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Iraq’s ancient ruins open to tourism after IS atrocities

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Hatra (Iraq) (AFP) – Strolling along the ancient ruins of Hatra in northern Iraq, dozens of visitors admired the site, where local initiatives seek to turn the page on a brief but brutal jihadist regime.

Designated an endangered World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Hatra dates back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC.

It is a two-hour drive from Mosul, the former “capital” proclaimed by the Islamic State (IS) group, taken over in 2017 by Iraqi forces and an international coalition that supported them.

A visit to the site on Saturday, the first of its kind organized by a private museum in Mosul, was aimed at boosting tourism in the region.

About 40 visitors, mostly Iraqis, were allowed to wander the more than 2,000-year-old archaeological site during the golden hour of twilight.

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Tourists took selfies in front of impressive colonnades and inspected reliefs vandalized by IS jihadists.

“It has a great history” allowing a glimpse of an ancient civilization, said Luna Batota, 33, on tour with her Belgian husband.

“A lot of history but at the same time a lot of unfortunate events have happened here with IS,” she told AFP.

Batota works for a pharmaceutical company in Belgium, where she has lived since the age of nine.

Twenty-four years later, this is the first time she has returned to her native country.

Visiting Hatra brought “mixed feelings” for her, she said. “You see bullet holes, you see a lot of empty bullets.”

Important religious and commercial center under the Parthian Empire, Hatra had imposing fortifications and magnificent temples, mixing Greek and Roman architectural styles with oriental decorative elements.

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In 2015, IS released a video showing its militants destroying a series of bas-reliefs, shooting them and hacking into a statue with a pickaxe.

In February, authorities unveiled three restorations at the site: a Roman-style sculpture of a life-size figure and reliefs on the side of the large temple.

“Not just war”

Five years after the defeat of IS, Mosul and its surroundings have regained a sense of normalcy, even as rehabilitation efforts suffer setbacks and many areas still bear the scars of the fight against the jihadists.

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The visit to Hatra was organized by the Mosul Heritage House, a private museum inaugurated in June.

But even before, the site attracted individual visitors, according to one of the organizers, Fares Abdel Sattar, a 60-year-old engineer.

The new initiative aims to “highlight the heritage and identity” of Mosul and its wider Nineveh province, he said.

After coming to power in 2014 and conquering large swaths of Iraq and Syria, IS faced counter-offensives in both countries. Iraqi forces finally claimed victory in late 2017.

As Iraq gradually opens up to foreign tourism, dozens of visitors, especially Westerners, are now exploring the country, some even venturing to Mosul.

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The Hatra group is a pioneer, visiting at a time when the US, UK and other governments are warning their citizens against travel to Iraq, citing risks of terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict and civil unrest.

The tourism sector has also suffered a setback with the case of British pensioner James Fitton, who was detained and sentenced to 15 years in prison for potsherds he collected from an archaeological site, before a court in July quash the sentence and return home.

Religious tourism in the holy Shia cities of Karbala and Najaf is flourishing, mainly from Iran.

However, challenges remain and tourism infrastructure is still basic in Iraq, a country rich in oil but ravaged by decades of fighting.

“Mosul is not just war, IS, terrorism,” said Beriar Bahaa al-Din, a doctoral student in anthropology at Britain’s University of Exeter, during Hatra’s visit.

“Mosul is a civilization, a heritage, a culture,” he added.

“This impressive site should be full of tourists from all over the world.”