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«The articles assembled in this volume are based on papers presented during a colloquium on Hatra that was held at the University of Amsterdam in ...»

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Lucinda Dirven

The articles assembled in this volume are based on papers presented during a colloquium on Hatra that was held at the University of Amsterdam in December

2009. The aim of the colloquium was the same as of this book: to establish the

status quo of research into this important late Parthian settlement, to determine the

lacunae in our knowledge and to formulate the main topics of future research.

Back in 2009, the time seemed particularly right for such a gathering; after years of archaeological research in which a huge amount of data had been assembled, investigations had come to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of the Second Gulf War in 2003. The colloquium was organised in anticipation of renewed research once the conflict had ended. At the time of the writing of this introduction, almost three years later, archaeological research in Hatra is still impossible and the Hatrene objects that are stored in Iraqi museums are extremely difficult to access for non-Iraqi scholars. It is hoped that this book contributes to keeping Hatra’s memory alive and will fire enthusiasm into future generations of researchers, both in Iraq and abroad. So far, Hatra has yielded an immense amount of data that have great potential for a better understanding of the culture, politics and religion of the city itself, of the Jezirah region and of the Parthian Empire as a whole. Undoubtedly, the ruins still hide many more treasuries for us. But an assessment of former research is crucial to future investigations.


The spectacular archaeological remains of Hatra are located in the Jezirah, in the north of present-day Iraq, about 50 kilometres west of ancient Assur, and 85 kilometres south-west of the modern city of Mosul. The city’s excellent state of its preservation is explained by its sudden abandonment in 240 CE, after which it was never inhabited again. References to Hatra’s successful resistance to Roman and Sasanian troops in classical and Arabic sources gave the ancient city a legendary status and turned it into a destination for European travellers at an early date.

Research first started at the beginning of the last century, with the German expedition led by Walter Andrae, who was working in Assur at the time. Andrae paid the ruins only a few short visits, during which he and his team succeeded to photograph and record all visible remains. The two outstanding publications (1908 and 1912) that resulted from this fieldwork still are an indispensable starting point for all research into the city.

Lucinda Dirven After Iraq’s independence in 1951, the city became one of the preferred projects of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Iraqi archaeologists have worked in Hatra with scarcely any interruption from the fifties till the present day.1 Archaeological research concentrated on the Central Temenos with its monumental buildings, the fourteen small shrines thus far discovered in the domestic area of the city and the northern and eastern city gates and adjoining fortifications. In addition to excavations, the efforts of the Iraqi archaeologists have been concentrated on restoration of the ruins, in particular the buildings in the Great Temenos. When one compares photographs taken before the fifties with the present day situation, the magnitude of these repairs is clear.2 Although perhaps stimulating for tourism (that could have flourished under different political conditions), these restorations may well have hampered a correct reconstruction of the city because they are not necessarily correct, are irreversible and obstruct future investigations.

Till about the middle of the seventies of the last century, Fuad Safar and Muhammad Ali Mustafa headed the Iraqi excavations. They published the results of subsequent campaigns in the journal Sumer. In 1974, Hatra. The City of the Sun God appeared, a monograph that covers their research into the Great Temenos and eleven small shrines. Unfortunately, the book is in Arabic and is difficult to get hold of in the non-Arab world. Although it is the most extensive publication on Hatra to date and lavishly illustrated, the description of architectural remains and sculptures is fairly short and it is frequently impossible to verify the research data.

The work of Safar and Mustafa was carried on by Wathiq Ismail al-Salihi, Subhi Abdallah, Jabir Khalil Ibrahim and Hikmat Basheer al-Aswad. They investigated another three small temples in the city and the northern and eastern city gates and the adjoining fortifications. The London PhD thesis of Ibrahim (1986) - who was the director of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage from 2001 till 2003 - focuses on Hatra and its position in the Jazirah. His archaeological fieldwork in the region surrounding the city is still unique in its kind. An overview of the archaeological work done after Safar and Mustafa is sorely needed. So far, the results were published in separate articles, mainly in the journals Sumer, Iraq, Mesopotamia, Parthica and the Bulletin of the Asia Institute. The quality of these publications varies; several of the articles in Sumer are in Arabic and the quality of the photographs in this journal is often deplorable.

An Italian team led by Professor Roberta Venco Ricciardi worked at Hatra with intervals from 1987 till 2002. Their efforts have concentrated on soundings in the Great Temenos, the tombs and the excavation of several domestic buildings

- issues that were largely ignored by the Iraqi archaeologists. In 1990, a Polish mission headed by Professor Michal Gawlikowski worked for one year in Hatra   1 Rumour has it that restoration of the great iwans was resumed in the spring of 2010. During this project the floors of the Great Iwans were renewed.

2 Gertrude Bell’s splendid photographs, made during her visit in April 1911 give a good impression of the site before restoration. They are accessible via the Gertrude Bell Archive:

http://www.gerty.ncl.ac.uk/index.phpd. For recent pictures of the city and it remains, see Sommer (2003a).

