Five years after the defeat of ISIS, the first group of tourists visit the archaeological site of Hatra in northern Iraq.
Walking through the ancient ruins of Hatra in northern Iraq, dozens of visitors marveled at the place where local initiatives seek to start a new life after a brief but brutal jihadist rule.
Listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger by UNESCO, Hatra dates back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC.
It is a two-hour drive from Mosul, the former “capital” declared by the Islamic State (IS) group, which was recaptured in 2017 by Iraqi forces and the international coalition that backed them.
A tour of the site on Saturday, the first of its kind organized by a private museum in Mosul, aims to boost tourism in the area.
Approximately 40 visitors, most of whom were Iraqis, were allowed to walk through the more than 2,000-year-old archaeological site during the golden hour of twilight.
Tourists took selfies against the backdrop of impressive colonnades and viewed the bas-reliefs destroyed by ISIS jihadists.
“It has a great history that gives a glimpse into an ancient civilization,” said Luna Batota, a 33-year-old woman traveling with her Belgian husband.
“There has been a lot of history here with IS, but at the same time a lot of bad things,” she told AFP.
Batota has been working for a pharmaceutical company in Belgium, where she has lived since she was nine years old.
Twenty-four years later, she returns to her homeland for the first time.
According to her, visiting Hatra gave her “mixed feelings”. “You see bullet holes, you see a lot of empty bullets.”
An important religious and commercial center of the Parthian Empire, Hatra had imposing fortifications and magnificent temples that combined Greek and Roman architectural styles with oriental decorative elements.
In 2015, IS released a video showing its fighters destroying a number of bas-reliefs, firing at them and hacking at the statue with a pickaxe.
In February, authorities unveiled three restorations at the site: a Roman-style sculpture depicting a life-size figure and reliefs on the wall of a large temple.
– “Not only war” –
Five years after the defeat of ISIS, Mosul and its environs have regained a sense of normalcy, even as reconstruction efforts fail and many areas still bear the scars of the fight against jihadists.
The tour of Hatra was organized by the Mosul Heritage House, a private museum opened in June.
But the site has attracted individual visitors before, according to one of the organizers, Fares Abdel Sattar, a 60-year-old engineer.
The new initiative aims to “showcase the heritage and identity” of Mosul and its wider province of Nineveh, he said.
Since taking power in 2014 and conquering territories in Iraq and Syria, IS has faced counteroffensives in both countries. In late 2017, Iraqi forces finally won.
As Iraq gradually opens up to foreign tourism, dozens of visitors, especially from the West, are now exploring the country, with some even venturing into Mosul.
The Hatra Group is a pioneer visiting the country at a time when US, British and other governments are warning their citizens against traveling to Iraq, citing the risks of terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict and civil unrest.
The tourism sector also suffered setbacks in the case of British pensioner James Fitton, who was detained and sentenced to 15 years in prison for shards of pottery he picked up from an archaeological dig before a court overturned the sentence in July and he flew home.
Religious tourism to the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf is booming, mostly from Iran.
However, problems remain and tourism infrastructure is still a staple in Iraq, a country rich in oil but devastated by decades of fighting.
“Mosul is not only war, ISIS and terrorism,” said Beriar Bahaa al-Din, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Exeter in the UK, during a visit to Hatra.
“Mosul is a civilization, a heritage, a culture,” he added.
“This impressive place must be full of tourists from all over the world.”