ByGeorge! Online

March 4, 2003

Saddam Hussein and History 101

By Eric H. Cline

As George Santayana cogently observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Valid comparisons can certainly be made between ancient and modern societies — including Rome and the United States. It is also true that those who remember the past can deliberately attempt to repeat it, or at least to use recollections of the past to pursue modern objectives. This appears to be the case with Saddam Hussein, who has studied the history of ancient and medieval Iraq and apparently wishes to see it repeated.

Saddam has, on numerous occasions, called himself the “successor” to two of the most famous figures from Iraq’s history: the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II of the sixth century BCE, and the Moslem warrior Saladin of the 12th century. Nebuchadnezzar occupies a prominent place in the Hebrew Bible as the victorious conqueror of Jerusalem. In 586 BCE, he laid the city waste, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and exiled the Jews to Babylon. Saladin is familiar as a mighty warrior of the armies of Islam. After the Christian forces of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem in year 1099, he rallied the Islamic armies and recaptured the city less than 90 years later.

For the past few decades, Saddam has used these two figures in his propaganda. He has styled himself the successor to Saladin. Conveniently forgetting that Saladin was a Kurd, Saddam makes much of the fact that he and Saladin were born in the same little village of Tikrit. In July 1987, a colloquium on Saladin was held at Tikrit under the title, “The Battle of Liberation — from Saladin to Saddam Hussein.” That same year, a Baghdad publisher produced a children’s book entitled “The Hero Saladin.” The cover showed a picture of Saddam Hussein, with sword-wielding horsemen in the background. After a brief account of Saladin’s life, emphasizing his reconquest of Jerusalem, the rest of the booklet was devoted to Saddam Hussein, whom it called “the noble and heroic Arab fighter Saladin II Saddam Hussein,” consistently referring to him thereafter as “Saladin II.”

Saddam also portrays himself as the successor to Nebuchadnezzar. In 1979, he was quoted by his semi-official biographer as saying: “Nebuchadnezzar stirs in me everything relating to pre-Islamic ancient history. And what is most important to me about Nebuchadnezzar is the link between the Arabs’ abilities and the liberation of Palestine. Nebuchadnezzar was, after all, an Arab from Iraq, albeit ancient Iraq. … That is why whenever I remember Nebuchadnezzar I like to remind the Arabs, Iraqis in particular, of their historical responsibilities. It is a burden that should… spur them into action because of their history.”

Although Nebuchadnezzar was neither Arab nor Moslem, Saddam Hussein’s “Nebuchadnezzar Imperial Complex,” as one psychologist called it, has been remarkably consistent. In the late 1980s he promoted the Iraqi Arts Festival called “From Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein.” He also had a replica of Nebuchadnezzar’s war chariot built and had himself photographed standing in it. He ordered images of himself and Nebuchadnezzar beamed, side by side, into the night sky over Baghdad as part of a laser light show. He has spent millions rebuilding the ancient site of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar’s capital city, provoking fears among Christian fundamentalists who see this as one of the signs of the end times and the imminent approach of Armageddon.

There are other great military figures from Iraqi history that Saddam might have elected to emulate. Why not Sargon of Akkad, Hammurabi of Babylon, or Sennacherib and Assurbanipal of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, for example? Saddam has in fact compared himself to many other historical figures, but his preferred heroes remain Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin. Why? A single common denominator links these two historical figures and distinguishes them from the other great figures of Iraq’s past. Of all the Iraqi empire-builders — ancient, medieval, or modern — only Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin ever captured Jerusalem.

In February 2001, one day after Ariel Sharon was first elected prime minister of Israel, Saddam Hussein announced the formation of a “Jerusalem Army,” consisting of seven million Iraqis who “volunteered to liberate Palestine” from Israeli rule. In August 2001, the Associated Press reported that thousands of Iraqis had taken to the streets, waving guns and calling for the “liberation of Palestine” under Hussein’s leadership. Their banners read “Here we come Saddam ... here we come Jerusalem.” And in February 2003, members of the “Jerusalem Army” marched again in Mosul; official Iraqi sources claim that two million recruits have completed their training in the past two years.

Although analysts frequently dismiss such actions as mere propaganda in a “fantasy drama staged by Saddam,” we who remember the past should recall that Nebuchadnezzar successfully laid waste to Jerusalem 2,500 years ago and Saladin captured it 800 years ago. Even if Saddam Hussein’s “Jerusalem Army” is more wishful thinking than serious threat, his stated intention to destroy Jerusalem — most probably with a Scud missile tipped with a chemical or biological weapon — cannot be ignored. Will he attempt to make history repeat itself? We shall probably know the answer soon enough.

Eric H. Cline is assistant professor of ancient history and archaeology in the Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literatures, with courtesy appointments in history, anthropology, and Judaic studies. His latest book “Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel,” is scheduled to be published by the University of Michigan Press.


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