soraya had completed high school at a Swiss finishing school and was studying the English language in London.[4] They were soon engaged: the Shah gave her a 22.37 carat (4.474 g) diamond engagement ring.[5]

Soraya married the Shah at Marble Palace, Tehran, on 12 February 1951.[6] Originally the couple had planned to wed on 27 December 1950, but the ceremony was postponed due to the bride being ill.[7]

Although the Shah announced that guests should donate money to a special charity for the Iranian poor, among the wedding gifts were 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.[8] 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. Entertainment included an equestrian circus from Rome.[9] The bride wore a silver lamé gown studded with pearls and trimmed with marabou stork feathers,[10] designed for the occasion by Christian Dior.[11] Of all the Shah's many women, it is generally believed that Soraya was the "true love" of his life as she was the one he loved the most.[12]

Soraya later wrote about herself and Iran: "I was a dunce. I knew next to nothing of the geography, the legends of my country; nothing of its history, nothing of the Muslim religion".[12] Soraya's upbringing had been entirely German and Catholic, which left her with a mixed identity, and made her the object of much distrust in Iran with Muslim clerics saying the Shah should not marry this "half-European girl" who was not raised a Muslim.[12] Soraya wrote: "The feeling of being both Christian and Muslim, but at the same time of being neither one nor the other has engraved in my flesh two divergent poles between which my existence has unfolded. The one is methodically European, the other savagely Persian".[12]

Queen of Iran[edit]

Following the marriage, Soraya headed the family charity in Iran.[13] Soraya's marriage was troubled as Mohammad Reza's mother and sisters all saw her as a rival for his love just as they had with his first wife Princess Fawzia Fuad of Egypt, and continually snubbed and inflicted petty humiliations on her. Soraya hated Ernest Perron, the Shah's best friend and private secretary.[12] Soraya called Perron a "homosexual who detested women, all women" and who "spread poison around the palace as well as our own quarters".[12] She wrote that Perron was a "cunning, perfidious and Machiavellian" man who "roused hatred, stirred gossip, reveled in every intrigue".[12] Much to her disgust, Mohammad Reza was "fascinated with this diabolical Swiss" who professed to be a "philosopher, poet, and a prophet"; the two men met every morning to discuss all the affairs of state in French as Perron was the man whose advice the Shah valued the most, and, as Soraya soon learned, other matters were discussed as well.[12] Much to her revulsion, Perron visited her and made a series of what she called very "lewd" remarks and vulgar questions about her sex life with the Shah, which led her to throw him out of the Marble Palace in her fury.[12]

During the confrontation with Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh of the left-wing National Front, Mohammad Reza was often depressed, being in her words "somber and distressed" to the extent he even stopped playing poker with his friends, which had been one of his main passions. She stated that only sex could lift Mohammad Reza out of his depression, and she often invited the Shah into her bed to keep his spirits up.[12] Several times, Soraya advised Mohammad Reza "to screw up his courage to the sticking point".[12]

In August 1953, Soraya followed the Shah when he fled to Rome, and complained the Iranian ambassador to Italy failed to arrange for a place for them to stay while the royal couple were constantly harassed by the paparazzi.[14] On 19 August 1953, Soraya remembered how a glum Mohammad Reza was talking about moving to the United States when he received a telegram announcing that Mosaddegh had been overthrown, leading him to shout with joy.[15]

Queen Soraya in 1956

After the 1953 coup overthrew Mosaddegh, the Shah's spirits picked up.[12] One of Mohammad Reza and Soraya's favorite activities was masked balls, although Soraya complained the Shah always wore a lion costume (the symbol of royalty) while her attempts to appear as Madame de Pompadour were vetoed under grounds this was inappropriate for a queen, and she forced to appear as Joan of Arc instead.[12] About her husband, Soraya always praised him when he displayed "European" personality traits while criticizing him for "Oriental" behavior.[12] Soraya wrote despite his first marriage and "in spite of countless mistresses he had before me, Mohammad Reza was extremely shy with women . . . he did not like to show his feelings" while praising his eyes as "expressive. Dark brown, almost black, shining, at times hard, at times sad or gentle, they exuded charm and reflected his soul".[12]

