February 22, 1999 12:00 PM

He was the only ruler most Jordanians ever knew. His face, with its broad, kind smile, was the last image they saw on their TV screens at night, his picture as ubiquitous as traffic lights on the streets of their small country. Little wonder, then, that when cancer ended the 46-year reign of Jordan’s King Hussein on Feb. 7, his 4.5 million subjects took it like a death in the family. “It’s not just that the king has died,” said shopkeeper Indrous Habib, one of 800,000 mourners who turned out to toss flowers and bid tearful farewells as Hussein’s funeral procession passed through Amman’s chilly streets on Feb. 8. “I feel that some part of me is lost.”

What was astonishing about the death of this 63-year-old monarch, though, was how many world leaders, despite their often warring ideologies, shared that sense of personal loss. After the funeral procession had snaked from the family home, Baab al-Salam Palace (where his widow, Queen Noor, and other female relatives, barred by Muslim tradition from attending funerals with men, stood watching), to Raghadan Palace some 12 miles away, a who’s who of international dignitaries filed solemnly by the king’s flag-draped coffin: President Clinton, 52, along with former Presidents Ford, 85, Carter, 74, and Bush, 74; Britain’s Tony Blair, 45, and Prince Charles, 50; and Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, 68, unsteady since his Jan. 19 hospitalization for a bleeding ulcer. It was an assemblage rarely seen before and—given some participants’ precarious health and advanced age—possibly never to gather again. Most significant was the presence of the Middle Eastern leaders the moderate Hussein had spent years trying to coax toward lasting peace: Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, 69; Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, 50; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 70; and Syrian President Hafez Assad, 69, himself rumored to be battling a blood disease. “It was as if Hussein were hugging them all,” President Clinton said afterward. “Countries that are at each other’s throats, meeting in peace and friendship, under the sanctity of the umbrella of this great man.”

The day was a fitting finale to an exit so high in drama it might have been scripted by Shakespeare. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in July 1998, Hussein, who had survived kidney cancer in 1992, spent six months undergoing chemotherapy at the Mayo Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., before returning home on Jan. 19, apparently cured. But then he shocked his subjects—and the world—by accusing his brother and designated successor since 1965, Crown Prince Hassan, 51, of a power grab. Hussein bumped Hassan in favor of Prince Abdullah, 37, the king’s oldest son. Days later, tests suggested the cancer was back, and Hussein, with Noor, 47, at his side, flew back to Rochester for a bone-marrow transplant. On Feb. 4, after the treatment failed and he lapsed into unconsciousness, he was flown home, according to his wishes, to die.

Outsize drama had characterized this king’s life from the start. A descendant of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, Ibn Talal Hussein grew up in a modest-size house in Amman. His grandfather, Jordan’s King Abdullah I, disapproved of Hussein’s father, Crown Prince Talal, who was prone to bizarre outbursts (at lunch with an ambassador, he once yanked the tablecloth off the table, sending dishes flying). By adolescence, though, the quick-witted Hussein had become his grandfather’s favorite. In 1951, he was at Abdullah’s side at the al-Aksa Mosque when the king was slain by an assassin. (Hussein, 15, was hit as well, but the bullet ricocheted off a medal Abdullah had insisted he wear.) “It gave Hussein a feeling that he was touched by destiny,” says Jerrold Post, professor of the practice of political psychology and international affairs at George Washington University. “There must be some reason for his having escaped death.”

That reason soon seemed clear. Talal ruled for just 11 months before he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and forced to abdicate in favor of the oldest of his three children. Just 17, Hussein had his work cut out for him. Originally a British protectorate, Jordan was a slice of desert with few natural resources and hostile neighbors on all sides. Although he would later admit that “those early years were hard for me,” Hussein, who had been educated at Britain’s Harrow School and at Sandhurst, the U.K.’s West Point, before his coronation in 1953, showed leadership skills from the start. “He had a presence,” says Roland Dallas, author of 1998’s King Hussein: A Life on the Edge. “He was short but stood ramrod straight. He had a deep voice, and when he spoke people paid attention.”

He also had survival instincts. Over the years he would escape more than a dozen assassination attempts (including one plot to poison him with nose drops and another in which a spate of deaths among the palace cats tipped the hand of a would-be poisoner in the royal kitchen). And while he involved his nation in the region’s conflicts when he felt it necessary—joining Syria and Egypt in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war (losing East Jerusalem and the West Bank as a result), ousting the PLO from Jordan in 1970 and siding with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War—he made few lasting enemies. “His great strength,” says his friend Lord Chalfont, a former British foreign office minister, “lay in the fact that although he was a Muslim and an Arab he seemed able to reach out and make contact with everybody—with Iranians, with Israelis and with the West.”

