Hello again! It has been a busy couple weeks over here and I’m finally carving out some time to write about Baalbek. We have been taking full day trips and usually get back to the house by 8 or 9pm. By the time we spend time with family, eat something, move the day’s photos onto the computer, charge batteries, shower, and prepare for the next day’s trip we are ready to sleep because we know we are waking up at 5:30am. I’ll be back-blogging from Istanbul.
Haydar and I visited Baalbek two weeks ago. As with each trip we take, Haydar left our actual destination a surprise, so I had no idea what we would see that day. He has been keeping the itinerary under lock and key and enjoys seeing my reaction when I finally experience things in person.
Baalbek is located in the Beqaa Valley. It is about an hour an a half from Beirut. You travel up, over, and back down mountains to get there. The valley is between Mount Lebanon of the West mountain range and Mount Lebanon of the East mountain range. When we got over the crest of the Mount Lebanon of the West mountain range and began making our descent into the Beqaa Valley, traffic slowed down. The road we were on is an international highway to Damascus, one of several international highways between Lebanon and it’s neighbor Syria. People can pass back and forth internationally from Damascus to Lebanon, and for this reason the road is heavily monitored with checkpoints. However, at this location you are still far from the actual border. After our decent we had another forty minutes to go before we reached our first stop in Baalbek. Once down into the valley, you have a view of Mount Lebanon of the East mountain range. At the foot of the other side of these mountains is the border between Syria and Lebanon. Here is a picture of those mountains.
Worthy Side Note:
As we drove to our first stop, we passed several more large fields like the one you see above. There are several Syrian refugee camps in these fields. Lebanon has a population of around 4 million. There are currently around 2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. That is 1 refugee for every 2 Lebanese. I took a few zoomed in photos. (separate blog devoted to this topic later on)
Back to the Trip:
Here is a picture of new mosque under construction – I had to ask Haydar to stop the car to grab a photo because I’d never seen a mosque done in all concrete, granted this is just the bones. This structure will most likely be clad in other stones and materials.
Our first (actual) stop was an ancient quarry. “The Stone of the Pregnant Woman” is an ancient monolith thought to be quarried for the nearby Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, 900 meters away. It is around 1,000 tons. A second stone was discovered in the 1990s and is even larger at 1,250 tons. A third was discovered in 2014 weighing 1,650 tons. This holds the record for the largest quarried monolith by human hands to date. “The Stone of the Pregnant Woman” is the most popular and well known. It sits at an angle in the quarry and the other two stones lie underneath / to the side of it.
There are many stories behind the name of this stone. A local shop owner and expert explained that ancient folklore states if women touched the stone it would increase their fertility. Some stories say pregnant jinn (supernatural creatures in early Arabian, later Islamic, theology and mythology) were given the task of cutting and moving the stone. Another legend is that a pregnant woman convinced people she knew how to move the stone if only they would feed her until she gave birth. And so the stone got it’s name: “The Stone of the Pregnant Woman”. Both Haydar and I touched the stone.
After some time here, we made our way to the ruins at Baalbek. We spent the rest of the day there until it closed, then rushed to a restaurant around the corner where we had a kilo of lahmacun, Baalbek style, being prepared for us. Our friends Nick and James visited Haydar in September before I came and left Baalbek without trying it. They were enjoying the ruins so much (it was summer, so they could stay until 6pm) that the restaurant was closed by the time they left the temples. Knowing that it takes a while to make and that we weren’t leaving Baalbek without trying it, we stopped inside ahead of time. Sorry Nick and James, you missed out, but save it for the next time you visit Baalbek! (more about lahmacun below…I’m getting off topic again).
This area was just outside the entrance to the Temple of Jupiter and the Temple of Bacchus. You didn’t even have to pay to enjoy this part. In the picture below, the Temple of Venus is being restored, and the Temple of the Muses begins with the columns you see to the middle right of the photo. The Roman ruins at Baalbek were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. For anyone unfamiliar with what specifically qualifies a site, it means that, according the their website, it has special cultural or physical significance. (I’ll say!) You can see the “UNESCO” banner, although falling down at one corner, on the scaffolding.
Below is part of a colonnaded street that separated these two temples from the larger temples we were about to see.
Beyond a green gate (seen in the photo below if you follow your eye along the railing to the left) is the paid entrance ($8 for the two of us *insert face with open mouth emoji*). Once inside, we went to the right. We ended our tour of the ruins at the structure (Temple of Bacchus) in the distance behind the green entry gate.
Once up the stairs, we explored the propylaea (entrance).
Already I was stunned by the scale of things. And this was just the entrance.
From the photo below it is hard to tell exactly how big the top stone with the shell pattern actually is. This stone was still in its original place. The photo below the photo below is me sitting inside a similar top stone from somewhere inside the Great Court (I’m guessing based on further exploration). Insane.
Here is another example. I looked towards the other end of the propylaea (opposite where Haydar and I took the photo in front of the pedestal). I see a Corinthian capital on the ground. I walk towards it. It is massive. This capital belongs to one of the columns of the propylaea. *insert astonished face emoji*.
Two-story towers flank the rectangular hall and staircase of the propylaea. I went into one of the towers. Again, massive.
There was so much detail.
Next stop is the hexagonal court. These are views from the propylaea into the court. We read that this is “the only example attested in Roman architecture and was built in the 2nd c.AD”. It is the forecourt to the Great Court. It underwent a series of changes during different periods. The Byzantine period added a roof and punctured its outer walls to let in light. Passages were added during the medieval period when it was being used as a citadel. At one point it may have also been used as a church.
There are a lot of photos, I know, but the ruins at Baalbek were really impressive. On to the Great Court. It has a substructure underneath (which is partially accessibly today) that would keep horses and act as storage space. In the middle of the Great Court there are two larger structures. One is a tower that may have been used for worshipers to view what was going on in the temple, the other an altar for sacrifices with space for sculptures. Flanking the altar are pools for ritualistic washing. The altar and the water basins were especially important elements to what went on at the Temple of Jupiter and its worshipers. Surrounding the altar and viewing tower was a colonnaded portico connected to rectangular and semi-circular exedras (side rooms). Statues would be displayed in these rooms. During religious feasts, different cities would come and occupy an exedra. In the early Christian period a basilica was constructed where the altar and towers were. The church is gone and the altar and tower partially reconstructed (I am pretty sure). This information is general and pulled from different placards and pamphlets at the ruins.
At this point Haydar was getting worried about time, and had to push me out of the exedra (side room) because there was still more to see. We hadn’t even gotten to the temples yet. I agreed to move on only to stop in the next exedra and look more.
After another ten (okay maybe twenty) minutes of looking here, we climbed the steps to the Temple of Jupiter. This was the sanctuary for the worshiper and it was approached through the series of spaces I just wrote about. The temple is on podium that is seven meters above the Great Court, and thirteen meters above most of the surrounding landscape. On the west side of the podium is a “trilithon”, which is what the “Stone of the Pregnant Woman” and others in the quarry we first stopped at may have been cut for.
AHHHHHHHHHHH! *insert astonished face emoji* There they are. The six remaining columns of the Temple of Jupiter. Standing in this spot I am about one third of the way into the temple. Not much else remains. I turned around. My jaw dropped again at the view of the Great Court below. We walked around and soaked in the scale of things. In order of appearance: standing next to part of the entablature from the temple, part of a column from the temple, more entablature, and the base of a column.
We went through a doorway in a far corner of the temple. From what Haydar and I gathered, this was an addition during the medieval period when the ruins were turned into a citadel to fight the Crusaders. Sultan Bahramshah of the Ghaznavid dynasty (we think) added the Temple of Bacchus into the citadel and erected other structures such as a mosque, a gate, and a large hall. In 1260 the Mongols invaded. After, the Temple of Bacchus was transformed into a palace, and a tower at the front of the temple was included (we go into this tower at the end of the day). The next four pictures show traces of these additions.
