08 March 2015


The City of the Sun God

I began writing this post after the Islamicists' rampage through the Mosul Museum, but now news reports are coming in that ISIL bulldozers are also on their way to destroy the ancient city of Hatra some 80 km away.* This has not yet been confirmed, but it leaves me little time to explain just what we shall be losing if it turns out to be true. 

The spectacular ruins of Hatra are located in Jazirah (the area between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris) in Iraq, to the southwest of Mosul.  To get an idea of the site, have a look at this great video produced by UNESCO.  Don't bother with the wishfully anachronistic text; just look.

(Because UNESCO does not allow bloggers to embed videos, I can only link to it, so click on video and then on the direct Utube link).  After which, come back and read the rest....

The fortress city of Hatra arose in the Jazirah desert where it guarded the two main caravan routes connecting Mesopotamia with Syria and Anatolia.  The city was an independent small kingdom (including not only the town but a wide territory around it) on the fringe of the Parthian Empire.  By the first century BCE it had grown into a strongly fortified city, one of several such cities which sprung up in the space between Parthia and the Roman Empire. 
Hatra, Palmyra, Petra and Dura-Europos all made their fortune as trading stops between east and west. These cities were client states of either Rome or Parthia, with Hatra choosing Parthia. The city was ruled by lords, later called kings, who were vassals of the Parthian King of Kings.  Inscriptions refer to Hatrene rulers as 'King of Arab' and the territory is named as 'Arab', with the nomadic population that roamed the steppe known as 'Arabs'. 

Hatra (in Aramaic htr` ) is undoubtedly our best preserved example of a Parthian city.  The city must have been of great strategic importance at the time.  Roman historians tell us that the emperors Trajan and Septimius Severus personally attempted its conquest. 

Trajan, who had planned to extend the Roman frontier up to the river Tigris, marched southwards along the river Euphrates, capturing great parts of Babylonia up to the Persian Gulf and even the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad). On his retreat from there in 117 CE he attacked Hatra.  Dio Cassius (68.31.1) says that the siege failed chiefly because of "the lack of water, timber, and green fodder".  The emperor Septimius Severus met the same fate eighty years later, when the city was under the rule of  the Hatrene king Barsêmías (thus Herodian 3.1.30; probably king 'Abdsêmyâ of the inscriptions).  He laid siege to Hatra twice  (in 193 and 197) without achieving anything.  The position of the city, its strong walls, and the strength of its warriors eventually forced the emperor to withdraw.  It was in the period between those failed sieges at the beginning and the end of the 2nd century that Hatra reached the peak of its prosperity and became one of the most beautiful cities in the East.

Defeat finally came at the hands of Ardashir, who had overthrown the Parthians and founded the new Sasanian-Persian empire.  Even he failed at his first attempt (230 CE) and only cracked it ten years later (240 CE).  The survivors were deported, the city abandoned and never again inhabited.  In effect, we have an entire city more or less as it was when people left it in the middle of the third century.  

Hatra is a unique example of a fortified Parthian city. 

The fortification system is immense. The city was guarded by two concentric and nearly circular city walls almost two km in diameter and 6.4 km (4  miles) in circumference. The outer wall (3m thick and 10m high) was made of clay bricks with 4 gates, 11 bastions, 28 great towers and more than 160 smaller towers. Once any enemy had crossed this first wall, he'd still be faced with a moat and the second wall. In fact, the heavily fortified gates of the second wall could only be reached by ascending up ramps which run parallel to the wall.

In the very center of the city is a huge rectangular sacred area of about 440 by 320 m [1500 x 1000'], surrounded by a massive wall and divided by another wall into an enormous forecourt and a smaller court where the main temples are situated.  Hatra was clearly not only a political and economic powerhouse but also a great religious centre for the desert people living in and around the city. 

All the buildings inside the sacred area are temples characterized by iwans (great halls open to the front and roofed with high barrel vaults).  The striking architectural feature of the iwans, namely the barrel vault, is an innovation which came in quite suddenly in the Parthian period, suggesting a kind of a technical revolution at that time. The buildings display a unique mixture of Assyrian, Hellenistic,  Parthian, and Roman styles.

The main shrine in that central sacred area is the so-called Great Temple (or Great Iwan), an enormous structure with that once rose to 30 metres. This was the home of Hatra's most important gods, Maren ("Our Lord") and Bar-Maren ("the Son of Our Lord").   The square temple of the sun-god Shamash (probably = Maren) was attached to the Great Iwan. Shamash was undoubtedly the chief god of the pantheon as can be read from the legend on Hatrene coins, "Enclosure of Shamash", which suggests that the whole city was dedicated to the Sun-god.  Those iwans and the Shamash Temple were built at the beginning of the 2nd century.

