SI Vault
Virginia Kraft
December 24, 1962
The modern king of ancient Persia recaptures for an American visitor the adventure and elegance of sport in one of the world's oldest civilizations
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December 24, 1962

A Lady Hunts With The Shah

The modern king of ancient Persia recaptures for an American visitor the adventure and elegance of sport in one of the world's oldest civilizations

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Before the marble walls of a Persian palace, soldiers stood stiff-backed and motionless. Near by, a dozen grooms, resplendent in gray and gold, fussed nervously with their mounts. The horses, eager to be off, pawed the earth and snorted at each other. In the warmth of the morning sun I waited outside the imperial stables at the end of a mile-long drive lined with poplars. Suddenly in the distance there was the sound of horns, and the massive silver grille of a limousine loomed into sight, followed by a caravan of tooting cars. Wearing riding clothes, His Imperial Majesty Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, stepped nimbly from his peacock-blue Rolls-Royce and greeted me with a warm hello.

Two days before, excited and a little nervous, I had visited the Shah's summer residence at Shemiran outside Teheran. Seated on a sofa of intricate petit point in a gymnasium-size room furnished in marble, mahogany and crystal, carpeted in a ransom of Persian rugs and hung with a museum collection of paintings, I wondered what the man who lived here would be like.

From pictures I knew that his hair had become grayer and his face stern in the 13 years since I had glimpsed him riding, smiling and cheerful, down Park Avenue on a state visit. I knew he had been playing a forceful and enlightened role in running his government and that somehow he still found time to play good tennis, ski, drive his cars fast and his planes (to the chagrin of his advisers) even faster. I knew, too, that he is an expert horseman and an equally competent shot. His interest in hunting and (he outdoors, in fact, was my reason for being in Iran.

After a stiffly formal correspondence with the imperial court, I had been granted permission to hunt with I his Majesty and was now about to be presented officially to him. This was anything but a casual affair. A harried court secretary (who was evidently more nervous than I about the audience) left at least a dozen messages at my hotel covering everything from duplicate reminders of the exact time I was to be at the palace to detailed instructions on the length of the sleeve (not short), color (not black) and type (not d�collet�) of dress I was to wear. Three times he reminded me to wear gloves and a hat.

At the locked and heavily guarded gates of the palace I had been stopped by eight fierce-looking young men with shaved heads and high-collared military uniforms who, in one motion, raised their bayonets and stepped menacingly toward me.

The guards remained on alert until the secretary rushed up some 10 minutes later, apologized effusively for being late and ordered the guards to stand at ease. After making the necessary phone calls to unlock the gates, he escorted me to the palace up a drive lined with lanterns and paved with perfectly matched gray-green stones. All along the way, guards clicked their heels and presented arms as we passed.

Inside the palace we were greeted by more guards and more heel-clicking as we were led toward the great room where the Master of the Hunt was to give a pre-audience briefing. His Excellency, Atabai, who is also Master of the Horse and Director of Palaces (there are four large and more than a dozen small ones besides the one we were in), explained through an interpreter that His Majesty would see me in an hour.

I was then questioned again about my background and given further last-minute instructions on protocol. The formality and stiffness of the interview was heightened by the language barrier, and when tea was served I realized regretfully that I didn't dare drink it because I had no idea whether I was supposed to take my gloves off. By the time an attendant announced that His Imperial Majesty was ready, my knees were shaking.

For the first time since I had stepped from the cab at the palace gates, the guards, soldiers and servants mysteriously vanished, and I found myself entering the imperial reception room alone. Before I realized what had happened, a gray haired man in a double-breasted suit was striding toward me with the long, smooth steps of an athlete, his hand outstretched and a broad smile on his surprisingly young face, fixing his warm brown eyes directly on mine, the Shah of Iran said in a soft, low voice, "I have been waiting a long time for your visit."

From this first meeting with the Shah, the tension and stiffness of the palace and the imperial court were gone. He was as relaxing as an old friend, chatting comfortably on a variety of subjects from cigarette smoking to current economic problems. When tea was served I never gave a thought to the gloves resting in my lap. Throughout all our conversations, whether sitting casually around a coffee table, riding side by side on horseback or stalking up a hill after game, he was far more relaxed than his entourage.

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