Images of camels depicted on a frieze at a recently restored 2nd-century AD temple in northern Iraq may provide early evidence of the breeding of hybrid animals, as shown by a study led by Massimo Vidale of the University of Padua and published in Antiquity.
The relief sculptures are carved on a lintel above one of the inner entrances of the temple dedicated to Allat, a prominent pre-Islamic Arabian goddess, in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Hatra, near Mosul. They show the head of a king – believed to be Sanatruq 1, the first king of Hatra, who remodelled the temple in AD 168 – flanked by two distinct breeds of camel, seated in two rows. Dromedary camels (one hump) make up most of the line, but each row is headed by another type, clearly sporting a second hump.
These two-humped animals are believed to be a hybrid of the dromedary (the local native breed) and the larger, shaggier Bactrian camel, which is native to Central Asia. The hybrid camel is larger, stronger, and therefore highly prized, and the positioning of the king’s portrait as part of this group may suggest that he had some responsibility for the successful breeding of these animals.
Important as commercial commodities and as symbols of wealth and power, the animals also appear to be particularly associated with the deity of Allat herself, and other larger and more prominent sculptures of camels appear elsewhere in the temple dedicated to her.
The impressive Temple of Allat suffered extensive damage at the hands of Daesh, which occupied the area between 2014 and 2017. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, the city was once not only an important religious centre, boasting grand temples associated with several deities, but also a trading centre where, it must be supposed, large numbers of camels, both native and imported, would have been used for transport as well as available for sale.