As Soraya was brought up in Europe, Iran was a "strange" country to her, which the Iranian-American historian Abbas Milani argued explained her attitudes towards ordinary Iranians, which he called borderline racist. Europe was always the model for excellence in everything for her.[12] Soraya described as Queen having to visit "hospitals, orphanages, charities, the people's quarters with their djoubs open to the sky, with streams of dirt water which supplied their dwellings, having first served washerwoman, tramps and dogs. Poverty and squalor. Children with rickets, ravaged women and starving old men, the filth of the alleyways where the houses are no longer houses, where poverty, real poverty prevailed".[12]

In contrast to the emphasis on the "filth" of Tehran, Soraya wrote with open admiration about how Paris "dazzled" her.[12] Soraya described her time in Paris as "every day my heart was filled with sunshine. Life was light... it was wonderful to be able go to the cinemas, to drink a glass of lemonade on the terrace of the brassie... a pleasure forbade."[12] Soraya wrote about her joy at attending school in Europe, unlike the Iranian schools with "the grey uniform, the stove which smoked and polluted the classroom, lessons, homework, work to the point of exhaustion".[12]

Soraya and Shah in 1953

In October 1954, Mohammad Reza told Soraya he was concerned about the fact that she had not given him an heir and suggested that they visit the United States to seek the help of American fertility doctors.[16] In 1954-55, the Imperial couple paid a lengthy visit to the United States, leaving on 5 December 1954.[16] In New York, Soraya visited doctors who assured her that an inability to bear a child was due to the "shocks, upsets and vexations of the last two years", which reassured her, but in Boston, the doctors told her she was infertile and could never have children.[17] Much of the length of their trip was due to the Shah's efforts to do something to console Soraya who took the news that she was infertile very badly.[17] Unaware of what the doctors had revealed to Soraya, Newsweek sarcastically wrote "even the Shahanshah (King of Kings), Vice Regent of God, Shadow of the Almighty and Center of the Universe deserves a vacation....They [the imperial couple] have spent this winter in a private visit to the U.S...physical check-ups in New York hospitals, sight-seeing in San Francisco, dancing the mambo in Hollywood, skiing in Sun Valley, water-skiing in Miami Beach".[17]

Soraya was fascinated with Hollywood and enjoyed meeting American film stars during her stay in Los Angeles.[17] During her time in Los Angeles, Soraya met her favorite stars who were Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Bob Hope, Esther Williams, and Humphrey Bogart.[17] A photograph of Queen Soraya water-skiing in Miami while wearing a bikini became extremely controversial in Iran.[17] Soraya was widely condemned for her immorality for her swimsuit, which was not considered a proper dress for a Muslim, and the photo was banned in Iran in attempt to silence the criticism of the ulema.[17]

On 12 February 1955, the imperial couple left the United States for the United Kingdom on the famous liner, the Queen Mary.[18] In London, Mohammad Reza and Soraya had dinner at Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth II; the Prince Consort, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh; the Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and the Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden.[18] In the final part of their trip, the imperial couple visited Cologne where they stayed with Soraya's parents.[18] The Shah's daughter by his first marriage, Princess Shahnaz, who was studying in Belgium, also went to Cologne to see her father, which caused a jealous Soraya to throw what was called an "embarrassing tantrum", demanding that her husband show love only to her, which finally led to the Shah to tell her to shut up.[18] On 12 March 1955, the Shah and the Queen returned to Tehran, where they were pleased that, despite the fact it was raining, thousands of people had come out to welcome them back.[18] The Shah, who disliked his prime minister, General Fazlollah Zahedi, was well pleased that Zahedi who was suffering from gout was visibly uncomfortable standing out in the rain to welcome him back at the Tehran airport.[18]

