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How ancient ruins are perfect propaganda in the Middle East

The symphony orchestra of the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater performs at the Roman amphitheater of Palmyra, the Syrian city liberated from the Islamic State terrorists, on Thursday, May 5, 2016. (Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Sputnik via AP)

In an ancient amphitheater, a Russian orchestra clad in black played before a hushed crowd on Thursday. But this was hardly a romantic setting.

This was in Syria, a country hollowed out by a hideous civil war. The audience comprised government soldiers and civilians. And the venue was Palmyra, a Roman-era UNESCO world heritage site that for almost a whole year was under the control of the extremist militants of the Islamic State.

In late March, a Russian-backed offensive launched by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his various proxies finally retook the city famed for its millennia-old temples and colonnades. The jihadists occupying the site consider most vestiges of pre-Islamic antiquity to be anathema to their puritanical creed and had garishly conducted mass executions amid the ruins and detonated parts of the archaeological complex.

In the weeks since the militants were chased out, officials in both Moscow and Damascus have trumpeted Palmyra's rescue as a sign of the righteousness of their cause in the face of fundamentalist violence. The Islamic State, much to the world's horror, has gone about razing myriad temples, shrines, statues and other relics in areas that they control in Syria and Iraq.

"The liberation of the historic city of Palmyra today is an important achievement and another indication of the success of the strategy pursued by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism," Assad is reported to have told a French delegation in March.

My colleague Andrew Roth was part of a group of Moscow-based journalists flown to Syria by Russian authorities and he reported from the desert city on Thursday. The event even involved a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin, echoing Assad's rhetoric.

"Speaking by video link from Moscow," Roth wrote, "Putin told the crowd that the world should now unite behind Syria to restore the site as a sign of hope in the battle against terrorism." Putin also said he hoped "for the revival of Palmyra as a cultural heritage for all humanity."

The symbolism is clear. Both the Syrian regime and its Kremlin backers are linking this supposed redemption of humanity's heritage to their military campaigns in Syria.

They are, of course, less loud about other aspects of the war, including the relentless bombardment of civilian areas by regime forces that has led to countless deaths. In the shadow of Palmyra's ruins, moreover, sat a notorious prison where under Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, hundreds of prisoners were tortured and massacred. The jihadists blew it up in their own act of propaganda.

Nevertheless, Assad and his Russian allies are hardly alone in this agitprop. A region littered with the monuments of long-gone civilizations also happens to be home to generations of autocratic leaders eager to draw political capital from the glories of the distant past.

This was particularly the case for governments that sought to build up a sense of nationalism that had little to do with Islam. The late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, for example, styled himself as the heir to Mesopotamian kings. He had no qualms erecting gaudy palaces atop the ruins of ancient cities and anchored his legitimacy in empires of old.

At birthday celebrations in the city of Tikrit in 1990, he supposedly identified himself with Sargon the Great, the Akkadian king who reigned in these same lands some 5,000 years prior. He also maintained a long-running fascination with the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar II, who in the 6th century BC carried out the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

"Nebuchadnezzar stirs in me everything relating to pre-Islamic ancient history," Hussein was quoted as saying in 1979. "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."

Of course, this neo-Babylonian potentate was not an Arab in any meaningful sense of the word, but Hussein was not to be deterred. At the archaeological site of Babylon, his regime erected another palace in the ancient monarch's honor.

"This was built by Saddam, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq," read inscriptions on the edifice.

The trend has more recent echoes. After long-ruling autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in 2011, Tunisia eventually replaced his regime's currency. His five dinar banknote depicted the great Carthaginian warlord Hannibal alongside iconography celebrating the advent of Ben Ali's rule.

Before its defeat by NATO-backed rebels in 2011, the government of the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi had desperately sought to showcase the country's many well-preserved Greco-Roman ruins along its Mediterranean coast. In 2007, Saif al-Gaddafi, the dictator's son, stood among 2,000-year-old Greek columns in the port city of Cyrene -- near modern-day Benghazi -- and unveiled a multibillion-dollar plan to preserve and promote the country's architectural legacy. At the time, the event was one of the more overt internationalist gestures by a regime coming out of isolation.

And in Egypt, current President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a military man who ousted a democratically elected Islamist government in 2013, has been hailed by his supporters as a new pharaoh rescuing the country from the grip of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Perhaps the single most eye-catching display of Middle Eastern historical propaganda took place not in an Arab country, but a Persian one. Over a five-day period in October 1971, the shah of Iran celebrated 2,500 years of Persian monarchy amid the ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis, the seat of a great empire laid low only by the conquering armies of Alexander the Great.

The party at Persepolis was billed as the most lavish of all time, costing somewhere between 300 million and 2 billion Swiss francs.

Almost 23 miles of silk were used to set up a vast tent city to host a roll call of global leaders and celebrities. Car-sized blocks of ice were flown in by helicopter onto a custom-built airfield. As many as 50,000 songbirds were imported from Europe to create a gentle atmosphere; most died within a few days. A separate bunker was dug into the earth to house the expensive jewelry of female guests while they changed outfits for their various gala banquets, parades and theatrical showcases.

The decadent, alcohol-filled festivities -- which ignored Iran's centuries of Islamic history and of course glossed over the brutal authoritarianism of the shah's regime -- infuriated a certain Iranian cleric in exile in Iraq.

"Islam came in order to destroy these palaces of tyranny,'' Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said at the time. ''It is the kings of Iran that have constantly ordered massacres of their own people and had pyramids built with their skulls." Eight years later, a revolution he helped guide would end the shah's party once and for all.

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