Courtesy of the Sunday Telegraph (4 January 2004); by Colin Freeman
(ZNDA: Baghdad) For a country recently purged of its chief tormentor, it is perhaps a grimly appropriate theme for its first new tourist attraction.
American troops in Iraq have launched what has been dubbed "The Exorcist Experience", after discovering that the ancient ruins they were guarding provided the location for the 1973 horror classic's opening sequence.
They now plan to help locals put the 2,000-year-old city of Hatra back on the international tourist map by marketing it as a future holiday destination to fans of the cult film.
Using a modest $5,000 (£2,800) grant, the soldiers have recruited local guides and guards to the city and built a car park and police station nearby. They have also revamped the nearby Saddam-built Hatra Hotel, which they hope to privatise.
"Once it's up and running again as a visitors' spot, this place will be a real moneypot," said Capt Nik Guran of the 2-320 Field Artillery Regiment, attached to the 101st Airborne Division. "The film will just add to the numbers of people coming here. You should see it all at night - we've put in floodlights and it looks really beautiful."
The regiment hatched the plan to revamp the Assyrian site's derelict visitors' facilities after spending the summer living in Hatra's 200ft-high sun temples to protect them from looters. An oasis of pre-Christian civilisation in the middle of the desert south-west of Mosul, Hatra's finely preserved columns and statues make it one of the most impressive of Iraq's archaeological sites.
After spending several months looking after the site and researching its history, most of the soldiers can now discourse knowledgeably on the various Assyrian, Sumerian and Parthian influences on its butterscotch-coloured stonework.
Pointing with a hand that guided 105mm howitzer shells during the war in Iraq, Capt Guran slips fluently into tour-guide mode as he strides towards the 100ft iwans - huge, open-fronted vaulted halls that resemble Arab guest-tents. Initially, the troops thought the main interest would come from archaeology enthusiasts who flocked there decades ago, before Saddam virtually closed the site to the outside world.
They only realised its marketing potential to millions of fans of the world's most famous horror film when, completely by chance, Capt Guran watched The Exorcist on a portable DVD player one night.
To his astonishment, he spotted Hatra's distinctive skyline in the director William Friedkin's opening sequence, in which a priest at an archaeology dig unearths the ancient Mesopotamian demon that goes on to possess a young American girl. "It was filmed a bit before Saddam really came to power, and the opening scene was made at an actual excavation that was taking place here at the time," said Capt Guran, 30.
"I thought, 'Wow - that's the place we've been guarding'. We've spent so much time down here, you recognise it straightaway."
Saddam would no doubt have admired Hatra's defensive record against invading superpowers, which involved using early forms of chemical and biological weapons. Naptha bombs and jars of desert scorpions were poured over the outer wall to successfully repel Roman invaders , according to the classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor.
More recently, the temple has been associated with the so-called Exorcist's Curse, said to have plagued all those involved in the film with bad luck.
"We had an incident a while back where one soldier shot another, and there were mutterings about it being the curse of Hatra," said Capt Guran. "We had to stop that right away."
The city was left in ruins after it was sacked and burnt by Sapor, the Sassanian Persian king, in AD 241. The impressive temple complex dedicated to several Hatrene gods, the chief of which was the sun god Shamash, lies in the very centre of its limestone and gypsum walls.
Mohammad Sulaiman, 35, a former US army translator who has been trained to manage the hotel, hopes it will revive the economic fortunes of the poverty-stricken local town. "This is our heritage and we want to show it to all the world," he said. "Hopefully, now that Saddam has been captured, peace will come and the tourists will return."
Lt Col Kevin Felix, who had the original idea of revamping the site, said: "I would love to come back in a few years' time and stay as a tourist at the hotel, if things work out in this country. I guess it will either be doing brilliantly, or it will have burned to the ground."
BTW: This article is now almost two years old but like Nasrudin Odja said to Osama Non Scimitar - "Just as new news is old news once you have heard it - old news is new news twice, if you have not".