Saving Iraq's Treasures

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

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After A.D. 300, Hatra was abandoned. Iraqi archaeologists have found tenuous evidence that the northern gate of the city was destroyed at about that time. It seems likely that Sassanian warriors—yet another wave of invaders from the Iranian plateau—swept down on the city. Their new empire, with its state religion of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic belief system from the highlands of Iran and Afghanistan that emphasized the fight between good and evil, may have looked unkindly on a major gathering place for infidels, says Ricciardi. Whatever the cause, Hatra subsided back into the desert. Its remote location has left it mostly undisturbed.




The extraordinary mud-brick spiral minaret of Samarra rises 170 feet into the bright blue sky of north-central Iraq, 80 miles northwest of Baghdad. Built next to a huge mosque in A.D. 850, when Europeans were still erecting crude churches, the minaret provides a glimpse into the glory of one of the most sprawling cities of the premodern era and one of the richest archaeological sites in the world. Covering almost 20 square miles, Samarra grew up virtually overnight into the proud capital of the Abbasid caliphs (descendants of Abbas, the uncle of Muhammad), only to fall into decay less than a century later.


“A mushroom city,” is how Alastair Northedge, an archaeologist at the University of Paris, describes the oncegrand metropolis of some 200,000 people, more than 20,000 houses, hundreds of military barracks and dozens of palaces, all built in two years. He is just completing a 20-year study of Samarra, using British aerial photographs from the 1950s, U.S. spy-satellite images from the ’60s and his own ground surveys. “In Samarra, everything is big, and there are always more of them,” Northedge says of the city’s mosques and palaces.


Until the ninth century, Samarra, with its shallow soil and nearby deserts, had been an unappealing place for everyone but Sassanian kings (A.D. 224 to 640) on the hunt. Four huge hunting reserves—one with mud walls 12 miles long—were stocked with gazelles, wild donkeys, lions and other prey. “It was like Versailles,” says Northedge. “The animals were shuffled in front of the king, who then massacred them.”


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