I'm fortunate enough to get to meet and work with some very adventurous people. One of them is writer Sean McLachlan, who contributes regular travel and adventure stories at Gadling.com just like I do. Sean has recently returned from a visit to Iraq, which is one of those places steeped in history and culture, but is viewed by many as far too dangerous to actually go and visit themselves. He's been posting stories of that amazing journey over on Gadling for the past few days, but he has also graciously offered to share one with Adventure Blog readers as well. You'll find that story, about a visit to an ancient Arab city below. Enjoy!
Hatra: Exploring an ancient city in Iraq
By Sean McLachlan
The city of Hatra was founded in the third century BC by Arab tribes. Archaeologists believe it was the first Arab city. In ancient times it sat on an important trade route and the only good water supply for miles of desolate wasteland. Hatra served as a vassal state to the Parthian Empire of Iran and thus ended up on the front line of its war against the Roman Empire. Roman legions besieged the city in 116 and 198 AD and were pushed back both times. The Hatrans had built four miles of strong city walls and used catapults to bombard the attackers with flaming balls of bitumen and jars filled with scorpions.
Nowadays Hatra lies in an underpopulated region in northern Iraq, about 180 miles northwest of Baghdad. Our bus sped for hours along a Saddam-era highway through featureless desert, escorted by a pickup truck packed with Kalashnikov-toting Iraq police. While we had had no serious trouble so far (other than my almost getting arrested) the police insisted on coming along. As I gazed out the window at the hypnotic expanse of brown sand and pale green scrub, I couldn’t imagine any terrorist wanting to bother with the place.
The first thing you see as you approach Hatra is a giant crane looming over a Greek-style temple. The crane was from a reconstruction project during the Saddam era, finished now just like Saddam. Our guide told us the crane has been standing there rusting for more than a decade. What should have been an eyesore seemed, upon reflection, to be an appropriate addition—another relic of dead imperial ambition.
Hatra’s kingdom has little left above the surface except at this site. As we approached, we passed low mounds that may have been Roman siege works like those at Masada, Israel. Then we came to the walls, which two thousand years of desert winds couldn’t entirely destroy. Even now they look formidable, and I wasn’t surprised that the Romans, parched under the Middle Eastern sun, failed to take them.
We parked in front of the main temple, which in fact housed temples to several gods and goddesses. Being located between several cultures, the Hatrans adopted many different deities—the Akkadian death god Nergal, as old as civilization itself; the Greek messenger god Hermes; even the new god Mithras, whose mystery religion was Christianity’s main competitor for converts in the first few centuries after Christ. The buildings had a mixed quality to them too, with the balance and symmetry of Greek architecture and the elaborate Oriental decoration of Mesopotamia and Persia.
Our guards seemed as impressed as I felt. None of them spoke English, so we relied on my 200-word vocabulary of badly pronounced Arabic. They found my repertoire vastly amusing and soon I had a small crowd of them following me around the ruins. They kept calling friends on their cell phones and having me try to talk to them. One guy called up his wife. All she heard was some foreign voice saying salaam aleykum and her husband laughing in the background.
She hung up.
We discovered a dark staircase piercing the cyclopean walls of the main temple. Treading carefully, we ascended and came out on top, our eyes blinking at the harsh sunlight. From there we looked out at the crumbled foundations of temples and homes. The Iraqi police filmed the scene with their cell phones and had me wave at the camera.
One stood next to me at the edge of the wall, smiling as he surveyed the ruins.
“Zeen,” I said. “Good.”
“Ha ha,” he laughed and nodded. “Zeen zeen.”
Our guide had told me that during the Saddam era the schools didn’t teach ancient history, instead only teaching the history of the Baath party and Saddam’s life. I wondered if this policeman knew anything about this place, knew that he was standing in the first great city of his people. I wondered what he thought about that.
I never found out. I lacked the words.