Iraq paramilitary forces have seized the ancient site of Hatra from the so-called Islamic State militants and like other sites of archaeological significance previously held by the terror group, it has been significantly damaged.
The 2,000-year-old historical site near the northern city of Mosul was “completely liberated” on Wednesday with Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitary forces saying they had regained the territory after “fierce clashes with the enemy”.
The first grainy pictures released from the Unesco-listed site, which featured in the opening credits of 1973 movie The Exorcist, show it has been “levelled by daesh terrorists. Painful to see”.
The full extent of the damage to Hatra still remained unclear on Thursday.
The media arm of the state-sanctioned force made up mainly of Shiite militias broadcast images of the site Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press reported, showing what appeared to be the ancient ruins in the distance as militia vehicles drove through open desert. It was unclear from the video if the forces had actually secured the ancient site.
Hatra, which is believed to have been built in the second or third century B.C. by the Seleucid Empire, was destroyed by IS militants along with other major historical sites in and around Mosul after they seized much of northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, AP reported.
The extremist group believes antiquities promote idolatry, though it is also believed to sell artifacts on the black market to fund its operations.
In April 2015, IS released a video showing extremists smashing sledgehammers into Hatra’s walls and firing assault rifles at priceless statues. At one point, the video showed a militant on a ladder using a sledgehammer to bang on the back of a carved face until it crashed to the ground.
Exorcist director William Friedkin filmed the first scene in Hatra, in which a priest unearths an ancient artefact belonging to Pazuzu, an ancient Mesopotamian demon, during an archaeology dig.
The demon is said to know when his talismans are touched, and in The Exorcist he possesses a young girl.
An ancient temple which The Telegraph described as a “vast network of 200-ft high sun-god temples” is one of the highlights of the opening sequence.
When IS began to move towards Hatra in 2014, the 20-strong squad of men who protected the area from looters “fled” the scene, News.com.au reported.
“It was filmed a bit before Saddam really came to power, and the opening scene was made at an actual excavation that was taking place here at the time,” Captain Nik Guran of the 2-320 Field Artillery Regiment, who discovered the location of the film’s opening sequence, told the Telegraph.
“I thought, ‘Wow - that’s the place we’ve been guarding’. We’ve spent so much time down here, you recognise it straightaway.”
According to reports, the Hashed al-Shaabi forces launched a dawn offensive on Tuesday and swiftly reclaimed villages in nearby desert areas and the Hatra archaeological site.
Nearby modern Hatra was not yet fully retaken but the Hashed said its forces had “broken into the town after Daesh (IS) defences collapsed”.
In a statement it said it had killed 61 IS fighters in the two-day-old operation, including 19 suicide bombers. Around 2,500 civilians who fled their homes were evacuated.
Lying some 110 kilometers (68 miles) southwest of Mosul, the jihadists’ last urban Iraqi stronghold, Hatra is one of a string of archaeological sites recaptured from IS in recent months.
IS has lost much of the territory it once controlled amid twin offensives in Syria and Iraq, including several ancient sites.
In November, Iraq said it had recaptured Nimrud, a jewel of the Assyrian empire founded in the 13th century BC.
Reports later detailed how the region’s most important archaeological sites had been bulldozed and ruined by explosives.
And last month Syrian regime forces recaptured Palmyra and Mosul’s museum.
Hatra flourished during the first and second centuries as a religious and trading center. It was a large, fortified city during the Parthian Empire and capital of the first Arab kingdom.
The site, know as Al-Hadhr in Arabic, is said to have withstood invasions by the Romans in A.D. 116 and A.D. 198 thanks to its high, thick walls. The ancient trading center was surrounded by more than 160 towers. At its heart were a series of temples with a grand temple at the center - a structure supported by columns that once rose to 100 feet (30 meters).