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Iraq’s ancient ruins open to tourism after ISIS atrocities

Five years after the defeat of ISIS, the first group of tourists visited the archaeological site of Hatra in northern Iraq

Hatra (Iraq) (AFP) – Dozens of visitors wandered along the ruins of the ancient city of Hatra in northern Iraq, as dozens of visitors admired the site, as local initiatives seek to turn a new page after a short but brutal jihadist rule.

The city of Hatra has been designated a World Heritage Site in danger of extinction by UNESCO, dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC.
It is a two-hour drive from Mosul, the former “capital” declared by the Islamic State (ISIS), which was recaptured by Iraqi forces and the international coalition that supported them in 2017.
A site tour, Saturday, is the first of its kind organized by a private museum in Mosul, with the aim of promoting tourism in the area.

Iraq hopes to attract more foreign tourists, but it still lacks the infrastructure to support it
About 40 visitors, mostly Iraqis, were allowed to tour the 2,000-year-old archaeological site at the golden hour of twilight.

The tourists took selfies in front of the magnificent corridors and inspected the inscriptions destroyed by ISIS jihadists.
“She has a great history,” said 33-year-old Luna Batuta, who is on tour with her Belgian husband, allowing a glimpse into an ancient civilization.

“A lot of history, but at the same time there were many unfortunate events here with the Islamic State,” she told AFP.
Batuta works for a pharmaceutical company in Belgium, where she has lived since she was nine years old.

Twenty-four years later, this is the first time she has returned to her homeland.
She said Hatra’s visit stirred up “mixed feelings” for her. “You see bullet holes, you see many empty bullets.”

The ancient city of Hatra was an important religious and commercial center under the Parthian Empire

Hatra was an important religious and commercial center under the Parthian Empire, imposing impressive fortifications and temples, and blending Greek and Roman architectural styles with oriental decorative elements.

In 2015, the Islamic State released a video showing its fighters destroying a series of reliefs, shooting them and piercing a statue with an axe.
In February, authorities unveiled three restorations at the site: a life-size Roman-style statue of a person and reliefs on the side of the large temple.

– ‘It’s not just war’ –

Many parts of Iraq still bear the scars of the fight against the Islamic State
Five years after the defeat of ISIS, Mosul and its surroundings have regained a sense of life returning to normal, although rehabilitation efforts suffer setbacks and many areas still bear the scars of the fight against the jihadists.
The urban tour was organized by the Mosul Heritage House, a private museum that opened in June.

But even before that, the site attracted single visitors, according to one of the organizers, Faris Abdul Sattar, a 60-year-old engineer.
This new initiative, he said, seeks to “highlight the heritage and identity” of Mosul and the broader Nineveh Governorate.

After rising to power in 2014 and invading swathes of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State faced counter-attacks in both countries. Iraqi forces finally declared victory in late 2017.

Tourists were taking selfies in front of magnificent arcades with Corinthian capitals
With Iraq gradually opening up to foreign tourism, dozens of visitors – especially from the West – are exploring the country, some even venturing into Mosul.

The urban group is a visitor at a time when the United States, Britain and other governments are warning their citizens against traveling to Iraq, citing the dangers of terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict and civil unrest.

The tourism sector also suffered a setback with the case of British pensioner James Fitton, who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison for cutting pottery he picked up at an archaeological site, before a court overturned the ruling in July and he returned home.

Religious tourism flourished to the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, mostly from Iran.
However, challenges remain and tourism infrastructure remains essential in Iraq, an oil-rich country devastated by decades of fighting.

“Mosul is not just war, ISIS, terrorism,” said Briar Bahauddin, a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Exeter in Britain, during a visit to Hatra.
“Mosul is a civilization, heritage and culture,” he added.
“This wonderful site must be filled with tourists from all over the world.”

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