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Monday, 1 October, 2001, 14:31 GMT 15:31 UK
Profile: Ex-king Zahir Shah
Former king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah
The former king has offered to return
In 1964, a new constitution transformed Afghanistan into a modern democracy, with free elections, a parliament, civil rights, emancipation for women and universal suffrage.

The constitution was the blueprint of the country's last King, Mohammad Zahir Shah. Yet under a decade later, he was deposed.

I am ready to return if it serves to help my people

former King Zahir Shah
The former king has spent the last 28 years exiled in Italy, from where he has witnessed his country laid low by war, and the rise of the harsh Islamic regime of the Taleban.

Born in Kabul in 1914, Zahir Shah was educated in France and was only 19 when he ascended the throne in 1933 after his father was assassinated.

After World War II, in which he succeeded in maintaining both Afghanistan's neutrality and its borders, the king recognised the need for modernisation.


Zahir Shah brought in foreign advisers, founded the first modern university, and fostered cultural and commercial relations with Europe.

Kabul university
Much of Kabul is in ruins

During his reign, Afghanistan enjoyed a period of stability.

Afghanistan also became a popular destination for Western travellers wanting to view its rugged mountains and relics of ancient civilisations.

But amid the modernisation, dark undercurrents of wrangling between the country's tribal factions remained.

Bamiyan buddha statue
The Taleban destroyed Bamiyan, one of Afghanistan's ancient sites

In July 1973, while he was in Italy receiving medical treatment for an eye condition, Zahir Shah was ousted in a coup orchestrated by his cousin, Mohammad Daoud.

Daoud opposed his efforts to open up the country and develop contacts with the West.

Since then, the last monarch of a 200-year old Pashtun dynasty has lived quietly in a villa outside Rome.

Following his removal, Afghanistan descended into factional violence and war.

This became significantly worse when the former Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979 to prop up the weak Marxist regime, which had come to power in a coup a year earlier.

Following the departure of Soviet forces in 1989, the country descended into a civil war which subsided only with the capture of Kabul by the Taleban in 1996.

'Ready to return'

The exiled former king has said he has no desire to see his family returned to power - but added that he would be "ready to return to Afghanistan if it serves to help my people".

Years of war have shattered Afghanistan

He proposed convening the "loya jirga" - a gathering of tribal elders, Islamic intellectuals and other influential figures - to discuss the country's future.

Zahir Shah's youngest son, Mirwais, told the Washington Post newspaper that his family wanted to see Afghanistan "have peace and for the people to decide their government in a democratic manner, with free elections".

And while the former king wants to see his country rebuilt with the help of aid from institutions like the United Nations and European Union, he is adamant that its future should be decided by its people alone.

See also:

15 Sep 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
What now for the Taleban?
28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's turbulent history
21 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Afghanistan
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