4 Apr 2015

Islamic State destruction of history spreads to ancient city of Hatra

We are running out of words to describe the vandals of the Islamic State (IS) who not only show merciless cruelty to the living but are seeking to destroy the heritage left by the long dead.

A new video, released on a jihadi website, shows men climbing ladders to take mallets and hammers to friezes on the portals or “iwans” of the main temple.

In between explaining to camera that they are destroying anything that might be “worshipped instead of God”, the video shows them destroying states by using pickaxes on the base and in two places firing at base reliefs with Kalashnikov rifles.

Iraq’s Ministry for Antiquity reported that IS militants had destroyed part of Hatra on 7 March, but this provides the first video evidence. Satellite imagery does not show the destruction as they do not appear to have blown up the walls.

Hatra was built in the second or third century BC and was a caravan city as well as the capital of an early Arab Kingdom within the Parthian Empire that rivalled Rome.

Where east and west met

Mark Altaweel, a UCL archaeologist with the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, said: “The city’s trade routes were so busy and likely important that you can still see them clearly on satellite imagery.


Circled area on above map shows the area being destroyed by IS militants, says Dr Altaweel

“For Iraqis, Hatra is important symbolically because it was a relatively early Arab kingdom outside of Arabia, which is why before the arrival of Islam you had many Arabs already migrating to Mesopotamia [Iraq] and Syria.”

The friezes at Hatra are Roman in style but refer to local gods and are also influenced by eastern art.

“The friezes symbolize some of that great wealth and mixture of culture that would have been found in this region,” Dr Altaweel said.

“It symbolises the cultural mix that characterise Iraq’s past, where eastern traditions mixed with those that came from the west after the time of Alexander the Great.”

In 1973, Hatra was used as the setting for the opening scene of The Exorcist. In 1985 UNESCO named it the first World Heritage site in Iraq.

The final scene of the IS video shows rubble and destruction, the evidence of the ignorant nihilism they are trying to spread across the Middle East. For them there is no history.

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