Mene. Mene. Tekil. Parsin. Words with the cadence of cruise missiles. So went the writing on the wall for Belshazzar, king of Babylon, two and a half millennia ago. The message was received in the king’s palace where revellers were holding a great banquet, drinking from the stolen vessels of Jerusalem’s temple. Belshazzar didn’t understand the message so called in the Jewish prophet Daniel. It was a sign from on high – “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it; thou art weighed in the balances and found wanting. Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and the Persians.” This was not good news for Belshazzar. The Bible records that his “limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” The prophecy was soon to come true. In 539 BC Babylon fell, and for centuries thereafter remained under foreign control – Persian, Greek, Mongol, Turkish, and British.

A strikingly similar scene has just been played out. In one of his own palaces in or near Baghdad, not far north of the ruins of ancient Babylon, Saddam Hussein also received an ultimatum written not by the finger of God, but by an American president who clearly considers God to be on his side: “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at time of our choosing.” This was Saddam’s Writing on the Wall, a phrase even used by Ari Fleischer last week.

The parallel between the two eras is not superficial, for Saddam has clearly attempted to identify himself with Iraq’s ancient past. Saddam’s recent interview with Dan Rather demonstrated this interesting quirk of Ba’athist propaganda. Commenting on the fact that the United States had once threatened to “push Iraq back into the pre-industrial age,” Hussein suggested to Rather that Iraq had no intention of allowing what is the “Cradle of Civilization” to find itself in such a situation:

We hope that war will not take place, but if war is forced upon us, then Iraq will continue to be here. This country, with a history of over [6000] years, this country, the cradle of the first civilizations for humanity, will not finish just like that, even though a huge power may want it to.

The civilizations of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria all flourished in Mesopotamia, Iraq’s “Land between the Rivers.” From pictures showing himself dressed like an Assyrian king, to lengthy reminders that it was Babylon that had succeeded in taking the Jews captive, Saddam has molded himself into the successor of the ancient Mesopotamian rulers. It is not a frivolous exercise, for ancient Mesopotamia offers modern Iraq two important identities. First, it provides the illusion of a once unified Iraq in a country which is really a 20th century invention. Second, Iraq can be shown to have been a civilized and important place long before the coming of Islam, which helps support the Ba’athist secular identity.

All of this is not to say that what comes from the use of real history is not also supremely kitsch. In reconstructing the ruins of Babylon, Saddam followed the instructions of Nebuchadnezzar who urged his successors to repair his royal edifices. The ancient bricks of Babylon included an inscription announcing that they were the works of “Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon from far sea to far sea.” The new bricks were stamped with the following: “Rebuilt in the era of the leader Saddam Hussein.” To guard New Babylon, guards, dressed in Babylonian costume, were posted outside the palace of Nebuchadnezzar.

But Saddam the historian would do well to remember that many of the king’s of Iraq’s glorious past met ignominious ends. There was Belzhazzar who could do nothing to stop the Persian conquest and there was Sennacherib the Assyrian king who was murdered by his sons. But perhaps Saddam is aiming to be like Ibbi-Suen, the king of Ur who refused to flee even as his kingdom was torn down around him. A Sumerian lament over the destruction of Ur paints this mournful and strangely contemporary picture:

The king sat immobilised in the palace, all alone. Ibbi-Suen was sitting in anguish in the palace, all alone. In his place of delight, he wept bitterly. The devastating flood was levelling everything. To destroy the city, to destroy the house, like a great storm it roared over the earth. Traitors lay on top of loyal men and the blood of traitors flowed upon loyal men. Who could escape it?

Surely, not even King Saddam this time.