With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Does Saddam Think He's a Modern-Day Saladin?

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 the 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. As Ofra Bengio has pointed out, in July 1987 a colloquium on Saladin was held at Tikrit with the title, "The Battle of Liberation - from Saladin to Saddam Hussein." That same year, Bengio notes, 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 focused on Saddam Hussein, whom it called "the noble and heroic Arab fighter Saladin II Saddam Hussein," consistently referring to him thereafter as "Saladin II." (1)

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." (2)

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. (3)

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 and a half million recruits have completed their training in the past two years. (4)

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.

1.Ofra Bengio, Saddam's Word: Political Discourse in Iraq (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 82-83.

2. Fuad Matar, Saddam Hussein: A Biographical and Ideological Account of His Leadership Style and Crisis Management (London: Highlight Publications, 1990 [originally published in 1979]) 235. See also Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography (New York: The Free Press, 1991) 122-123, 152-153.

3. Paul Lewis, "Ancient King's Instructions to Iraq: Fix My Palace," New York Times, 19 April 1989, A4.; John F. Burns, "New Babylon Is Stalled By a Modern Upheaval," New York Times, 11 October 1990, A13; David Keys, "Crisis in the Gulf: Saddam harks back to a glorious past," Independent (London), 11 August 1990, 9; David Lamb, "Saddam Hussein Held Hostage by His Obsession With the Arab Myth," Los Angeles Times, 12 October 1990, A14-15; Walter Laqueur, "Like Hitler, but Different," Washington Post, 31 August 1990, A27; Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie, Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf (New York: Random House, 1990) 57-58; Amatzia Baram, Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba'thist Iraq, 1968-1989 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991) 49-51; John Bulloch and Harvey Morris, Saddam's War: The Origins of the Kuwait Conflict and the International Response (London: Faber and Faber, 1991) 42-45; Charles H. Dyer and Angela E. Hunt, The Rise of Babylon: Sign of the End Times (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1991) 40-41; Simon Henderson, Instant Empire: Saddam Hussein's Ambition for Iraq (San Francisco: Mercury House, Incorporated, 1991) 3; Felice Maranz, "Alas, Babylon," Jerusalem Post, 7 March 1991, 38; Erwin R. Parson, "The Psychology of the Persian Gulf War - Part I. Gulf-Nam and Saddam Hussein's Nebuchadnezzar Imperial Complex: A Political Psychological Analysis," Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 21/1 (1991) 35-36; Geoff Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996) 86; Douglas Jehl, "Babylon Journal; Look Who's Stealing Nebuchadnezzar's Thunder," New York Times, 2 June 1997, A4; Paul William Roberts, The Demonic Comedy: Some Detours in the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997) 222-223.

4. Mariam Fam, "Iraqis take to streets calling for "liberating Palestine" under Saddam Hussein," Associated Press, August 15, 2001; Matt Rees, "Saddam's Move," Time, 27 August 2001, 31; Claudia Winkler, "The Iraq Report," Weekly Standard, 17 October 2001; Shira Gutgold, "Mideast Notes: Saddam Hussein forms a 'Jerusalem Liberation Army,'" Jerusalem Post, 13 February 2001, 9; Hilary MacKenzie, "'We are ready to die': On the 12th anniversary of the Persian Gulf War, 100 units of the Al-Quds army parade through the northern city of Mosul," Montreal Gazette, 6 February 2003, A18. See also additional Associated Press articles published in the Jerusalem Post on 11 and 12 March 2001.


This article originally ran in ByGeorge, the faculty/staff newspaper of The George Washington University and is reprinted with permission.