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Iranian Influential Women: Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh (1854-1932)

September 22, 2023
7 min read
Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh, a Qajar princess, dedicated her wealth to the first modern hospital in Iran
Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh, a Qajar princess, dedicated her wealth to the first modern hospital in Iran

Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh is remembered for at least two reasons: She founded Tehran’s first modern hospital and was the mother of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, the nationalist prime minister of Iran from 1951 to 1953 who was overthrown by a coup.

Najm ol-Saltaneh, a Qajar princess, donated her own personal assets and wealth to establish Tehran’s Najmieh Hospital in 1919. A year later, the hospital was endowed to provide medical assistance to the city's poor and needy. Her son died there in 1967. 

She was born in 1854 and, as was the custom within noble families, a private tutor was hired to educate her at the family’s home. Although the first girls' schools had already been established in Iran, including the Dushizegan School run by the writer and feminist pioneer Bibi Khanum Astarabadi, girls from religious families were still not allowed to attend public schools.

Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh’s connections with Iranian nobility were extensive. She was the granddaughter of early 19th-century Qajar Crown Prince Abbas Mirza and the daughter of Qajar Prince Firouz Mirza Nosrat ol-Dowleh. Her brother Mozaffar ol-Din Shah, who granted the first constitution and a parliament to Iran, was king from 1896 until his death in 1907, and another brother, Qajar Prince Abdol Hossein Mirza Farmanfarma, was an influential politician in the early 1900s.

"If you had seen her, you would have loved her and, like others, you would have called her Dear Princess,” Mosaddegh's daughter Mansoureh wrote in her memoirs of her grandmother Malektaj Firouz.

Malektaj married Morteza Gholi Khan Nouri, a minister and a man she had never met, at the age of 16, becoming one of his many wives. The marriage was arranged by her father, who was war minister at the time. Khan Nouri was the governor of Kerman province and had received military training in Russia. Her mahriyeh, what the groom pays the bride at the time of Islamic marriage, included a quarter of Ismail Abad, a village in the province. After the wedding, she was sent to the provincial capital, Kerman, with servants.

During her time there, Najm ol-Saltaneh gave birth to two daughters, Eshrat ol-Dowleh and Shokat ol-Dowleh.

But these days were not happy ones. Her husband fell into debt in part due to extensive drought. The taxes paid by residents were only enough to maintain the city and did not reach the central government. Times were unkind to the region and, as workers and hungry people began to rebel, the prices of grain and bread rose. As the famine worsened, textile workers looted merchants' houses in Kerman.

Senior authorities ordered that the looting workers face discipline, but her husband refused, insisting that the looting were carried out by an isolated group driven by extreme hunger. He resigned and left for Tehran, where he died shortly afterward. Malektaj became a widow at a young age. 

Shortly afterward, in 1881, she married another member of the royal family, Mirza Hedayatollah, whose family had been in charge of the Qajar dynasty's finances for many years. He served as both minister of finance and the army. With a solid education in modern sciences and religious texts, he also became famous for his interpretations of the Koran.

The marriage between Najm ol-Saltaneh and Mirza Hedayatollah is remembered in history because their son, Mohammad Mosaddegh, changed the course of Iran's history by nationalizing the country’s oil industry.

When Mirza Hedayatollah died from cholera at the age of 76, Najm ol-Saltaneh, who was 40 at the time, mourned his death for two years. Mohammad Mossadegh was 10 years old and her daughter, Daftar ol-Moluk, was eight.

Mohammad Mosaddegh was very close to his father and his death brought him closer to his mother. She was said to have had a significant influence on him, in terms of character, manners and even the way he spoke. Some accounts say she influenced his decisions and that he was loyal to her wishes and followed her advice.  

The Birth of Iran’s First Modern Hospital 

Najm ol-Saltaneh remarried, this time to Fazlollah Khan, who had long been an envoy to St. Petersburg, and whose first wife had died. Fazlollah Khan was Minister of Confidential Affairs at the court of Muzaffar ol-Din Shah. The couple lived in Tabriz.