Within the sacred area are three more temples dedicated to other gods and one to Allat, the goddess of the city.  At least fourteen smaller temples honouring a host of different deities are scattered elsewhere throughout the domestic quarters of the city.  Foremost among these gods was a Heracles-figure, who was worshipped in Hatra under the name of Nergal (below left).

Which brings us back to ISIL's barbaric smashing of statues within the Mosul Museum. 

As Christopher Jones tells us on his blog Gates of Nineveh

The damage by ISIS to the artistic legacy of Hatra has been catastrophic.

This tragedy is compounded by the fact that Hatrene sculpture has been chronically understudied. Almost all of it was excavated in the 20th century and the finds never left Iraq.... Very few scholars outside of Iraq have had the opportunity to study the statues.

And now they are gone.

With heavy heart, we follow Christopher and turn to the statues and their fate in Part II of this post.

(For Part II, click here)

* Up to date reports on the Mosul Museum from the blog, Gates of Nineveh -  Part I:  Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 1: The Assyrian Artifacts, and Part II: Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part II: The Sculptures from Hatra.  And on the damage to the city of Nimrud: ISIL 'bulldozes' ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud  (predicting that Hatra would be next).
Sources: Lucinda Dirven, 'Aspects of Hatrene Religion', in (T. Kaizer, ed.) The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,Leiden 2008, 209-46;    Rüdiger Schmitt on the 'Iranian World: Parthian Hatra' via CAIS/SOAS; Thomas Twohey, on 'Ancient Hatra' via Roman Empire net;

Video Link: HATRA: UNESCO/NHK World Heritage Site Documentary
The partnership between UNESCO and NHK Japanese broadcasting corporation builds on state-of-the-art digital visual and sound processing technologies for the production of short digital TV documentaries on Heritage using Hi-Vision technology as well as quality 3-D moving images and reconstruction images related to the World Heritage Sites. 


Top right: Map of Region.  

Top left: The ruins in 1911 (excavations led by Walter Andrae of the German excavation team working in Assur from 1906 to 1911).  Photo via: CAIS-SOAS.

Second left: Schematic plan of Hatra; after J. Khalil Ibrahim, Pre-Islamic Settlement in Jazirah, Baghdad, 1986, 321. 

Top centre: View of the Great Iwan after restoration.  Photo credit: UNESCO/© Photo Scala, Florence

Second centre:  Detail view of the Great Iwan after restoration.  Photo credit: Dieter Radow

Lower left: Busts of gods and goddesses built into the temple walls.  Photo credit: University of Chicago, Photographic Collection

Lowest left: Statue of Heracles-Nergal.  Photo credit: Wikipedia 


  1. It is not easy to learn these details. It certainly could not have been easy for you to compile and interpret them with clear descriptions. Thank you for doing so. The civilizations of our time must be confronted with the gleefully destructive and zealous rampage of the barbarians who seek to rob all humanity of an understanding of the civilizations that preceded us.

  2. they're all cover up the truth of the female Ray of Allah meaningful All love Rah Soul Allah Massaya is Master Mother Goddess Teaching There is no god oh gods but Goddess Teaching of All love name of Allah meaningful All love

  3. Dear Judith:
    Thank you very much for this very nice topic.
    I have to mention one thing very important in which the non-Arabic speaking reader may confuse:
    There is a big difference between the so-called "3arabs عَرَب" & the so-called " A3rabs أعراب".
    The first one indicates the very ancient, cicilized people who dwelt in the area bounded from the higher sea(black sea) north to the lower sea(Read sea) south & from the 3amoro sea(Mediterranean) west to the Arabic(Persian) gulf & Zaghrous mountains east.
    The second word(A3rab) indicates the nomadic people that liaed on the of the the previously mentioned civilized zone with contineous interactions & exchanges between theses two people since more than 10000 years.
    By the way, the word "Hatra ܚܬܪܐ" is of Syriac(Aramic or old Arabic) origin which means " prosperity, richness....etc.". No doubt this name tells us the ancient Syrian (not Parthian) nature of its civilization.


  4. Dear Mazan,

    Thank you for your interesting comment. The name of 'Hatra' is usually explained as meaning 'enclosure' or 'fortress' but, in the absence of Hatrene literature, it is hard to be sure. The wide area you describe as 'arab' can better be thought of as 'Semitic' (excluding Anatolia to the Black Sea, which was inhabited by many different Indo-European peoples). Arabs are, of course, one branch of the great Semitic language group. In the time of Hatra's rise, some Arabs had already settled in towns; for example, the Nabataeans in Petra and Bosra. In other places, populations were mixed Semitic groups; for example at Palmyra.
    There is still quite a lot for us to learn about the early first millennium in the Middle East.
    Warm good wishes, Judith


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