The Known History of Baalbek
One who lets sacred cows lie
will never uncover the ideological bull.
-- Ted Goertzel
Approximately 53 miles northeast of the city of Beirut in eastern Lebanon, and about 47 miles north of Damascus, Syria, stands the temple
complex of Baalbek. Situated atop a high point (3800 feet) in the fertile Bekaa valley, the ruins are one of the most extraordinary and enigmatic holy places of ancient times. Long before the Romans conquered the site and built their enormous temple of Jupiter, there stood
Map — Lebanon
at Baalbek the largest
stone block construction found in the entire world. Prior to the restoration and enlargement projects of various Roman emperors, Baalbek was the site of one of the greatest and most famous temples of all history — the Great Temple of King Solomon of Assyria, dated to about 1250 BC.
About 1070 BC, the Phrygians from western Turkey took control of the whole region including Baalbek, and it wasn’t until around 740 BC that the Assyrians regained their dominance. Alexander the Great of Greece conquered Baalbek in 334 BC and renamed it Heliopolis, (“City of the Sun”). Following the death of Alexander in 323 BC, the area was ruled successively by the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt and the Seleucid kings of Syria until the arrival of the Romans.
Heliopolis was still the name of the city when the Romans took control of the area in the first century BC. The golden age of Roman building at Baalbek/Heliopolis began in 15 BC when Julius Caesar settled a legion there and began construction of the great Temple of Jupiter. During the next three centuries, as emperors succeeded
one another in the imperial capital of Rome, Heliopolis would be filled with the most massive religious buildings ever constructed in the far reaching
Baalbek Site Plan
Roman Empire. The primary Roman structures there were the Great Court; the Temple of Baal/Jupiter situated upon the massive pre-Roman stone blocks known as the “Trilithon”; the Temple of Bacchus;
and the circular temple believed to be associated with the goddess Venus. The Romans vastly improved the site with massive building projects, walkways, aqueducts, and roads.
It is difficult to make sense as to why the Romans chose Baalbek as the site for building such an elaborate temple complex. As far as we know, at the time Baalbek was (apparently) just a small city on a trading route to Damascus. It held no special religious or cultural significance for Rome, other than being in the centre of a coveted burial region that was favored by local tribes. It also seems completely out of character for the undeniably selfish Rome to have gone to all the trouble of creating such lavish and extravagant architecture in Lebanon, and at a place like Baalbek — that was located so far from Rome. Presumably Baalbek had something else the Romans wanted from the site — which leads us to surmise that the temple complex was in fact, an augmentation to a much older pre-existing platform and this platform offered the Romans a base on which to build their temples.
The first view the visitor has of Baalbek is the six Corinthian columns of the Jupiter Temple thrusting 72 feet into the skyline. Built on a podium 23 feet above the Great Court, these six columns and the entablature on top give an idea of the vast scale of the original structure. The complex of the Great Temple had four sections: the monumental entrance or Propylaea, the Hexagonal Court, the Great Court and finally the Temple, where the six famous columns stand. The Temple itself was built between 100 BC and 100 AD, the Great Court complex and the Temple of Bacchus were built in the second century AD, and the Propylaea and Hexagonal Court were built in the third century AD. The Temple of Jupiter
measured 289 feet by 157 feet and stood on a podium 43 feet above the surrounding terrain and 23 feet above the courtyard, and it was reached by a monumental stairway. It was originally surrounded
Temple of Jupiter
by 54 external columns, most of which now lie in fragments on the ground. The six currently standing columns are joined by an entablature decorated with a frieze of bulls’ and lions' heads connected by garlands. The Podium was built with some of the largest stone blocks ever hewn. On the west side of the podium is the "Trilithon," a well-known group of three enormous stones weighing about 1000 tons each. (See photo page 6.2.) It was decided to furnish the temple with a monumental extension of the podium, which, according to Phoenician tradition, had to consist of no more than three layers of stone. This decision initiated the cutting, transporting and lifting of the largest and heaviest stones of all times. Not only was it necessary to build a wall of 43 feet in height composed of three ranges of stones, but in the interest of appearance the middle blocks needed to have a length four times their height. With a depth equal to their height, each stone had a volume of approximately 500 cubic yards, corresponding to a weight of about 1000 tons. Technically, the builders of Baalbek proved that they could do it, since three such blocks of the middle layer are in place, but in terms of time they did not succeed — the podium remained incomplete. Nevertheless, so awe-inspiring were those blocks to all beholders ever after, that Baalbek was known for a long time primarily as the site of the three stones, the "Trilithon."
