HATRA, IRAQ (AFP) – Dozens of visitors wandering through the ancient ruins of Hatra in northern Iraq marveled at the area, where local initiatives are trying to turn a new leaf after a brief but brutal extremist rule.
Designated as an endangered world heritage site by UNESCO, Hatra dates back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC.
It’s a two-hour drive from Mosul, which was declared the former “capital” by the Islamic State (IS) group, which was recaptured in 2017 by Iraqi forces and an international coalition supporting them.
A tour of the region last Saturday, the first of its kind by a private museum in Mosul, was aimed at stimulating tourism in the region.
About 40 visitors, mostly Iraqis, were allowed to wander around the 2,000-year-old archaeological site during the golden hour of twilight.
Tourists took selfies in front of impressive porticoes and viewed reliefs destroyed by extremists. Luna Batota, 33, who is on tour with her Belgian husband, offers a glimpse into an ancient civilization that “has a great history”.
“A lot of history but also a lot of unfortunate events with ISIS here,” he told AFP.
Batota works for a pharmaceutical company in Belgium, where he has lived since he was nine years old.
He is returning to his hometown for the first time in twenty-four years. He said visiting Hatra evoked “mixed feelings” for him. “You see bullet holes, you see many empty bullets.”
An important religious and commercial center during the Parthian Empire, Hatra had imposing walls and magnificent temples that blended Greek and Roman architectural styles with oriental decorative elements.
In 2015, ISIS released a video showing its militants destroying a series of reliefs, shooting at them and hacking a statue with a pickaxe.
In February, authorities unveiled three restorations at the site: a Roman-style life-size figure sculpture and reliefs on the side of the temple.
Five years after the defeat of ISIS, Mosul and its environs have returned to normal, although rehabilitation efforts have stalled and many areas bear the brunt of the struggle against extremists.
The Hatra tour was organized by the Mosul Heritage House, a private museum that opened in June.
But the site attracted individual visitors even before that, according to 60-year-old engineer Fares Abdel Sattar, one of the organizers.
He said this new initiative aims to “showcase the heritage and identity” of Mosul and the wider province of Nineveh.
After coming to power in 2014 and occupying large parts of Iraq and Syria, IS has faced counter-attacks in both countries. Iraqi forces finally declared victory in late 2017.
As Iraq is slowly opening up to foreign tourism, dozens of visitors, mainly from the West, are now exploring the country, some even entering Mosul.
The Hatra group is visiting at a time when pioneers and US, British and other governments are warning their citizens not to travel to Iraq, citing the risks of terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict and civil unrest. The tourism industry also suffered a setback when British retired James Fitton, who was detained and sentenced to 15 years in prison for collecting pottery shards at an archaeological site, filed a lawsuit in July before a court overturned his sentence and returned to his country.
Religious tourism to the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf is developing mostly from Iran.
However, challenges remain, and tourism infrastructure is still essential in Iraq, an oil-rich but devastated country by decades of conflict.
“Mosul is not just war, ISIS, terrorism,” said Beriar Bahaa al-Din, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Exeter in England, during his visit to Hatra.
Mosul is a civilization, heritage, culture.
“This impressive site must be filled with tourists from all over the world.”