Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam Hussein’s Palaces

Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
The name “Babylon” brings up two associations – that of an ancient city in Iraq, and of a place of sin and decadence. It’s only fitting then that Saddam Hussein erected one of his palaces on a hill overlooking the ancient site of Babylon.

This is only one of 70 such palaces, many built during the UN sanctions while Saddam’s people were short on food and medicine. Many Iraqis complained the sanctions did nothing to hurt the dictator, and this Babylon-on-a-hill seems proof of that.

Saddam had palaces in every corner of the country, and this one and another I visited in Basra are both opulent, even though they’ve been stripped of everything even remotely valuable, even the wiring. They were once fitted with the finest rugs and gilded furniture. There are rumors that there were solid gold toilets.

These empty, echoing shells are the only thing left of a huge cult of personality. Saddam’s face used to be everywhere. Statues stood at every intersection, giant murals decorated every neighborhood. He was a constant presence in the media. Saddam used to joke that if an Iraqi family’s TV broke, all they had to do was tape a poster of him on the screen. Now there are only empty plinths and whitewashed walls, and the Iraqis watch satellite channels from Europe and Dubai.

You’ll have a hard time finding Iraqis who will say anything good about Saddam Hussein. Even those who hated the sanctions, bombings and eventual invasion are glad he’s gone. Of all the people I talked to in my 17 days here I only found two guys, workers in a roadside tea stand, had something positive to say about his rule.

“In Saddam’s time Iraq was strong. Now it’s weak,” they said.

True enough as far as it goes, but Saddam’s megalomania was what brought Iraq to ruin and the vast majority of Iraqis understand this. During his reign everyone pretended to love him, because to act otherwise was to court death. In their hearts, though, they hated him. It must have galled the Iraqis to see his image everywhere, and to think about the treasures that filled his palaces.

All those treasures are gone now, except for one sad reminder of a pot-bellied dictator and his limitless greed. In a dark side room on the second story of the Babylon palace, I came across the shattered bowl of a gold-painted toilet. Not solid gold, sadly, just gold paint. Must have been the guest bathroom. It was good enough for me. I’d been in the bus for a long time and there was no other bathroom available so …

%Gallery-171444%Yeah, baby!!!!! Gadling dumps on the dictatorship!

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Beer run in Basra!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Shameless bottom photo taken by a laughing Per Steffensen. He was laughing with me, not at me. Really.]

Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism

Ancient city of Mari in Syria under threat

Syria, MariLast month we reported that the Biblical city of Nineveh is falling apart due to the ongoing war in Iraq. Now it turns out another ancient Mesopotamian city is in danger of being lost.

Mari, in Syria, was one of the great cities of Mesopotamia. It was a trading center on the Euphrates River and was founded some 7,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered the giant palace of a Sumerian ruler, a temple to Ishtar, and a huge library with more than 25,000 clay tablets written in Akkadian cuneiform.

Now Popular Archaeology magazine reports that erosion and neglect are returning the city to the earth. The people of Mari built with fired mud brick, using clay that was cheap and plentiful along the banks of the Euphrates. Wind and rain have been picking away at the bricks for thousands of years, and it doesn’t help that more walls have been exposed by archaeologists. Dust to dust.

The Global Heritage Fund released a report on Syria’s endangered heritage sites that lists Mari as the one in most need of help.

I visited Mari in the 1990s and it was one of the biggest archaeological orgasms of my life. To walk through a Mesopotamian palace, to visit one of the ancient world’s biggest libraries, and to stand atop a ziggurat all in the same afternoon is something you can’t do anywhere else outside of Iraq. It’s one of many outstanding archaeological treasures in Syria that are in desperate need of protection and conservation. Crac de Chevaliers, one of the ten toughest castles in the world, is also in danger.

Sadly, with the Syrian government more interested in killing their own people, I don’t think protecting the world’s heritage is very high on their “to do” list.

[Photo courtesy peuplier via flickr]

Rwanda looks to its history to get over its past

RwandaSadly, when people think of Rwanda they tend to think only of the 1994 genocide, yet Rwanda has a rich history and heritage.

Now the government is developing its museums and historical sites to encourage cultural tourism. Sites like Nyanza Palace, shown here, will get special attention. Other attractions include dance troupes and even something called the Inyambo dance, performed by trained cows!

Rwanda has been inhabited for at least ten thousand years. Around the 15th century AD, several kingdoms cropped up with distinctive artistic styles. Several good Rwandan museums showcase this heritage.

Rwanda has become increasingly popular with adventure travelers and safari groups. It’s working to preserve its environment to help its rebounding population of mountain gorillas as well as other species.

This new move towards cultural and historical tourism appears to be emphasizing a common past in order to erase longstanding ethnic divisions. Hopefully this new project will get the international community to see more to Rwandan history than its tragic recent past.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

From myth to Empire: Heracles to Alexander the Great

Alexander the great
Today’s royals have nothing on the ancients.

Alexander the Great and his predecessors enjoyed a sumptuous lifestyle that beats anything William and Kate will ever enjoy, not to mention real power as opposed to lots of TV time. Now an amazing new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, gives an insight into the life of the royal family of Macedon.

Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world before his death in 323 BC, but he didn’t come out of nowhere. He was the second-to-last king of a proud royal lineage that traced its roots to the legendary Herakles. Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures of the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy looks at the development of one of the ancient world’s greatest royal families. Their palace was almost as big as Buckingham Palace and what remains shows it was much more luxurious. There was gold, silver, ivory, and jewels everywhere, and plenty has made it into this exhibition. There’s everything from ornate golden wreaths to tiny ivory figurines like this one, which graced a couch on which a king once quaffed wine and consorted with maidens. It’s good to be the king.

The displays focus on more than 500 treasures from the royal tombs at the ancient capital of Aegae (modern Vergina in northern Greece). Three rooms show the role of the king, the role of the queen, and the famous banquets that took place in the palace.

%Gallery-122395%Especially interesting is the gallery about the role of the royal women, who are often overlooked in all the accounts of manly battles and assassinations. Women had a big role to play in religious life and presided at holy festivals and rites alongside men. They also wore heaps of heavy jewelry that, while impressive, couldn’t have been very comfortable.

The banqueting room shows what it was like to party in ancient times. Apparently the master of the banquet diluted the wine with varying proportions of water to “control the time and degree of drunkenness”!

There are even items from the tomb of Alexander IV, Alexander the Great’s son with princess Roxana of Bactria. Alex Jr had some pretty big shoes to fill, what with dad conquering most of the known world and all, but he didn’t get a chance to prove himself because he was poisoned when he was only thirteen. At least he went out in style, with lots of silver and gold thrown into his tomb with him.

This is the first major exhibition in the temporary galleries of the recently redesigned Ashmolean. Expect plenty of interesting shows from this world-class museum in coming years.

Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures of the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy runs until August 29, 2011. Oxford makes an easy and enjoyable day trip from London.

[Image © The Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism – Archaeological Receipts Fund]

Top five sights of Ethiopia: traditional tribes, rock-hewn churches, and medieval castles

Ethiopia, ethiopia
As I mentioned on Monday, I’m moving to Harar, Ethiopia, for two months to explore the ancient and unique culture in that medieval walled city. Before settling in, I thought I’d share some of the most popular places to visit in the country. Many of them were covered in my travel series about Ethiopia during my visit last year. All but the Southern Tribes are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Southern Tribes
Perhaps the best known images of Ethiopia come from its sparsely populated southern region. Here there are tribes living much the way they always have, herding and hunting animals and living off the lush hills and open savannah. The most famous tribe is the Mursi, known for their giant lip plugs like you see here in this photo by user MauritsV courtesy Wikimedia Commons. There are many more tribes, and each day will introduce you to a very different culture and set of traditions. The drive is hard going but everyone says it’s worth it.

Lalibela
Lalibela is another famous spot in Ethiopia. Starting in the 12th century the people dug out a series of churches from the bedrock, making fantastic buildings that will keep your jaw dropped for your entire visit. Not only are the stone structures impressive in their construction (or should I say, excavation) but there are rich frescoes and carvings in the interiors. The priests will show you gold and silver crosses dating back hundreds of years. If you’re lucky, you can witness an religious ceremony in which white-robed worshipers chant verses from the Bible and Kebre Negast, a holy book of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

%Gallery-90277%Gondar
Often called Ethiopia’s Camelot, the medieval capital of Gondar offers some of the country’s best architecture. It’s also on some of the best land, a high valley that’s green and soothing, completely the opposite of the parched desert many people imagine Ethiopia to be. Several palace/castles stand here, looking vaguely familiar thanks to the influence of Portuguese mercenaries hired to help the Ethiopians fight off the Somali conqueror Gragn The Left-Handed. I’ll be searching for his capital later in this series. Nobody is exactly sure where that is, so it should be a bit of an adventure.

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Axum
In the dry uplands of the northern Tigray province stand the remains of Axum, one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world and Ethiopia’s oldest city. In the fourth century BC a civilization sprang up here that even the ancient Greeks admired. It reached across the entire region and colonized what is now Yemen. It traded as far as India and China and probably Europe too. It also converted Ethiopia to Christianity in the fourth century AD, making it the second oldest Christian nation after Armenia. While the civilization is long gone, you can still admire its huge palaces and lofty obelisks.

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Lake Tana
For several different but amazing experiences all in one day, head to Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest. A boat takes you out to where the Blue Nile flows into the lake and you can see hippos wallowing in the water as locals in traditional reed boats steer carefully around them. On several islands are monasteries where monks have lived and prayed for centuries. They’ll show you illuminated manuscripts colorfully illustrated with holy scenes. After a long overland trip, there’s nothing better than sitting on one of these islands, free of electricity and cars, and gazing out at the placid waters of the lake.

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For more on Ethiopia, check out this video below. I know nothing about the tour company that sponsored it and this isn’t an endorsement. They do make informative travel videos, though.

And don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Returning to Harar, Ethiopia’s medieval city!