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Essential Guide: Abandoned Palaces of History's Megalomaniacs


article-imageDarul Aman Palace, Afghanistan (via Wikimedia)

Golden beds, crocodile ponds, guests drowning in rose petals, rooms full of treasure: the homes of absolute rulers have always been marked by stratospheric excess. From the city-sized palaces of the Egyptian pharaohs to the swimming pools of Gaddafi, the world has looked on in fascinated wonder for thousands of years.

But even in this company, some palaces stand out. They have no claim on the reality around them. Their very presence signals the depth of their owners' delusions. From Nero's Golden House — a building which threatened to eat an entire city — to Saddam Hussein's Victory Over America Palace, the homes of history's true megalomaniacs tell a story of impossible power and of impossible hubris. "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair..."

Here are their ruins:


article-imagePiranesi's impression of the ruins of Nero's Golden House (via Wikimedia)

The Great Fire of Rome, in 64 AD, left much of the city in ruins. The Emperor Nero, it is said, watched his city burn, and sang to himself of the destruction of Troy. As the smoke cleared, he saw an opportunity. On the Palatine Hill, where the homes of Rome's elite used to stand, Nero built himself a gigantic palace — the Domus Aurea, or Golden House.

Nero's extravagance was already legendary. "He presented Menecrates the lyre-player and Spiculus the gladiator with mansions and property worthy of those who had celebrated triumphs," wrote Suetonius. "Nero never wore the same clothes twice. He placed bets of four thousand gold pieces a point on the winning dice when he played. He fished with a golden net strung with purple and scarlet cord. And he rarely travelled, they say, with less than a thousand carriages." But the Golden House was to surpass everything which had come before.

article-imagePortrait head of a young Nero (via Wikimedia/Carole Raddato)

From Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: 

"The entrance hall was large enough to contain a huge, hundred-foot high, statue of the Emperor, and covered so much ground the triple colonnade was marked by milestones. There was an enormous lake, too, like a small sea, surrounded by buildings representing cities, also landscaped gardens, with ploughed fields, vineyards, woods, and pastures, stocked with wild and domestic creatures.

Inside there was gold everywhere, with gems and mother-of-pearl. There were dining rooms whose ceilings were of fretted ivory, with rotating panels that could rain down flowers, and concealed sprinklers to shower the guests with perfume. The main banqueting hall was circular with a revolving dome, rotating day and night to mirror the heavens. And there were baths with sea water and sulphur water on tap.

When the palace, decorated in this lavish style, was complete, Nero dedicated the building, condescending to say by way of approval that he was at last beginning to live like a human being." 

The ruins of Nero's Golden House (via Wikimedia/Carl Hudson)

The Golden House was shunned and despised by Nero's successors — and was swiftly buried beneath later construction. That, paradoxically, was instrumental in its preservation. It lay undiscovered until one day, in the 15th century, a young man fell through a crack in the hillside — and found himself in the echoing chambers of Nero's abandoned palace. Soon, the greatest artists of the Renaissance - Michaelangelo and Raphael — were lowering themselves down carefully into the ruins of the Golden House, creeping through its halls and chambers, and memorizing every detail of its intricate frescoes.

Once discovered, the Golden House could not stay pristine for long. Damp and rot attacked the delicate paintings. Visitors scratched their names on the walls — Casanova next to the Marquis de Sade. Rains led to the collapse of ceilings and vaults. Once-bright frescoes faded to muddy outlines. The Golden House is currently sealed to all but a few archaeologists — with many of its fantastical secrets still to be discovered.


Malkata Palace from the air (via Wikimedia/Markh)

Amenhotep III, Amenhotep the Magnificent, ruled over Egypt for almost 40 years, from c.1386 BCE to 1349 BCE. Never before had Egypt seen such wealth, such power, or such ostentation. He ruled as pharaoh, as god-king, from the palace of Malkata.

In all that remains to us of ancient Egypt, the homes of the dead — and the homes of the gods — have fared far better than the homes of the living. The palace of Malkata — now in ruins — is one of the few places capable of hinting at the splendour of the pharaohs' lives. Just what kind of house would a living god build for himself? Malkata can show us.

Mummified head of Amenhotep III (via Wikimedia/G. Elliot Smith)

 Courtyards, audience-chambers, harems, and a gigantic ceremonial lake can be traced at the site of Malkata, today. The walls were covered with bright, delicate paintings — some still faintly visible — of animals, flowers, and the reed-beds along the Nile. It was a home on the scale of a city — a city built around one man. Today, the ruins of Malkata stretch across the desert, close to Thebes, still marking the course of Amenhotep's 3,000-year-old power.


article-imageSans-Souci, Haiti (via Wikimedia/Rémi Kaupp)

Henri, by the Grace of God and the Constitutional Law of the State, King of Haiti, Sovereign of Tortuga, Gonave and other adjacent Islands, Destroyer of Tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian Nation, Creator of her Moral, Political and Martial Institutions, First Crowned Monarch of the New World, was born Henri Christophe, a slave, in 1767. The struggle for independence in Haiti brought him, in 1811, to his country's throne.

