HATRA, Iraq -- Strolling along the ancient ruins of Hatra in northern Iraq, dozens of visitors admired the site, where local initiatives seek to turn over a new leaf after the brief but brutal "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) rule.
Designated an endangered world heritage site by UNESCO, Hatra dates back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE.
Hatra is a two-hour drive from the former ISIS stronghold of Mosul, recaptured in 2017 by Iraqi forces and the international coalition, and protected by subsequent security operations against the group's remnants in the area.
ISIS seized Mosul in 2014.
A Saturday (September 10) tour of the site, the first of its kind organised by a private museum in Mosul, aimed to boost tourism in the area.
Some 40 visitors, most of them Iraqis, were allowed to walk around the more than 2,000-year-old archaeological site in the golden hour of twilight.
The tourists took selfies in front of impressive colonnades and inspected the reliefs vandalised by ISIS elements.
"It has great history" allowing a peek into an ancient civilisation, said Luna Batota, on tour with her Belgian husband. "A lot of history but at the same time a lot of unfortunate events took place here with ISIS."
Batota, 33, has lived in Belgium since the age of nine. This is the first time she has returned to her homeland.
Visiting Hatra stirred up "mixed feelings", she said. "You see bullet holes; you see many [bullet casings]."
An important religious and trading centre under the Parthian empire, Hatra had imposing fortifications and magnificent temples, blending Greek and Roman architectural styles with oriental decorative elements.
In 2015, ISIS released a video showing its fighters destroying a series of reliefs, firing at them and hacking away at a statue with a pickaxe.
International outrage over the destruction of Hatra and other historic sites in Iraq and Syria, including the ancient city of Nimrud, also in Ninawa province, led to the passage of United Nations (UN) resolution 2199 (2015).
The resolution condemns the destruction of cultural heritage and adopts legally binding measures to counter illicit trafficking of antiquities and cultural objects from Iraq and Syria.
In February, the authorities unveiled three restorations at the site: a Roman-style sculpture of a life-size figure and reliefs on the side of the great temple that had been vandalised by ISIS elements.
'Civilisation, heritage, culture'
Five years after the defeat of ISIS, Mosul and its surroundings have regained a sense of normality, even as rehabilitation efforts suffer setbacks and many areas still bear the scars of the fight against the extremists.
The tour of Hatra was organised by the Mosul Heritage House, a private museum inaugurated in June.
But even before it, the site drew individual visitors, according to one of the organisers, Fares Abdel Sattar.
This new initiative seeks to "showcase the heritage and identity" of Mosul and Ninawa province, he said.
After it overran swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014, ISIS faced counter-offensives in both countries. Iraqi forces finally claimed victory in late 2017.
As Iraq gradually opens up to foreign tourism, dozens of visitors -- particularly from the West -- are now exploring the country, with some even venturing into Mosul, despite warnings from some governments about the risks.
Religious tourism to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf has been thriving, mostly from Iran.
But challenges remain, and tourist infrastructure is still basic in Iraq.
"Mosul isn't only war, ISIS, terrorism," said Beriar Bahaa al-Din, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Exeter in Britain, on the Hatra visit.
"Mosul is a civilisation, heritage, culture," he added.
"This impressive site should be full of tourists from across the globe."
Reconstruction under way
Though reconstruction progress was slowed by the global coronavirus pandemic, Hatra district in southern Ninawa has made significant progress in restoring services and rebuilding sites, according to Hatra mayor Basman Ahmed al-Sultan.
In June 2020, he announced that Hatra's local administration had successfully restored several infrastructure projects and government buildings.
The Hatra water project was completed through the efforts of the Ninawa water department and the province's local government, he said, adding that workers restored electricity after repairing transmission lines.
Reconstruction work also has been completed on the buildings of the local administration, local council, municipality and the public health centre, and schools destroyed during the war have re-opened, the mayor said.
Crews have paved a number of streets and rebuilt the Hatra Bridge that connects the district with Anbar province, he said.
The repair of roads and bridges was expected to boost the local economy by enabling trade disrupted by ISIS -- and now tourism -- to resume.