Saddam’s Babylon Palace Now Open To Public

saddam_5401.jpgby Quil Lawrence
Karim Kadim
For less than a dollar, ordinary Iraqis can visit Saddam Hussein’s gutted palace near the ancient site of Babylon. AP
Bullit Marquez
A Polish soldier checks his armored personnel carrier just outside the palace in 2003. AP

Weekend Edition Sunday, May 10, 2009 · While the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, are gone, a much more recent ruin has become an attraction in Iraq. A palace that Saddam Hussein built near the ancient site of Babylon has been opened to the public

The palace overlooking the Tigris River has never had so many visitors. Saddam had a garish mansion in nearly every city, and he may have only visited this one once or twice and probably never even spent the night. But in 2003, some unwanted guests arrived.

saddam2_5401.jpgAmerican troops billeted here — you can tell by the graffiti, such as “got ‘er done!” Polish troops arrived next, leaving graffiti that says, well, something in Polish. And then came the guests Saddam might have liked the least.

Paying less than a dollar to enter, ordinary Iraqis are visiting the gutted palace. For about $180, they can even honeymoon in one of Saddam’s guesthouses down on the riverbank.

Only the ceiling murals and frescos of Saddam over the doorways remain. The glass from the windows went along with everything else that looters could cart away. Still, each room is big enough for a platoon.

Iman, an elementary school principal on a field trip with her female students, says it makes her sad — all the years of grief, injustice and poverty, and he built a palace? She wonders how much it cost to build. And all this, she says, when there are mass graves nearby in Hilla.

“This is my first visit to the palace, and I hope that it will be the last,” she says. “This is not for me.”

But others have found something to enjoy here. Sa’adoun al Isawi, taking a stroll by the fountain and gardens with his fiancee, Noor Abdullah, says he never expected Saddam to go.

“I always imagined that my grandchildren would be ruled by Saddam’s grandchild,” he says. “This is so weird that I can walk into Saddam’s palace.”

It’s hard to escape Saddam’s image — he even rebuilt the adjacent ruins of Babylon with modern bricks, many of them stamped with his own seal. Archeologists say the renovations just about ruined the site, and the coalition troops didn’t treat it much better.

Abdullah says this is the only place to go in Hilla, that there’s no place for tourists — or for couples looking for a little quality alone time. Many other young people seem to have the same idea — they flee into the hidden corners of the palace as a reporter approaches.