We arrived in Baalbek around noon and the weather started to be quite hot, even if it was just the beginning of April. But once we stepped into the incredible world of this huge and fascinating site, no sun and no heat could stop us from exploring.
UNESCO included the site on its list in 1984 and described the ruins of Baalbek as „one of the most famous sanctuaries of the Roman world and a model of Imperial Roman architecture”. Baalbek is, undoubtedly, breathtaking and is a place that aroused the imagination of many people, including scientists.
With its beginnings shrouded in mystery, it seems that Baalbek might be the biblical city of Baalath, a town re-fortified by Israel’s King Solomon, in 970 BC. This theory might confirm why the city was considered holy from early times. While Baalbek is officially known as a Roman temple that was built on the foundations of a much earlier site, the question referring to whom we must thank for this monumental site still stands even today.
Most of researchers agreed that the city was constructed by the Phoenicians who were also known in the Bible as the Canaanites, the people of Canaan.
Others, more drawn to eccentric explanations, claim that the city was built by giants or even by aliens, as the megalithic stones used in the structure of the temples cannot be argued otherwise.
And we have to be fair, there is something almost mystical when seeing these incredible monoliths, as some of the foundation stones that make up the main platform, weigh in at around 800-1000 tons!!!
For those more curious, just 900 m from the site, there is an ancient quarry from where, most probably, all the monoliths used at Baalbek were carved. The Stone of the Pregnant Woman (according to legend, women touching the stone become more fertile), also known as the Stone of the South, weighs 1,000 tones and it is the most famous megalith of all the Baalbek Stones, as it is the one that can be observed the best.
But, according to recent excavations and topographical measurements, there are another two megaliths in the quarry, beneath the Stone of the South, which are even bigger, one weighing 1242 t and the other 1650 t, thus making the later the largest stone ever carved by human hands!
All these blocks, comprising the ones found in the quarry and the ones already used for the foundation of Baalbek Temples, have been the subject of much debate, study, speculations and conjecture over how they were moved and arranged. Later builders at the site, such as the Romans, obviously used these early stones as the foundations for their own temples but clearly did not move them in any way nor there is any proof that they were the initial carvers.
The name ‘Baal’ (found both in Baalbek and Baalath names), generally means ‘Lord’ or ‘God’ and to the Phoenicians it meant also ‘Sun’. Thus, Baalbek grew into an important pilgrimage site in the ancient world for the worship of the Phoenician sky-god Baal and his consort Astarte, the Queen of Heaven. The centre of the city was a grand temple dedicated to this mighty god and the ruins of this early temple remain today beneath the later Roman Temple of Jupiter.
When Alexander the Great conquered Baalbek in 334 BC, he re-named it Heliopolis, `City of the Sun’. The name was still in use when Pompey the Great annexed the region of Phoenicia for Rome and short after, the city became a colony of the Roman Empire. The Romans vastly improved the site with massive building projects, walkways, aqueducts, and roads. The grand Temple of Baal became the Temple of Jupiter and the „little” Temple of Astarte (which is bigger than Athens’s Parthenon) was dedicated to Bacchus though, others claim it was destined to worship Venus. But what it is for sure and, obviously, of great importance, is that these temples are the largest and most ornate religious buildings in the entire history of the Roman Empire!
With 30 meters high and a diameter of nearly 2.5 meters, these columns are the biggest in the entire classical world!
All the decorations they used to embellish the temples show that the Romans had a great respect for this particular site. Even now in Baalbek you can see amazing examples of stone carvings with intricate motifs, beautiful flower patterns and geometrical shapes, impressive statues and colourful mosaics, all these framing the true grandeur of the Roman architecture and of Baalbek Temples. Here are some examples of this fine art:
The Temple of Bacchus, just a couple of meters from the main Temple of Jupiter, is one of the best preserved and grandest Roman temple ruins in the world. The temple and its ornamentations served as an influential model for Neoclassical architecture and impresses even today through its grandeur and well preserved still standing Corinthian columns. Unfortunately, when we visited Baalbek, the temple was under restoration so we weren’t able to get inside. But walking around it, under the shelter of the rich decorated portico was still an incredible experience!
The city remained an oft-visited pilgrimage site until the legitimization of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the temples were used as Christian basilicas (only the altar of Jupiter was torn down by Theodosius I). The temples continued in their role as Christian places of worship until the coming of the Muslims in 637.
Under Muslim rule, the area was re-named Al-Qalaa (the fortress). Walls were strengthened for defence and the temples were fortified. A mosque was built amid the ancient Roman temples while the Christian additions were torn down and destroyed.
Later on, the site passed into the Ottoman Empire which largely ignored the city and allowed the ruins to crumble. A series of earthquakes over the centuries further damaged the site and nothing was done in the area of preservation or excavation until 1898 when the German Emperor Wilhelm II visited the area and sent a team of archaeologists to begin work there. Their efforts, along with later international teams, have preserved Baalbeck for future generations.
Today, tourists can also visit a nice museum opened within the site, in the former camels’ stall, exhibiting interesting objects found during excavations. The best items were, however, taken to the National Museum of Beirut so, make sure to make some time to get there also.
Very close to the main entrance to Baalbek there is a great Shi’a mosque having the official name The Shrine of Sayeeda Khawla Daughter of Imam Hussein. Apparently, this architectural masterpiece was a gift from Iran and the Iranian influence is more than evident. From the outlook as well as from inside, this mosque is quite impressive, so colourful and shinny that definitely deserves a stop especially as non-Muslim visitors are welcomed. Women can enter once covering up with the provided clothing and with shoes removed.
I had here, in Baalbek, one of the best days of my life and I really hope that my article managed to transport you, even for some minutes, into the atmosphere of this extraordinary place.
The next article will be about the famous Cedars of Lebanon.
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See you soon and big hug to you all!
Note! Most of the historical data were taken from http://www.ancient.eu/Baalbek/, http://www.ancient-origins.net/, http://www.imperatortravel.ro/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Bacchus