A king needed a palace — and the hills of Milot, Haiti, Henri Christophe set about building himself one. That is to say, he forced his people to do so. Having successfully evicted Haiti's former colonial rulers, Henri Christophe promptly reintroduced forced labor for the entire adult population. The Palace of Sans-Souci was built swiftly and ruthlessly.

article-imageEntrance to the Sans-Souci Palace, Haiti (via Wikimedia/Rémi Kaupp)

"The Versailles of the Caribbean" astonished visitors from all over the world. There were Neronian feasts and dances, elaborate gardens, artificial springs, and unapologetic splendor. For his people, looking on from outside the gates, it seemed like a different world. Henri's dreams of founding a dynasty were to be short-lived. He shot himself in October 1820, amidst a rising tide of public anger. His son survived just 10 days on the throne.

article-imageMilot, site of the Sans-Souci Palace (via Wikimedia)


Khan's Palace (via Wikimedia)

Henri Chistophe's palace was a monument to his own power. The palace of Khudoyar Khan, last ruler of Kokand Khanate, was a monument to his powerlessness. By the time it was completed in 1871, Kokand had become a vassal state of Russia — and the Khan's power was almost at an end. With no nation left to govern, the Khan retreated behind the walls of his palace, turning it into a crazy, magnificent monument to his own vanishing authority.

Khan's Palace (via Wikimedia)

A hundred and nineteen rooms open up across seven courtyards, and the palace itself covers four acres. Compared to Nero's Golden House — let alone the scale of Malkata — this is nothing. But in the intricacy of its decoration, and the skills of its craftsmen, the Khan's palace was almost unmatched. 16,000 workmen constructed it — once again, compelled by forced labor.

In 1876, Tsar Alexander II of Russia announced that he would "yield to the wishes of the Kokandi people to become Russian subjects." Kokand Khanate ceased to exist, becoming part of Russian Turkestan. The Khan — having had but a few years to enjoy his new palace — was forced to flee, escaping over the mountains to Afghanistan with his family, and his wealth. His palace was promptly taken over by the new Russian government.


Darul Aman (via Wikimedia/Carl Montgomery)

Darul Aman, "the dwelling-place of peace," sits in ruins outside Kabul, Afghanistan. Amanullah Khan, ruler of Afghanistan between 1919 and 1929, ordered its construction. He intended the palace to be the centerpiece of his new capital city — a gleaming, European-style settlement, rising up from the plains.

Amanullah Khan was no Neronian despot — indeed, many see him as a progressive and reforming monarch. He enshrined equal rights for men and women in Afghan law, and confronted religious conservatism. Yet like many of the rulers whose palaces appear here, he was so certain of his own rightness that he was neglected to pay attention to the world around him. His plans had no roots in the reality of Afghan society — in the beliefs and the ambitions of his people. Afghanistan, as many have discovered since, cannot be transformed overnight, by sheer force of will.

article-imageAmerican soldiers looking from Darul Aman towards Kabul (via Wikimedia/pitcdbf)

 Needless to say, the dreamed-of new city was never built - and the palace never came into its own. The conservative rulers who deposed Amanullah Khan scorned his plans, and his reforms. Darul Aman was left to rot. Set on fire in the 1970s, shelled by mujahideen in the 1990s, and targeted by the Taliban in 2012, it has suffered greatly.

Still standing today, Darul Aman is a crumbling ruin. A plan to restore it has so far come to nothing, but its walls contain the last century of Afghan history: the grandeur of its ambitions, the depth of its bloodshed and violence — a monument to Quixotic hope.

article-imageInside Darul Aman, 2010 (via Wikimedia/Magnustraveller)


Mural of Saddam Hussein at the Victory Over America Palace (via Wikimedia/Robertjalberts)

Hubris and self-delusion on an epic scale, made manifest in reinforced concrete, the Victory Over America Palace squats by an artificial lake next to Baghdad Airport. Saddam Hussein began it to commemorate his very dubious "victory" over the United States in the 1991 Gulf War. (A Victory over Iran Palace, similarly dilapidated, sits nearby.)

The palace was never completed; construction was held back by economic sanctions. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the palace complex was taken over by the US Marines. As with all of Saddam's former palaces, the Victory Over America Palace became something of a tourist spot for the military. The photo opportunities, after all, were irresistible.

The Victory Over America Palace (via Flickr/Redcritter86)

Today, the complex has been handed back to the Iraqi Government, and the Victory Over America Palace still stands — what there is of it, in any case. It is likely to remain forever incomplete — a lasting monument to a triumph which never was, and the depth of a dictator's delusions.

For more on thwarted megalomaniac dreams, check out the Atlas Obscura Essential Guide to Epic Failure >

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