Following the US-led invasion in 2003, fears of looting and damage to ancient archaeological sites such as Hatra, Nineveh, Ctesiphon, and Nimrud proved not to be the worst episode in the history of these sites, as the assaults by ISIS on these treasured places in recent years was beyond what could have been imagined. Today we are just starting to discover what remains of these places. These images illustrate the beauty and significance that endured more than a millennium.
Ancient City of Hatra
Hatra was the city of the Sun God. An important Arab sanctuary and a major city of the Jazirah in northern Iraq, it sits at the crossroads of major trade routes between the Roman and the Parthian Empires. Its temples and city walls are extraordinarily well-preserved, dating 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, Hatra was abandoned around A.D. 240. In 1985 the site was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List, the first for Iraq.
Studies attest various phases of construction, most likely all concentrated in the second century AD. Few gates in the walls allowed the access to the holy area.
The Temenos was located in the center of the city, which was surrounded by a circular fortification wall. On the left of the above image, the Great Iwan complex is well visible. In the foreground, the remains of the excavations of Beit Manu (a residential building) and of few minor temples that were disseminated in the city. In the background, at the center of the image, it is possible to recognize the alignment of the north street connecting the Temenos with the Northern Gate of the city walls.
The Maran Temple, also known as the Hellenistic Temple, is located in the eastern section of the Temenos, or the holy ground belonging to the god and governed by special rules. Attributed to the earliest phase of construction of the holy precinct, the temple is Ionic with a long cella and stairs in the front. The temple, with its extremely sophisticated decoration, was extensively reconstructed in the 1960s.
A section of the separation wall of the holy precinct can be seen with one of the propylaea, or monumental gateway, giving access to the western court of the Temenos.
As with the Temple of Maran, the separation wall and the propylaea were restored after 20th century excavations. The original structure of the wall is visible in the image.
This copy of an original statue, today in exhibit National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, was located on a pedestal in the Temenos in front of the Great Iwans. Made in a local yellow limestone, the figure represents a noble woman named Abu Bint Damion. She has the traditional floor-length robe and veil, and wears a necklace, earrings and two bracelets ending with the head of a snake.
Behind Lady of Hatra are three of the four columns standing on the podium of the Temple of Shahiru, glimpsed behind the wall.
At the liberation of Hatra from ISIS in April 2017, the copy of Lady of Hatra was no longer in place.
The major complex found in the Temenos is the Great Iwans. Its tripartite plan is composed of two great iwans, each flanked by two small iwans. After its construction, two twin iwans were added to the north as well as a Square Temple that was accessible from the south iwan. The cult of the Sun God (Maran), of his spouse (Martan) and of Bar Marayn (associated to Mithra) is suggested for the Great Iwan complex.
Many inscriptions found inside the building allow dating of this southern section to the beginning of the second century AD, attributing this temple to Orodes, Lord of Hatra, possibly between 105-115 AD.
The façade, decorated with statues of divinities, aristocratic or religious figures standing on corbels and by bas-reliefs with mythological depictions were in situ until 2014, when they were dramatically destroyed by ISIS, as seen in videos that circulated widely on the internet.
The frieze of the north door inside the south iwan of the Great Iwan complex was reconstructed utilizing some original fragments. On the top of the frieze, a marine thiasos (worshiper of god) is represented with human figures riding two mythological animals. The bottom of the architrave is decorated with a geometric and floral motif.
The decoration of this archivolt is the best preserved in the Great Iwan complex, composed of ashlars depicting male and animal figures in high relief.
The best preserved ashlars were found during excavations of the complex. During the restoration process, it was possible to place some of these objects in their original location. Many that had remained in place over the centuries had suffered damage from being exposed to rain, sandstorms, and other weather conditions. Nonetheless the skill of the carvers and their beauty was clear.
The meaning of some figures depicted on the archivolt remains a mystery to scholars today. They could be deities, or hold a symbolic or religious function. As much knowledge as we hold today, many enigmas from antiquity remain to be unraveled.
Detail, archivolt of the small northern iwan in the Great Iwan complex (-0200)World Monuments Fund
Detail, male busts on the archivolt of small northern iwan (-0200)World Monuments Fund
Located in the Temenos, the Temple of Samya has the typical tripartite plan with the central iwan flanked by two lateral smaller iwans. It is said to be dedicated to Abd Samya because of the representation of a male divinity with a standard on a marble slab found inside the temple.
Inside the cella, the archaeologists found important sculptures including a statue of King Sanatruq and a head attributed to the Emperor Trajan.
