Architectural Treasures of the Middle East

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What a Soldier Saw

Ishtar Gate, Babylon, Iraq
Ishtar Gate, Babylon, Iraq. Photo by Vivienne Sharp/Heritage Images/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Over the years, extraordinary people have been eager to share their experiences with us. Beyond an exchange of words, the photographs of our readers have enhanced everyone's understanding of our common interest in architecture. The 21st century wars in the Middle East saw high-tech American soldiers bring us closer to the ancient architecture of Babylon and other places. Back in 2003, a U.S. Marine wrote to us.

Dateline: June 2, 2003
From: Daniel O'Connell, Gunnery Sergeant, USMC:

I was sitting at a computer in Iraq looking for Web sites on ancient Babylon and found your site with the rebuilt ancient gate of Ishtar, at Babylon. We had just received a tour from an Iraqi archaeologist who worked at the ruins. The Marine Public Affairs office coordinated our tour.

Most of the rebuilt ruins were from the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II, approximately 600+ through 586 B.C. Saddam's workforce rebuilt over the actual ruins. The archaeologists were against this, but were powerless from stopping Saddam.

Older ruins were from the time of King Hammurabi, approximately 1,750 B.C. King Hammurabi was the one who came up with many of the notions we have for a civilized mankind.

Marines live in the palace.

Begin the Photo Tour by Daniel O'Connell, Gunnery Sergeant, USMC >>

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Palaces of Iraq Dictator Saddam Hussein

Off duty U.S. soldiers in Saddam Hussein's swimming pool, the Republican Palace, July 14, 2003, Baghdad, Iraq
Off duty U.S. soldiers in Saddam Hussein's swimming pool, the Republican Palace, July 14, 2003, Baghdad, Iraq. Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

It's ironic to note the contrast between the cramped, filthy hiding hole where Saddam Hussein was captured and the lavish, and often garish, palaces he built.

The United Nations has listed eight presidential compounds containing grandiose mansions, luxurious guest villas, vast office complexes, warehouses, and garages. Enormous sums of money went into creating man-made lakes and waterfalls, elaborate gardens, marble rooms, and other luxuries. In total, Saddam Hussein's holdings included about a thousand buildings spread out over some 32 square kilometres (12 square miles).

Here's a roundup of news reports where you can learn more about Saddam Hussein's palaces:

About Al-Hillah Presidential Palace:

Saddam's rule ended in 2003. Coalition forces, mainly Americans and Polish, occupied the palace until late 2006. By 2009, control of this presidential palace was returned to Iraq and soon opened to the public for tours—some of the rooms were even marketed to honeymooners and other overnight guests.

It's been widely reported that the heavy use of helicopters near the structure has weakened the sun-baked earthen blocks. It's well-known that many of Saddam's buildings were looted and vandalized by the citizens of a country in crisis.

  • Sits atop a man-made hill overlooking the Euprhates River near Babylon
  • Thought to be built in the 1980s, after Hussein seizes power in 1979 and before the 1991 Gulf War
  • Saddam's initials were everywhere—the branding was often the focus of vandals after Saddam's regime ended

In a September 12, 2002 background paper on Iraq, the U.S. State Department famously listed the bad things attributed to Saddam Hussein, from tactics of torture and the development of weapons of mass destruction to violations of United Nations resolutions. At the very end of the long list is this:

" Saddam Hussein has used water pumps, piping, and other supplies that could have been used to repair urban sewer and water systems in order to construct moats and canals at his palaces."

That Saddam Hussein disregarded ancient archaeological sites—places steeped in the history of civilization itself—was not on the State Department's list.

Source: A Decade of Deception and Defiance, U.S. State Department [accessed July 31, 2015]

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Saddam's Babylonian Palace

Saddam Hussein's lavish palace in Babylon became an emblem of his power
Saddam Hussein's lavish palace in Babylon became an emblem of his power. Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

From the ancient palace of Nebuchadnezzar to a lavish new palace for himself, Saddam Hussein used architecture to awe and intimidate.

When Saddam Hussein rose to power in Iraq, he conceived a grandiose scheme to rebuild the ancient City of Babylon. Saddam Hussein said that Babylon's great palaces and the legendary hanging gardens of Babylon (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) would rise from dust. Like the powerful King Nebuchadnezzar II who conquered Jerusalem 2,500 years ago, Saddam Hussein would rule over the world's greatest empire. The vaulting ambition of Saddam Hussein found expression in vaulting, and often pretentious, architecture.

Nebuchadnezzar's Palace

In 1982, Saddam's workers began reconstructing Babylon's most imposing building, the 600-room palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II. Archaeologists were horrified. Many said that to rebuild on top of ancient artifacts does not preserve history, but disfigures it. The original bricks, which rise two or three feet from the ground, bear ancient inscriptions praising Nebuchadnezzar. Above these, Saddam Hussein's workers laid more than 60-million sand-colored bricks inscribed with the words, "In the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt civilization and rebuilt Babylon." The new bricks began to crack after only ten years.

Saddam's Palace

Adjacent to Nebuchadnezzar's ancient palace and overlooking the Euphrates River, Saddam Hussein built a new palace for himself. Shaped like a ziggurat (stepped pyramid), Saddam's Babylonian palace is a monstrous hill-top fortress surrounded by miniature palm trees and rose gardens. The four-story palace extends across an area as large as five football fields. Villagers told news media that a thousand people were evacuated to make way for this emblem of Saddam Hussein's power.

The palace Saddam built was not merely large, it was also ostentatious. Containing several hundred thousand square feet of marble, it became a showy confection of angular towers, arched gates, vaulting ceilings, and majestic stairways. Critics charged that Saddam Hussein's lavish new palace expressed exuberant excess in land where many died in poverty.

