Executed former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein projected his unbridled power like other demagogues through the size, bombast, and grandeur of his palaces meant to constantly remind people of his riches, omnipresence, and permanence
Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini called himself the new Augustus, the Roman Emperor who rebuilt much of ancient Rome. He used the ruins of Rome to bolster his personality cult and dug Augustus’s mausoleum to have a piazza built around it.
Ruins also fascinated German dictator Adolf Hitler. A painting of the Roman Forum, the rectangular plaza surrounding the ruins of ancient buildings at the center of Rome, hung on the wall of his office. Hitler also painted ruins. He hated modern architecture and loved that of ancient Rome, which conformed to his ideal form of history.
Executed former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein followed in Mussolini’s footsteps in appropriating ancient ruins to bolster his authoritarianism. A 12th-century palace in central Baghdad was among the older palaces he refurbished. It is the city’s lone surviving Abbasid-era palace near the heavily-guarded Iraqi defense ministry.
Saddam Hussein reconstructed part of Babylon, one of the world’s earliest cities, with bricks inscribed with his name to associate himself with the region’s past glories. He also projected his unbridled power like other demagogues through the size, bombast, and grandeur of his palaces.
The palaces were meant to constantly remind people of Saddam Hussein’s riches, omnipresence, and permanence. As part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS in February 2016, we drove past one of Saddam Hussein’s at least 99 palaces during our stay in Baghdad and got a sense of architecture reflecting his megalomania. Our local guide made it a point to tell us about the palace. It was a relic of the past they wanted to put behind themselves.
Over 100 km away, Saddam Hussein’s palace in Babil overlooked the ruins of Babylon, the Neo-Babylonian empire’s capital which was the largest metropolis globally, where King Hammurabi produced the first written law.
In 2018, journalist Paul Cooper wrote the visitors to the palace ‘were supposed to look out over the ruins of Babylon and make the connection that they were standing in the presence of a great ruler whose legacy would last for millennia.’
The palace, with angular facades and gaping windows overlooking olive trees and palms, was once Saddam Hussein’s most opulent. It was known for its finery, intricately carved mantles, and doorways, and a grand chandelier in its entrance hall in the region believed to be the site of the mythical Hanging Gardens.
Saddam Hussein used the ruins in Iraq of the richest archaeological heritages globally to build his personality cult. Archaeologists were among the first groups he met with when he seized power in 1968. Saddam Hussein is believed to have told them the antiquities were ‘the dearest relics the Iraqis have’ and show the world that Iraq ‘is the [offspring] of the previous civilisations that have greatly contributed to mankind.’
Saddam Hussein is believed to have told the archaeologists the antiquities were ‘the dearest relics the Iraqis have’ and show the world that Iraq ‘is the [offspring] of the previous civilisations that have greatly contributed to mankind.’
Iraqi antiquities department’s budget was increased by over 80 percent in the decade after Saddam Hussein captured power with a focus on the archaeological sites of Nineveh, Hatra, Nimrud, Ur, Aqar Quf, Samarra, and Ctesiphon.
To Saddam Hussein, Babylon, which flourished after Alexander the Great occupied it in the 4th Century BCE, was the most valuable of Iraq’s antiquities. It was perhaps the first city to have over 200,000 residents before wars left it in ruins.
Such was Saddam Hussein’s fascination with Babylon that he spent millions of dollars on the reconstruction of Babylon’s walls at the peak of his war on Iran. The walls were raised to a historically-improbable 11.5m height and Saddam Hussein drew flak globally for turning Babylon into ‘Disney for a despot.’
Saddam, who also built an outdated Roman-style theatre in the ruins, ordered the stamping of his name on the bricks used in the reconstruction when he came to know kings such as Nebuchadnezzar stamped their names on Babylon’s bricks.
The slogan, ‘Nebuchadnasar al-ams Saddam Hussein al-yawm (yesterday, Nebuchadnezzar, today Saddam Hussein)’ was used in 1981 when he chose Babylon to commemorate the first anniversary of his invasion of Iran.
