UNESCO world heritage site Hatra receives boost as tourists return

Tourists visit the ancient city of Hatra in northern Iraq on September 10, 2022
Tourists visit the ancient city of Hatra in northern Iraq on September 10, 2022   -   Copyright  ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP
By Rita Palfi  with AFP

Iraqi authorities are claiming a victory of a cultural kind after reopening one of the country's most cherished sites to tourists. 

The ruins of Hatra, a more than 2,000 year-old archaeological site near Mosul, is in the heart of the former "capital" proclaimed by the Islamic State militant group, ISIL. It used to be an important religious and trading centre under the Parthian empire in 300-100 BC.

But in 2015, much of the world watched helplessly in horror as a ISIL video showed some of its members destroying a series of reliefs. Some fired bullets into the building while others hacked away at statues with  pickaxes.

Hatra is designated an endangered world heritage site by UNESCO. It had imposing fortifications and magnificent temples, blending Greek and Roman architectural styles with oriental decorative elements. But it has not been visited by tourists for years.

Véronique Dauge @UNESCO
The remains of the large fortified city of HatraVéronique Dauge @UNESCO

In 2015 the world watched terrified and outraged a video made by the terrorist group showing its militants destroying a series of reliefs, they were firing at them and hacking away at a statue with a pickaxe.

Even though Iraqi forces backed by an international coalition recaptured Hatra in 2017, the site had not been rediscovered by people.

A private museum took matters in their hands to change that and started organising tours. The first one took place last week and the visitors were amazed and moved by seeing the ruins.

"There's a feeling of sadness, not just when it comes to the destruction at the site, but also because there are no explanatory or informative labels about the ruins,” said Beriar Bahaa al-Din, doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Exeter in Britain told AFP. 

He believes that because of its history the place should be a world tourist attraction visited by people from all over the globe. For the moment, however, it is really difficult to get there, “you must know people in the area to be able to reach it”, he added.

Video editor • Maxime Caron