Ancient ruins still stand amid Iraq chaos

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HATRA, Iraq - Over 2,000 years ago this thriving Mesopotamian oasis city welcomed caravans of camels carrying travelers between East and West, twice held back Roman invaders, and was famous for its tolerance of different religions. Now Hatra sits in ruins in a vast desert.

Parts of its giant temples, columns and arches are still standing under the incessant sun but its city center is probably visited by more rabbits than people. Around it stands a nation still struggling to heal ancient grievances between feuding religious and ethnic groups, hoping to revisit high points in its history where the roots of civilization once sprouted.

The United Nations has declared it a world heritage site, but few people these days risk journeying to the ruins, 200 miles north of Baghdad.

Inside the circular city stand several largely intact temples to ancient gods, including a stone shrine over two stories high, dedicated to Shamash, the sun god. Although many relics and statues were rushed away to museums in Baghdad and Mosul during the 2003 invasion, a statue of a robed woman, possibly a king’s wife, still stares down at visitors.

Inscriptions in Aramaic, the language once spoken by Christ, are still visible on some buildings.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, looters shot and damaged decorated features on Hatra’s walls, McGuire Gibson, an archaeology professor at the University of Chicago, said in an e-mail.

“The site is wonderful to walk around in, especially late in the evening and early in the morning,” he said. “It is amazing that such a large city could exist where it does, dependent on cisterns and ground water.”

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