Hatra lies some 55 km (34 mi.) northwest of ancient Aššur and approximately 80 km (50 mi.) southwest of Mosul in modern Iraq. The site was probably a camping ground used for seasonal occupation by seminomads from the Jezireh in northern Mesopotamia before it became a permanent settlement in the first century BCE. On the periphery of the Parthian Empire, Hatra remained, until the end of the third century CE, an important caravan town on the trade route connecting Seleucia-Ctesiphon with Singara and Nisibis. In wartime, Hatra would have been a crucial halting place for any army marching from Singara to Ctesiphon. The Romans, however, failed to conquer it during the Parthian wars, and only a Roman cohort occupied the town for a short period in the third century CE. The site's religious prestige, always prominent, accounts for the existence of a monumental temple complex and of large number of smaller shrines there.
What is known of Hatra is derived from classical sources, Arab legends, and some four hundred inscriptions of little consequence for the historian and of very uneven value for the linguist. The Hatraean texts are written in an Aramaic dialect of northern Mesopotamia that differs from Syriac especially in the use of performative l- for the third-person imperfect. This is the major characteristic feature; other phonological, morphological, or syntactical features cannot be confidently described because a serious study of the epigraphic material has yet to be done. The presence of many local dialects in the whole area, replacing the Imperial Aramaic that had, a few centuries earlier, been its official language, can be explained by the incursion of Greek at the end of the fourth century BCE. The script is, in many respects, close to that of the inscriptions from Aššur, Sari, and Hassan-Kef in the Ṭur ῾Abdin, and from other sites in the Upper Tigris River area. The similarities between some letters of the Hatraean script and those of the inscriptions found at Garni in Armenia and at Armazi in Georgia are not negligible. In the Hatra inscriptions, however, the neat, distinctive handwriting of the aleph, the long nun, the shape of the shin, and the absence of diacritics on d/r are noticeable. All of these features distinguish the script of Hatra from that of Palmyra and from Syriac. The Hatrean script, along with some of its orthographic conventions, was taken over from Arsacids. This borrowing cannot be ignored in an area that was always exposed to cultural influences from the East, if not its direct control.
The studies produced so far are of uneven quality and have not succeeded in placing Hatra in its proper historical context. Thus, in spite of much excavation and reconstruction, the ancient city falls short of being as well known as Palmyra. For example, little is known about the tribes who first settled Hatra. Compared to the dozens of tribal names attested by the Palmyrene inscriptions, the paucity of the Hatraean data is disturbing. Only three tribal names are known: bny bl῾qb, bny rpšmš, and bny tymw, raising the question of why its habitants left their ethnic background unmentioned when writing their names. The forms of the names themselves help to answer that question: they portray a population mostly of Arab origin in which Assyrian and Parthian families merged to create a society the inscriptions reveal as both homogeneous and very religious. Theophorous names of Shamash are frequent at Hatra because the cult of the sun deity was particularly important. Equally so was a trinity of deities whose cult was especially remarkable for its clear definition of the relationships among the three deities: one is “our lord,” another “our lady,” and the third is “their son.” No other community in the West Semitic area worshiped such a group of deities.
[See also Hatra.]
- Abbadi, Sabri. Die Personennamen der Inscriften aus Hatra. Hildesheim, 1983.
- Aggoula, Basile. Inventaire des inscriptions hatréennes. Institut Français d'Archéologie du Proche-Orient, vol. 139. Paris, 1991. Contains information necessary to pursue independent study of the texts and their archaeological context.
- Beyer, Klaus. The Aramaic Language: Its Distribution and Subdivisions. Translated by J. F. Healey. Göttingen, 1986. See pages 30–34.