A 1999 US State Department study estimated Saddam spent at least $2 billion building almost 50 of the palaces at a rate of around five annually after the first US war on Iraq in 1991 when he invaded Kuwait.
The seven palaces bombed during the war were also rebuilt. The invasion, war, and the sanctions that followed made Iraq a pariah state in the 1990s and added to the miseries of its ordinary people.
Yet the cost of Saddam’s palaces, estimated by the State Department, was more than what the World Food Programme spent in 2001—$1.74 billion—for 660,000 metric tons of food for 77 million people globally. It was the time when Baghdad, an isolated city during the decade thanks to Saddam and his regime, ‘withered and drew in on itself.’
What was once a rich and vibrant city, full of ambition, hope, discotheques, and grandiose construction projects, wrote writer Paul Roberts, ‘was now an ugly, battered Third World slum, with not a single redeeming thing of beauty to be found anywhere throughout all its many miserable square miles.’
Described as ‘gold-plated living memorials’ to his reign, Saddam’s enormous, secure, exquisite, and opulent residential complexes were built across Iraq keeping his security requirements in mind.
Saddam built a palace in his hometown of Tikrit over an area 50 times bigger than the White House. The palaces were double-walled to make them explosive proof with each having big-screen TVs, digital sound systems, gold faucets, silk rugs, and marble.
Saddam’s palace in Mosul was unique even by his standards with 50-foot waterfalls inside. The linens used in the places were gold weaved while furniture and doors were carved of teakwood. Saddam is known to have never slept at one palace for over two nights; he moved constantly fearing American assassination attempts.
The palace we passed by was among Saddam’s five palaces in Baghdad. They included Jabul Makhul, much of which was built underground, and resort-like al Faw that Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, used.
Al Faw was designed more as a retreat for those Saddam sought to reward for loyalty and hard work. Saddam hardly stayed at the opulent and ornate palace spread over around 50,00,00 square feet with 62 rooms and 29 bathrooms.
The Americans turned the palace into a military base after bombing it in 2003. A Ferris wheel, a pendulum, a merry-go-round, and a resort village of over 100 condominiums surrounded Saddam’s Green Palace at Lake Tharthar north of Baghdad.
The Radwaniyah Palace was under construction near the Baghdad airport when the Americans toppled Saddam. None of the homes of Western leaders—the White House (American), 10 Downing Street (British), the Elysee Palace (French)—compared in ostentation to Saddam’s Sijood palace, which was not even his grandest. From the outside, noted The Washington Post:
…its high, thick walls and long landscaped approaches are reminiscent of Albert Speer’s designs for Nazi Berlin. From the inside, the elaborate decoration recalls the interior of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Palace of the Republic, which stands at the end of what used to be known as the Avenue of the Victory of Socialism in Bucharest. Although the motifs of the Iraqi palace are Islamic rather than European, the gargantuan chandeliers, the elaborate ceiling detail, the gold-plated fixtures, and the white marble floors are remarkably similar.
Two of Saddam’s palaces resembled a Spanish hacienda and an air traffic control tower.
In 2016, Iraq appeared to be beginning to overcome the damage done since the 1980s. The country sought to change how it was being perceived by trying to refocus on its enviable heritage. There was perhaps no better way to do so than converting one of Saddam’s palaces—the lakeside mock-Rococo structure—in the southern port city of Basra into a museum.
The palace, where Saddam’s name and the soubriquet ‘Prince of Arabs’ were carved in calligraphy above its main door, was converted into Basra Museum on September 27, 2016, seven months after our trip. The museum showcasing antiquities attesting to Iraq’s rich history was the first to open in the country in decades.
Its director Qahtan al-Obaid chose the palace for the museum to ‘replace the themes of dictatorship and tyranny with civilization and humanity.’ The museum displayed storied artifacts such as silver coins, pottery, coffins, and tiles dating back over 2,000 years. It was expected to exhibit 3,500 to 4,000 objects when fully completed. Obaid began working on the project after the British forces, who used the palace as a mess hall after the 2003 invasion to overthrow Saddam, left in 2008.