Prince Sadruddin & Princess Alia at their chateau in Bellerive - Portrait of the Emperor of Persia, Fateh Ali Shah
Hidden secrets of the universe
In an exclusive interview, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan talks to June Ducas about his art collection, now on show at the British Museum
Source:  Telegraph U.K.  Saturday 24 January 1998 


If ever East meets West, it could be said to do so at Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan's 17th-century home,
the Chateau de Bellerive on the shores of Lake Geneva. Flanked by two square towers, the stone façade of the château with its tiled roof, wooden shutters and arched doors of studded oak is austere but arrestingly beautiful.

While the outside may be simple, the rooms inside are crammed with exotic bibelots, orchids, oriental
rugs and textiles. But then Prince Sadruddin is the younger son of Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah, Aga
Khan III - the Imam, or leader of the Ismaili Shia Muslims. Their family's bloodline can be traced back to the Prophet.

"I was brought up in the Muslim religion," says the publicity-shy prince, who was 65 yesterday. "My father insisted that I learnt the Koran and encouraged me to understand the basic traditions and beliefs of Islam but without imposing any particular views. He was an overwhelming personality but open-minded and liberal."


(Prince Sadruddin & Princess Alia at their chateau in Bellerive with a Portrait of the Emperor of Persia, Fath Ali Shah, Prince Saddrudin's ancestor)

                  Certainly Prince Sadruddin, whose name in Arabic means "defender of the faith", has based his life on
                  Islamic principles - brotherhood, understanding and solidarity. Having worked for nearly 40 years for
                  the United Nations - 12 of them as High Commissioner for Refugees - he has striven to live up to his

                  I met him at Bellerive to talk about his collection of Islamic art. Amassed over the last 45 years, the
                  priceless paintings, drawings and manuscripts from Turkey, Iran and India, dating from the 14th
                  century, have been lent to the British Museum for a new exhibition, Princes, Poets & Paladins.

                  Unostentatious, with conker-brown eyes that twinkle when he smiles, the prince is dressed in grey
                  flannel trousers, checked shirt and tweed jacket. He appears every inch a Westerner. Yet as I sit in the
                  château's library dominated by Sir Oswald Birley's portrait of Sadruddin's portly Persian grandmother,
                  it only takes a small leap of the imagination to visualise the prince with his tapering fingers clad in Arab
                  garb. Indeed, for small dinner-parties with his wife Catherine and close friends, he likes to wear a

                  But looking down on us from the wall, it is the imposing image of the Begum, veiled in white with a
                  hubble-bubble by her side, that underlines her grandson's heritage. She was the grand-daughter of
                  Fath 'Ali Shah, the imperial ruler of Iran from the ancient Qajar dynasty that was overthrown
                  by the more parvenu house of Pahlavis. For most of her life, the Begum lived in Bombay surrounded
                  by Persian courtiers, bejewelled Ismaili dignitaries in turbans and the classical poets of the day.

                  When the prince was a child, she used to recite to him the great epic poems of Persia's turbulent
                  history that she knew by heart. "I loved the musicality of them, even though I could not understand the
                  words," he says. "She left my father a library of Persian books, mystical texts and astrological treaties,
                  and it was through them that I became interested in Islamic art."

                  In the family villa in Cap d'Antibes, he would peer in wonder at the burnished pages, the mysterious
                  calligraphy and golden illuminations - especially at the 14th-century Mamluk Koran from which his
                  father never tired of quoting.

                  Aptly enough, his first acquisition was a folio from the Mamluk Koran of the same period, bought in
                  the early 1950s when he was a student at Harvard. "In those days, it was a neglected field so you
                  could pick up a good page of Kufik calligraphy, an Islamic script, for less than $100."

                  By the 1960s and '70s orientalism was becoming fashionable again. "Many great collections surfaced,"
                  he says, "including some Louis Cartier and Rothschild material." At the time, he thought the pieces that
                  he bought were extremely expensive - now they would fetch 10 times what he paid for them. "I never
                  went about collecting in a systematic, didactic way. I was drawn by the beauty and the symbolism of a
                  picture rather than the chronology or the artist. Behind each illustration, there is a hidden meaning - the
                  struggle between good and evil, the secrets of the universe, the meaning of life and death. Interpreting
                  each picture requires considerable knowledge and concentration. If you look at it quickly you miss
                  most of the true dimension of the picture."

                  Certainly, this is a supremely contemplative art, and one where nature is acutely observed. As such, it
                  reflects the prince's work for conservation and environmental causes, and his devotion to animal

                  "This is Paradise before the Fall, where man and beast were living in harmony and nature was
                  respected," he says, looking at his prized possession, a water-colour entitled The Court of
                  Gayumars. From the famous 16th-century Shahnama or Book of Kings created for Shah Tahmasp, it
                  was painted by the Safavid master, Sultan Muhamad, whose work was so exquisite that it caused
                  fellow artists "to hang their heads in shame".

                  He attributes his love of nature and gardens to the time he spent with his mother in a small
                  country-house in the mountains of Haute Savoie. His fondness for animals he shares with his wife. In a
                  field by the château, they keep a horse that they saved from the knacker's yard. On the morning of my
                  visit, he was awaiting delivery of a pony to keep the horse company. In all, they have nine dogs,
                  picked up in pounds, including a Belgian Shepherd called Playboy.

                  Ironically, this is the epithet many people used about Sadruddin's elder half-brother, Prince Aly Khan.
                  Best known for his amorous conquests and short second marriage to Rita Hayworth, Aly died
                  prematurely in a car crash in 1960.

                  Gentle and urbane himself, the prince steers clear of the beau monde. On the subject of his brother he
                  says, "Myths and labels hang around some people's necks, giving them a reputation that does not
                  always correspond to reality."

                  For that matter, though, who is to know whether the myths and legends so exquisitely depicted in the
                  prince's collection are strictly true? Where art is concerned the aesthetics are paramount. Preserving
                  such treasures is a particular pleasure to the prince. "Fate uprooted my family from Iran over 130
                  years, ago," he says. "I liked the idea of trying to getting some things back and taking care of them."

                  He leads me into the room that was specially designed for his collection. Alongside 11th- and
                  12th-century ceramics, it is displayed in velvet-lined cabinets made from Moorish choir-stalls. Much to
                  his sadness, the paintings - highly sensitive to light - are too delicate to be on show for long periods.
                  Each month he visits the bank vaults where they are held, to choose an alternative selection. To see
                  140 grouped together and exhibited at the British Museum is, he says, a very real excitement.

                  Was the quest for Islamic art also a way of delving into his origins, a search for lost roots? "My father
                  was a great Muslim leader and my French mother was steeped in her own culture. I have a foot in the
                  East and another in the West."

                  Princes, Poets and Paladins is at the British Museum until April 13, 1998.

                  The catalogue, by Dr Sheila Canby (British Museum Press, £40), is available to Sunday Telegraph readers
                  at the special price of £35 (post free) from Telegraph Books Direct, 24 Seward Street, 
                  London EC1V 3GB (or phone 0541 557222, fax 0541 557225), quoting PA148.