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The silhouette of the palace is drawn on the horizon, all angled facades and large windows, almost so bright that you can not look under the hot Iraqi sun.
You have to drive little by the spiral road that climbs to the top by a slope covered with sediment. The olive trees and palm trees grow wild in what one day were luxurious gardens.
This was once the most opulent palace of Saddam Hussein.
Inside, you can see the vestiges of its refinement, the exquisite ornamentation of tapestries and doors, the large chandelier that still hangs in the foyer of the entrance.
But now the walls are dotted with graffiti and children in the area play football in the vicinity. There are glass beads scattered across the floor. Palace who fu e ra one day the almighty l Ider Iraq is now an empty ruin.
If you walk to the balcony from the bedroom that occupied, the plains extend before the visitor and are other ruins that fill the view: the mass of crumbling walls and ancient architecture that indicates the place from which 2,500 years ago the city of Babylon dominated the world.
The striking picture is not the result of chance. The intention is that those who travel this palace, when looking towards the ruins of Babylon, imagine being in the presence of a great ruler whose legacy will survive for millennia.
Saddam is not the first de facto leader to use ancient ruins for this purpose. On the contrary, the nexus between authoritarian rulers and the idealization of material remains of the past has a long history.
This is because the ruins are never just what they seem: an agglomeration of walls falling apart on the sand. They are, in equal measure, the repositories of memory and myth. They helped to build the fascist narratives of past greatness, lost because of modern decadence, and to reclaim the reconstruction of the tyrannies of the past in the present.
Such appropriation of the ruins also puts them at risk, and, faced with recent blows such as the destruction of the ancient places of Palmyra by the self-styled Islamic State, it is worth remembering that the efforts of Saddam, and before him Mussolini and Hitler, By “preserving” the sites, they often stripped them of their context , including those aspects of their legacy that did not fit with the message the State wanted to convey to them.
Bulldozer in Babylon
Iraq currently has one of the richest archaeological heritage. The valley of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, the backbone of the country, houses the ruins of some of the first cities in the world: Uruk, Ur, Babylon and Nineveh among them.
Their remains were long excavated and robbed by the colonial powers, and their objects moved to foreign museums whose showcases now adorn. In the 19th century, the Assyrian carvings of Nineveh were taken to the British Museum in London, and at the Ishtar gate in Babylon the tiles were torn out and later rebuilt in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.
But after taking over the presidency, Saddam decided to use them for another purpose: to build a cult of Iraqi supremacy with him in the lead . For the success of this plan, archeology would have a greater importance. So much so, that the Iraqi archaeologists were one of the first collectives with whom he met after coming to power in 1968.
“Antiques … are the most precious relics that Iraqis have,” he said at that meeting. “They show the world that our country … is the fruit of previous civilizations that made enormous contributions to the human race.”
In the decade following the rise to power of Saddam and his Baath party, the budget of Iraq’s Department of Antiquities increased by more than 80%. The deposits of Nineveh, Hatra, Nimrud, Ur, ‘Aqar Quf, Samarra and Ctesiphon underwent ambitious restorations.
But for the president, the jewel in the crown was always Babylon .
It was one of the largest cities in the world between the eighteenth and sixth centuries BC, the largest in two different historical moments, and probably the first to exceed 200,000 inhabitants. Alexander the Great occupied it in IV BC and flourished briefly before falling into disrepair in the wars that followed Alexander’s empire. After the Muslim conquest of Arabia, travelers who arrived there described nothing but ruins.
Saddam the ruins of the city of Babylon always fascinated him especially. He ordered an expensive reconstruction of its walls, in which millions of dollars were invested in the height of the war with Iran. And raised them to a height of 11 meters and a half, more than they probably had in their day, gaining criticism from the international archaeological community, which accused him of being building the ” Disneyland of a despot” in the place.
As a final touch, he built a Roman-style theater in the place. When archaeologists told him that kings like Nebuchadnezzar had engraved their names on the bricks of Babylon, he insisted on doing the same with his in the employees for the reconstruction. His efforts were later described by Paul Brener, head of the provisional government that succeeded the 2003 US invasion, as “a parody, a substitute … monstrosities.”
For the staging of a totalitarian system the ancient ruins are an indispensable backdrop.
