“There is a multitude of fine sandy beaches and no one to walk on them. Green and grey mountains tumble into the sea, a carpet of purple and yellow, red and blue flowers perfumes the air. It’s warm here too, warmer than in the overcrowded resorts in the South of France.” The year was 1964 and the words are those of HH the Prince Karim Aga Khan describing the Costa Smeralda to an American journalist visiting Sardinia to learn about this Mediterranean miracle for the readers of Sports Illustrated. So how could it be that there was as-yet-undiscovered and unspoilt corner of paradise just a two-hour flight from Europe’s main cities? Who is this outsider who somehow managed to work this miracle without scarring the landscape or the local culture? A man that spoke near-perfect Italian and was trying to understand, preserve and even enhance that stunning nature that had so bewitched him when he’d first made landfall on the Costa in 1959. To do justice to Karim Aga Khan we must start in the past, the family and friends who helped forged his convictions regarding taste, culture and, of course, adventure.
Sultan Sir Mohammed Shah Aga Khan
Sultan Sir Mohammed Shad Aga Khan, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, was the first to recognise his grandson Karim’s keen intelligence. The 48th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, Sir Mohammed banished compulsory veil-wearing for women and was elected President of the League of Nations in 1937. He was a man of great political stature who made a highly significant contribution to improving the lot of many Asian nations. However, he also had a lively personal life: Sultan Sir Mohammed Shah Aga Khan’s last marriage was to Yvette Labrousse Blanche – Miss France 1930 – but before that relationship, he had been married to Cleope Teresa Magliano, a Turin-born ballerina who had danced with the Ballet Opera of Monte Carlo and in her home city. Their son, Alì, born in 1911, was the father of Prince Karim Aga Khan.
His Highness Alì Salman Aga Khan
Dubbed Aly Khan by the international press, Alì Salman Aga Khan served as Chairman of the UN Peace Observation Committee in 1958. He was a man of many interests and inherited his passion for thoroughbred horses and racing from his father. Nothing, however, fascinated the society gossip pages like His Highness’s personal life, particularly his relationship with actress Rita Hayworth whom he met and married three years after the release of the highly successful film Gilda. Aly Khan married Hayworth, with whom he would have a beautiful daughter Jasmine, in Cannes in 1949, the same year he divorced Joan Guinness. The latter was the mother of Patrick Guinness who, through that marriage, became the stepbrother of Prince Karim (there was nothing odd in this at the time for the jet set or the Guinness family – Patrick himself later married the daughter of his own father’s third wife).
The young Prince Karim Aga Khan
Princess Joan Aly Khan gave birth to Karim al-Husayni in Geneva on December 13th 1936. The advent of the Second World War forced the family to move to Kenya where Karim spent part of his childhood and, in addition to studying the classics, also learned Arabic and the basics of the Islamic religion. On his return to Switzerland, Karim forged the first of his lifelong friendships with his classmates from the College “Le Rosey” in Gstaad. These included the Duke of Kent and Baudouin, King of the Belgians. Karim proved as successful in sports as he was academically. A veritable whirlwind of energy, he was an excellent tennis, football and ice-hockey player, and even skied competitively.
From Harvard to Imam
Karim graduated with a degree in Medieval History from Harvard University. However, in the midst of his studies and before he’d even turned 21, he succeeded his grandfather Sir Mohammed Shad Aga Khan as Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. This was in 1957 and changed his life forever. The very young Karim Aga Khan IV suddenly found himself leader of the Shia religion which has almost 20 million followers worldwide. The following year, he featured on the cover of Life to which he’d granted on interview. The photo shows a sunny, smiling young man wearing a college blazer and holding a bundle of books. However, he is also now the 49th Imam, and although he very much wanted to continue his university career, the world was waiting. The Aga Khan was expected to meet not only with religious communities worldwide but to pursue entrepreneurial projects that would foster cultural education, improve health conditions and development in the world’s poorest nations.
Monti di Mola
Karim moved to Paris, first to an historic home on Ile de la Cité and later to the fabulous Aiglemont estate just outside the city. Although he had less and less time to pursue his personal interests, Karim continued to breed horses, which are part of his family tradition, with great passion and skill. He also still cultivated a love of the sea and spent short holidays at Vallauris on the Cote d’Azur, a haven for artists of the likes of Pablo Picasso and Jean Marais. The Prince had many friends in very corner of the globe and their after-dinner conversations would often turn to discovering new, unspoilt havens. Present at once such discussion was John Duncan Miller, who worked for the World Bank and had gone to Sardinia in the late 1950s to assess the outcome of an anti-malaria campaign. Miller had been spellbound by what he felt was the most beautiful stretch of coastline in the world: empty, virgin, deep, incredibly perfumed, green and blue to its heart. Several months later, he dragged Karim back with him. Together they explored the area by sea and then took a jeep down the few mule tracks that existed in “Monti di Mola”, as the Costa Smeralda was then known. “Poltu Celvu”, as the local shepherds referred to the deep local harbour, was frequented only by a few cattle that would go down from their pastures to the shore in search of cool and shade. At night the only light came from the sweep of the lighthouse at Capo Ferro.
