Lunch at the Presidential Palace
The throne hall, with its ceiling fresco depicting Babylonian scenes | Photo: Rob Kehoe

Lunch at the Presidential Palace

I hear someone calling me: ‘Hurry, come and look at this ceiling and the throne area — and then go outside and check out the pool!’ I’m aware that we need to leave soon, but I pause momentarily and look up at a brightly coloured square of azure, gold, and sepia overhead. As I gaze at the fresco’s scenes of Babylon such as the vivid blue Ishtar Gate, I marvel to myself… am I actually touring this former presidential palace?

Noting some of the others from my group still taking pictures, I realise that yes, indeed — I do have time to look at the empty swimming pool and inspect the deserted alcove-like spot where a dictator would have sat on his throne waiting for visitors. After all, when will I see this again?

A fellow visitor shows me how to place my phone on the ground in the perfect position to take a shot of the fresco. The resulting image captures one of the many unforgettable moments on a tour of Iraq organised by our guide, world traveller Doug.

It began after my group walked around the ancient city of Babylon. I had goosebumps during my exploration while repeatedly saying ‘unbelievable’ and ‘incredible,’ trying to find better adjectives to describe my indescribable experience while looking at the sculpted volcanic stone Lion of Babylon. I didn’t know if my day could get more memorable, but it did.

After our morning spent visiting the distant past, my group met Abu Zainab, who works for the ancient site administration in Babylon. This naturally funny and highly energised man wearing a red-and-black plaid top, blue jacket and jeans greeted us by asking the women in my group to take off our sunglasses so he could determine who would be the queen and her assistants for the day.

The four of us laughed because our guides had told us that Zainab does this with every group. But it is almost as if he’s been rehearsing this short skit, and is acting it out for the first time while trying to be semi-serious about fulfilling the responsibility of choosing the royal court.

Lunch at Saddam Hussein’s Palace
In one of the empty, graffitied palace rooms, intact floors are relics of a regime long gone | Photo: Erin Coyle

After entering the palace, I looked up and down, unsure what to expect from the former home of a repressive leader with a complex legacy. Some outside entrances above the door are carved with palm trees and flowers, while others have stone portraits of the despot who built this grandiose palace, or are adorned by animals like the eagle and horse.

Not wanting to lose the group, I peeked into a few old rooms, noticing the remains of graffiti-covered walls and faded tiled floors, with the only light coming from the windows.

A few minutes later, Zainab gave me a key to unlock a warped, graffitied wooden door. This would lead us up two flights of stairs to the top, where we would have a home-cooked lunch.

While waiting for lunch, Zainab showed us around the palace, ensuring we took in various areas like former bathrooms or bedchambers. One bathroom had two marble columns standing, across from the remnants of what appeared to be a hot tub. White marble walls with faded red-and-grey geometric borders would probably have been quite colourful in their prime.

Lunch at Saddam Hussein’s Palace
The remains of a bathroom provide a glimpse into the palace’s appointments | Photo: Erin Coyle

I’ve visited other palaces, but maybe because nothing was left inside these rooms — or because it had been built by an infamous figure and was linked to a difficult time in this country’s history — it felt surreal to wander this place.

But back in the present, Zainab’s bubbly personality was contagious. I kept chuckling because his conversations would intertwine his respect for his teachers, followed by his interest in showing tourists around the building, and then swiftly on to a different topic. He was always upbeat, ensuring that the group was making the most of the experience.

Another bonus was our homecooked lunch made by the wife of our driver, Habib — everyone calls her Um Hussein. She had happily prepared the food for our group of 12 and brought her three kids and father to join us in partaking.

We sat on wicker mats on the ground for a feed of kebabs, chicken, rice, noodles, salad and flatbreads. The barbequed, smoky flavours hit the spot. Um told us how she enjoys cooking for groups, and it’s clear that her kids like meeting visitors from out of town. She insisted everyone have seconds and was not shy about placing at least two more spoonfuls of rice and chicken on our plates — and it’s impossible to turn down extra food when the host insists.

Enjoying our informal banquet area on the palace’s top floor. | Photo: Doug Barnard Travel

It was a perfectly normal feast until I remembered I was on the top floor of a former palace, looking at graffiti-daubed walls and a domed ceiling decorated with various motifs. I was grateful for this special and unique lunch.

Afterwards, Zainab took a few of us down the stairs, quickly ushering us to see the fresco on the first floor, the throne hall, and the outside stone pool with its horseshoe shape. While walking out of one room, I glanced towards the end of the hallway. Only a little spotlight from the window shone down, giving the scene a dramatic feeling of emptiness and ruin.

I do not think Zainab wanted us to leave, because he started sharing more details about Babylon before our last group picture outside. We smiled, and even though he knew we had already visited the ancient city only that morning, maybe he wanted to ensure our guide had told us everything we needed to hear. He is a passionate man with a flair for storytelling.

I will remember this day. Only a few people can say that they have had lunch at a tyrant’s palace. Abu Zainab added to it with his good humour and talk about anything and everything. I also appreciated Um’s hospitality and generosity in preparing lunch. In sifting through the remnants of a place that hadn’t always enjoyed the warm human connections we experienced that afternoon, most of all I was grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Erin Coyle

Traveller

Erin Coyle is a freelance writer and ESL teacher based in Oman. Her work has been published in the Oman Observer, Go World Travel, Wander with Wonder, Confetti Travel Cafe, Rovology, Foodie Flashpacker, among others. She also lived in China for five years, teaching ESL. Erin's travels have taken her to Southeast Asia, Oceania, Europe, the Middle East, East and South Africa. She is always planning her next trip.

Time to Read:  5 Minutes
Traveller: Erin Coyle
7 June 2024
Category:
Travellers' Tales - In this Moment

Let Resonate Transport You!

Travel the world with the Resonate newsletter.

Highlights include:

  • Interesting stories from people in all corners of the globe
  • Vibrant photos sure to spark wanderlust
  • Ideas on where to go now — and how to do it responsibly
Thoqsi Khar — The Mosque on the Mountaintop

Taking a journey to a remote holy place seven centuries old, an adventure that immerses visitors in Baltistan's beauty, history, and culture.

When Mercury Plunges to Sub-Zero, Harissa Keeps Kashmir Warm

Not just a food, the comforting local delicacy of harissa is an integral part of Kashmiri life and culture, taking the edge off the bitter winter cold.

Let Resonate Transport You!

Travel the world with the Resonate newsletter.

Highlights include:

  • Interesting stories from people in all corners of the globe
  • Vibrant photos sure to spark wanderlust
  • Ideas on where to go now — and how to do it responsibly

Let Resonate Transport You!

Travel the world with the Resonate newsletter.

Highlights include:

  • Interesting stories from people in all corners of the globe
  • Vibrant photos sure to spark wanderlust
  • Ideas on where to go now — and how to do it responsibly