The Destruction of Hatra

Yesterday it was reported that Isis had destroyed much of the site of Nimrud near Mosul and had moved on to begin bulldozing the site of Hatra. Previously they had proudly published photos of the destruction of historically priceless artefacts held in the Mosul Museum. Of course the members of Isis have committed appalling and unspeakably brutal crimes against fellow human beings, so why should any of us be surprised that such people who have no respect for the living, should have any respect for their history?

Mitford's sketch of the ruins at Hatra
Mitford’s sketch of the ruins at Hatra


We should all be horrified that one group of blinkered fanatics should be able to destroy the heritage that belongs to all of us. We are all the poorer because of their wanton vandalism. I have never visited the ruins of Nimrud or Hatra and now I never will. How dare they take the possibility of visiting the birth place of civilisation away from me, from you, from any of us.

I find that these particular acts of vandalism seem almost personal. Firstly because the museum and library at Didlington Hall held many Assyrian artefacts, though it was the Babylonian stone tablets that William Tyssen-Amherst particularly valued. He was fascinated by the history of the written word and thus these ancient tablets with their ancient texts held particular importance for him. He would have been appalled by the deliberate destruction in Assyria.

His interest could only have been heightened by the fact that it had been a cousin of his father-in-law, Admiral Robert Mitford, who had travelled with Austen Henry Layard when he first visited the long forgotten historical sites of Assyria.

While most people will not have heard of Edward Ledwich Mitford, he was one time companion to one of the most famous archaeologists of the nineteenth century. Layard was of course, the excavator of the great ancient Assyrian civilisations of Nineveh and Nimrud. His discoveries in Assyria caught the imagination of the Victorians. He was the Howard Carter of the Victorian age, and Nineveh, the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Mitford was there in 1839 when Layard took his first steps on the path to his great discoveries when they visited Nineveh, Nimrud, Hatra, Babylon and many more sites of great historic importance. When Mitford eventually got round to publishing the story of his travels in the snappily entitled A Land March from England to Ceylon: Forty Years Ago’ in 1884, the Tyssen-Amhersts were one of the first to order his newly published book. Layard too wrote of his travels and described his memories of the start of the great adventure when in 1894 he published his own version of his Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia:

In 1839, Edward Ledwich Mitford,’ wrote Layard, ‘a young Englishman who had been connected with a mercantile house at Mogador in Morocco, and who had made some interesting excursions through little known parts of that dangerous country, desired to establish himself in Ceylon as a coffee planter. Like myself he wished to leave England as soon as possible; but being of an adventurous disposition and dreading the sea, he had formed a plan of going by land through Europe, Central Asia and India. He proposed to me that we should do the journey together.’

It was the beginning of the most extraordinary journey. The two men had numerous adventures and escaped almost certain death on many occasions. Their visit to the ruined city of Hatra was just one more adventure as an extract from the Amherst Chronicles illustrates…

‘While they were in Mosul, Layard and Mitford were told of some spectacular ruins that they should visit at Hatra, some sixty or seventy miles to the south. They were warned that the Arabs of the region would be hostile and previous parties attempting to visit the ruins had been attacked. Layard and Mitford were not to be easily deterred. Mitford writes ‘not withstanding this [advice], and the assurance of the natives that it was impossible, and that we should never escape to return, we weighed all the objections at their real value, and resolved on persevering in our design; it will be generally found that when there is resolution, nothing is impossible.’

They set off into the lawless hills in a small party of five, with four guns, plenty of ammunition, cloaks, which would act as their beds if necessary, and no provisions except a bag of biscuits. Mitford explains they were ‘trusting to our guns for any addition to our frugal meals.’

Their first day’s journey was a delightful ride over sloping hills of gypsum covered with flowers, soft ranunculus, pink stocks and white Star of Bethlehem along the banks of the Tigris, which was ‘varied with broad green islands,’ and the weather was beautiful. However things were less wonderful once they had descended into the cultivated plains and arrived at Hammam Ali, a village of mud huts some 18 miles south of Mosul, where they would stop for the night. The village was almost deserted, its residents having blocked their doors with barriers of mud and stones while they followed their flocks across the ‘grass-clad plains’. The huts seemed likely to provide the perfect shelter for the travellers who broke down a few doors ‘but were repulsed by the myriads of fleas that issued from them.’ Mitford explains that ‘in this climate when a hut or a room is shut up and uninhabited for a short time the fleas multiply to such an extent as to blacken the walls; and the clothes of anyone who ventures in are immediately covered with these sharp-set pests.’

The night was spent in the shelter of an open stable. But while the night might not have been comfortable, the view was memorable, for Layard in particular. Across the Tigris they could see a marvellous sight. Layard wrote years later[1]:

‘As the sun went down, I saw for the first time the great conical mound of Nimrud rising against the clear evening sky. It was on the opposite side of the river and not very distant, and the impression that it made upon me was one never to be forgotten. After my visit to Küyünjik and Nebi Yunus, opposite Mosul, and the distant view of Nimrud, my thought ran constantly upon the possibility of thoroughly exploring, with the spade, those great ruins.’

The ruins of Hatra were extensive. Mitford described their visit…

‘This is a remarkable Babylonian ruin, composed of a mass of artificial mounds, on the bank of the river; the circumference of the ruins is 4685 yards, about 2 2/3 miles; and the highest part, which has probably been a citadel, rises about 140 feet above the plain.’ 

The party spent two days exploring, measuring, conjecturing and wondering about the ruins and the people who once inhabited them. They also found time for some game shooting, which meant they ate well that night.

Thanks to the outrageous behaviour of a group of ill-educated fanatics, these wonderful ruins will never provide the same pleasure and fascination for future generations. Answers to questions about our past will never now be answered. We are all diminished by this destruction, but none more so than than the men who perpetrated this crime against humanity, and who will doubtless move onto commit further acts of devastation. The Mitfords and the Amhersts will surely be turning in their graves, but they will not be alone!


[1] Layard 1903: 311