An Unexpected Journey — The French Expedition of Charles Fossey at Hatra (Iraq)

Enrico Foietta, Università di Torino

The archaeological site of Hatra, al-Hadr in Arabic, is located at about 80 kms from Mosul (Iraq) in northern Mesopotamia. During the 2nd and 3rd century AD, the centre became the capital of an important buffer state placed between the Roman and Parthian Empires (Hauser 2000; Venco Ricciardi 2008; Hauser 2009; Foietta 2018: 141–150). The settlement, founded during the Post-Assyrian period (end of 5th-4th century BC)1, flourished during the first two centuries of the Common Era. The city was delimited by a double pseudo-circular curtain wall defining a large built area of about 300 ha. The complex urban layout was framed by a tortuous street network, demarcating districts, where dwelling areas, small shrines, and monumental funerary buildings are recognizable. In the centre of the city is the Temenos, built in ashlar blocks, where the most important temples were located.

Numerous archaeological, historical, and epigraphic questions have been answered, thanks to different archaeological expeditions and explorations carried out during the 19th and 20th centuries, from the first preliminary expeditions by English explorers, to the contemporary archaeological excavations of the Iraqi, Polish, and Italian archaeologists.3This paper focuses on the overlooked French Expedition to Hatra, directed by Architect Charles Fossey at the end of the 19th century, which was the first archaeological excavation at the site, furnishing new suggestions about Small Shrine, built in the city layout.


In May1836, John Ross, an English surgeon working in Baghdad, left the capital with the purpose of reaching Hatra. It was not a well-planned undertaking, for several reasons. It would be detailed for the first time a few years later, along with a subsequent trip, in a long article published on the Geographical Journal in 1839 (Ross 1839: 443–470). During that first visit, which lasted only a few hours, the small group was forced to flee from the site due to an attack from the Shammar, a nomadic local tribe that controlled the area ruled by the Pasha of Mosul (Ross 1839: 4 4 3).

Their second attempt, the following year, was better organised by involving local chiefs of the Shammar tribes to prevent reprisals from their groups as well as attacks from the other big local tribe, the belligerent Aneizah. This allowed Ross to visit Hatra safely for several hours on 15 May 1837 (Ross 1839: 460, 463). On that occasion, Ross drew the first simplified plan of the site, reporting for the first time the Sasanian circumvallation wall (Hauser, Tucker 2009; Hauser 2013), the main pseudo-circular wall, the inner wadi, at the time registered as a channel, several funerary buildings in the western part of the city, mounds for the residential areas in the eastern part of the city, and the central Temenos, containing some buildings (Ross 1839: 467–470). The paper wrongly reported a diameter of approximately 2 miles, together with other incorrect data about the main curtain wall, such as the ones regarding the regular distance between the defensive towers and the homogeneity of the building technique for the fortifications (Ross 1839: 467).

Nevertheless, the information reported have been of great importance and usefulness to scholars throughout the years. Ross also identified the two funerary buildings N and E outside the curtain wall, in front of the city gates (Ross 1839: 467–468). Such ruins were still clearly visible during the German Expedition, directed by W. Andrae, and were accurately documented in his fundamental volume published in 1912. Ross also mistakenly reported a strict division of the city in a western, residential part and an eastern part assigned to the necropolis, which was rectified by scholars in later studies (See the plan of Ross 1839: 470).Ross’ analysis focused on the Temenos central complex, particularly on the Great Iwans and Twin Iwans, suggesting they served as a palace or a temple, the latter function being confirmed by the systematic Iraqi investigations and cleaning of the site undertaken in the 1950s.

The English author provided the general measures of the ruins, reporting that there were less blocks and debris in the eastern part than in the western one, which featured important constructions, such as the Great Iwans and the Twin Iwans (Ross 1839: 468–470).Ross describes the iwans from south to north. He started by analysing the small south iwan and preceded to the small north iwan, as they are called, from the Great Northern Iwan. He indicates the approximate measures of the rooms and describes the architectural decoration, focusing on the ‘flat’ masques on the blocks and the sculpted voussoirs in situ (Ross 1839: 468–469).

The architectural decoration was described at length by explorers and archaeologists of the time; the historical photographs by G. Bell and W. Andrae of the voussoirs and decorated ashlars from the Great and Twin Iwans are well known and famous to all the scientific community, along with heir interesting drawings. Strangely enough, Ross does not report the presence of statues on the ground at the site, although they had been mentioned by members of the local tribes.


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