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Aga Khan, Jet-Setting on a Higher Plane

The celebrity image is persistent. Bidders on eBay have until Sunday to snap up a January newspaper feature on the Aga Khan's pending divorce, after nearly seven years of marriage, from the German-born Begum, or princess. Gabriele zu Leiningen is a former pop singer turned princess, with a law degree to boot. She gave birth to a son, Aly, in 2000. According to the article on offer, she is said to have threatened, "Give me a £500 million divorce . . . or I'll ask the taxman to probe your finances." Before the ink was dry, a competing tabloid had debunked the story.

The Aga Khan has three children from his first marriage to the British-born Sarah Croker-Poole. After their divorce in 1995, she retained her title as Princess Salimah but sold her jewels at Christie's for $27.7 million.

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)

The Aga Khans are legendary as horse owners, though a spokeswoman plays down the current imam's interest as "the least of his priorities."

According to the Aga Khan Studs Web site, his Aiglemont estate includes "108 boxes, divided into six barns . . . situated in a wonderfully tranquil atmosphere. It is an ideal setting to train horses who perform their daily exercise on gallops that are known by the name 'Les Aigles.' "

From the Web site fans can send an e-postcard from the historic Irish property (1,500 acres) from which his most famous horse, Shergar, was kidnapped in 1983. After winning the English Derby by 10 lengths and the Irish Derby by four, Shergar had been retired to the Aga Khan's stud farm and insured for 10 million pounds. The horse disappeared a year later, rumored to be a victim of the Irish Republican Army. The Web site makes the point that the Aga Khan "refused to blame the many for the misdeeds of the few" and retained his breeding operation in County Kildare.

No official spokesman would hazard a guess at the current Aga Khan's wealth, either personal (the tabloids crow about $1.5 billion) or as a business entity supported by tithes and investments. But one suggested that in light of the wealth amassed by modern tycoons like Bill Gates, there is probably a need to "downsize the myth" about the Aga Khan's holdings.

"Of course, he's not a poor man," the aide says, stressing that "it's what he does with his money" that matters.

Pursuing Diversity

At yesterday's roundtable in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington, the Aga Khan wore banker's gray and spoke in the soft, modulated voice of a diplomat using the arcane vocabulary of international development agencies.

"Civil society is the most urgent single goal," he said. Nuclear war and the spread of HIV-AIDS are his biggest fears. He was adamant about the need for a "pluralistic" society.

As if to discount expectations, and rumors of fabled wealth, he cautioned that, "In terms of the world's needs, we're a drop in the ocean."

The primary vehicle for his efforts is the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology has educated a generation of architects, planners, teachers and researchers, most from the Islamic world, since 1979. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, given every three years, is credited with generating a rebirth of Islamic architecture in a skyscraper age. Among last year's recipients was Argentina-born architect Cesar Pelli, whose Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur provide a dynamic example of Islamic aesthetics and 21st-century skyscraper technology.

Tomorrow, after the Aga Khan's rare public appearance here, he'll be off to Ottawa, where Ismaili Muslims who fled Uganda during Idi Amin's regime are establishing what spokesmen describe as a "global center for pluralism."

"A lot of people talk about diversity," says one. "The Aga Khan recognizes that the world is a multifaceted place. He operates with the basic belief that the world is a better place for it."

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