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International royals

Fatimah, Last Queen of Libya


By Presidential palace photographer - alarabiya.net, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Early Life

Fatimah was born in 1911 (the exact date has never been known) in what was Italian Libya in the Oasis of Kufra as the fifth daughter of Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi – who was the former 3rd Grand Seussi of the Senussi order of Sufism – and Khadija bint Ahmad al-Rifi. Her mother was the daughter of an influential general in the country, Ahmad al-Rifi. Her father was known for his involvement in the resistance toward the colonial forces in the African nation at the time.

Path to Queenship

When Fatimah was just 20-years-old, she married her first cousin, Idris, who was then the Emir of Cyrenaica. The couple married in 1931 in Siwa, Egypt, and were said to have a happy marriage. Sadly, they would only have one biological child, a son, in 1953. However, their time as parents to their son was short-lived. He died at just one day old; Fatimah and Idris adopted an Algerian orphan girl named Suleima who survived both her parents. They also fostered several other children during their lifetime.

Time as Queen

Twenty years after their union, Idris ascended the Libyan throne on 24 December 1951. Three years later was a devastating time for her as her nephew assassinated an advisor to the King, Ibrahim al-Shelhi. He did this due to a rumour that the advisor had convinced the King to divorce Fatimah and marry his daughter. Kind Idris responded by having Fatimah’s nephew killed.

Due to their lack of an heir (as an adopted child did not count in the line of succession), Fatimah supported Idris marrying again to secure an heir and even selected two women for him to choose from. Idris elected to go another direction and married an Egyptian who had been suggested by his premier. While still married to Fatimah, Idris married Aliya Khanum Effendi on 6 June 1955. Since he was still married to Fatimah, she refused to leave the residence in Tobruk; the couple would reconcile just a few months later. The King would divorce Aliya in 1958.

Fatimah el-Sharif was a very visible queen who attended many public events and was said to be able to quickly put people at ease. She was also known for her humour and elegant style. While as queen consort, she became a role model for fellow Libyan women and showed them a new way of life.

The end of the monarchy

Muammar Gaddafi (who himself was overthrown in and assassinated in 2011) led the coup in 1969 against the unpopular monarchy, but when it began Fatimah and Idris were in Turkey. The couple had no money and were only able to get to Greece with the help of the Turkish government who paid for their hotel and travel. Fatimah, who was a strong supporter of her husband, wrote to a friend telling of her troubles and frustration that they could not perform the fasting for Ramadan in European countries. As a result, they travelled to Cairo in November where she remained until her death.

The Libyan People’s Court tried her in absentia in November 1971; they froze her assets and sentenced her to five years in prison, which she did not serve as she remained out of the country.

The rest of the story

Fatimah in Cairo in 1995. By Libyan Constitutional Union – LCU Archives Web Site, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Fatimah died at age 98 in Cairo on 3 October 2009. Idris had predeceased her on 25 May 1983 after dying in Egypt. Her body was taken to Saudi Arabia so that it could be buried alongside her husband and father in the Al-Baqi’ cemetery. However, Saudi Arabia denied the family’s request to bury her there. So, after the traditional Muslim funeral prayer salat al-Janazah in the Al-Masjid an-Nabawī Mosque, the family chose to lay her to rest in the Hamza Cemetery in Medina, close to Mount Uhud, on 7 October.

This article originally appeared on History of Royal Women, where you can find many more stories on historical royal women.

About author

Brittani is from Tennessee, USA. She is a political scientist and historian after graduating with a degree in the topics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in December 2014. She also holds a master's degree from Northeastern University. She enjoys reading and researching all things regarding the royals of the world. Her love of royals began in middle school, and she's been researching, reading, and writing on royalty for over a decade. She became Europe Editor in October 2016, and then Deputy Editor in January 2019, and has been featured on several podcasts, radio shows, news broadcasts and websites.