The Costa Smeralda
Karim had seen many different parts of the world but this one captured his heart like no other. Back in Paris, he began to draw up his plans. He then returned to Sardinia with his friend, the lawyer André Ardoin. Karim also asked Kerry Mentasti to join him as the latter had sailed these solitary waters several times aboard his schooner Croce del Sud. They returned to Sardinia again and again over the next while. They’d land on the dirt runway at the Venafiorita airstrip at Olbia and then set off, going from small holding to small holding, tracking down the owners of the sun-baked land and buying it up bit by bit. The owners were sheep farmers in whose families it had been for thousands of years and who’d never have dreamed it was worth a cent. To them it was far too rocky and barren to be of any real use. A place of isolation and backbreaking work.
One day, during a boat trip just a few hundred metres from the coast, Karim challenged his guests to look back to shore and try to make out the port. They couldn’t. The entrance was just 320 metres wide – it was a sort of pirate bay. “We’ve prohibited any construction on the shoreline to preserve its refuge-like character,” he told them. While architecture monstrosities were springing up all along the Italian and Spanish coasts in the 1960s, on the Costa Smeralda, the focus was on discreet low-rise building that would not interfere with the natural skyline. The outlines of the buildings were traced in wire first to give an idea of their size and look. There were long discussions on which colours should be used for the stucco to ensure the constructions would meld best with their surroundings.
The Cala di Volpe Hotel was built in 1963 and astonished the world with its delicate, timeless beauty. It would soon be followed by the Pitrizza, the Hotel Cervo and the Romazzino. And, of course, glorious villas brilliantly disguised with granite and Mediterranean brush. One of the first villas to be completed was owned by Prince Aly Khan’s final partner, Bettina Graziani, a wonderfully elegant French model who’d been the muse of Hubert de Givenchy in the 1940s. Word about this heavenly corner of the Mediterranean was spreading amongst the jet set and nobility across Europe too. The little dirt airstrip where their small planes touched down gradually grew into an international airport frequented by the fleet of Alisarda, the airline founded by the Prince. The Costa Smeralda would also play host to such illustrious guests as Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon, King Constantine of Greece, Audrey Hepburn, the Agnellis, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco and the Von Fürstenbergs.
True love arrived for His Highness in 1969, when he met Sarah Croker-Poole, born in New Delhi and of British origin. Her marriage to the prince would change her name to Begum Salimah Aga Khan, last 26 years, and welcome three children: Zahra, Rahim and Hussain.
Karim’s second marriage was celebrated in 1998, when he married Gabriele Renate Homey Thyssen, scion of the famous German dynasty, boasting a degree in international law and a strong-willed character. During the three-year marriage, the Begum Inaara Aga Khan gave the prince his fourth child: Aly Muhammad.
Few people in the West are familiar with the institutions founded by His Highness to promote ethnic, cultural, political, religious, social and economic integration. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is a network of private, international, non-denominational agencies working together to improve living conditions in developing countries. A complex organization, which employs more than 60,000 people and develops innovative projects all over the world, including in India, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the USA. The foundation’s range of action is wide, with various divisions operating in distinct sectors: the Aga Khan Foundation for Economic Development (AKFED); the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance (AKAM), which seeks to alleviate economic and social exclusion; Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS ), which manages more than 350 health and diagnostic centres, dispensaries and hospitals – one of the most comprehensive private and not-for-profit health networks in the developing world; Aga Khan Planning and Building Services (AKPBS), which works on constructing villages, reducing risk from disasters, environmental health and improved water supply systems; Aga Khan Education Services (AKES), managing more than 300 schools, including nursery, elementary and secondary, university and PHD courses, with a particular focus on women, disadvantaged students, and people living in remote geographic locations.
In addition to having created a project of 20 academies in China and Asia, His Highness established Pakistan’s first independent university, an important centre for education, training and research in the arts and sciences, with bases and campuses in Africa and the United Kingdom. In addition, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is dedicated to the creation of museums as well as architecture and urban rehabilitation.
The agencies work together to create a bridge between developed and developing economies, with the aim of redefining a new meaning of culture. An investment based on a project for global integration, grounded in pluralism and respect for different identities, the real challenge for the future.