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A Babylon in every repressed country

2011 September 4
by Paul Vallely

Somewhere in my cellar, in the collected treasures of my travels, is a shard of patterned clay pottery. “Where did you find that?” a diplomat at the British embassy in Baghdad, whose hobby was antiquities, asked me, adding: “It’s Seleucid, about 150 years BC.” I had picked it up several hours drive to the south from a pile of debris pushed aside by a bulldozer. I had gone there to see the work begun by Iraq’s then leader, Saddam Hussein, who had conceived a grandiose plan to rebuild the ancient city of Babylon.

Some 4,000 years earlier the city had been the capital of Hammurabi, emperor of Babylonia, and the man responsible for the world’s first legal code. Then, 1,500 years later, it held the throne Nebuchadnezzar II, one of the most ruthless conquerors in history who built what was the most powerful nation in the world. Now the megalomaniacal Saddam had declared himself to be the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar (and probably of Hammurabi too) and would soon rule over the world’s next great empire.

Archaeologists were horrified. Saddam was reconstructing Nebuchadnezzar’s 600-room palace by building on the original bricks, which rose two or three feet from the ground, and squashing flat anything that got in the way. He was not preserving history but burying it. Some of the original bricks bore the embossed inscription “I am Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the world”. The modern dictator was matching these with 60-million light brown bricks inscribed: “In the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt civilization and rebuilt Babylon.”

Throughout history tyrants have used architecture to awe and intimidate. Saddam was no different, even if his taste leant more towards Las Vegas or Disney. The Pharoah

Akhenaten, the first ruler to abolish the ancient world’s pantheon of many gods to them with a single God, felt he had to build a whole new capital on a virgin site to push through the change.  Julius Caesar, to maintain his popularity in Rome during his long absences fighting wars, ordered major building projects and had big ideas like draining the Pontine marshes.

The great 20th century dictators employed the same psychology. Stalin, who was probably the biggest murderer in human history, with 40 million corpses to his debit, named a whole city after himself. Mao Tse Tung, who killed as many, but not all of them on purpose, came up with the biggest engineering project in human history, the massive Three Gorges Dam, which made a million people homeless.

But it was Hitler who most understood the nexus between architecture and power. His impressive Olympic Stadium for the 1936 Games was intended to signal to the world the potency of the Nazi government. He began another at Nuremberg, to hold 400,000 people, which would still be the biggest in the world, had war not broken out.  But his greatest folie de grandeur was a vision to rebuild Berlin as Welthauptstadt Germania – the capital of the world – after World War II was won. It included a vast room, twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, and a Great Hall so huge that the Eiffel Tower would have fitted inside its giant dome. The intention, Hitler said with his customary immodesty, was to outdo Rome.

There is something grotesquely comic as well as chilling about such notions, as we saw more recently in the former gas-rich republic of Turkmenistan where the President Saparmurat Niyazov proposed building an ice palace so children could learn to ski in a country where temperatures top 50ºC. Niyazov took dictatorial eccentricity to new heights. He had the days of the week and months of the year renamed after his family. He replaced the word for bread with the name of his late mother. He banned ballet, gold teeth and recorded music and built a gold statue of himself which revolved so that it was always facing the sun. Meanwhile he shut all the hospitals and libraries outside the capital. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, whose regime is now in its death throes in Libya, shares many characteristics with the despots of the past, according to two American psychiatric experts, D Jablow Hershman and Julian Lieb. In Brotherhood of Tyrants the pair note that authoritarians typically come from severely disturbed backgrounds. Napoleon was violently anti-social and egotistical as a child. Hitler and Stalin both came from disturbed alcoholic households. All three displayed signs of manic depression. So apparently did Saddam Hussein, Ferdinand Marcos, Nikolai Ceaucescu – and Muammar Gaddafi, born in 1942 in the desert near Sirte to an illiterate Bedouin family.

Common to all, Hershman and Lieb say, are wild swings between manic elation – which brings excitability, heightened thought, irrepressible talking, reduced need for sleep and grandiloquent self-importance – and the sadness, despair, indifference  and isolation of depression. Even when they have achieved power they are beset by delusions and paranoia, conceiving grand projects only to suddenly abandon them.

What gives them their early charisma is their ability to identify with the concerns of common people. Hitler’s anti-semitism was widely shared by his fellows in the 1930s and he never once, in 12 years in power, raised taxes for working people. Mussolini understood the bonding power of football, which is why fascists took control of the world of football in Italy in the mid-1920s. And General Franco used Real Madrid and their “all whites” strip as a vehicle to rally support for his vision of a strong fascist Spain.

But what all men also share is a narcissism so extreme that they eventually lose touch with everyday reality. Caligula demanded worship.  Cromwell convinced himself he had God on his side. Napoleon was defeated by his own depressive inaction. Hitler eventually refused the advice of his generals moving his troops into suicidal positions. Stalin purged his best and brightest officers.  Bokassa claimed he was the Thirteenth Apostle. All ruthless suppressed or killed political opponents. All loved the flattery of sycophants and quislings.

What made Gaddafi  different was only that he was not interested in buildings. How could he be? The great historic sites in Libya, like Leptis Magna and Sabratha, are Roman or Phoenician. Gaddafi, like another ruthless romantic, the Ugandan mass-murderer Idi Amin, created his own mythology –  “a pseudo-poet, pseudo-philosopher and pseudo-soldier,” as the Iranian writer Amir Taheri put it. “Without having seen a single battle he has collected more medals than generals in an operetta”.

Instead he has supported under-dog revolutionaries everywhere and insisted on pitching his opulent Bedouin tent in foreign capitals on official visits. He hired his head-turning entourage of heavily armed female bodyguards. And he has used Libya’s $1.6bn annual income not only to build roads, hospitals, schools and houses for ordinary Libyans but also for wild gestures like his $20-billion Great Man-Made River through the Libyan desert.

It has not been enough. His schemes, like those of Ozymandias in Shelley’s sonnet, may bluster “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair”, but of them nothing will remain in the lone and level sands. Ten years after Saddam Hussein’s cheaply manufactured bricks were laid in Babylon they have already began to crack and crumble. Colonel Gaddafi’s legacy could be even more short-lived.

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