Baalbek is one of the world’s largest and best preserved Roman sites, christened Heliopolis, or City of the Sun, by the ancient Greeks. The city itself is situated in the fertile Bekaa Valley almost exactly in between Beirut and Damascus, and is famous not only for its spectacular ruins, but also as the headquarters of Hezbollah.The site has been continuously inhabited for over 9000 years, with constant building and rebuilding under the Temple of Jupiter.
Rated one of the 10 best Roman sites outside of Rome, Baalbek is well worth a visit – or even two.
The site consists of three huge temple complexes, dedicated to Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus, who replaced the indigenous deities, Hadad, Atargatis and a young male fertility god.
The Temple of Jupiter:
These six columns are all that are left standing of the original 54 which surrounded the Temple of Jupiter on three sides. They are the largest stone columns in the world, at 22.9 metres high, and with a girth of 2.2 metres. If you look closely at the picture above you’ll see that there’s a tiny figure draped in black in between the second and third pillar. I wanted to capture a sense of the scale – this old woman in her burqa waved cheerfully when she saw me taking her photo.
The fallen pillars are so large across that Everitte was able to recreate Leonard de Vinci’s Vitruvian Man against the base of one.
The architrave had fallen in sections, allowing us to see the beautiful carving, as well as the enormous lions heads through which water would cascade over 20 metres to the ground when it rained.
The sacrificial altar in the middle of the great courtyard is still standing, and can be climbed easily by one of the two staircases which remains fairly undamaged.
The “Temple of Bacchus” or the Little Temple:
Perhaps the most spectacular piece of Roman architecture at Baalbek is the temple known as the Temple of Bacchus, in fact dedicated to Astarte. It remains in amazing condition, with most of the columns and large sections of the outer roof still standing.
Around the outside of the temple the column-lined walkways are still covered by an intricately carved stone roof with huge busts of the Roman gods surrounded by snakes, lions and beautiful leaf and vine patterns.
The entrance and great courtyard are the least preserved areas of the site, with huge blocks of stone and fallen masonry heaped on the ground.
The Trilithon – The World’s Largest Building Blocks:
To the side of the Temple of Jupiter stands a wall made of three megalithic stone blocks – the largest man-made stones on earth. These blocks are 19.5 metres by 4.5 metres and are estimated to weigh over 1000 tonnes. Like Stonehenge, the way the stones were cut, carried and moved into position remains a mystery, however the stones at Stonehenge weigh only 40 tonnes each.
The Temple of Venus:
The Temple of Venus is situated outside the main archeological site and can be viewed without entering the main temple complex. It is considerably smaller than the other two temples, and in worse repair – visitors cannot walk among the ruins. It is, however, still a stunning sight, with its crumbling stairs and fluted columns.
Overall Baalbek is a spectacular site, whether for an archeologist or just an interested traveller. The town itself is small but unsurprisingly caters fairly well for tourists – at least at the lower end of the budget. We had no trouble finding a place to stay for $10 a night. We did, however, have trouble with bedbugs, though not as badly as on our trip to the Qadisha Valley. My advice to anyone planning a visit to Lebanon would be that no trip is complete without a visit to Baalbek – but make sure you keep an eye on the situation in the Bekaa Valley by checking the Foreign Office Warnings for Lebanon, and if you’re planning to spend the night in any of Baalbek’s budget hostels make sure you don’t forget to pack your sleeping bag liner!
Many thanks to the Baalbek museum and to the Lonely Planet Lebanon guide for the facts and figures that helped make my visit so much more interesting.