Saving Iraq's Treasures

As archaeologists worldwide help recover looted artifacts, they worry for the safety of the great sites of early civilization.

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 7)




As babylon crumbled back into dust, a lesserknown city 225 miles northwest was breaking with the ancient religious traditions of Mesopotamia. On a bleak plain west of the Euphrates, Hatra began as a watering hole with perhaps a small temple. At its height in the first and second centuries A.D., Hatra encompassed 750 acres, an elegant city clustered around a sacred core of three large temples, all protected by a city wall still visible today.


This is a strangely constructed place. With its stone columns, graceful arches and classical statues, it resembles a remarkably preserved Roman city. But a closer look reveals that the arches lead to open pavilions reminiscent of the large tents favored by Parthian rulers who came from Persia in A.D. 100. Though Hatra sat astride the two great empires of the day—Roman and Parthian—the old Mesopotamian styles are still evident. One temple has an off-center entrance, designed so commoners outside could not glimpse the sacred interior, which is typical also of temples in Uruk, Ashur and Babylon. The inscriptions in Aramaic—the language of the region as well as of Christ—indicate the city was ruled by the “King of the Arabs,” a reference to nomadic desert tribes who were spreading north and settling down.


This unusual mix gives Hatra a cosmopolitan air—Rome’s artistic flair meets Arab nomads and Persian style with a hint of Babylonia. “It’s very complex,” says Roberta Venco Ricciardi, an archaeologist at the University of Turin in Italy who dug at Hatra in the 1980s and the late ’90s. There is little about Hatra in historical records, but Ricciardi and Iraqi archaeologists are providing a fuller picture. In one patrician home she excavated, for example, “there were paintings everywhere,” she says. The walls were covered with hunting scenes of gazelles and wild boars, in vibrant reds, yellows and blacks. Those paintings, she adds, were stored at the site, rather than in Baghdad, so they might still be safe.


“I believe this was a very important religious center,” Ricciardi says. “There was trade, but that was not the main reason for Hatra’s success.” Scholars are stumped as to what the pilgrims worshiped. Inscriptions offer only hints: the pantheon honored “Our Lord, Our Lady and the Son of our Lords.” Ricciardi believes “Our Lord” is a reference to Shamash, a popular sun god of the Sumerians; no one knows the identities of the other two deities. One Iraqi archaeologist speculates that the cult came from Arabia; a passageway that wraps around one temple, he says, is a sign that worshipers circled the sanctuary—like the circling of the Kaaba shrine in the plaza in Mecca, an ancient Arab practice that predates Muhammad’s time.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus