Lebanon / Travel

Exploring Baalbek, Lebanon

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Baalbek has long enjoyed a reputation as home to some of the finest Roman ruins anywhere in the world. However, even without the Roman ruins, it would still be an interesting town…

To reach Baalbek, one passes through the hot, dry Bekaa, not so much a valley as a high-altitude plain, with its Hezbollah flags and roadside effigies of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, waving his machine gun in the direction of Israel.

And, of course, one passes through many military checkpoints as well:

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There are numerous reminders of Hezbollah’s supremacy within Baalbek (their yellow and green flags are everywhere), but the town’s population is mixed Muslim/Christian:

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A poster featuring Hassan Nasrallah¬†along the main street in Baalbek… Baalbek, well-known as Hezbollah’s strategic headquarters, took a battering in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War for this reason, with up to 20% of its buildings destroyed:

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Hezbollah flags in front of Baalbek’s mosque:

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The minaret of the mosque:

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The town of Baalbek is small and can be enjoyably explored on foot:

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THE ROMAN RUINS

The physics at play on this piece of Baalbek’s Roman ruins seem impossible to me:

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The site of the Roman ruins was originally Phoenician and settlement here is thought to have dated back as far as the end of the 3rd millenium BC. During the 1st millenium BC, a temple was built here and dedicated to the god Baal (later Hadad), from which the city takes its name. The site was chosen for its nearby springs and ideal position between the Litani and Al-Aasi Rivers. It was also located at the crossroads of the main east-west and north-south trade routes.

For all its outward serenity and grace, the site was, in its time, host to sacred prostitution, along with all manner of licentious and bloodthirsty forms of worship. According to ancient tablets from Ugarit, which describe the practices of the Phoenician gods, Anath, the sister and wife of Baal:

…waded up to the knees, up to the neck in human blood. Human heads lay at her feet, human hands flew over her like locusts. She tied the heads of her victims as ornaments on her back, their hands she tied upon her belt… When she was satisfied she washed her hands in the streams of blood before turning again to other things.

Following the conquest of Alexander the Great, Baalbek became known as Heliopolis (City of the Sun), a name that was retained by subsequent Roman conquerors. In 64 BC, Pompey the Great passed through Baalbek, and made it part of the Roman Empire, instigating an era that would see the city rise and flourish. A few years later, in 47 BC, Julius Caesar founded a Roman colony here because of its strategic position between Palmyra, in the Syrian desert, and the coastal cities, naming the new colony after his daughter Julia. The town soon became occupied by Roman soldiers and building works began; it wasn’t long before Baalbek was recognized as the premier city in Roman Syria.

The construction of the temples was a massive undertaking. Work is thought to have begun in 60 BC and the great Temple of Jupiter was nearing completion only 120 years later, in AD 60, during the reign of Nero. Later, under Antonius Pius (AD 138-61), a series of elaborate enlargements was undertaken, including work on the Great Court complex and the Temple of Bacchus. His son, the bloodthirsty Caracalla, completed them, but building work was still ongoing when Rome’s rulers adopted Christianity.

The building of such extravagant temples was a political act as much as one of piety. On one hand, the Romans were attempting to integrate the peoples of the Middle East by appearing to favor their gods; on the other, they set about building jaw-droppingly immense and beautiful structures to impress indelibly upon the worshipers the strength of Roman political rule and civilization. Even so, the deciding factor in building on such a massive and expansive scale at Baalbek was probably the threat of Christianity, which was beginning to pose a real threat to the old order. So, up went the temples in an attempt to “fix” the religious orientation of the people in favor of pagan worship. By this time there were no human sacrifices, but temple prostitution remained, while Baalbek had become one of the most important places of worship in the entire Roman Empire.

When Constantine the Great became emperor in 324, pagan worship was finally suppressed by Rome in favor of Christianity, and building work on Baalbek was suspended. However, when Julian the Apostate became emperor in 361, he reverted to paganism and tried to reinstate it throughout the empire. There was a significant backlash against Christians, which resulted in mass martyrdom. When the Christian emperor, Theodosius, took the throne in 379, Christianity was once again imposed upon Baalbek and its temples were converted to a basilica. Nevertheless, the town remained a center of pagan worship and was enough of a threat to merit a major crackdown by Emperor Justinian (527-65), who ordered that all Baalbek’s pagans accept baptism. In an attempt to prevent any secret pagan rites, he ordered parts of the temple be destroyed, and had the biggest pillars shipped to Constantinople, where they were used in the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya).

When the Muslim Arabs invaded Syria, they converted the Baalbek temples into a citadel and restored its original name. For several centuries it came under the rule of Damascus and went through a period of regular invasions, sackings, lootings and devastation. The city was sacked by the Arabs in 748 and by the Mongol chieftain Tamerlane in 1400.

In addition to the ravages caused by humans, there was also a succession of earthquakes (1158, 1203, 1664 and most spectacularly in 1759), which caused the fall of the ramparts and three of the huge pillars of the Temple of Jupiter, as well as the departure of most of the population of Baalbek.

During the period of Ottoman rule, Baalbek was slowly forgotten…

*****

The stairs rising out of the Forecourt and Propylaea into the Hexagonal Court:

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A view over the Great Court:

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Mammoth blocks of stone within the Great Court:

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A different view of the Great Court from within the Temple of Jupiter… It’s estimated that 100,000 slaves worked on the project over the centuries:

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The massive stairs leading up to the Temple of Jupiter:

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The remaining columns of the Temple of Jupiter… The girl provides some scale:

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A view up at the columns within the Temple of Jupiter:

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A view of the Temple of Bacchus through the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter:

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The Temple of Bacchus:

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Another view of the Temple of Bacchus:

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In one direction, there’s the Mediterranean, in the other Syria. A quick drive through lush orchards and the villages of the Christian heartlands, with shrines to the Virgin Mary on every corner, will deliver one to the beaches of Lebanon, where women in bikinis can be found lounging everywhere.

It seems impossible that this is the same continent, let alone the same country, just an hour or so apart.

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3 thoughts on “Exploring Baalbek, Lebanon

  1. Pingback: The Lebanon Of Hezbollah | The Velvet Rocket

  2. Pingback: The Northwest Run: Lebanon | The Velvet Rocket

  3. Pingback: The Bekaa Valley | The Velvet Rocket

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