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April 18, 2012

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Remembering Hatra, Iraq’s First World Heritage Site

Posted by Alessandra Peruzzetto, Program Specialist, Archaeology and the Middle East
World Monuments Fund
© Italian Archaeological Mission at Hatra - University of Torino, 1990s

Alessandra Peruzzetto, WMF’s Middle East Program Specialist, spent several seasons excavating at Hatra, a World Heritage site. In the following post, she reflects on the history of the site and her memories of working there.

Hatra was the city of the Sun God. It was an important Arab sanctuary and a major city of the Jazirah in northern Iraq at the crossroads of major trade routes between the Roman and the Parthian Empires. Its extraordinarily well-preserved temples and city walls date from the second and third centuries A.D. Besieged without success by the Roman emperors Trajan and Septimius Severus, and eventually captured by the Sassanians, it was abandoned around A.D. 240.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century the ruins of the city of Hatra have been mentioned and recorded by international scholars and travelers. But it was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that Professor Walter Andrae, who also worked in Assur and in Babylon with Prof. Robert Koldewey, scientifically surveyed its monumental buildings.

Iraqi, Polish, and Italian archaeologists excavated its temples in the Sacred Enclosure as well as private shrines and houses in the city. In 1985 the site was registered in the World Heritage List of UNESCO, the first for Iraq.

Starting in the 1960s, Hatra underwent major reconstruction projects and it became an important site of nationalist propaganda: the Arab city that bravely and strongly resisted the Western and Persian sieges.

While working at Nimrud, my first professional experience in Iraq, I had the opportunity to visit Hatra. As we were approaching the site, the sun was setting and from the distance I could see the Great Iwan. Sometime later, I was lucky enough to work at Hatra for various years with the Italian Archaeological Expedition of the University of Torino directed by Professor Roberta Ricciardi Venco.

My time at Hatra was an incredibly inspiring experience. The opportunity to study so closely the archaeological remains and to investigate the complicated origins of the settlement, its unique art and culture—a bridge between East and West—its urbanism and its relation with the Parthian and Roman worlds are of extreme interest. But it is also the experience of living there that will be forever in my memories: the view of the monuments in the warm lights of the sunset, or in bright lights of the dawn is extraordinaire (as Erick, a French photographer friend of mine used to say!); the intact natural landscape, the traditional culture of the people living in the nearby villages or in the mudbrick farms scattered around the Jazirah are fascinating; the long hours of discussions with our workmen and their families of the nearby village, some of whom are still friends, are memorable. It was clear how strong their relation with the site was and how proud they were of this past: the son of one of them became an archaeologist and decided to work with the Antiquities Department of Mosul; and during and after the last war the relatives of the old guards defended Hatra so that looting on the site was only marginal.

These are just a few lines to remember Hatra, Iraq, and its people on this International Day for Monuments and Sites.

© Italian Archaeological Mission at Hatra - University of Torino, 1987