The restoration of a damaged relief at a 2,000-year-old temple in Hatra, the capital of an ancient kingdom in today’s northern Iraq, has revealed the existence of an ambitious ancient program to breed hybrid “super-camels,” archaeologists surmise.
The study of the decoration, published Wednesday in the journal Antiquity, suggests that the rulers of the Kingdom of Hatra imported camels from distant Central Asia in order to mate them with the common dromedary from Arabia, creating a more robust beast of burden.
The hybrid camels, along with the temple where they are depicted, were all part of a broader scheme by Hatra to tap into the wealth and power of the Arabian desert trade, says lead researcher Massimo Vidale, a professor of archaeology at the University of Padua in Italy.
This would have allowed Hatra to gain greater independence from the Persian and Roman empires, which were sandwiching this small buffer state, Vidale and colleagues suggest.
The discovery was made during restoration work on the temple dedicated to Allat, a pre-Islamic goddess that was worshipped by Arabs across the Near East. Built around 168 C.E. over an older shrine, the temple was heavily damaged by decades of neglect and then vandalism by Islamic State militants between 2015 and 2017.
Count the humps
While its anthropomorphic statues were defaced and parts of the site bulldozed, the temple was spared the total demolition that ISIS inflicted upon other archaeological treasures, such as the Roman-era temples in Palmyra, Syria.
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This may have been because the temple had been first restored by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had his name inscribed on many of the structure’s stones, Vidale says. Given that ISIS had a great many soldiers from Saddam’s army, respect for his name may have led the militants to partly spare the temple, he says.
As part of their conservation work, the team of Italian archaeologists were repairing a sculpted lintel above one of the temple’s doors that depicts two lines of camels converging on a central human figure, probably the king of Hatra at the time, Sanatruq I.
Most of the animals in the caravans are pretty standard one-humped dromedaries, typical of Arabia and easily distinguishable from Bactrian camels, which hail from Central Asia and have two humps. But the leading beasts are different: they display long tufts of hair on their head, neck and forelegs. They also had a small indentation on their hump, almost as if they had two humps, but not quite.
These are features typical of a camel-dromedary hybrid still bred today in Central Asia, Vidale and colleagues say.
But why would the ancient artists have invested the extra effort to depict the lead camels with such realism? The archaeologists believe that the explicit presence of the hybrids, flanking the portrait of the king, signals the royal family’s involvement in procuring this special animal for the region’s traders.
Dromedary-camel hybrids produce more milk, are more resistant to harsh climes, and can carry 400-500 kilograms of cargo, double that of an ordinary dromedary or a Bactrian camel, Vidale and colleagues say. This made them prized animals.
But they were also expensive to breed. Not only did their creation require mating animals who normally lived thousands of kilometers from each other, but the resulting hybrids – like mules – were sterile, so the process had to be repeated for each generation.
Daughter (or wife) of Allah
The depiction of camels in the temple is not surprising per se. This was the sacred animal of Allat, goddess of war, love and justice in the pre-Islamic Arab pantheon.
Allat, or al-Lat, is an evolution of the Mesopotamian deity Ishtar, which appears in various incarnations throughout the Levant, Vidale notes.
Similarly, Allat, was also linked to the pre-monotheistic version of Allah, possibly as a daughter or wife of the supreme deity.
Allat also appears in the Satanic Verses, the apocryphal Muslim tradition (which inspired Salman’s Rushdie’s novel by the same name) according to which the Prophet Mohammed initially allowed converts to Islam to continue worshipping her and other pagan deities.
Given Allat’s choice of sacred animal, she was prominently worshipped by the tribes of desert traders who depended on the camel for their survival and prosperity. This fact was likely behind the decision by Hatra’s King Sanatruq to dedicate a temple to Allat, in order to consolidate his ties with Arab traders. It is not a coincidence that the forecourt of the temple doubled as a resting spot for caravans and market.
Through the temple and its control of the super-camel breeding program, Hatra’s dynasty was attempting to harness the “desert power” of the Arabian tribes, Vidale says. Like other small states in the region, Hatra was born as a buffer between the Romans and the Parthian Empire of Iran, and was traditionally a vassal of the latter. But Hatra’s royals were clearly chafing under Parthian rule and were looking for greater autonomy.
“Like all those who are on the margins of an empire, they were tempted to stop paying taxes to the central power and become independent,” Vidale says. “That is why Sanatruq imports the worship of an Arabian deity and presents himself as a patron of commerce by procuring these super-camels – likely in exchange for a handsome share of the profits.”
Creating new beasts by mating different species wasn’t particularly new even in Roman times. Researchers have recently found evidence that the ancient Mesopotamians were fiddling with nature for war, profit and political gain already some 4,500 years ago by creating a hybrid of a donkey and an ass.
But the new research does shed light on the origins of the dromedary-camel hybrid and on the history of the small but spunky Kingdom of Hatra.
For a time, Hatra’s brinksmanship worked, and the kingdom prospered. But the Persians never forgot the betrayal of their erstwhile allies. Around 241 C.E., as part of a broader war with Rome, Persia’s King Shapur I descended upon Hatra, besieging, plundering the city and leaving it deserted until today.