BAGHDAD, Iraq – The vast lawns, roadway, portico and grand entrance hall were eerily quiet and empty. No one appeared in the endless windows. No one was there to smell the rows of pale yellow roses.
When a president like Saddam Hussein has dozens of palaces at his command, any one of them, like Al-Sajoud, can stand idle for many days at a time — hidden, silent and beautiful.
The quiet was broken Tuesday, first by a dozen U.N. weapons inspectors who showed up at the gates and demanded immediate entry under U.N. resolutions.
After the inspectors left, the peace was disturbed even more by more than 100 journalists who were allowed a rare look at the grandiose lifestyle of a Middle Eastern autocrat.
What the journalists saw silenced even the most jaded among them.
Built in a modern Islamic style, the palace has soaring arched windows, an enormous sky-blue dome, and a facade of tan brick that stretches for hundreds of yards.
A flourish of Arabic calligraphy on the portico announces the name of the palace, Al-Sajoud, an Arabic word signifying the Islamic act of kneeling in prayer.
Further back, the intricately carved wooden doors are inset with another seal, in gold, that bears the initials "SH."
When the tall doors swung open, they revealed an entry hall that brought a gasp to the visitors. It is an octagonal space, three stories high and with walls of white marble, exquisitely worked in Islamic patterns. It is illuminated by a glittering gilt-and-crystal chandelier.
In the middle of the hall sat models of Al-Sajoud itself — charred and holed from U.S. bombing in the 1991 Gulf War, and then restored to its gleaming self.
Al-Sajoud is part of a sprawling presidential neighborhood that runs along a bend in the Tigris River in western Baghdad. It includes the Iraqi "White House" — the Republican Palace which is home to Saddam's executive offices. Across the road stands the massive headquarters of the ruling Baath Party, an edifice that dwarfs most government buildings in Washington.
After taking full command of oil-rich Iraq in 1979, Saddam went on a spree of palace-building across Iraq. He is known to travel among them, partly because he fears assassination. He often spends only a brief period in one palace before moving to another.
The opulence of the palaces contrasts starkly with the drab existence of ordinary Iraqis. The economy has plummeted because of the international economic sanctions that resulted from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
But the lavish decor and the enormous size of the palaces seems to fit the gargantuan ego of the president, who has his portrait displayed in hundreds of public places across Baghdad.
Before being ushered out of Al-Sajoud, the journalists caught a close look at the octagon's walls, each of which was inscribed in gold with a poem singing the praises of Saddam.
"You are the glory," read one.