The Temple of Bacchus, dedicated to the Roman god of wine, is considered one of the best-preserved Roman temples in the world. It is larger than the Parthenon in Greece, though much less famous. It was built close to the courtyard in front of the larger temple of Jupiter. The period of
construction is generally considered to be between 150 AD and 250 AD. When the temple complex fell into disrepair, the Temple of Bacchus was protected by
Temple of Bacchus
the rubble of the rest of the site's ruins. The temple is slightly smaller than the Temple of Jupiter and is 216 feet long, 115 feet wide, and 102 feet high. Its walls were adorned by forty-two unfluted Corinthian columns
supporting a richly carved entablature, nineteen of which now remain upright in position standing 62 feet high.
Some two hundred yards southeast of the altars on the Great Court of the Temple of Jupiter, and separated from it by a colonnaded street, was the complex of Venus and the Muses. It is a more or less square field, surrounded by a colonnade; on the field are two small shrines. The square one was dedicated to the Muses; in the other one, facing the Jupiter temple, Venus was venerated. The temple of the Muses is the older of the two. It was built in the first century AD and was, compared to the other buildings in
Baalbek, rather simple. The temple of Venus was built in the third century AD. It had a highly original design, being built on a horseshoe-shaped
platform, and consisting of a circular shrine with a square entrance. The outer facade of the shrine was graced by five niches, which means that there was not a single square wall. In the niches were representations
Temple of Venus
of doves and shells, which has been taken as evidence that the shrine was dedicated to Venus. The square entrance probably was not one of those classical triangle-shaped pediments supported by columns. In fact, the straight horizontal line was broken by an elegant arch.
Heliopolis remained the most holy of temple complexes until Christianity was declared an official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 AD, following which the Byzantine Christian emperors and their soldiers desecrated thousands of “pagan” sanctuaries. At the end of the fourth century AD, the Romans destroyed many significant buildings and statues, and constructed a basilica with stones from the Temple of Jupiter. This signaled the end of Roman Heliopolis. The City of the Sun declined and lapsed into relative oblivion. Avoiding the fate of some pagan sites, which were neglected or destroyed, it was then Christianized. Many of the temples of the Roman complex were spared destruction during the rise of Christianity through their use as churches. The temples continued in their role as Christian places of worship until the coming of the Muslims in 637 AD.
Under Muslim rul, the area was re-named Al-Qalaa (the fortress). Walls were strengthened for defense and the temples were fortified. A mosque was built amid the ancient Roman temples while the Christian additions were torn down and destroyed. The Byzantine army sacked the city in 748 AD and, again, in 975 AD but could not hold it, and eventually, having survived the Mongols and further military campaigns, it 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 by way of preservation or excavation. For centuries the temples of Baalbek lay under yards of rubble, obscured by medieval fortifications. But even in ruins the site attracted the admiration of visitors and its historical importance was recognized. The first survey and restoration work at Baalbek was begun by the German Archaeological Mission in 1898. In 1922 French scholars undertook extensive research and restoration of the temples, work which was continued by the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities.
As of today, those who want to explore the ruins of Baalbek must be prepared to face multiple challenges. Not only is the travel to get there arduous, but also being on-site can be quite dangerous. There are ongoing clashes between Syrian militants, Lebanese Sunni, and the Shiite group Hezbollah. Moreover, terrorist attacks against foreigners are a common occurrence.
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