Later in 1955, the Shah resumed the persecution of the Baháʼí Faith minority, razing their temples. The British diplomat Denis Wright protested to the Shah's minister Asadollah Alam, only to be told that Mohammad Reza had to do something to appease the ulema after the photograph of Soraya in a bikini appeared, which had enraged Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi, a key ally of the Shah.[17]


Shah lighting cigarette for his wife Soraya

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. The Shah's only child, his daughter Princess Shahnaz, had married Ardeshir Zahedi, the son of the former Prime Minister, General Fazlollah Zahedi, a man who Mohammad Reza despised and had dismissed in 1955.[19] The Shah told Soraya that "a Zahedi could not continue the dynasty of the Pahlavis", and that she had to give him a son so the House of Pahlavi could continue.[20] She had sought treatment in Switzerland and France, and in St. Louis with Dr. William Masters.[21] The Shah suggested that he take a second wife to produce an heir, but she rejected that option.[22]

In an attempt to save her position as Queen, Soraya told the Shah that he should change the constitution of 1909 to allow one of his half-brothers to succeed him, which Mohammad Reza told her would require "the approval of the Council of the Wise Men" first.[20] Soraya, who had never read the constitution, did not know that there was no "Council of Wise Men", which was the Shah's way of putting off a difficult decision by lying.[20] Mohammad Reza had already amended the constitution twice, so he must have known there was no clause calling for a "Council of Wise Men" to approve amendments.[20] The Shah's domineering mother hated Soraya and was pressuring him to divorce her, telling him it was his duty to father a son to continue the House of Pahlavi.[20] Mohammad Reza persuaded Soraya to leave Iran while he promised he would call the "Council of Wise Men" to change the constitution.[20] Despite this promise, Soraya sensed her husband had turned against her, and before she left Iran one courtier remembered she had "systematically put her house in order".[20]

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 in early March 1958, in a failed attempt to convince her to return to Iran.[23] Soraya rejected the offer that she remain queen while the Shah would take a second wife, writing in her memoirs that Mohammad Reza was "fundamentally an Oriental", drawing an unfavorable contrast with the Duke of Windsor "who sacrificed his throne for love", writing that only "Orientals" sacrificed love for their thrones.[20] On 5 March, Mohammad Reza phoned her to tell her she would have to accept him taking a second wife or else he would divorce her.[24] On 10 March, a council of advisers met with the Shah to discuss the situation of the troubled marriage and the lack of an heir.[25] Four days later, it was announced that the imperial couple would divorce. In a press statement issued by the Iranian government, it was announced that Soraya had agreed to the divorce while Soraya later claimed she had last heard from her husband on 5 March and she had not been informed beforehand.[24] It was, the 25-year-old queen said, "a sacrifice of my own happiness".[26] She later told reporters that her husband had no choice but to divorce her.[27] The British Ambassador to Iran reported "Soraya was the Shah's only true love" and he was "a man at an emotional cross-roads", who was happy to be able to marry again while unable to "bring himself to face it" that he had just divorced Soraya.[24]

Soraya at Noordwijk beach after her divorce, August 1959

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 writer Françoise Mallet-Joris 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, decided that "she could not accept the idea of sharing her husband's love with another woman."[22]

In a statement issued to the Iranian people from her parents' home in Germany, Soraya said, "Since His Imperial Majesty Mohammad Reza 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."[26] Soraya was well rewarded for the divorce with the Shah buying her a penthouse apartment in Paris that was valued at $3 million US, paying her a monthly alimony of $7,000 US (that continued to be paid until the Islamic Revolution overthrew Mohammad Reza in 1979), together with various luxuries such as a 1958 Rolls-Royce Phantom IV, a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, a Bulgari ruby, a Van Cleef & Arpels brooch and a Harry Winston platinum ring with a 22.37-carat diamond that after her death was sold at the estate auction for $838,350 US.[24]

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".[28]

Career as actress[edit]

