& CULTURAL NEWS
2,000 years ago this thriving Mesopotamian oasis city welcomed caravans
carrying travelers between East and West, twice held back Roman invaders,
and was famous for its tolerance of different religions.
Now Hatra, an ancient Parthian
sits in ruins in a vast desert former IRanain province of Khvarvaran,
what is today known as Iraq. Parts of its giant temples, columns and
arches are still standing under the incessant sun but its city center is
probably visited by more rabbits than people. Around it stands a nation
still struggling to heal ancient grievances between feuding religious and
ethnic groups, hoping to revisit high points in its history where the
roots of civilization once sprouted.
The United Nations has declared it a world heritage site, but few
people these days risk journeying to the ruins, 200 miles north of
Inside the circular city stand several largely intact temples to
ancient gods, including a stone shrine over two stories high, dedicated to
the sun god. Although many relics and statues were rushed away to museums
in Baghdad and Mosul during the 2003 invasion, a statue of a robed woman,
possibly a king's wife, still stares down at visitors.
After the U.S-led invasion in 2003, looters shot and damaged decorated
features on Hatra's walls, McGuire Gibson, an archaeology professor at the
University of Chicago, said in an e-mail.
"The site is wonderful to walk around in, especially late in the
evening and early in the morning," he said. "It is amazing that
such a large city could exist where it does, dependent on cisterns and
Gibson was on a U.N. team that investigated stolen or damaged Iraqi
antiquities after the war.
"Probably the worst damage was caused by the exploding of
munitions by U.S. forces," he said.
Gibson said the military eventually diminished the blasts, which were
threatening to destabilize buildings in Hatra, but continued detonating
explosives in the area.
Despite the turmoil, glimpses of the city's mixed East-West
architecture of Hellenistic and Parthian styles testify to the diverse
tradesmen and travelers who once passed through.
"The significance of Hatra as a bridge between East and West is
plain for all to see," Roberta Ricciardi Venco, a professor at Turin
University in Italy who has conducted surveys and excavations in the city,
said in an e-mail.
The city's two defensive walls remain visible, including the outer one
of clay that is over 3 miles long. More than 150 closely spaced towers
helped Hatra withstand Roman attack in the second century A.D., according
to a guide provided by the U.S. military, but the city eventually fell to
the Sasanid empire of what is now Iran.
Hatra's novelty is its largely unexcavated condition. Dozens of
unfinished digs lie outside the inner wall of the city, showing
sand-covered shapes that leave visitors wondering about what lies beneath.
The site is
also recognized by film buffs as the opening scene of the classic movie
The Exorcist, in which an aging priest finds a relic that signals he
will soon face an evil that turns out to be a demonically possessed girl.