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.
Temple of Venus
Temple of Venus and the remains of the colonnaded street.
Entering the ancient ruins of Baalbek
These steps at the entrance to the ancient city used to be much wider, almost as wide as the entire front portion you see here.
Here you can see the decorations carved onto the top of the pillars with patterns of eggs, teeth, and flowers, signifying the cycle of life.
The hexagonal court of the Temple of Jupiter
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 Hexagonal Court, we entered the Great Court of the Temple of Jupiter
The 6 Corinthian columns on the left under restoration.
We were told that the 2 basins in the Great Court were where animals were washed before being sacrificed. In the background, steps lead up to the shrine of the Temple of Jupiter.
Porticoes surrounding the Great Court
Looking out at the Great Court, you will see 2 tower-altars or platforms on which the sacrifices were performed.
Lion head gargoyles sat on these giant columns because this area snows in the winter and the gargoyles were essential for dealing with the large amounts of melting water.
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.
Looking out to the Temple of Bacchus from the shrine of the Temple of Jupiter
Temple of Bacchus, often called the “small temple” because it is small compared to the Temple of Jupiter, is one of the largest remaining ancient structures in the world and is larger and better preserved than the Parthenon in Athens.
Temple of Bacchus
Inside the Temple of Bacchus
Fallen pieces from the ceiling at the Temple of Bacchus
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.
Stone of the Pregnant Woman
One of the quarries for the Temple of Jupiter
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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