Structure behind Temple of Samya (0200)World Monuments Fund
This structure, not as well preserved as others at Hatra, is located in the Temenos behind the Temple of Samya and in front of the Temple of the Triad.
Its function is unknown. However, some scholars interpret it as the assembly place of the Elders, as this is an area associated with ancient Hatra. Other researchers have suggested it could be an area for ablutions.
From excavation data, it appears to be dated to earlier phases of the Temenos.
Temple of Allat is located at the edge between the eastern and western section of the Temenos. Epigraphic information seems to confirm that Temple of Allat was built in the second half of the second century AD by King Sanatruq I and his son, Abd Samya. These two royal figures are represented in the statues in the niche of the back wall of the iwan.
The architrave of the western door was decorated by a frieze with two lines of camels facing the head of a king.
The Ctesiphon Arch is one of the most recognizable sites in Iraq. Yet armed conflict and violence of the last decade have made this a site less frequently visited. Its increased isolation makes this drone footage a special opportunity for sharing with the public a view of one of the most magnificent remains of this early settlement on the Tigris. The remaining monumental structure is known as Taq Kasra. The site was settled in the 1st century BC and was the capital of the Parthian Empire. Today, Ctesiphon is a reminder of the deep roots civilization has in Iraq.
In collaboration with the Getty Conservation Institute, UNESCO, the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, WMF supported the creation of the Iraq Cultural Heritage Conservation Initiative to address the damages and threats to ancient monuments in Iraq that came about as a result of the 2003 war. Nimrud received an award from the initiative for protective efforts carried out at the sites. Sadly, in April 2015 news reports indicated that the palace at Nimrud had been destroyed; the following images of Nimrud depict the site prior to its destruction.
The palace was built by King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) on the Tigris River on the acropolis where palaces, temples and administrative buildings were located. This southern entrance from the inner courtyard (the bitanu) was guarded by two lumasi (plural for lamassu) and the façade was decorated with orthostats made from a local stone (marmar, also known as Mosul marble). The arch is reconstructed.
A modern simple shelter was built over the lumasi and the orthostats to protect them from weathering.
The lamassu, a protective deity at the principal doors of the Assyrian palaces, is represented as a winged bull with a human bearded head and five legs. Thus the figure appears to be standing when viewed from the front and as walking if seen in profile.
Below is one of the northern entrances to the throne room from the outer courtyard (the babanu), once guarded by three lumasi. The arch and the walls are 20th century reconstructions.
A small lumasi protects one of the northern entrances to the throne room of the North-West Palace. On the head, he is wearing a horned helmet or tiara, used by Assyrian deities and kings.
North-West Palace at Nimrud (-1365)World Monuments Fund
A line of orthostats in the North-West Palace; the first figure represents an Apkallu, or eagle-headed genie. As the lumasi, they stood in the palaces near the main doors for protection.
Below, a winged genie from room S in the North-West Palace is depicted standing, in profile, with two wings and wearing a three-horned helmet and sandals. He holds a flowering branch with blossoms, as a symbol of worship, and a mace, to connote authority.
Below, a detail of the Apkallu from an orthostat, made in marmar (Mosul marble), illustrates the fine details of the carver despite having suffered some damage to aging of materials and weathering over the years.
The detail of a Sacred Tree, possibly representing life, that was generally positioned between two figures such as two genies or the king and a genie. It is a very common motif in the reliefs of the North-West Palace.
Below is a half orthostat from the North-West Palace representing a figure in front of a Sacred Tree. He is holding a bucket (banduddu). It is said that the Sacred Tree is the most discussed symbol in the historiography of Assyrian art.
The detail above is of the handles of three daggers worn by the winged genie from room S in the North-West Palace. They are inserted in the waistband and one seems to terminate with a ram’s head.
The majority of the North-West Palace reliefs were crossed by the so-called “Standard Inscription of Ashurnasirpal” that described his victories, his new capital Nimrud and his palace.
The inscription is said to have had a magical and protective function.
In the early 2000s Nineveh was the focus of efforts to provide greater site protection to important archaeological sites in Iraq. At Nineveh, work included the installation of a protective cover over Sennacherib’s palace and the stationing of guards at both palaces, which protected the ruins from vandals.
Unfortunately, in early 2016, the new protective cover at Nineveh was looted, and many brick walls and metal pillars within the site were dismantled.
The new shelter below was built in 2004 by WMF.
In light of the assaults on cultural heritage at Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra, documentation and knowledge gained about the sites in earlier excavation, research and conservation campaigns becomes ever more important.