The Temple of Allat, which dates from the 2nd century AD, is located in the city of Hatra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once a sprawling metropolis, it served as the capital of the Kingdom of Hatra. The remains of the ancient city were heavily vandalized by religious extremists between 2015 and 2017. Before that, the temple had also suffered from decades of neglect.
During restoration after recent damage, researchers spotted something unexpected in a frieze above a doorway in the Temple of Allat. The horizontal stone artwork appeared to show hybrid camels resulting from the crossing of two different breeds.
The depiction of these camels has helped scholars better understand ancient Hatra, which was a small neighboring kingdom to the Roman and Parthian empires – although those neighbors were often more hostile than friendly.
The artwork also adds to the growing evidence researchers have about when and where camel hybrids were bred. Previously, scholars believed that different types of camels were mostly interbred in vast empires. This latest finding shows that the practice was more widespread.
“The image seems to convey a definite message – the king’s direct involvement in camel breeding, management and hybridization practices,” said Massimo Vidale, associate professor at the Università degli Studi di Padova in Italy. .
Reproduction of hybrids of a sacred animal
The artwork was added to the temple during a renovation led by King Sanatruq I and his son, Abdsamiya in 168 AD, researchers say. It was during this time that members of the royal family rededicated the temple to the goddess Allat, in addition to erecting nearly life-size statues of themselves.
Previous research on the stone frieze suggested that it depicted eight dromedaries, with two Bactrian camels in the middle.
Dromedaries are Arabian camels that sport a hump. These fast animals are ideal for riding or even racing. In contrast, Bactrian camels originate from Central Asia and have two humps. These hardy workhorses can withstand high altitudes, cold temperatures, and even drought.
When Vidale and his colleagues took a closer look at the artwork, they noticed that the faces and fur of the two so-called Bactrian camels looked more like a cross between a Bactrian camel and a dromedary.
And rather than a significant space between the two bumps, there was only a slight indentation – a trait that has been seen in hybrids of these camel breeds.
People have herded camels since the first century AD, according to the oldest camel hybrid animal skeletons recovered from the Roman and Parthian empires.
This herding practice came into use thousands of years ago because it leads to stronger and more resilient animals. Hybrid camels could carry double the load of dromedaries and more than double what a Bactrian camel could carry.
Despite its small size compared to surrounding empires, the Kingdom of Hatra was still able to import distant Bactrian camels from the Central Asian steppes and breed camels as a show of power.
Flexibility of political power
Camels were probably considered a sacred animal for Allat, and other carvings and friezes in the temple show the goddess riding the animals side-saddle.
The elaborate temple would have been seen by both religious visitors and members of trading caravans. It could even have hosted markets.
“The construction of the Temple of Allat appears to be a bold decision by King Sanatruq I, important Allat – one of the most important pre-Islamic Arab deities,” Vidale said.
Creating and owning the best camels was also a political decision as it created a direct association between the king and a sacred animal – and set the kingdom apart from dependency on its powerful neighbours.
“By bringing in Arab groups, the king has taken a serious step in the process of detaching Hatra from the shadow of the Parthian empire,” Vidale said.
The king might even have had a monopoly on herding these special camels, as well as an interest “in running the long-distance caravans of an ancient Silk Road that could expand the trading interests that made Hatra so wealthy. “, the researchers wrote in the study. “The king’s camels, after all, are always the best.”