March 4, 2003
Saddam Hussein and History 101
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 Iraqs 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 Solomons 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 childrens 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 Saladins 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.
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 Husseins
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 Nebuchadnezzars 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, Nebuchadnezzars 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 Iraqs 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 Husseins
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
Husseins 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
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