Is Turkey’s Palace-Building President Engineering His Own Demise?

Is Turkey’s Palace-Building President Engineering His Own Demise?

Why you should care

A man who builds a 3.1-million-square-foot palace is definitely compensating for something: A really short time left to enjoy it.

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca once observed, “Anyone can stop a man’s life, but no one his death; a thousand doors open on to it.”

Which is one reason that building a 1,000-room palace seems to be teeing things up rather well for the Grim Reaper. Another reason is that, as history has shown time and again, one of the surest ways a flailing autocrat can signal his imminent downfall is by building a bigger roof to go over it. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grand new $615 million “White Palace” — four times the size of Versailles, with over 1,000 rooms and 3.1 million square feet — is just the capstone of a larger monument of power that the 60-year-old leader, despised by many at home and increasingly unpopular abroad, has assembled in recent years at his country’s expense.

Addressing critics of the costly palace, the unrepentant Erdogan has boasted, “No one can prevent the completion of this building. If they are powerful enough, let them come and demolish it.” But it’s not the imposing structure that Erdogan should worry about being destroyed. Just ask Nicolae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, Benito Mussolini or a slew of other tyrant-builders: Sometimes building the palace of your dreams can turn into an outsized nightmare, and before you measure the drapes on your future reign, there’s something else you ought to be getting measured for first.

Unirii Street looking towards the Palace of the People in Bucharest, Romania.

Bulevardul Unirii (“Unification Boulevard”) looking toward the Palace of the People in Bucharest, Romania.

Source Gavin Hellier/Corbis

Ceausescu’s Palace of the People

Turkey’s opposition has likened Erdogan’s new residence to deposed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s Palace of the People in Bucharest. Described as a “giant Stalinist wedding cake” and a “monstrous monument to totalitarian kitsch,” the enormous government building — spanning 3.77 million square feet — is second in size only to the Pentagon. But when ground was broken in 1984, the “House of the People,” as it was then called, was primarily designed to house Ceausescu, his wife and closest followers.

An inside view of Saddam Hussein's

An inside view of Saddam Hussein’s “Green Palace” after being looted and uninhabited for years.

Source Marco Di Lauro/Getty

Over 1 million workers labored in marble rooms as large as football fields, outfitted with giant oaken doors and crystal chandeliers, while millions of Romanians survived on rations. Barely a month after his final visit to the building site, Ceausescu and his regime were violently overthrown, and the 5-foot-5-inch tyrant and his wife would be executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989. His final hours took place in far less opulent surroundings — a cavalry barracks where he was fed brown bread and where a courtyard wall still bears the bullet holes that serve as the dictator’s final architectural impression.

Hussein’s Green Palace

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein loved to fish, sometimes opting for grenades when bait and tackle did not suffice. His favorite fishing hole? Lake Tharthar, near his hometown of Tikrit, where he elected to erect the most elaborate of his 52 palaces, Maqar-el-Tharthar, the so-called “Green Palace.” Completed in 1993, the ornate palace sits in the middle of a 2.5-square-mile compound, including 45 marble mansions. In 1999, Hussein celebrated his birthday by unveiling a sprawling resort nearby, complete with an amusement park, stadiums, a hospital and VIP homes for his Baath Party loyalists and angling companions.

Four years later, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the deposed dictator was found in a more modest abode when American troops fished him out of a spider hole that was covered by a sheet of polystyrene. Saddam’s new compound surrounding the underground hideout consisted of a two-room hut overrun with dirty dishes, garbage and stale food. He was hanged three years later. So it goes.

Mussolini’s Square Colosseum

An icon of fascist architecture, the imposing Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (the Palace of the Italian Civilization) looms over a large business complex just south of Rome. Its construction, which began in 1938, was originally intended by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to host the World’s Fair in 1942 and to celebrate 20 years of Italian fascism under its leader, “Il Duce.” Mussolini conceived of the massive white palace, better known as the “Square Colosseum,” with its six floors, rows of identical arches and columns and great equestrian sculptures, to evoke the spirit of classical Rome while showcasing the ordered glory of fascist Italy.

The onset of World War II scuttled the World’s Fair, but work on the palace continued until 1943, the same year Mussolini was removed from power. The dictator’s demise two years later was far less orderly than his architectural tastes: After being executed, his body was hung, alongside several fellow fascists, upside down from girders on an Esso gas station in Milan. Bystanders hurled rocks at the mutilated corpses, providing one final gruesome image of Italian fascism.

Could a similar end await Erdogan? Turkey is, at least nominally, a democracy, and one that elected the former prime minister as its president earlier last year. But given not only Erdogan’s lavish new digs but also his manipulation of the media, demonization of opponents and brutal crackdown on protesters, the paranoid leader — and autocratic palace-builder — seems poised to bring the roof down on his regime, even if he may have a better chance of escaping with his life.

“More conflict and tension [in Turkey] appear inevitable,” says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based researcher with the Silk Road Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University. “It is difficult to say for certain when we are likely to see another explosion of resentment against Erdogan. But it is going to come.”

So, for any aspiring despot weighing the pros and cons of a grand construction project, here’s a good rule of thumb: If the number of rooms in your proposed building seems unconscionably high, then the number of days you have left may be fewer than you think.

This OZY encore was originally published Nov. 24, 2014.

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