A week with Saddam Hussein

Iraq, once the centre of the world, now cowers under the wrath of the West. Jeremy Atiyah discarded the propaganda and set out to discover the secrets of an ancient land

Stepping into the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad I noticed that I was wiping my feet on George Bush's face. I also saw a plaque on the wall, proclaiming that the hotel had been built "in the era of Saddam Hussein".

"Era"? I thought eras meant things like Abbasids, Romans, Babylonians, Sumerians. But that was obviously unfair on Saddam. After all, the man who dared to shake his fist at the Americans was born in 1937, in the town of Tikrit amid the date palms of Mesopotamia. So what? Only that Saladdin, the triumphant conqueror of the European crusaders, had been born precisely 800 years earlier in the same small town.

What tempting straws in the wind these are for 20th century Iraqis to cling on to. Today's crusaders awaiting their Saladdin must be the people of Israel. For King Guy of Jerusalem read Benjamin Netanyahu; for Richard Coeur de Lion read Bill Clinton. Could it not be that Saddam, descendent of Saladdin, was destined to put the West in its place?

I was taking a week's tour of Iraq. The fact that it was one of those weeks in which Coeur de Lion's Tomahawks were lining up to flatten the place was an unplanned but relevant factor. Iraq had been a mighty power for the first 3,000 years of world history and Nebuchadnezzar's palaces would acquire new poignancy with B52s rumbling overhead. Dangerous? I hoped not.

"A thousand welcomes!" a jumpy man had shouted, as our car drew up in the middle of a thousand miles of desert. This was where Jordan finished and Iraq began. The man was Tarik, our appointed guide.

Several bureaucratic hours later, we were on a vast highway to Baghdad; by 10pm we were assaulting the memory of George Bush in the Al Rasheed Hotel (To spend my first Arabian night in the city of the Abbasid caliph Haroun Al-Rasheed would have been awesome enough even if this hadn't been the hotel where John Simpson reported the Gulf war).

What a pity then, to judge by the shabby state of his capital, that Saddam was no Abbasid caliph. Inching through the downtown traffic next morning I saw tired men in colonnaded walkways selling plastic shoes and gas cylinders. Occasional turquoise domes popped up behind stained apartment blocks. It didn't take long to see that the city which had once been the most opulent in the world was in the gutter. Come to think of it, Baghdad has hardly been out of the gutter since that horrific week in 1258 when the Mongols laid waste to the city, turning the Tigris not just red with blood, but blue with ink.

"You know what? The Mongols were like the UN," said our guide Tarik gloomily, stepping into the empty shell of the Al Mustansariyah school beside the not-so-bustling copper souq. "They came here to burn our books and ban our science. You see nothing has changed."

Tarik was first a sympathetic human being, and second a government spokesman. And honestly the Abbasids did take a beating. When we later drove north to their second capital Samarra, the backdrop to the famous spiral minarets comprised undulating clay: the mud walls of streets and houses abandoned centuries ago.

We passed a magpie on a donkey's back. Goats bleated beside the Euphrates. Why lament the passing of a mere dynasty? Our countdown on the history of human civilisation would start 125 miles to the south - with a town called Babylon.

Now there was a name to toy with. Until a few years ago the site comprised a pile of dun-coloured bricks. That was before Saddam brought his mighty attention to bear. In the 1980s, the rubble was rebuilt into cavernous halls, turreted wall-tops and massive brick walls.

The next day, pacing the palace of Nebuchadnezzar under sunshine, I noticed bricks inscribed in Arabic, stating that "Saddam Hussein was responsible for restoring the walls of ancient Babylon".

Such subtlety. In the 6th century BC Nebuchadnezzar had controlled an empire as far as Palestine. He had enslaved the Jews. As for his hanging gardens, these were one of the seven wonders of the world until their destruction by invaders from Iran. The gardens were thought to have been built on terraces held aloft by supporting walls; walls which are now sinking into black dust. How could these drab alleyways have generated so giant a legend? I came across a Pakistani gentleman scrabbling in the dirt. "No," he solemnly announced. "Drainage conditions were unsuitable. I believe the gardens were under that hill there."

