My research for the current book I’m writing has taken me to a place that has been in the news of late.
The news from the Middle East has not been good for many years, especially on the human scale. But things have taken another sad turn with the added destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq. A couple weeks ago, we heard of the wanton destruction of the ancient, Assyrian Bronze Age city of Nimrud, and this loss of world heritage has shaken the archaeological and historical communities.
But last week, came yet another catastrophic blow. The ancient city of Hatra, just 290 kms northwest of Baghdad, was bulldozed to the ground. The supposed reasons for this vile act being that Hatra did not represent the religion of the group in question.
Prior to the levelling of this ancient site, I had been admiring its magnificent, intact ruins as part of my research for a prequel to my novel, Children of Apollo. This is… was… an amazing place.
Hatra was built in the third century B.C. under the Seleucid Empire, founded by Alexander the Great’s general, Seleucas. It was later located on the edge of the mighty Parthian Empire with which Rome would wage terrible war.
The city of Hatra was one of the best-preserved Parthian cities in the Middle East. It had inner and outer walls that were about 6 kms around, with 160 towers. These walls were so strong and well-fortified that of all the Parthian possessions, including the capital of Ctesiphon, Hatra was the only frontier city that withstood attacks from Rome’s legions.
The emperors who laid siege to Hatra were no slouches either! Both the warlike emperors Trajan (in A.D. 116/117) and Septimius Severus (in A.D. 198/199) attacked the city, only to be turned away by the walls, the defenders, and the harsh environment outside of those walls. Some say, the gods themselves had a hand in the successful defence of Hatra…
Eventually, the city fell to the Sassanid Emperor, Shapur I in A.D. 241, but that warrior ruler did not destroy the city. Hatra stood for over two thousand years… that is, until last week.
It wasn’t the walls that kept Hatra standing, nor the power of the Parthians, for both of those things were breeched in the end. What kept Hatra alive, so to speak, was respect and a common sense of heritage.
In my research, it has been interesting to read about how Hatra was a place of religious fusion, of great harmony among faiths.
The architecture may have been a beautiful melding of Hellenistic and Roman styles, but the great temples at the heart of Hatra belonged to the Assyrian and Babylonian faiths, to the beliefs of Greeks, Syrians and Aramaeans, Arabians and Mesopotamians. The age-old gods of all of these faiths co-existed at the heart of this circular city in the desert, standing proud and protected around the base of the Great Temple itself, with its 30 meter columns.
I’ve not seen recent pictures, but from what I’ve heard, Hatra has been levelled.
There are no words, really.
Think of it this way – even Saddam Hussein saw value (however selfishly) and wanted to restore Hatra, as well as Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, and Babylon. He didn’t bulldoze them.
For over a thousand years, Muslims have preserved these ancient sites, including Hatra, because they represented a glorious past, humankind’s past. The towering columns and temple pediments, the ornate reliefs carved by our ancient ancestors did not represent a threat. They were artistic glories, the ornamentations of the houses of many gods, side by side.
In my prequel to Children of Apollo, I’ll be writing about Septimius Severus’ two sieges of Hatra, and how, despite his rage and being repelled twice, the city yet stood. Some stories say it was the threat of mutiny, others that it was the Empress, Julia Domna who urged him to spare the city because of the magnificent temples within that honoured so many gods.
Whether the story is true or not, Severus respected the gods, and the monuments built in their honour. He left them alone, even though the Hatrans angered him with their stubbornness.
Severus now crossed Mesopotamia and made an attempt on Hatra, which was not far off, but accomplished nothing; on the contrary, his siege engines were burned, many soldiers perished, and vast numbers were wounded…
…He himself made another expedition against Hatra, having first got ready a large store of food and prepared many siege engines; for he felt it was disgraceful, now that the other places had been subdued, that this one alone, lying there in their midst, should continue to resist. But he lost a vast amount of money, all his engines, except those built by Priscus, as I have stated above, and many soldiers besides. A good many were lost on foraging expeditions, as the barbarian cavalry (I mean that of the Arabians) kept assailing them everywhere in swift and violent attacks. The archery, too, of the Atreni was effective at very long range, since they hurled some of their missile by means of engines, so that they actually struck many even of Severus’ guards; for they discharged two missiles at one and the same shot and there were many hands and many bows hurling the missiles all at the same time. But they inflicted the greatest damage on their assailants when these approached the wall, and much more still after they had broken down a small portion of it; for they hurled down upon them, among things, the bituminous naphtha, of which I wrote above, and consumed the engines and all the soldiers on whom it fell. Severus observed all this from a lofty tribunal. When a portion of the outer circuit had fallen in one place and all the soldiers were eager to force their way inside the remainder, Severus checked them from doing so by ordering the signal for retreat to be clearly sounded on every side. For the place enjoyed great fame, containing as it did a vast number of offering to the Sun-god as well as vast sums of money; and he expected the Arabians to come to terms voluntarily, in order to avoid being forcibly captured and enslaved. At any rate, he allowed one day to pass; then, when no one came to him with any overtures for peace, he commanded the soldiers to assault the wall once more, though it had been built up during the night. But the Europeans, who alone of his army had the ability to do anything, were so angry that not one of them would any longer obey him, and the others, Syrians, who were compelled to make the assault in their place, were miserably destroyed. Thus Heaven, that saved the city, first caused Severus to recall the soldiers when they could have entered the place, and in turn caused the soldiers to hinder him from capturing it when he later wished to do so.
(Cassius Dio – Roman History LXXVI)
Who was living in Hatra last week, when it was ground to dust? No one.
All that was there were the silent stone monuments of history, tufts of grass and wildflower sprouting up from around the column bases, and the desert sand whirling about them, as it had for so many centuries.
You may not have known of Hatra before last week, but now, I would urge you to spare a thought for its ghost and the shared history of the peoples who called it home over the ages.
Thank you for reading…
What are your thoughts on the destruction of Hatra and other sites? Let us know in the comments below…
Here is a video from UNESCO that will give you a short tour of this once-beautiful city: