Baalbeck, Lebanon’s greatest roman treasure, can be counted among the wonders of the ancient World. The largest and most noble roman temples ever built, they are also among the best preserved.
Towering high above the Beqaa plain, their monumental proportions proclaimed the power and wealth of imperial Rome. The gods worshipped here, the triad of Jupiter, Venus, Venus and Mercury, were grafted onto the indigenous deities of Hadad, Atargatis and a young male god of fertility. Local influences are also seen in the planning and layout of the temples, which vary from the classic roman design.
Over the centuries Baalbeck’s monuments suffered from theft, war and earthquakes, as well as from numerous medieval additions. Fortunately, the modern visitors can see the site in something close to its original form thanks to work in the past hundred years by German, French and Lebanese arhaologists.
Baalbeck is located on two main historic trade routes, one between the Mediterranean coast and the Syrian interior and the other between northern Syria and northern Palestine. Today the city 85 kilometers from Beirut is an important administrative and economic center in the Northern Beqaa Valley.
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For centuries the temples of Baalbeck lay under meters of rubble. Obscured by medieval fortification. But even in ruin the site attracted the admiration of visitors and its historical importance was recognized.
The survey and restoration work at Baalbeck 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.
Baalbeck’s temples were built on an ancient tell that goes back at least to the end of the third millennium B.C. little is known about the city during this period, but there is evidence that in the course of the first millennium B.C. an enclosed court was built on the ancient tell. An altar was set in the center of this court on the tradition on the biblical Semitic high places.
During the Hellenistic period (333-654 B.C.) the Greek identify the god of Baalbeck with the sun god and the city was called Heliopolis or city of the sun. At this time the ancient enclosed court was enlarged and a podium was erected on its western side to support a temple of classical form. Although the temple was never built, some huge structures from this Hellenistic project can still be seen. And it was over the ancient court that the Roma placed the present great court of the Temple of Jupiter.
The temple was begun in the last quarter of the 1st century B.C., and was nearing completion in the final years of Nero’s reign (37-68 A.D.). the great court complex of the temple of Jupiter, with its porticoes, exedrae, altars and basins, was built in the 2nd century A.D. construction of the so called temple of Bacchus was also started about this time.
The Propylaea and three hexagonal courts of the Jupiter temple were added in the third century under the several dynasties (193-235 A.D.) and work was presumably completed in the mid-3rd century. The small circular structure known as the temple of Venus was probably finished at this time as well.
When Christianity was declared an official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., Byzantine emperor Constantine officially closed the Baalbeck temples. At h en d of the 4th century, the emperor Theodosius tore down the altars of Jupiter’s Great Court and built a basilica using the temple’s stones and architectural elements. The remnants of the three apses of this basilica, originally oriented to the west, can still be seen in the upper part of the stairway of the temple of Jupiter.
After the Arab conquest in 636 the temples were transformed into a fortress, or Qal’a, a term still applied to the Acropolis today.
During the next centuries Baalbeck fell successively to the Omayyad, Abbasid, Toulounid, Fatimid and Ayyoubid dynasties. Sacked by the Mongols, about 1260, Baalbeck later enjoy a period of calm and prosperity under Mamluke rule.
The temple complex of Baalbeck is made of the Jupiter Temple and the Bacchus temple adjacent to it. A short distance away is the circular structure known as the temple of Venus. Only part of the staircase remains of a fourth temple dedicated to Mercury, on Sheikh Abdallah hill.
The Great Temple or “Jupiter Temple”
The first view the visitor has of Baalbeck is the six Corinthian columns of the Great Temple thrusting 22 meters into the skyline. Built on podium seven meters above the 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 has four sections: the monumental entrance or Propylaea, the Hexagonal Court, the Great Court and finally the Temple columns stand.
· The Propylaea, completed in the mid – 3rd century A.D., is approached by a large semicircle of stone benches and a partially restored stairway. The entrance structure has towers at either end and is fronted by 12 granite columns. An interior stairway goes to the top of the Propylaea where there is an excellent view of the area.
· Three doors lead to the Hexagonal Forecourt where 30 granite columns originally supported the entablature. This six – sided form was built between the Propylaea and the Great Court is the first half of the 3rd century A.D. at the end of the 4th century or the early 5th century, it was covered with a dome and transformed into a church.