His charm and humility also served him well at home. “He had a keen ability to connect with people,” says Nabil el-Sharif, editor of the Jordanian daily Ad-Dustour. “He would visit the bedouin tribes, sit down on the floor with them to eat, even dance folk dances.”

A lifelong lover of fast cars (he owned a Bristol and a Morgan) and risky sports (including skydiving), Hussein was known as a playboy in his youth and married four times. His first wife, his cousin Princess Dina Abdel Hamid, produced a daughter, Alia, now 43. The marriage ended in divorce in 1957 after 18 months. Four years later he wed Toni Gardiner, 20, a British army officer’s daughter, who was known as Princess Muna. She bore him four children (the new king, Abdullah; Faisal, 32; and twins Zein and Aisha, 30) before being supplanted by Alia Toukan, 24, daughter of a former Jordanian ambassador to London. Hussein wed her in 1972, three days after his divorce from Muna. The king and Queen Alia, by all accounts, were genuinely in love: When she died in a helicopter crash in 1977 (after bearing him two children, Haya, 24, and Ali, 21, and adopting one, Abir, 25), Hussein was distraught.

Later that year he began dating the American-born, Princeton-educated Lisa Najeeb Halaby, whose Arab-American father was once president of Pan Am; she was then working as director of planning and design projects for Royal Jordanian Airlines in Amman. “We courted on motorcycles,” the former Halaby, now Queen Noor, told Vanity Fair in 1991. “It was the only way we could get off by ourselves.” Married in 1978, the couple made their home in Amman’s cream-colored Al Nadwa Palace. Noor brought Hussein’s brood to an even dozen (their children are Hamzah, 18, Hashim, 17, Iman, 15 and Raiyah, 13). But only gradually did she win over Jordanians mistrustful of her Western ways. “If a woman [in an Arab country] is too exposed in public life, some people don’t like it,” says Ad-Dustour editor Sharif. But Noor, who heads a foundation that supports education, culture and family welfare and who took over Princess Diana’s crusade against land mines, “has proven herself through her benevolent activities,” says Dr. Daoud Hanania, a family friend.

Certainly her devotion to Hussein during his final illness was unwavering. “Once he discovered he had this cancer, she did not leave him,” says Mohammad Al-Adwan, a friend of the couple’s. The duo’s increased closeness may have contributed to the succession shakeup: In the open letter he wrote to his brother informing him he was no longer next in line, Hussein alluded to rumors about Noor (one had it that she was of Jewish descent), rumors he seemed to suspect Hassan’s wife, Sarvath, of spreading. Among the reasons for anointing his son, the king also cited his brother’s refusal to allow the succession to revert, after Hassan’s death, to Hussein’s line—presumably to Prince Hamzah, Hussein’s oldest son with Noor and reportedly his favorite. Hours after Hussein’s death, King Abdullah II’s first official act was to name Hamzah his crown prince.

How closely the new king will follow his father’s lead in other areas remains to be seen. Educated at Massachusetts’s Deerfield Academy (where he at first told fellow students that his father owned a telephone company), at Sandhurst and at Oxford University, he has headed the Jordanian Special Forces and “has the army on his side, which is a huge asset,” says Eugene Rogan, a historian of the modem Middle East at Oxford. Abdullah’s wife, Rania, 28, mother of his children Hussein, 4, and Iman, 2, is a Palestinian—an advantage in a country where Palestinians make up about 70 percent of the population.

Abdullah also shares his father’s common touch. A fervent fan of TV’s Star Trek: Voyager, he appeared as an extra in a 1996 episode. “He said he’d love to have us visit him in his country,” remembers Ethan Phillips, who plays Neelix in the series. “I was struck by the guy’s kindness.”

On the morning of Feb. 8, as Abdullah and his brothers lowered their father’s body, wrapped in white muslin and scented with musk, into the sacred ground behind Raghadan Palace, the watching world pondered whether this new king would be able to safeguard his country’s fragile peace in the years ahead. “Abdullah has not been subjected to any political pressures,” says Lord Chalfont. “His abilities will be heavily tested.”

Back at Baab al-Salam Palace, Queen Noor faces the future. “[She] was standing there, tall and gorgeous, radiating all that one radiates on a sad day like that—sadness, but a lot of dignity,” recalls Leah Rabin, widow of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. “I said to her that she looks magnificent, and that she has very cold hands. She said, ‘My hands are only cold because I was standing outside. Usually I am never cold, because my husband keeps me warm.’ ”

Kim Hubbard

Simon Perry and Ellen Tumposky in London, Herb Keinon and Abe Rabinovich in Amman, Carolyn Ruff and Glenn Garelik in Washington, D.C., and Paula Yoo in Los Angeles