Introduction 11 and investigated the remains of the ancient city walls inside the present fortification walls. The reports of both teams have been duly published and are of great importance for the reconstruction of the early history of the city, a history that is still very much unknown.

It is clear from the above that research into Hatra was predominantly an Iraqi affair. Due to the political situation in Iraq and the ongoing tensions between Iraq and the western world, publications of Hatra’s finds are frequently insufficient and are sometimes difficult to access by western scholars. It has never been easy for western scholars to visit the ruins or to study the monuments stored in Iraqi museums. Consequently, the potential of this city for a better understanding of the Parthian world and its relationship with the Roman west has never been fully explored.

Although Hatra pops up in most studies related to various aspects of the Parthian world and its relation with the West, its monuments are hardly ever discussed in detail or compared with material from contemporary cities in the Syrian Mesopotamian desert, such as Palmyra, Dura-Europos or Edessa.3 The tendency has been to put Hatra on a par with these cities and to consider them representatives of the same culture before making an in-depth analysis of the Hatrene material.4 Hatra was, however, the only one of these cities that was part of the Parthian Empire for the greater part of its existence. Its potential for a better understanding of this culture is therefore unparalleled.

Very little is known about the history of the Parthian Empire and its relationship with the Roman West. Despite the fact that the Parthian Empire lasted almost five centuries and covered an immense area in central Asia and the Near East, hardly anything is known about the Parthians since their enemies wrote most of our literary sources. The remains of Parthian culture are equally sparse and are largely found in the most western regions of their vast empire. Hardly anything is known about the material culture in Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital in Mesopotamia. By far the majority of the sources that throw light upon this empire originate from regions at its borders, such as Hatra. This material entails possibilities for a better understanding of Parthian culture, but also specific methodological problems, for the situation in certain areas in the Parthian Commonwealth does of course not necessarily apply to the Empire as a whole.

In order to take full advantage of Hatra for understanding politics, culture and religion on the border of the Parthian Empire, it is essential that different finds like architecture, sculptures, coins and inscriptions are adequately published. So far, this was done several times for the now almost 500 Aramaic inscriptions that were found at the site - albeit most publications detach them from their archaeological context.5 The present author is preparing a catalogue of the sculptures that include the inscriptions, but the inaccessibility of the material greatly hampers this   3 There are, of course, several exceptions, such as Hauser (1998), Sommer (2003a) and (2005a). The 2000 issue of Topoi contains more than a few useful studies on various aspects of Hatra, as does Dossiers d’ archéologie 334 (juillet-août 2009).

4 E.g. Drijvers (1977).

5 Major publications are Vattioni (1981) and (1994), Aggoula (1991) and Beyer (1998).

Lucinda Dirven project. Secondly, it is essential that the cooperation between Iraqi and western scholars intensifies and that the results of Iraqi research are made fully accessible in the non-Arab world. The presence of Hikmat Basheer al-Aswad at the conference and his contribution to this volume give hope for the future.


The seventeen contributions in this volume are spread out over three themes that touch upon issues related to Hatra and its position in the Parthian Empire. The first section, “Between Parthia and Rome” discusses the relationship between Parthia and Rome on the one hand and Parthia and its vassal states on the other.

Till recently, a few references with classical writers were all that stood to our disposal. Hatra’s history also provides invaluable information in this respect. Information on Hatra’s history is largely provided by archaeological sources that are discussed in the second section, “The City and its Remains”. The third and final section, “Culture and Religion on the Crossroads”, contains articles related to Hatra’s position between the two great empires. Although most scholars agree that politically the city and its region belonged to the east, this by no means holds true for all aspects of its culture and religion.

The fact that articles are assigned to the same category does not mean that they do not touch on other issues as well. Frequently, the different categories overlap. Nor does their categorization imply that the authors in each section agree on all accounts. On the contrary; the following outline of the different contributions shows there are important differences amongst them. No attempt has been made to cover these up. On the contrary; they are brought to the fore because they show us the way forward concerning future research.


The three contributions in the first section, “Between Parthia and Rome”, deal with Hatra’s significance for our understanding of the political relationship between the super powers of the day; the Roman Empire on the one hand and the Parthian and Sasanian Empires on the other. Literary sources are our most important source of information to this respect. Unfortunately, these sources are fairly biased since they all have Roman authors. Be that as it may, it is clear that both western and eastern super powers showed a great interest in Hatra - a clear illustration of the geostrategic importance of the city. But to whom - if any - did the kingdom of Hatra belong? And what are the consequences of such a political alliance for its social organisation, culture and religion? Benjamin Isaac provides us with an overview of the available literary sources, all of which mention the city only in passing and in connection with the military conflicts between Rome and its major eastern neighbour. In Isaac’s view, Hatra and its region were very much

Introduction 13

part of the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries CE; a daring position not shared by most specialists in the field.

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