· The Great Court, built in the 2sn century A.D., covered an area of 134 x 112 meters and contained the mains installations of the cult. Structurally, the court is a platform built on the leveled – off top of the ancient artificial tell. The tell was consolidated on the eastern, northern and southern sides by vaulted substructures, and on the western side by the temple’s podium. These substructures supported the porticos and the exedrae around the court and were used for stables and storage. Two huge structures stand in the center of the Great Court: a restored sacrificial altar and a tower with only courses remaining. The tower, dating from the beginning of the 1st century A.D., was probably built to allow the worshipers to view the proceedings from the worshipers to view the proceedings from the top. It was flanked by two solitary columns of gray and red granite. Two pools for ritual washing, decorated with relief carvings, were placed north and south of both altar and tower. These structures were destroyed when a Christian basilica was built on the site at the end of the 4th century. The entire Court, in front of the exedrae or recesses decorated by niches which conatined statues. Surrounding the Court, in front of the exedare, was 84 column Corinthian colonnade of Egyptian granite. On the exterior walls of the court the remain of medieval battlements can still be seen.
· After passing through the Propylaea, the hexagonal Forecourt and the Great Court, the worshiper at last arrived at the Temple of Jupiter. This approach to the sanctuary through a series of defined spaces was an apparent oriental adaptation. The temple measures 88 x 48 meters and stands on a podium 13 meters above the surrounding terrain and 7 meters above the courtyard. It is reached by a monumental stairway. Originally surrounded by 54 external columns, most of these now lie in fragments on the ground. The six standing columns are joined by an entablature decorated with a frieze of bulls and lions’ heads connected by garlands. The podium is built with some of the largest stone blocks ever hewn. On the West side of the podium is the “Trilithon,” a celebrated group of three enormous stones weighing about 800 tons each.
The Round Temple or the so called Temple of Venus
The gem – like temple southeast of the acropolis was built in the 3rd century A.D. its design and size, as well as its orientation towards the Great Temple, set it apart from the other Baalbeck temples. These attributes also help identify it as the temple of the fortune of Baalbeck; the t is the tutelary divinity of the City, under the protection of its great gods. It was not by accident that during the Byzantine period it was converted into a church dedicated to Saint Barbara, who is the patron saint of Baalbeck to this day.
Near the temple of Venus are the remains of “The Temple of Muses”, dating from the beginning of the 1st century A.D.
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There are a number of other roman remains and Islamic sites to visit in Baalbeck and its immediate neighborhood.
· The great mosque: in front of the acropolis entrance, this mosque dates from the 7th-8th century of the Omayyad period. Built on what was the site of the roman forum and later a Byzantine church dedicated to Saint John, the mosque re-uses granite and limestone columns. There is a square minaret in the North West corner of the courtyard.
· Public buildings: at Boustan elKhan south of the temples are important remains of public baths, a market and probably a bouleuterion or assembly place.
· Ras El-Ain: this ancient spring, now incorporated into modern Baalbeck, has been a source of water since antiquity. Here are traces of roman shrine and nympheum as well as remains of a Mamluke mosque built in 1277.
· Quarries: at the southern entrance of town is a quarry where the stones used in the temples were cut. A huge block, considered the largest hewn stone in the world, still sits where it was cut almost 2,000 years ago. Called the “stone of the pregnant woman”, it is 21.5 x 4.8 m x4.2 meters in size and weighs an estimated 1,000 tons. There is another quarry at Al-Kiyyal, southwest of town after Qoubbat Douris.
· Qubbat al – Amjad: on sheikh Abdallah Hill are the remains of the Zawiya – Mosque and tomb of Sheikh ‘Abdallah al-Younini, built under the rule of Al-Amjad, grand nephew of Saladin and governor of Baalbeck between 1182 and 1230. It was constructed of stones form the neighborhood temple of mercury.
· City Gate: northwest of the acropolis near the army barracks lie the remains of a roman city gate, part of the fortification that surrounded the city.
· Qoubbat as-Saddin: not far from the City Gate is a two-room mausoleum built in 1409, which served as a burial place for the Mamluke governors of Baalbeck.
· Qoubbat Douris: at the southern entrance in town is the site of an octagonal structure composed of eight roman granite columns. Built during the 13th century, it was originally covered with a cupola and held an Ayyoubid tomb.