But that particular hill turned out to be Saddam Hill, on the top of which, glowering over the whole site of ancient Babylon, was a vast Stalinistic edifice of white stone surrounded by palm trees. "That? Oh, it is a kind of hotel for VIPs," explained Tarik. "And you are not allowed to take photographs." Before anyone could point a lens, Tarik deftly jumped on to the subject of the Ishtar Gate. "This was Babylon's famous ornamental archway, covered in blue ceramics," he said. "Long ago it was dismantled, shipped to Berlin and reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum. You see, the Iraqi people have suffered a great deal. It explains a lot."

I got the point. Before leaving the ruins, I scrabbled up a hillside scented with gum tree. Suddenly the soil died beneath my feet, and a cloud of mosquitoes swarmed before my eyes. A sinister, hollow dip opened up below. "The Tower of Babel," whispered Tarik. Saddam's historians had evidently not advised reconstruction.

The next day we drove on to the birthplace of the world's oldest civilisation. The horizon degenerated to a relentlessly open, primeval soup of water, silt, sand and steely sky. On one side of the road were a collection of camels and bedouin tents; on the other, there were marshes and jungles of reeds. From this fertile cocktail you could easily envisage creatures of slime emerging. In fact, it was the first place in the world where farmers learned to support city-sized populations.

My first glimpse of ancient Sumer was the ziggurat (tomb monument) of Ur, whose 4,000-year-old brick walls and staircases suddenly rocketed from the sands in the middle of a military area. A soldier accompanied us up the ziggurat, asking us kindly not to take photographs of the nearby airbase. A plane droned loudly into earshot.

"American surveillance plane," grinned the soldier. Tarik looked scared. "When Japanese tourists come here," he said hurriedly, "they bring meat and water to offer in prayer to the gods of Sumer. People can be really strange."

Both Ur and Uruk were originally built beside rivers; today the shifting courses of the Tigris and Euphrates have left them high and dry. Not that Uruk was dry the day we arrived. An overnight downpour meant that we could only approach the site on foot. We set out wading through mud. Eventually an ancient bedu with a dagger in his belt jumped out to assist us. We picked about clammy ditches, stopping off to uncover sections of palatial mosaic wall, slivers of stone stuck with gypsum or natural bitumen. The only raised feature on this treeless landscape was the local ziggurat, built of mud and straw; we clambered up for a view of Sumer. This chilly pile of mud, slowly disintegrating into the plain from which it had been raised 5,000 years ago, was the creation of Saddam's oldest predecessor. Dimly reverberating from the very dawn of history, there comes to us the name of Gilgamesh - Sumerian king and ziggurat-builder.

For Gilgamesh, neither a Semite nor an Arab, is literally the first person whose name must appear in the history of the world. He is thought to have lived around 2,700 BC. Was he the first man in history? An Iraqi? Another PR coup for Saddam. Leaping after Tarik, I scrambled round the ziggurat, dislodging small, muddy avalanches of history as I went.

How fitting. The Sumerians lived in constant fear of floods and their vision of death was "a house where they sit in darkness, where dust is their food and clay their meat". Gilgamesh was said to have been born fatally infected with the desires of a god, but the destiny of a man. A cold wind blew in from the marshes. Yes, in his melancholy way, Gilgamesh, too, was a true father of Saddam.

Iraq Fact File

Warning

Bear in mind that tourism in Iraq could theoretically be construed a breach of UN sanctions, though "cultural" material is not on the UN list of banned goods.

Organisers

The author travelled on a group tour arranged by a company called Live Ltd, run by traveller extraordinaire Philip Haines. A six-day all-inclusive tour (excluding flights) cost about pounds 650. Live Ltd hope to run another tour, possibly including Iran as well, early next year. Call 0181 408 3810 for more details. Everyone entering Iraq must undergo an Aids test at the border for US$50 (pounds 30).

Bear in mind that any tour of Iraq will start outside the country. Nearest airports are Amman, Damascus and Kermanshah in Iran. Royal Jordanian (0171 878 6400) flies to Amman for around pounds 350.

A Belgian who has taken several groups of tourists to Iraq this year is Chantal Van de Cruys (tel: 00 32 14 55 54 12). She can assist with religious pilgrimages to Iraq's holy cities, as well as tours of archaeological and historic sites.

Visas

Visas are authorised from Baghdad once you have booked your tour. Theoretically you could obtain this authorisation by yourself through any official Iraqi tour operator; in practice you are better-off letting someone else do the legwork.

Reading

Guide books are thin on the ground, though Lonely Planet's 'Middle East on a Shoestring' contains a small chapter on Iraq.

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