On the ceilings and walls of Saddam's palace, 360-degree murals depicted scenes from ancient Babylon, Ur, and the Tower of Babel. In the cathedral-like entryway, an enormous chandelier hung from a wooden canopy carved to resemble a palm tree. In the bathrooms, the plumbing fixtures appeared to be gold-plated. Throughout Saddam Hussein's palace, pediments were engraved with the ruler's initials, "SdH."

The role of Saddam Hussein's Babylonian palace was more symbolic than functional. When American troops entered Babylon in April, 2003, they found little evidence that the palace had been occupied or used. Saddam's fall from power brought vandals and looters. The smoked glass windows were shattered, the furnishings removed, and architectural details - from faucets to light switches - had been stripped away.

During the war, Western troops pitched tents in the vast empty rooms at Saddam Hussein's Babylonian palace. For one soldier's view of Babylon, visit our Iraq Photo Gallery.

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Treasures of Iraq

An Iraqi mudhif, a traditional Marsh Arab communal house made entirely of local reeds
An Iraqi mudhif, a traditional Marsh Arab communal house made entirely of local reeds. Photo by Hassan Janali, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, April 2004 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nestled between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates (Dijla and Furat in Arabic), modern Iraq lies on fertile land that includes ancient Mesopotamia. Long before the great civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, advanced cultures flourished in the Mesopotamian plain. Cobblestone streets, city building, and architecture itself have their beginnings in Mesopotamia. Indeed, some archaeologists believe that this region is the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden.

Because it lies at the cradle of civilization, the Mesopotamian plain contains archaeological and architectural treasures that date back to the beginning of human history. In the busy city of Baghdad, exquisite medieval buildings tell the stories of many different cultures and religious traditions.

In recent years, the architectural treasures of Iraq were jeopardized by war. Military facilities were often placed dangerously close to great structures and important artifacts, making them vulnerable to blasts. Also, many monuments suffered due to looting and neglect.

Shown here is a communal structure made entirely of local reeds by the Madan people of southern Iraq. Called the mudhif, these structures have been built since before Greek and Roman civilization. Many of the mudhif and indigenous marshes were destroyed by Sadam Hussein after the 1990 Gulf War and rebuilt with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Whether or not the wars in Iraq could be justified, there is no doubt that the country holds priceless architecture that must be preserved.

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Treasures of Syria

A Syrian policeman in 2011 Stands near Citadel hill, fortification of the Ancient City of Aleppo
A Syrian policeman in 2011 Stands near Citadel hill, fortification of the Ancient City of Aleppo. Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

From Aleppo in the north to Bosra in the south, Syria (or what we call the Syrian region today) holds certain keys to the history of architecture and construction as well as urban planning and design—beyond the Islamic architecture of mosques.

The old city of Aleppo on top of the hill shown here has historic roots dating back to the 10th century BC—before Greek and Roman civilizations flourished. For centuries, Aleppo was one of the stopover points along the Silk Roads of trade with China in the Far West. The present Citadel dates back to Medieval times, much like the mountainous hilltop community of Machu Picchu in Peru. "The encircling ditch and defensive wall above a massive, sloping, stone-faced glacis" makes the ancient city of Aleppo a fine example of what UNESCO calls "military architecture."

To the south, Bosra has been known to ancient Egyptians since the 14th century BC. And Palmyra, a desert oasis "standing at the crossroads of several civilizations," contains ruins of ancient Rome, important to architectural historians as the area exemplifies the fusion of "Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences."

Learn More:

Sources: Ancient City of Aleppo, Ancient City of Bosra, and Site of Palmyra, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, United Nations [accessed March 10, 2016]

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A Guide for Travelers to the Middle East Region

Skyscrapers tower over residences in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2015
Skyscrapers tower over residences in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2015. Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images Entertainment Collection/Getty Images

Located in the cradle of civilization, the Middle East is home to historic temples and mosques, exquisite mosaics, and innovative modern construction. Here are some architectural highlights of the region:

Visiting Jordan:

  • Petra, Jordan
    The strikingly beautiful desert city of Petra, Jordan was lost to the Western World from about the 14th century until the early 19th century.

Visiting Jerusalem, Israel:

  • Dome of the Rock Mosque
    Built in the seventh century, the Dome of the Rock Mosque is the oldest surviving example of Islamic architecture and today remains one of the most beautiful.

Visiting Dubai, United Arab Emirates:

  • Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Tower
    Dubai has been a showplace for innovative buildings, and the Burj Khalifa shatters world records for building height.
  • Emirates Towers
    Emirates Office Tower and its smaller sister, Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel, are also among the tallest buildings in the world.
  • Cayan Tower
    Opened in 2013, this twisted skyscraper in the Dubai Marina was also known as Infinity Tower.
  • Spectacular Hotels of Dubai

Vising Iran:

  • Kuwait National Assembly
    The Kuwait National Assembly by Jørn Utzon was damaged in 1991 when Iraqi troops set fire to the building. Since then, a 70 million dollar restoration was undertaken.

Visiting Iraq:

Extend Your Visit:

What the U.S. may call the "Middle East" is not by any means an official designation. The country of Turkey, once considered the "Near East" is now sometimes called Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Since the importance of Egypt in the area's politics, Northern Africa is often considered the Middle East as well.

Visiting Morocco:

Visiting Turkey:

Visiting Egypt:

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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Architectural Treasures of the Middle East." ThoughtCo, Mar. 13, 2016, Craven, Jackie. (2016, March 13). Architectural Treasures of the Middle East. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Architectural Treasures of the Middle East." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 19, 2017).