Fazlollah Khan died at the age of 57, leaving Najm ol-Saltaneh and his son Abolhasan Diba valuable property in Tehran. 

One of the buildings he left her was later converted to Najmieh Hospital, which still exists to this day. The hospital, situated at the end of Hafez Street in the Old Gate of Yusef Abad neighborhood, has been registered in Iran’s list of National Cultural Heritage since 2003, and Malektaj Firouz is on the list of Iran’s philanthropic women for founding it. After the 1979 revolution, however, Najmieh Hospital was taken over by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and is now a subsidiary of Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences.

At the time of its construction, Najmieh Hospital was considered a modern and unique medical center, and its innovative approach demanded substantial funding. As a result, Najm ol-Saltaneh sold the properties that had been left to her by her three deceased husbands and her father to buy equipment for the hospital and maintain its upkeep.

From the opening of the hospital in December 1919 until her death in 1932, Najm ol-Saltaneh lived in a small house on the edge of the Najmieh Hospital complex and, together with her daughters, personally supervised the hospital, including the wages of medical staff and other employees. She also advocated free healthcare, urging the hospital's admissions department to treat patients for free if the patients could not afford the medical fees. Upon her retirement, she left the running of the hospital in the hands of her daughters, a responsibility that was rarely given to women in Iran at the time. 

Najm ol-Saltaneh had a close relationship with her brother Abdol Hossein Mirza Farmanfarma, who briefly held a powerful position in the government. Their love and support for one another was famous, especially when Najm ol-Saltaneh made a long and difficult journey to visit her brother who had been sent into exile after the political leadership of the country shifted. 

Malektaj’s niece Maryam Firouz described her aunt as follows: "A little woman who answered our bows by moving her head and quickly passed by. She had a white face and large, light hazel eyes. Her nose was thin and curved. She had a clear mind and a sharp and somewhat harsh tongue. At the age of 80, she personally supervised Najmieh Hospital. My father was very fond of her and always respected her.”

A Woman of Letters

In 1896, Nasser ol-Din Shah was assassinated and Muzaffar ol-Din Shah, the husband of Najm ol-Saltaneh's sister, became the new king. Najm ol-Saltaneh was said to have had a very good relationship with him, and there are stories of her mediating between the couple when they were at odds. 

Malektaj's detailed and pointed letters to her brother reveal the depth of her wisdom and her awareness of current affairs, including Russia’s influence over Iran and the financial crisis. In these letters, she spoke openly of what was going on in the country, and she did not hold back criticism of the government or of the actions taken by the king himself. 

Mohammad Mosaddegh later said repeatedly that he owed everything he had to his mother and the way she raised him. "My mother explained to me that the importance of the individual in society is equal to what he suffers for the sake of the people," he wrote.

Najm ol-Saltaneh hoped he would marry the king's daughter, her niece and his cousin, but Najm ol-Saltaneh’s sister opposed that idea. She then encouraged her son to marry Zia al-Saltanah, the daughter of Tehran's Friday prayer imam. His mother was the granddaughter of former king Nasser ol-Din Shah. The couple got married soon after. 

When she was older, Najm ol-Saltaneh traveled to Switzerland with her son to undergo an eye operation, and their relationship remained strong. 

A champion for the rights of women and children and a fierce advocate for healthcare, Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh died in 1932. She did not live long enough to see her son become prime minister in 1951, his imprisonment and exile following the 1953 coup. Revealing the strength of the bond between Mohammad Mossadegh and his mother, he once said: "In this world, I love two things: my mother and Iran, my homeland."

The house in which she resided was built on the grounds of the same property as the hospital and later became the Park Hotel. Established by her son, Abolhassan Diba, it is considered to be the first modern hotel of Iran.

Today, a copper plaque on the east side of Najmieh Hospital commemorates her life and work. The words engraved express a philosophy that inspired her throughout her life: ”You reap what you sow.” She will be remembered for her contributions to modern-day Iran, for her tough resilience, her candid way of speaking and dealing with the public and for her benevolence.



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