Soraya in 1953

After her divorce, Soraya was in a relationship with the director Maximilian Schell and the industrial heir Gunter Sachs and also lived briefly in Munich. Later Soraya moved to France. She 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.[29] Instead, she starred in the 1965 movie I tre volti (The Three Faces)[30] and became the companion of its Italian director, Franco Indovina (1932–72).[31] She appeared as a character named Soraya in the 1965 movie She.[32] 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).[citation needed]

Later years in Paris[edit]

During her last years, Soraya lived in Paris on 46 avenue Montaigne. She occasionally attended social events like the parties given by the Duchess de La Rochefoucauld. Her friend and event organizer Massimo Gargia tried to cheer her up and make her meet young people. Soraya was a regular client of the hairdresser Alexandre Zouari. She also enjoyed going 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 Chamrizad Firouzabadian. Another friend was Parisian socialite Lily Claire Sarran.[citation needed]

In 1979, Soraya wrote to Mohammad Reza as he was dying of cancer in Panama, saying she still loved him and wanted to see him one last time.[33] Mohammad Reza was greatly moved by her letters, and wrote back to her saying he also still loved her and wanted to see her one last time as well, but said Empress Farah could not be present, which presented problems as she was constantly by the former Shah's bedside as he lay dying.[33] In 1980, it was agreed that Soraya would visit Mohammad Reza in Cairo, but he died before she could make the trip, which led Milani to comment that Mohammad Reza and Soraya were true "star-crossed lovers".[33] Soraya did not communicate with the Shah's third wife, Farah, even when both lived in Paris.[citation needed]


Grave of Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary in Munich, 5th Grave in Quarter Nr. 143 in front of the Quarter Nr. 149

Soraya died on 26 October 2001 (on what would’ve been her former husband’s 82nd birthday) of undisclosed causes in her apartment in Paris, France; she was 69.[34][35] Upon learning of her death, her younger brother, Bijan, sadly commented, "After her, I don't have anyone to talk to."[36][37] Bijan died one week later.[38][39]

After her 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 Quarter Nr. 143, in a cemetery in Munich, along with her parents and brother.[40]

Since her death, several women have come forward claiming to be her illegitimate daughter, reportedly born in 1962. According to the Persian-language weekly Nimrooz none of the claims have been confirmed.[41] The newspaper also published an article in 2001 which suggested, without proof, that Princess Soraya and her brother had been murdered.[42] Her belongings were sold at auction in Paris in 2002, for more than $8.3 million.[39]


Princess Soraya wrote two memoirs. The first, published in 1964 and published in the United States by Doubleday, was Princess Soraya: Autobiography of Her Imperial Highness. A decade before her death, she and a collaborator, Louis Valentin, wrote another memoir in French, Le Palais des solitudes (Paris: France Loisirs/Michel Laffon, 1991), which was translated into English as Palace of Solitude (London: Quartet Books Ltd, 1992); ISBN 0-7043-7020-4.


Statue of Soraya, by Renato Signorini in 1955

Soraya's divorce from the Shah inspired French songwriter Francoise Mallet-Jorris to write "Je veux pleurer comme Soraya" (I Want to Cry Like Soraya).[2][35] A French rose grower bred a sunflower in the former queen's honor, which he called "Empress Soraya".[43]

An Italian/German television movie about the princess's life, Soraya [it] (a.k.a. Sad Princess), was broadcast in 2003, starring Anna Valle as Soraya and Erol Sander as the Shah.[44] French actress Mathilda May appeared as the Shah's sister, Princess Shams Pahlavi.[45]


Film and Television
Year Title Role Notes
1953 Zwischen Glück und Krone Herself Archive Footage
1965 I tre volti Herself/Linda /Mrs. Melville
1965 She Soraya
1998 Legenden Herself Episode: "Soraya"


