Hatra, capital of the first Arab Kingdom, has withstood attacks from Romans, erosion and degradation for over 2,000 years (Encyclopedia Britannica 2015). Straddling major routes between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean sea on the silk road, it grew into a center of religion, trade and warfare during the time of the Parthian Empire. The global heritage of Hatra can be seen in its ancient relics and edifices which offer unique insights into the secrets of cities and cultures which existed long ago. Archaeologists are well versed in Hatra’s past, which was well maintained as the city’s walls safeguarded it from destruction–the legions of both the Emperors Trajan and Severus assailed Hatra’s fortifications without success (Encyclopedia Britannica 2015). Hatra stands not only as the citadel which defied the Romans, but as a lasting symbol of Ancient Near Eastern culture. The Irish Times summarizes the whole of attacks that ISIS mounted against cultural heritage; including the detonation of temples and tombs and defacing museums. Michael Jansen, of the Irish Times, wrote: “Iraq’s director of antiquities Qais Hussein said the destruction was a “huge loss to Iraqi heritage . . . It is history for all the world”” (Jansen 2016). The Irish Times further asserts that the intention behind these attacks on cultural heritage is to expunge primary components of Iraqi history to predicate the ideology of the Islamic State. CNN writers refer to Hatra as one of many sites in Iraq which have been threatened by the Iraq war and its consequential chaos (Alkhshali, Cullinane, Tawfeeq 2015).
Archaeologists have studied the impact of war, destruction and bloodshed, as a constant throughout history. History shows that the urge to destroy often comes from hatred of an out-group. Hatra is currently under UNESCO protection as a result of deliberate destruction of heritage as acts of war (UNESCO 2016). Irina Bokova, head of the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO stated that “The destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing under way in Iraq” (Coles/Rasheed 2015).
Endangering Factor: Conflict
UNESCO characterizes the factors threatening Hatra as conflict and deliberate destruction of heritage (UNESCO 2016). Hatra has stood since before the birth of Christ, and was home to a staggering array of coexisting cultures and religions. According to ancient pages, “[Hatra] featured Greek, Mesopotamian, Syrian and Arabian pantheons“ (Ancient Pages 2016). The city stands as a testament to accepting people of different faiths and dedication to tolerance, which makes it a target to those who oppose this acceptance. Christopher Jones, writing for Ancient History, says: “ISIS is…acting to…erase the physical evidence of ideas and history whose existence stands in opposition to their own ideology” (Jones 2015). The jihadists currently occupying it view the destruction of these artifacts, which they regard as haram(Arabic for forbidden), to be a religious mandate. In Islam, it is forbidden to have images of people or animals in a place of worship, as it is seen as idolatry. In less than a day, the remnants of society which predated both Islam and Christianity were desolated. It is truly disturbing when a valued archaeological site,such as Hatra, is destroyed by extremists in the name of a religion which had not yet been founded when Hatra was constructed.
Impact of Past Conflicts on the Archaeological Record
These same factors which endanger Hatra have had an irreparable impact on the archaeological record. Across history, conflict and terrorism are well precedented to have damaged both the written and physical archaeological record. In many cases conflict led to the pillaging of the vanquished society; which consequently disappeared from history itself and can no longer be subject to archaeological study. According to Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD, in 1258 CE the Mongols conquered Baghdad and destroyed the main library of Baghdad, the House of Wisdom. Its ample collection of manuscripts and books thrown into the Tigris River, which is said to have run black from the ink dissolved into the water (Nazeer).
Arguably one of the most tragic acts of destruction to the archaeological record is the burning of the Library of Alexandria. While there is still dispute on who scorched the Library of Alexandria, it is agreed to have been the result of conflict. The philosopher Plutarch wrote: “when the enemy tried to cut off his (Julius Caesar’s) fleet, he was forced to repel the danger by using fire, and this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library” (Ancient Origins 2014). Whether or not damage to the archaeological record was intended, conflict has both endangered and destroyed archaeological sites in the past and present.
According to Joshua J. Mark in the Ancient History Encyclopedia: “War has been an important factor in creating states and empires throughout history and, equally so, in destroying them” (Mark 2009). In some cases, conflict can help societies to move forward, while in other cases the inevitably destructive qualities of war can not only shatter fragile societies, but can also erase significant parts of history from the archaeological record.
For example, in reference to the ancient history encyclopedia, the Romans waged war on Carthage for three years until it fell. At which point “the Romans burned it to the ground, leaving not one stone on top of another” (Mark 2011). As a result, Carthage was essentially expunged from the earth, with only few traces remaining in the archaeological record (Pilkington 2013).
In 330 BCE Alexander the Great ordered unforgivable destruction to the archaeological record in his destruction of the Persian city of Persepolis. Its palace is said to have housed “the greatest treasures, literary works and works of art in all the empire” (Mark 2011).
Past conflict has hindered the archaeological record and destroyed sites of cultural value. In some cases, such as Troy, the pieces can be picked up millennia later, but usually the damage is irreversible, and things which should not have been forgotten are lost. It is essential that all possible steps to curb the terrorists pillaging are taken, or lessons will be permanently lost from Hatra, too.
It is ironic that the remains of ancient civilizations that fell due to war, are themselves destroyed in war. It is also true that warfare can fragment culture just as it fragments artifacts. When a rival country or empire invades an area which is historically significant they often pillage the area. Archaeologists can share their findings and educate the public on the value that cultural sites hold and why they should be protected. Joe Watkins poses this crucial question: “…when does heritage become a matter of grave concern? When one group uses it as a weapon against another, or possesses it when it’s important to another, or destroys it for political purposes” (Watkins 2016). Conflict in the Middle East has become a global issue which threatens cultural heritage. Archaeologists should lead the public in the acknowledgement of the impacts of conflict, and the necessity of protecting our species’ history. Hatra and many other sites protected by UNESCO are currently threatened by conflict. UNESCO cannot send peacekeepers into a warzone to physically protect the site; however, it can educate the public on the importance of preserving our shared heritage. Shared cultural heritage acts as a unifying factor in the face of the conflict that is taking place in the Middle East. Amr al-Azm, a Syrian Archaeologist, states that “Despite the huge divides between the warring factions, this shared common history acts as the glue that holds Syrian society together (Zorich 2016). Archaeology is unique in that it is used to learn more about our shared identity. More importantly, it is a way of learning about our shared past: where we all came from and the ways in which we share the same history with every other human on earth.
Hatra has survived for thousands of years; hopefully it can also survive the ravages of ISIS. A mosaic of Eastern and Western culture, Hatra has held meaning to several religions, and it belongs to both no one and everyone. It is for no single individual, group or nation to reclaim or destroy. Just as hundreds of generations have handed down to us the privilege to admire Hatra, this same right is owed to future generations. Sabloff, author of Archaeology Matters, references Joel Kotkin to have written: “...critical factors have determined the overall health of cities–the sacredness of place, the ability to provide security and project power…When these factors are present, urban culture flourishes. When those elements weaken, cities dissipate and eventually recede out of history” (Sabloff 2008: 71). Is that the fate of a city which has stood for two millenniums? No, Hatra’s future can stand as a reminder of the harmful effects of conflict, intolerance and religious extremism. The destruction of Hatra should not be faded out of history, but preserved as a caution of what happens when we forget our own history. Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are forever condemned to repeat them, but once the lesson itself is destroyed, what hope is there?
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