Tempting Tourists by Rivers of Babylon

Couples honeymoon in “Saddam suite” of pillaged riverside palace.

Tempting Tourists by Rivers of Babylon

Couples honeymoon in “Saddam suite” of pillaged riverside palace.

Wednesday, 16 September, 2009
For years, the dictator’s ransacked palace reminded its former chef of an unfair loss, and a labourer who helped build it of an unfulfilled dream.

“I always wondered how the room I was building would be furnished,” said Yusuf, who worked on the construction of Saddam Hussein’s fortified, luxury compound on the outskirts of Hilla in the early 1990s. Barred from the building since then, he satisfied his curiosity after local authorities threw open the palace gates in January.

For Abu Haider, the palace chef whose okra dish once earned a compliment from Saddam, the looted building stood as an affront to his profession. A portly man with a discoloured eye, he still curses the chaos that accompanied the United States-led invasion in 2003, sweeping a tide of looters into his kitchen.

“They were like an army of ants. I can’t forget the sight of one vehicle, loaded up with my pots and pans,” said the chef. “I was so angry I ran after the looters with a stick. I managed to hit one of them. The other one escaped. After that, I stayed in bed for a week.”

The chef did not return to his old job. He now works within a stone’s throw of his old kitchen, at a tourist centre by the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon.

The thieves he chased away eventually stripped the palace bare. Soldiers from the US-led coalition then made it their base. Their graffiti remains on some of the walls. When they vacated it in 2005, Hilla’s provincial council took over, with a view to turning it into a tourist resort.

According to Ahmed Abd al-Amir, the resort’s executive director, some 3 billion Iraqi dinars (roughly 2.5 million US dollars) have been spent on renovating the complex, out of funds allocated for reconstruction work.

Fifty rooms have so far been refurbished, he said. Among them is a suite overlooking the Euphrates river, said to have been used by Saddam Hussein and now offered for overnight rental to newlyweds.

Among the first to take advantage of this offer were Yusuf and the woman he recently married. “During the construction period, I would try and imagine where Saddam would sit in the suite – but I never imagined I would end up married in the same room,” he said.

Visitors put off by the price tag of 200,000 Iraqi dinars for a night in the dictator’s suite may be tempted by other attractions.

The palace walls and ceilings are covered in nationalistic slogans and murals depicting scenes from Iraqi history – particularly the eight-year war with Iran. The floors are paved with marble and dotted with mighty columns, giving the structure an air of majesty.

The palace sits on a low hill, surrounded by greenery. At the bottom of the hill is a grove of palm trees, one of which is fenced off. Saddam is said to have eaten some of its dates. The former leader was keen to promote the lofty palm as a symbol of Iraq and the motif of the tree is repeated throughout the palace in paintings and engravings.

Much must yet be done before the site can hope to lure more tourists. On a recent visit, a power cut had left the building lightless and gloomy. Elevators and windows in the three-story structure were broken and its walls looked in need of a clean.

The worst damage appears to have been done in the brief period of looting that followed Saddam’s overthrow. According to resort director Amir, “everything was taken away – even marble walls and stairways”.

Work on the palace started in 1986, took a pause for the Gulf War of 1991 and was completed in 1994, at a time of sanctions and dire shortages in the Iraqi economy.

The construction provided employment to thousands of young men from Hilla but its cost and scale also aroused resentment. An hour’s drive south of Baghdad, the town of Hilla is dominated by Shia Arabs, who suffered heavily under Saddam.

The pillage after Saddam’s fall was nonetheless condemned by senior Shia clerics. Sheikh Raad, a deputy in Hilla of the Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, quoted an edict as saying theft from the palace was a crime against the state. “Looting Saddam’s palace denies us the chance to expose his tyranny to the whole world,” he said.

Umm Maryam, a housewife from Hilla in her early thirties, says Saddam’s palace should be preserved as a symbol of the dictatorship. “Any visitor will be able to see the contrast between the lavish conditions in which the former regime thrived and the dire circumstances of the poor. This palace will bear witness for future generations,” she said.

Dr Iyad Salami, a professor of fine arts, hopes the palace will be turned into a cultural centre. He describes it as an architectural “masterpiece”.

Ali Iyad, a student from Babel university, says he hopes the complex will provide a place for young people to learn more about their history – and enjoy each other’s company.

Abbas Ibrahem, a shop-owner, says he wants to see it turned into a leisure complex that “makes millions of dollars every year”.

Ahmed Janjoon is an IWPR-trained reporter in Hilla.
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