NEW YORK – With its gold-plated faucets and bidets, marble-covered walls and man-made waterfalls, some of Saddam Hussein’s palaces have proven just as lavish as many imagined.
But experts in Islamic and Middle Eastern architecture say the structures are not much more than displays of tawdry ostentation — and bear little resemblance to the classic, majestic palaces of the past.
"They all seem like Marriott gone crazy, with gold fixtures, imitation Louis XIV furniture and lots of marble everywhere," said Andras Riedlmayer, a bibliographer in Islamic art at Harvard’s Fine Arts Library. "It’s the same general standard of taste as Las Vegas casinos."
And almost as expensive. A 1999 State Department study reported Saddam’s regime had spent $2.2 billion building about 48 palaces since the 1991 Gulf War. Some estimates put the total number of palaces between 70 and 80.
"They’re a symbol. They’re the king’s presence," said John Malcolm Russell, an art historian and archeologist at Massachusetts College of Art. "The more of them there are, the more conspicuous they are."
Only one of the palaces Saddam occupied — the former royal Azzohour Palace in central Baghdad — is a true historic piece of architecture. It belonged to the kings of Iraq who began ruling in 1921 and were overthrown in 1958, according to Riedlmayer.
"I think it’s pretty fair to call the new ones tacky," he said. "They’re very expensively tacky, but tacky all the same. Come on — gold fixtures?"
Russell, a specialist in ancient Iraqi palaces, said Saddam’s structures don’t resemble the beautiful, grand palaces of the Assyrian Empire that lasted from 900 to 700 B.C. Those, he said, had interiors lined with wall-relief sculptures and stone paneling.
"The (Saddam regime) palace architecture strikes me as being very modern," said Russell. "The thing they have in common with ancient palaces is their scale and their presence around the country."
Ellen Shapiro, a professor of architectural history at Massachusetts College of Art, said that with their octagonal atria, Islamic motifs and expanses of white marble, the palaces do reflect some styles of the region. "The architecture itself looks like very traditional, typically Iraqi, Muslim architecture," she said.
With a few extra features, of course.
The palaces boast ornate crystal chandeliers, indoor swimming and dolphin pools, gourmet kitchens, overstuffed throne-like chairs, bunkers and mosques. Some have torture chambers. One complex even has an amusement park.
Some are so tacky they might look more at home in, well, the United States.
"It sounds like Sylvester Stallone’s house in Florida, or like the typical Beverly Hills house," said Shapiro.
And though the dictator’s palaces undoubtedly cost a fortune, they probably weren’t nearly as pricey to construct there as they would be in the U.S.
"You can get a lot of bang for the buck in Iraq building impressive architecture," said Russell. "You could make a very beautiful palace that would cost a huge bundle in the United States but less in Iraq. It’s not the same ticket price — nowhere close."
Though outrageously, egotistically showy when compared to how little the struggling people of Iraq had, Saddam’s palaces aren’t necessarily more pompous and grandiose than other rulers’ homes have been throughout the course of history.
"Palace architecture anywhere is by definition ostentatious," said Riedlmayer. "The function of these buildings is to serve as the visual representation of power. It’s to make a statement."