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HistoryMiddle East

The last King and Queen of Afghanistan

humaira afghanistan
By Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The last King and Queen of Afghanistan were exiled in 1973, and with the monarchy abolished, 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 the latter’s assassination. The young King had been educated at an English-language and later a French-language school in Kabul before being sent to France to study at the Pasteur Institute and the University of Montpellier. However, for almost 30 years, the actual power lay with the King’s uncles 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 went on to have six sons and two daughters, with their eldest son only living to the age of nine. Humaira did not play a big public royal during the first part of her husband’s reign as the public royal of the exiled Queen Soraya was seen as one of the main causes of the discontent. However, this changed after the Second World War, and Humaira created the Women’s Welfare Association, and once more, the women of the Royal Family appeared at public functions – although they initially still wore a veil. Finally, in 1959, she and her eldest daughters appeared unveiled alongside the Prime Minister’s wife.

Afghanistan remained neutral during the Second World War, though it did experience some internal revolts, and the need for modernisation was recognised. During the Cold War, Afghanistan received aid from both sides. In 1964, a new constitution introduced free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women’s rights and universal suffrage.

On 17 July 1973, while the King was out of the country to undergo eye surgery, his cousin Mohammad Daoud Khan staged a coup d’état. From Italy, the King then sent his abdication the following month, saying 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 initially placed under house arrest before they were eventually allowed to join the King in Italy.

The last King and Queen of Afghanistan would spend their exile in a four-bedroom home 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 being allowed back into Afghanistan in June 2002. Her husband was able to return at the age of 87, following the end of Taliban rule. Some spoke of restoring the monarchy, but in the end, this did not happen. Humaira’s body was flown to Afghanistan, and she was buried in the Royal Mausoleum in Kabul.

The exiled King outlived his wife for another five years – dying on 23 July 2007 in the compound of the presidential palace in Kabul. He, too, was buried in the Royal Mausoleum. His son, Crown Prince Ahmad Shah, succeeded him in the titular title of King of Afghanistan. He lives in the United States.