Hatra, Iraq, and EAMENA

Posted 08/04/2019

Dr Alaa Hamdon writes

I have been a lecturer and researcher for 17 years at the remote sensing centre at the University of Mosul, Iraq. My expertise is in remote sensing & GIS, earth sciences, disaster risk management of cultural heritage and urban areas, geomorphology and seismic activity.

I visited the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford to join the EAMENA project for two months (February and March 2019) as part of the visiting scholarship program, sponsored and funded by the NAHREIN network (UCL) and the British Institute for Study of Iraq. The visiting scholarship program mainly relies on a case study of the connection between archaeological/cultural heritage, community and sustainable development.

My research updates information about the ancient Parthian city of Hatra and its valuable connection with the local community. Using remote sensing data, recent imagery and archived information about the site, an up-to-date assessment of the city and a map showing changes through time will be created.

Hatra had been neglected for many years, because of its isolated location (only recently has a small town developed near-by). However, IS/Daesh considered it a target for their propaganda purposes by destroying sculptures inside the main building, in March 2015. As a World Heritage Site it was placed on the World Heritage in Danger list on July 1st 2015.

A sustainable development plan (including a disaster risk management proposal) for the site needs to be drafted, demonstrating a means of connecting the local community with the site, and evaluating the current governance and administration of the site so that it becomes better able to receive tourists.

During my visit, I have had support from the EAMENA Staff and the School, starting with a warm welcome, friendly cooperation and scientific assistance including:

  1. Providing valuable recent satellite images (high resolution, courtesy of UNOSAT for research purposes) and aerial photographs from 1938;
  2. Unlimited support and distinguished experience from Dr Robert Bewley and Dr Bijan Rouhani helping me during my research;
  3. Acquiring new skills in remote sensing survey of the archaeological sites;
  4. Last but not least, working space inside their office and offering a most comfortable work atmosphere for me.

EAMENA support

One condition for applying for a NAHREIN network visiting scholarship was to have a host in the UK; the EAMENA project accepted my request to be that host for my research at the School of Archaeology in the University of Oxford.

The outcomes achieved so far have been: acquiring knowledge about the ancient city of Hatra, learning how to use the EAMENA database, connecting with academics and researchers at the University of Oxford and other universities across the UK (Durham and Liverpool especially).

I have participated in two conferences: one at the University of Liverpool (BANEA 2019) about the archaeology of Near East and another at Newcastle University about cultural heritage in armed conflict areas. I gave talks about my research on Hatra in the Ashmolean Museum and at Durham University as well.

In addition to this, and in my spare time, I have been helping with the Mosul Book Bridge campaign to support the central library of Mosul University, which was totally destroyed by Daesh. This involved meetings with Book Aid International, giving two talks at the International Book Fair in London, appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row program, and giving a lunch-time talk to the staff of Oxford University Press.


During my stay at the EAMENA office and with the help of Dr Bewley and Dr Rouhani, I have achieved the following in my research of Hatra:

  1. Screened the status of the site of Hatra site using satellite imagery and aerial photographs to obtain a clear understanding of the site and its connection with the local community;
  2. Prepared an up-to-date archaeological, geo-rectified, map (using ArcMap 10.3) of the site with more detail than any previous depiction;
  3. Located new sites and structures around the city of Hatra: one is a square shaped enclosure (possibly a fortress); another, located to the north of the city, is more amorphous in shape with a distinctive colour;
Mosaic of aerial photographs of Hatra (1938).

Mosaic of aerial photographs of Hatra (1938). The city is encircled by an outer wall, with a defensive inner wall with towers and a central temenos (or sacred area). IS /Daesh focused their attention in this area, destroying important sculptures inside the buildings. Mosaic created by Rebecca Repper, EAMENA, from photographs taken by Sir Aurel Stein (ASA/3/204-212 Aurel Stein Collection, The British Academy). See also the individual photographs.


  1. Prepared a Disaster Risk Management plan for the site, especially for flood risk, using Digitial Surface Model data to determine the risk area inside the site and to produce a flood simulation for the site. The major risk factor in the area is the Tharthar Valley, with high discharge during the rainy season;
  2. One preliminary result of the survey suggests an interpretation that the internal structure of the city may have been modeled to reflect the rays of the sun, on religious grounds; there is a reference on a coin, found in Hatra of Shamash, who was a sun deity of the period.

Sustainable development plan for Hatra

To develop the site and improve its condition, the following suggested approaches should be fulfilled as soon as possible:

  1. Update the buffer zone of the site to include the structures that have been discovered in this study and to limit any urban expansion or human activity near the site;
  2. The Disaster Risk Management plan which has been made in this study to prevent any flood risk for the site should be implemented as soon as possible; heavy rain has been witnessed in the country the last two years and might increase in the following years. A one-way directional barrier could be installed at the outlet of the drainage basin that crosses the site toward the major valley;
  3. Provide a water supply for the area to increase investment and tourism activity by establishing a dam in a valley located about 20 km to the west of Hatra. This dam would create a big lake in the area and would help significantly to encourage tourism activity locally and globally;
  4. Connect the site with a larger modern city (Mosul), through encouraging the national or local community in Mosul to visit Hatra by providing easy access to the site; encouraging school trips, university trips, and family groups will require a dedicated member of staff assigned to this role;
  5. Establish an active trading business system and control between the local community in Hatra and the community in Mosul or other cities in Iraq, to improve the connection;
  6. Support the local community of Hatra to establish tourism businesses related to the heritage of the previous local community (Bedouin) and connect it with Hatra’s heritage, which would allow the Bedouin to return to the area.

Plans for the future (pilot project)

  1. Establish research exchange between Iraqi and UK researchers about the site to run more exploration, excavation and documentation which might lead to very fruitful results;
  2. Establish a major project for maintaining the site through international efforts to protect and conserve the site;
  3. Apply for a research grant for more detailed project;
  4. Collaborate with other researchers to establish a project team for that purpose;
  5. Network with NGOs and cultural heritage agencies to make a cultural festival on the site to demonstrate the significance of the site to the world.


I would like to say (from my deep heart) thank you to the EAMENA team for giving me the time, chance, space, and effort to take this opportunity and to achieve these outcomes of my research.