From the ancient palace of Nebuchadnezzar to a lavish new palace for himself, Saddam Hussein used architecture to awe and intimidate.
When Saddam Hussein rose to power in Iraq, he conceived a grandiose scheme to rebuild the ancient City of Babylon. Saddam Hussein said that Babylon's great palaces and the legendary hanging gardens of Babylon (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) would rise from dust. Like the powerful King Nebuchadnezzar II who conquered Jerusalem 2,500 years ago, Saddam Hussein would rule over the world's greatest empire. The vaulting ambition of Saddam Hussein found expression in vaulting, and often pretentious, architecture.
Nebuchadnezzar's PalaceIn 1982, Saddam's workers began reconstructing Babylon's most imposing building, the 600-room palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II. Archaeologists were horrified. Many said that to rebuild on top of ancient artifacts does not preserve history, but disfigures it. The original bricks, which rise two or three feet from the ground, bear ancient inscriptions praising Nebuchadnezzar. Above these, Saddam Hussein's workers laid more than 60-million sand-colored bricks inscribed with the words, "In the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt civilization and rebuilt Babylon." The new bricks began to crack after only ten years.
Saddam's PalaceAdjacent to Nebuchadnezzar's ancient palace and overlooking the Euphrates River, Saddam Hussein built a new palace for himself. Shaped like a ziggurat (stepped pyramid), Saddam's Babylonian palace is a monstrous hill-top fortress surrounded by miniature palm trees and rose gardens. The four-storey palace extends across an area as large as five football fields. Villagers told news media that a thousand people were evacuated to make way for this emblem of Saddam Hussein's power.
The palace Saddam built was not merely large, it was also ostentatious. Containing several hundred thousand square feet of marble, it became a showy confection of angular towers, arched gates, vaulting ceilings, and majestic stairways. Critics charged that Saddam Hussein's lavish new palace expressed exuberant excess in land where many died in poverty.
On the ceilings and walls of Saddam's palace, 360-degree murals depicted scenes from ancient Babylon, Ur, and the Tower of Babel. In the cathedral-like entryway, an enormous chandelier hung from a wooden canopy carved to resemble a palm tree. In the bathrooms, the plumbing fixtures appeared to be gold-plated. Throughout Saddam Hussein's palace, pediments were engraved with the ruler's initials, "SdH."
The role of Saddam Hussein's Babylonian palace was more symbolic than functional. When American troops entered Babylon in April, 2003, they found little evidence that the palace had been occupied or used. Saddam's fall from power brought vandals and looters. The smoked glass windows were shattered, the furnishings removed, and architectural details - from faucets to light switches - had been stripped away.
During the war, Western troops pitched tents in the vast empty rooms at Saddam Hussein's Babylonian palace. For one soldier's view of Babylon, visit our Iraq Photo Gallery.