Iraq's Hatra: Ancient city in crossfire of anti-IS war


Baghdad (AFP)

The ancient city of Hatra withstood Roman invasions nearly 2,000 years ago and decades of more recent war and instability in Iraq, but then jihadists marked it for destruction.

The Islamic State group vandalised Hatra and is reported to still have a presence in the area, which may again put the famed archaeological site in the line of fire as Iraqi forces fight to drive the jihadists back.

Hatra, known as Al-Hadhr in Arabic, was established in the 3rd or 2nd century BC and became a religious and trading centre under the Parthian empire.

It was surrounded by two walls -- one of earth and another of stone that was dotted with towers. These fortifications helped it withstand sieges by the forces of two Roman emperors: Trajan in 166 AD and Septimus Severus in 198.

Hatra finally succumbed to Ardashir I, the founder of the Sassanid dynasty, a few decades later.

But the city remained well preserved over the centuries that followed. The site was excavated in the early 20th century and again from the early 1950s.

Two decades later, Hatra left its mark on pop culture as the location for the opening of horror film "The Exorcist", which was shot there in 1973.

In addition to its imposing fortifications, Hatra was home to magnificent temples that blended eastern and Western architecture. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

Like many other archaeological sites in Iraq, access to Hatra has been limited by instability and continual cycles of violence that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

In June 2014, the group that is now known as IS overran the city of Mosul, northeast of Hatra, and swathes of other territory in Iraq and carried out a seemingly endless series of atrocities.

Seeking to continue to shock the world and remain the focus of attention, IS began targeting Iraqi heritage sites as well as brutally murdering people.

The jihadists frame the destruction as a religiously mandated elimination of idols, but have no qualms about selling smaller artefacts to fund their operations.

They ransacked the Mosul museum, blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, and also came for Hatra.

IS released a video in April 2015 showing militants knocking sculptures off the walls of a building, shooting at them with an assault rifle and hacking away at a statue with a pickaxe.

The full extent of the damage at the site is still unclear, but it may be in for further destruction if fighting breaks out in the area during Iraq's operation to retake the city of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh province.