In 1981, Babylon was the place where the celebrations to commemorate the first anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Iran took place under the slogan “Nebuchadnasar al-ams Saddam Hussein al-yawm” (“Yesterday Nebuchadnezzar, today Saddam Hussein” ).
Saddam once built a model of himself on plywood in front of the Ishtar Gate in Baghdad and at the festival that was organized in 1988 an actor who played the character of Nebuchadnezzar handed a banner to the Minister of Culture declaring Saddam Hussein the grandson of the legendary king of antiquity and “standard bearer of the twin rivers”.
The museum jewelry of Mussolini
In fact, Saddam did nothing more than imitate what Mussolini had already done. In Italy, at the beginning of the 20th century, the self-proclaimed “duce” saw the Roman ruins as an especially powerful instrument. Although previous governments had already claimed to be the heirs of ancient Rome, the fascists of Benito Mussolini took the idealization to a new level.
Mussolini was often described in propaganda as “the new Augustus“ , evoking the emperor who rebuilt much of the city during his reign.
“Rome is our point of departure and reference,” Mussolini told the crowd focused on celebrating the birthday of the eternal city in 1922, shortly after taking power. “It is our symbol or, if you want, our myth, we dream a Roman Italy, that is wise and strong, disciplined and imperial, much of what was the immortal spirit of Rome reappears in fascism.”
But the fascists encountered a problem: in the time since antiquity, Rome had grown and its ruins had been absorbed by the fabric of an ever changing city.
People lived among the crumbling capitals and pillars, built their houses against them and took stones for their own buildings.
Entire districts had grown on the remains of imperial Rome, burying the legacy on which fascists depended .
To solve this problem, Mussolini ordered large excavations that took away entire houses and neighborhoods, forcing the population that lived there to relocate.
Augusto’s mausoleum was excavated, a fascist plaza was built around it, the buildings around which Marcelo’s theater was clustered were demolished and the floor of the Colosseum was unearthed, exposing the underlying hypogeum, which was stripped of the leafy vegetal cover that had accumulated.
In May 1938, just 16 months after the outbreak of World War II, Hitler visited the Italian capital. During his visit, Mussolini showed him a transformed city, with its archaeological remains exposed.
Hitler went through it at night, and Mussolini’s technicians illuminated the ruins with red lights to make them stand out from the rest of the buildings. The tour crossed all the outstanding places and concluded at the foot of an illuminated Coliseum.
The “führer” was as impressed as Mussolini expected . Hitler had always been fascinated by the ruins. A painting depicting the Roman forum by the 18th-century French artist Hubert Robert already hung on the wall of his office in the Reichstag and he himself had drawn many in his career as a painter.
Hitler had expressed his hatred for modern architecture and his love for classical canons. In 1925 he expressed his concern that “if Berlin were to suffer the same fate as Rome, future generations will only be able to admire the department stores of Jews and the hotels of some corporations, such as the impressive works of our time, the characteristic expression of the culture of our days”.
“All that remains is architecture”
For Hitler, the ruins of the past pointed to an idealized version of history, one that he would like to emulate in his Third Reich.
“Hitler liked to say that the purpose of his building was to transmit his time and his spirit for posterity,” recalled in his memoirs the great architect of Nazism, Albert Speer.
“In the end all that was left to remind men of the great epochs of history was their monumental architecture,” Speer stressed.
“What was left of the Roman emperors? What would still give faith today if not their constructions? (…) Thus, today the buildings of the Roman Empire could serve Mussolini to refer to the heroic spirit of Rome when he wanted to inspire his people with the idea of a modern empire. “
To calm their uneasiness, Hitler and Speer conceived their theory of “Ruinenwert” or “value of the ruins” . The idea was to create architecture that would leave, even in conditions of decadence, an inspiring example for the new generations.
This philosophy is visible in large architectural projects of Speer as the bleachers for the field of the Zeppelin Nuremberg, which was based on the ancient altar of Pergamum, still exposed in the homonymous museum as the Babylonian gate of Ishtar.
After all, the buildings the Nazis built would never leave monumental ruins behind. Like Saddam’s palace in Babylon, when Speer’s works were destroyed only a few years later, they were reduced to rubble. It was just what he had feared.