Baalbek is an ancient Phoenician city about 2 hours northeast of Beirut in the Beqaa Valley. It was a religious center attracting thousands of pilgrims who worshipped the Phoenician sky-god Ba’al and his consort Astarte, the Queen of Heaven. There was once a grand temple here dedicated to these two pagan gods which was later built over by the Romans. In 334 BC , Alexander the Great conquered Baalbek and renamed it Heliopolis. The Romans added more structures, roads, and aqueducts to the original city and it remained a pilgrimage site until the legitimization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The colossal structures here are some of the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture in the world. Baalbek was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
Before entering the main complex, you will come across the Temple of Venus, also known as the Circular Temple, built in the 3rd century. In the niches of the outer facade are decorations of doves and seashells which led archaeologists to believe that this shrine was dedicated to Venus. It was later turned into a basilica and dedicated to St Barbara whose father tried to kill her for converting to Christianity and in the end he was killed by a bolt of lightning.
You may have seen photos of the shrine of the Temple of Jupiter which is the principal temple here with 23 meter high columns. This colossal temple was dedicated to Zeus and was the largest pagan temple dedicated to Jupiter in the entire Roman Empire. Built 2,000 years ago, it sits on top of three massive thousand-ton foundation stones. Out of the original 58 Corinthian columns, only 6 columns stood the test of time. Unfortunately, the shrine was under restoration during my visit and was entirely covered by the scaffolding.
From the shrine of the Temple of Jupiter, there is a perfect view of the Temple of Bacchus. The Temple of Bacchus is the best preserved structure here at Baalbek with very refined reliefs and sculptures. The temple is surrounded by 42 Corinthian columns all nearly 20 meters in height. It is larger than the Parthenon of Athens and is believed to be built between 150 AD and 250 AD and was originally used to worship the sky god Ba’al. You can still see the exquisite carvings of Diana drawing an arrow, Mars, Vulcan with his hammer, etc.
Like in many ancient civilisations, mystery shrouds the identity of who ordered and how workers moved massive blocks long distances to place them onto a base of smaller blocks. From Stonehenge to Easter Island to Machu Picchu, large stone blocks were dragged to create massive structures. The largest hewn stone in the world is found here in Baalbek at a nearby quarry weighing around 1,200 tons (about the weight of 3 Boeing 747s). It is known as the Stone of the Pregnant Woman. The stone did not make it to the Temple of Jupiter and was left jutting out of the ground. Many questions remain as to why it was necessary to have these massive blocks when smaller ones would suffice.
Next post will be on the ruins at Anjar. Most visits to Baalbek from Beirut also include a stop at Anjar which was an Umayyad city founded in the 8th century. Stay tuned!
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