A staging post on the Silk Road, Hatra was a cultural intersection as well as a fortress. It was an Arab city whose goddesses included Atargatis; some say she was taken home by wandering Greeks and renamed Aphrodite. The well-preserved temples of Hatra showed a blend of Roman, Hellenistic and Eastern styles. This rich interwoven history would have condemned Hatra doubly in the eyes of Islamic State’s wreckers — had they any understanding of it.
But all they see is idolatry; they are prisoners in a distorted time capsule of what they take to be authentic early Islam. Yet they use stolen tools of the industrialised West to wreak destruction: bulldozers in Hatra as in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, laid waste just two days ago. It is reminiscent of the frustrated rage of the Taliban in 2001 when they struggled to tear down the “false idols” of the giant Buddha statues in central Afghanistan. It took them several weeks and they too had to use the technology of infidel modernity: anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank mines and dynamite.
Reports of Hatra’s destruction have been greeted with dismay by all who respect antiquity as inseparable from today’s human story; it is no coincidence that those willing to tear out and burn the pages of history also kill, maim and repress whoever does not fit their own stunted narrative.
Hatra was inscribed on the World Heritage list of the UN. Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, deplored its destruction, pointing out that “it confirms the role of destruction of heritage in the propaganda of extremist groups”. Yet her characterisation of this outrage as “a direct attack against the history of Islamic Arab cities” is oddly selective. It is a reminder of the sad impotence of the UN in the face of Islamic State.