Hatra: Exploring an ancient city in Iraq

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I’m fortunate enough to get to meet and work with some very adventurous people. One of them is writer Sean McLachlan, who contributes regular travel and adventure stories at Gadling.com just like I do. Sean has recently returned from a visit to Iraq, which is one of those places steeped in history and culture, but is viewed by many as far too dangerous to actually go and visit themselves. He’s been posting stories of that amazing journey over on Gadling for the past few days, but he has also graciously offered to share one with Adventure Blog readers as well. You’ll find that story, about a visit to an ancient Arab city below. Enjoy!

Hatra: Exploring an ancient city in Iraq
By Sean McLachlan

Iraq is rich with ancient heritage. Babylon, Ur, and Uruk are famous as urban centers of the Cradle of Civilization. One of the most impressive sites, however, is little known outside the country.

DSC 0555The city of Hatra was founded in the third century BC by
Arab tribes. Archaeologists believe it was the first Arab city. In ancient
times it sat on an important trade route and the only good water supply for
miles of desolate wasteland. Hatra served as a vassal state to the Parthian
Empire of Iran and thus ended up on the front line of its war against the Roman
Empire. Roman legions besieged the city in 116 and 198 AD and were pushed back
both times. The Hatrans had built four miles of strong city walls and used
catapults to bombard the attackers with flaming balls of bitumen and jars
filled with scorpions.

DSC 0033Nowadays Hatra lies in an underpopulated region in northern
Iraq, about 180 miles northwest of Baghdad. Our bus sped for hours along a
Saddam-era highway through featureless desert, escorted by a pickup truck
packed with Kalashnikov-toting Iraq police. While we had had no serious trouble
so far (other than my almost
getting arrested
) the police insisted on coming along. As I gazed out the
window at the hypnotic expanse of brown sand and pale green scrub, I couldn’t
imagine any terrorist wanting to bother with the place.
The first thing you see as you approach Hatra is a giant
crane looming over a Greek-style temple. The crane was from a reconstruction
project during the Saddam era, finished now just like Saddam. Our guide told us
the crane has been standing there rusting for more than a decade. What should
have been an eyesore seemed, upon reflection, to be an appropriate addition—another
relic of dead imperial ambition.
Hatra’s kingdom has little left above the surface except at
this site. As we approached, we passed low mounds that may have been Roman
siege works like those at Masada, Israel. Then we came to the walls, which two
thousand years of desert winds couldn’t entirely destroy. Even now they look
formidable, and I wasn’t surprised that the Romans, parched under the Middle
Eastern sun, failed to take them.
DSC 0530We parked in front of the main temple, which in fact housed
temples to several gods and goddesses. Being located between several cultures,
the Hatrans adopted many different deities—the Akkadian death god Nergal, as
old as civilization itself; the Greek messenger god Hermes; even the new god
Mithras, whose mystery religion was Christianity’s main competitor for converts
in the first few centuries after Christ. The buildings had a mixed quality to
them too, with the balance and symmetry of Greek architecture and the elaborate
Oriental decoration of Mesopotamia and Persia.
Our guards seemed as impressed as I felt. None of them spoke
English, so we relied on my 200-word vocabulary of badly pronounced Arabic.
They found my repertoire vastly amusing and soon I had a small crowd of them
following me around the ruins. They kept calling friends on their cell phones
and having me try to talk to them. One guy called up his wife. All she heard
was some foreign voice saying salaam
and her husband laughing in the background.
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She hung up.
We discovered a dark staircase piercing the cyclopean walls
of the main temple. Treading carefully, we ascended and came out on top, our
eyes blinking at the harsh sunlight. From there we looked out at the crumbled
foundations of temples and homes. The Iraqi police filmed the scene with their
cell phones and had me wave at the camera.
One stood next to me at the edge of the wall, smiling as he
surveyed the ruins.
Zeen,” I said.
Ha ha,” he
laughed and nodded. “Zeen zeen.”
Our guide had told me that during the Saddam era the schools
didn’t teach ancient history, instead only teaching the history of the Baath
party and Saddam’s life. I wondered if this policeman knew anything about this
place, knew that he was standing in the first great city of his people. I
wondered what he thought about that.
I never found out. I lacked the words.
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Sean McLachlan is the
author of numerous
, including the Civil War novel
Fine Likeness
. Visit him on his blog and read more about his travels in
Iraq in the special series on Gadling,
Destination: Iraq.
Kraig Becker

2 thoughts on “Hatra: Exploring an ancient city in Iraq”

  1. Wow is all I can say, Sean. Very interesting that the people who have grown up under one regime may not know their own history. It's such a shame when history is suppressed by anyone.

    Great photos, as always.

    Enjoyed this post, Adventure Blog.

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