Iraq – Hatra

Archaeological Research at Hatra
Roberta Venco Ricciardi

The Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente e l'Asia, together with the University of Turin, conducted explorations and studies of Hatra, the capital of the Arab tribes in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates, which became the ancient tribes’ most important pre-Islamic city between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD. The Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi di Torino conducted numerous campaigns, one of the most important of which was the photogrammetric survey of Hatra's main sanctuary.


Hatra, the large pre-Islamic Arab city (300 hectares), is an isolated centre in northern Iraq, at the crossroads of the communications routes between central Mesopotamia, Syria and the Mediterranean area. Although trade was not one of the city’s main activities, Hatra may have been a layover on a secondary route and may have benefited from its position. In fact, on the Peutingerian Table it is displayed as a layover in the Jazirah’s road network.
Allied with the great Parthian king, who controlled an area that extended from central Asia to Mesopotamia, Hatra was the Jazirah’s main city, probably the “Arabaya” of the local royal inscriptions, ruled by an independent dynasty whose rulers proclaimed themselves “kings of the Arabs”. The presence at the city’s centre of a large and opulent sanctuary (450x300 m) indicates how Hatra’s development was mostly due to its role of a religious centre dedicated to Shamash, the Sun God, worshipped by Arab tribes.

Centro Scavi's research

Centro Scavi’s interest for the city dates back to 1967, when the photogrammetric survey of parts of the structures of the city’s Great Sanctuary was conducted for the Antiquities Department. Then, in 1986 research led by R. Ricciardi Venco started, and in 1987 excavations for identifying the sanctuary’s phases of occupation and its origin began. While the excavations were underway, the city’s topography was also studied in greater depth, especially in its eastern part, and in 1989 the Iraqi-Italian Centre for Restorations of Monuments began a topographical and architectural survey of the Great Sanctuary’s walls.
1987 saw the beginning of excavations of a large dwelling (Building A) located north of the Great Sanctuary and of a section of the adjacent road, the main thoroughfare joining the temenos to the city walls’ north gate. The quarter seems to possess a composite appearance and several functions: commercial, residential and religious, in accordance with the city’s distinctive Arab character. Building A, a large and opulent dwelling that in its most recent phase (around 200 AD) extended over an area of over 1850 square metres, is located on the east side of the road. Its plan comprises several parts with specific functions; the most important took place in the central courtyard, which included an iwan and an altar on which statues were placed, including one of a young god with a standard and two winged victories of well defined iconography in the central Sanctuary. South of the courtyard, a large rectangular room was decorated with paintings depicting hunting scenes. The room opened onto the southern suite of the building, probably a dwelling area developed around an ample courtyard that was closed off to the south by a covered portico. An iwan with an apsidal plan faced the north side. The northern part of the dwelling was dedicated to household activities such as the preparation of food and weaving, as attested by small ovens, mill stones and loom weights. The dwelling and the objects that were found in it display a wealth comparable to that of the city’s religious compounds.
The investigations of Building A and of the adjacent road allowed to establish the chronology of its phases, from the late 2nd century to the mid-3rd century AD, coinciding with the city’s demise. In fact, the excavation provided not only valuable artistic documents, but also an exact sequence of materials, essential for establishing the site’s chronology. In 1993, after an interruption caused by the war, research resumed on behalf of the University of Turin.


2013, “Hatra. Documenti e note sul Santuario del Sole”, in Μνημειον. Scritti in memoria di Paolo Fiorina, raccolti da Antonio Invernizzi (Mnème, 9), 219-249.

VENCO RICCIARDI R. 1988, “Preliminary Report on the 1987 Excavation at Hatra”, Mesopotamia, XXIII, 31-42.
1990, “Second Preliminary Report on the Excavation at Hatra (Season 1988)”, Mesopotamia, XXV, 37-45.
1992, “Archaeological Research at Hatra, Preliminary Report on the 1989 Season”, Mesopotamia, XXVII, 189-198.
1996, “Domestic Architecture at Hatra”, in K.R. Veenhof (Ed.), Houses and Households in Ancient Mesopotamia. Papers read at the 40th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Leiden, July 5-8-1993, Istanbul, 309-321.
1996, “Wall Paintings from Building A at Hatra”, Iranica Antiqua, XXXI, 147-165.
1998, “Pictorial Graffiti in the City of Hatra”, in E. Dabrova (Ed.), Ancient Iran and the Mediterranean World (Electrum, vol. 2), Krakow, 187-205.
1998, “Preliminary Report on the 1995 Excavations at Hatra”, Mesopotamia, XXXIII, 261-273.
2002, “Dossier Hatra”, Topoi, 10/1, 87-265.
2004, “Immagini graffite dall’Edificio A di Hatra”, Parthica, 6, 203-225.

1998, “Preliminary Report on the 1995 Excavations at Hatra”, Mesopotamia, XXXIII, 261-273.

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