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Aga Khan, Jet-Setting on a Higher Plane

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page C01

For nearly 50 years, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV has striven to overcome the celebrity gloss of his life story.

To 20 million Ismaili Muslims in Asia and Africa, the 68-year-old Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary imam, a spiritual leader who traces his lineage directly from the prophet Muhammad.

The Aga Khan with National Building Museum Chair Carolyn Schwenker Brody, above, before receiving the fifth Vincent Scully Prize at the museum last night for his decades-long efforts to reenergize design in the Islamic world and to preserve historic sites. At left, the prince chats with Scully and his wife, Catherine Lynn. (Photos Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

But to readers of the popular media, he is the billionaire globe-trotting owner of 600 racehorses. When not at his estate outside Paris or at home in Geneva, he presents a tempting target for paparazzi. Their lenses have captured glimpses of him yachting with royalty off the Costa Smeralda resort he developed years ago in Sardinia, basking in the winner's circle with a jockey in his family's emerald racing silks, and squiring a couture-clad Begum Inaara, his estranged second wife, in happier days.

If celebrity follows him, it does not define him. Last night at the National Building Museum, the Aga Khan received the fifth Vincent Scully Prize in recognition of his decades of work to reenergize design in the Islamic world and to preserve historic sites.

His overriding passion is fostering modernity in the Muslim world. Tonight at 6, the Aga Khan will participate in a public program at the museum called "Design in the Islamic World and Its Impact Beyond."

What sort of jet-setter is this?

Behind the Image

"If you want to know who the Aga Khan is, look at what he does," says Hanif Mamdani, an Ismaili Muslim who came here for last night's gala. "That's what's important. That's what occupies his effort and his interests."

Forbes magazine once described the Aga Khan as "venture capitalist to the Third World." The nerve center is his Aiglemont estate in France. From there, the Aga Khan operates a vast network of health, education and economic development projects, which aides call the world's largest private development agency. The Aga Khan Development Network funds hundreds of rural hospitals and schools, builds factories, luxury hotels and eco-tourism resorts, and develops housing and water and sanitation systems in Asia and Africa.

Last year, $230 million was spent on 140 projects in 30 countries, according to Amir Kanji, a volunteer affiliated with the network, which extends all the way to the office of FOCUS, a disaster relief agency in Falls Church.

The Aga Khan's people are on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, but not in Iraq.

"The network suffers from the vagaries of political strife and crises," Mamdani says.

One of the most expansive projects, 20 years in the making, is the $30 million Al-Azhar Park in Cairo, which is to be dedicated March 25. Ismaili Muslims count Cairo and its Al-Azhar University among their contributions to civilization.

Last night, David M. Schwarz, the founding chairman of the Scully Prize, noted that what the recipients have in common is caring about the world in which they live. The Aga Khan is among those "helping to build a future that may be worthy of our past."

The Aga Kahn will turn 70 in 2007, his 50th year as imam.

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