Paul Vallely: A Babylon in every repressed country

The world is full of the grandiose projects of dictators who are obsessed with showing their power through architecture
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Somewhere in my cellar, in the collected treasures of my travels, is a shard of patterned clay pottery. "Where did you find that?" a diplomat at the British embassy in Baghdad, whose hobby was antiquities, asked me, adding: "It's Seleucid, about 150BC." I had picked it up several hours' drive to the south from a pile of debris pushed aside by a bulldozer. I had gone there to see the work begun by Iraq's then leader, Saddam Hussein, who had conceived a grandiose plan to rebuild the ancient city of Babylon.

Some 4,000 years earlier, the city had been the capital of Hammurabi, emperor of Babylonia, and the man responsible for the world's first legal code. Then, 1,500 years later, it held the throne of Nebuchadnezzar II, one of the most ruthless conquerors in history who built what was the most powerful nation in the world. Now the megalomaniacal Saddam had declared himself to be the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar and would soon rule over the world's next great empire.

Archaeologists were horrified. Saddam was reconstructing Nebuchadnezzar's 600-room palace by building on the original bricks, which rose two or three feet from the ground, and squashing flat anything that got in the way. He was not preserving history but burying it. Some of the original bricks bore the embossed inscription "I am Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the world". The modern dictator was matching these with 60 million light-brown bricks inscribed: "In the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt civilisation and rebuilt Babylon."

Throughout history, tyrants have used architecture to awe and intimidate. Saddam was no different, even if his taste leant more towards Las Vegas or Disney. The pharaoh Akhenaten, the first ruler to abolish the ancient world's pantheon of many gods and replace them with a single god, felt he had to build a whole new capital on a virgin site to push through the change. Julius Caesar, to maintain his popularity in Rome during his long absences fighting wars, ordered major building projects and had big ideas such as draining the Pontine marshes.

The great 20th-century dictators employed the same psychology. Stalin, who was probably the biggest murderer in human history, with 40 million corpses to his debit, named a whole city after himself. Mao Zedong, who killed as many, but not all of them on purpose, came up with the biggest engineering project in human history, the massive Three Gorges Dam, which made a million people homeless.

But it was Hitler who most understood the nexus between architecture and power. His Olympic Stadium for the 1936 Games was intended to signal to the world the potency of the Nazi government. He began another at Nuremberg, to hold 400,000 people. But his greatest folie de grandeur was a vision to rebuild Berlin as Welthauptstadt Germania – the capital of the world – after the Second World War was won. It included a vast room, twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, and a great hall so huge that the Eiffel Tower would have fitted inside its giant dome. The intention, Hitler said with his customary immodesty, was to outdo Rome.

There is something grotesquely comic as well as chilling about such notions, as we saw more recently in the republic of Turkmenistan where the former president Saparmurat Niyazov proposed building an ice palace so children could learn to ski in a country where temperatures top 50C. Niyazov took dictatorial eccentricity to new heights. He had the days of the week and months of the year renamed after his family. He replaced the word for bread with the name of his late mother. He banned ballet, gold teeth and recorded music, and built a gold statue of himself which revolved so that it was always facing the sun. Meanwhile, he shut all the hospitals and libraries outside the capital.

Muammar Gaddafi, whose regime is now in its death throes in Libya, shares many characteristics with the despots of the past, according to two American psychiatric experts, D Jablow Hershman and Julian Lieb. In A Brotherhood of Tyrants, the pair note that authoritarians typically come from severely disturbed backgrounds. Napoleon was violently antisocial and egotistical as a child. Hitler and Stalin both came from disturbed alcoholic households. All three displayed signs of manic depression. So, apparently, did Saddam Hussein, Ferdinand Marcos, Nicolae Ceausescu – and Gaddafi, born in 1942 in the desert near Sirte to an illiterate Bedouin family.

Common to all, Hershman and Lieb say, are wild swings between manic elation – which brings excitability, heightened thought, reduced need for sleep and grandiloquent self-importance – and the despair, indifference and isolation of depression. Even when they have achieved power, they are beset by delusions and paranoia, conceiving grand projects only to abandon them suddenly.

What gives them their early charisma is their ability to identify with the concerns of common people. Hitler's anti-Semitism was widely shared by his fellows in the 1930s and he never once, in 12 years in power, raised taxes for working people. Mussolini understood the bonding power of football, which is why fascists took control of football in Italy. General Franco used Real Madrid and their "all whites" strip as a vehicle to rally support for his vision of a strong fascist Spain.

But what all these men also share is a narcissism so extreme that they eventually lose touch with reality. Caligula demanded worship. Cromwell convinced himself he had God on his side. Napoleon was defeated by his own depressive inaction. Hitler eventually refused the advice of his generals, moving his troops into suicidal positions. Stalin purged his best and brightest officers. All suppressed or killed political opponents. All loved the flattery of sycophants.

What made Gaddafi different was only that he was not interested in buildings. How could he be? The great historic sites in Libya, such as Leptis Magna and Sabratha, are Roman or Phoenician. Gaddafi, like another ruthless romantic, the Ugandan mass murderer Idi Amin, created his own mythology – "a pseudo-poet, pseudo-philosopher and pseudo-soldier", as the Iranian writer Amir Taheri put it. "Without having seen a single battle, he has collected more medals than generals in an operetta."

Instead, he has supported under-dog revolutionaries everywhere and insisted on pitching his opulent Bedouin tent in foreign capitals on official visits. He hired a head-turning entourage of heavily armed female bodyguards. And he has used Libya's $1.6bn annual income not only to build roads, hospitals, schools and houses for ordinary Libyans but also for wild gestures such as a $20bn river through the Libyan desert.

It has not been enough. His schemes, like those of Ozymandias in Shelley's sonnet, may bluster "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair", but of them nothing will remain in the lone and level sands. Ten years after Saddam Hussein's cheaply manufactured bricks were laid in Babylon they have already began to crack and crumble. Colonel Gaddafi's legacy could be even more short-lived.