Iraqi militiamen, who this week chased Islamic State fighters from the ancient city of Hatra, found IS had destroyed relics dating back more than 2,000 years.
“Carvings and engraved images are destroyed, but the walls and towers of the Hatra Kingdom remain standing,” said Marwa Rashid, spokesperson for the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, a Shia militia that is clearing IS from villages in the country. north of Mosul in northern Iraq.
“There are many holes and scratches on the walls of the kingdom from IS bullets,” she said.
PMF units have taken full control of the historic city, about 110 kilometers southwest of Mosul, after a three-week offensive. Its recovery was part of a regional military operation known as Muhammad Prophet of God.
Historically known as the ancient city where East meets West, Hatra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the archaeological gems of Iraq and the capital of the first Arab kingdom. The large fortified site was founded in the 2nd or 3rd century BC and was once a prosperous city under the influence of the Parthian Empire.
Its high and thick walls, reinforced by towers, enabled it to resist the invasions of the Romans in the years 116 and 198. Its temples offer a unique mixture of Hellenistic and Roman architecture with oriental decorative elements.
The site remained untouched for decades until April 2015 when IS invaded. Citing the “un-Islamic” nature of Hatra, IS began destroying relics at the site.
In a video released by IS after its occupation, IS fighters are seen smashing sculptures with maces and destroying pictures and artifacts on ancient walls with assault rifles.
UNESCO, the cultural heritage arm of the United Nations, called the destruction a war crime and urged political and religious leaders in the region to take notice.
“The destruction and looting of the remains of the capital of the first Arab kingdom is an immense loss for the Iraqi people and the world. Its liberation marks a positive turning point and paves the way to ensure its protection and conservation”, declared the Director of UNESCO. General Irina Bokova said on Thursday.
PMF units said IS had planted landmines around the east gates of the site to deter their advances. Engineering teams will clear the site of any explosives before allowing Iraqi archaeologists to assess the damage.
“The Kingdom of Hatra will rise high, God willing,” Rashid said.
Since mid-2014, IS has destroyed dozens of historic sites in Iraq and Syria, including mosques, churches and Shia religious halls known as hussainiyas. The group claims that the shrines and statues are “false idols” that must be destroyed.
Sermed Alwan, president of the Iraqi Mesopotamian Heritage Association, said the extent of damage to ancient sites nationwide has yet to be determined. But the initial damage toll at Hatra is heartbreaking, he said.
“The loss of the Hatra relics is enormous for Iraq and for the international community,” he said.