Former king Mohammad Zahir Shah, whose 40-year reign until his exile in 1973 coincided with one of the most peaceful periods in Afghanistan's recent history, died yesterday at his Kabul home, aged 92.
"We announce three days of national mourning over the death of the father of the nation, and the Afghan flag will be at half mast for three days," Afghan President Hamid Karzai told reporters at a press conference.
"Prayer ceremonies will be held across the country, in the capital, in the provinces, by Afghan refugees overseas and in Afghan embassies," he said.
State TV interrupted its normal broadcast and a woman dressed black with a black headscarf announced Zahir Shah had died. Prayers and recitals from the Koran followed.
Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan from 1933 until he was deposed by his cousin in 1973. He lived in exile in Italy before returning home as an ordinary citizen in 2002, but was accorded the honorary title "father of the nation."
"When I saw the mountains of my country, my people, my friends -- what is better that this," he said shortly after his return. "I wish just to be able to do things for my country and serve it."
Zahir Shah came from a long line of ethnic Pashtun rulers and is a distant relative of Karzai.
Born in Kabul on Oct. 15, 1914, Zahir Shah received part of his education in France and returned to Kabul for military training. He ascended the throne in 1933 after his father was assassinated by a deranged student.
For two decades, the bookish king remained in the shadows, allowing three uncles to run the government. But he gradually gained in confidence and took full control in 1953, overseeing a cautious modernization.
He supported an end to purdah -- the wearing of the veil -- for women, used foreign cash to develop the country's medieval infrastructure and managed to keep a balance between rival Soviet and Western interests.
In 1973, while holidaying in Italy, Zahir Shah was ousted in a bloodless coup orchestrated by his cousin and brother-in-law, Prince Daoud, ending two centuries of rule by the Durrani dynasty.
Daoud was later killed in a coup and after Soviet troops entered the country in 1979 to prop up the communist government, Afghanistan has barely seen peace.