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  2. ^ a b Kadivar, Dairus (1 April 2007). "Stardust memories". The Middle East. Retrieved 11 June 2013.
  3. ^ a b "Earlier Marriages Ended in Divorce. Deposed Shah of Iran". The Leader Post. AP. 29 July 1980. Retrieved 16 July 2013.
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  5. ^ "The Tribune, Chandigarh". The Tribune. India. Retrieved 16 August 2010.
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  10. ^ Shah of Iran Wed in Palatial Rites, The New York Times, 13 February 1951, p. 14
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  13. ^ Hammed Shahidian (1 January 2002). Women in Iran: Gender politics in the Islamic republic. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-313-31476-6. Retrieved 7 December 2013.
  14. ^ Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Macmillan 2011, p. 188.
  15. ^ Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Macmillan 2011, p. 189.
  16. ^ a b Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Macmillan, 2011 page 198
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Macmillan, 2011 page 199.
  18. ^ a b c d e f Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Macmillan, 2011 page 200
  19. ^ Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Macmillan, 2011, pages 212-213
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Macmillan, 2011 page 213
  21. ^ Maier, Thomas (2013). "6". Masters of Sex. Basic Books.
  22. ^ a b "Iran Shah Divorces His Childless Queen". The New York Times. 14 March 1958. p. 2.
  23. ^ "Shah's Plea to Queen Held Vain". The New York Times. 6 March 1958. p. 3.
  24. ^ a b c d Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Macmillan, 2011 page 214
  25. ^ "Iran Decision Pending". The New York Times. 11 March 1958. p. 2.
  26. ^ a b "Queen of Iran Accepts Divorce As Sacrifice", The New York Times, 14 March 1958, p. 4.
  27. ^ "Soraya Arrives for U.S. Holiday", The New York Times, 23 April 1958, p. 35.
  28. ^ Hofmann, Paul (24 February 1959). "Pope Bans Marriage of Princess to Shah". The New York Times. p. 1.
  29. ^ "Soraya Taking Screen Role", The New York Times, 8 October 1963, p. 48.
  30. ^ I tre volti at IMDb
  31. ^ "Princess Soraya, ex-wife of the Shah of Iran, dies in Paris". Hello! Magazine. 25 October 2001. Retrieved 27 June 2008.
  32. ^ She at IMDb
  33. ^ a b c Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Macmillan, 2011, pages 430-31.
  34. ^ "Soraya, the second wife of Shah of Iran, dies". The Birmingham Post. 26 October 2001. Retrieved 11 June 2013.
  35. ^ a b "Wife of Former Shah of Iran Dies". The Washington Post. Paris. AP. 25 October 2001. Archived from the original on 21 September 2013. Retrieved 16 July 2013.
  36. ^ "Article Written By Dr Abbassi For Nimrooz Newspaper". Avairan. Archived from the original on 7 July 2011. Retrieved 16 August 2010.
  37. ^ "Soraya Esfandiari, Cyrus Kadivar". The Iranian. June 2002. Retrieved 16 August 2010.
  38. ^ Bakhtiari family website - Soraya Esfandiari Bakhtiari
  39. ^ a b Irene Zoeck (6 April 2003). "Fortune of Shah's former wife goes to German state". The Telegraph. Munich. Retrieved 16 July 2013.
  40. ^ "Royal News 2001". Angelfire. 14 December 2001. Retrieved 16 August 2010.
  41. ^ "Tabarzadi". Avairan. Archived from the original on 30 June 2010. Retrieved 16 August 2010.
  42. ^ " Hébergement Mutualisé Professionnel". Avairan. Archived from the original on 7 July 2011. Retrieved 16 August 2010.
  43. ^ "Empress Soraya rose". The New York Times. 17 June 1958. p. 29.
  44. ^ "Making Sense of Iran". Khaleej Times. 3 October 2009. Retrieved 19 July 2013.
  45. ^ Soraya at IMDb

External links[edit]

Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary
Born: 22 June 1932 Died: 26 October 2001
Iranian royalty
Title last held by
Fawzia of Egypt
Queen consort of Iran
Title next held by
Farah Diba