They are so beautiful.
We walked down the stairs to the Temple of Bacchus. The “small” temple (still huge). Bacchus is the wine god, and this temple was supposedly dedicated to him, although there isn’t anything that strictly confirms this. This is one of the best preserved Roman temples. The podium for this temple is five meters high. It has been through earthquakes, religious shifts from paganism to Christianity to Islam, and was apparently a dungeon during part of the medieval period. It has great Corinthian ornamentation.
On the way down a group of birds decided to make an appearance.
Below is a very well preserved portion of fallen entablature from the Temple of Jupiter.
Looking at the below photo, you will see a lion head at the top of the entablature near the middle-top of the frame of the photo. The part I am standing in front of above stops at the garland pattern below the repeating rectangle shapes you see. The lion head portion on the ground isn’t even the full entablature, it is just the cornice. Everything is so huge.
If you remember the Corinthian capital I took a photo with at the beginning of the blog, that was peanuts compared to this one!
Just for good measure. Here are other shots of the six columns to show you just how many photos I tried to take of them.
Now I’ll really move on to pictures of the next obsession: the Temple of Bachus. It was stunning. While we couldn’t go into the temple because it is currently going through restorations, we walked all along side it.
The picture below is looking up in the portico that surrounds the temple. As with many other parts of the architecture, I never would have been able to comprehend the size of the chunk of ceiling that is missing if it hadn’t fallen to the ground and I could stand next to it. The next pictures are parts of that ceiling.
We moved to the front of the temple. The sun was beginning to set and we had limited time to go through a portion of the ruins that was added in the medieval period and is now functioning as a museum. It is the southern tower of the citadel.
Below is a fountain (if I’m remembering right) that doubled as a clock.
This is the oculus that let in the light for the clock.
Below is a tombstone found in an old storage room on site. It dates to the Ayyubid dynasty.
Below are other remnants of medieval occupation.
This was a long blog because I shared a lot of pictures. Below are two more. I took 1,015 photos that day, and I tried to just show you the highlights. A lot more weaseled their way in. Mainly I just wanted to give an idea of the different areas of the ruins at Baalbek and the many uses for the site. Seeing elements of how Christianity and Islam used the site was very interesting, although much harder to pick out than the pagan parts. A lot has been removed to uncover the Roman ruins.
These ruins were forgotten for a long time. It was covered in rubble and medieval fortification. In 1898 some of the first restoration work began by the German Archaeological Mission. Then in the 1920’s French scholars took a vested interest. The Lebanese Directorate General of Antiques continued their efforts.
Before these temples were erected it is guessed that there was an ancient tell here. The Greeks named it Heliopolis because of their association of the sun with the god of Baalbek. The Romans came and built the Great Court and the temples. More additions were made during the Severan Dynasty such as the propylaea and perhaps the hexagonal court. Then Christianity became an official religion of the Roman Empire and Byzantine Emperor Constantine closed the Baalbek temples. Altars were torn down. Stones were reused to build a basilica. Then conquests by Arab empires and dynasties saw the addition of fortress elements. A mosque was built. Earthquakes damaged the site. Theft and pillaging affected the site, and it is said to have been left pretty much untouched under Ottoman rule. In the modern day – post restoration work, concerts for the Baalbek International Festival took place inside the Temple of Bacchus. HOW COOL. They don’t do that anymore though. Now they are moved outside in the area between the two temples.
Despite all this, there is still so much left to see. I was extremely impressed. While I may not be in Rome with the students right now, I am certainly learning about the Roman empire and subsequent ruling forces. This was a great example of the reach of empires and how they are intertwined. It is also a great example of Lebanon’s historical importance to different religions and empires/dynasties/rulers/power figures.
After our visit was over, Haydar and enjoyed digging in to our kilo of lahmacun. We had leftovers to bring home to Haydar’s family. The first lahmacun I tried was in Istanbul. Haydar took me to a place close to the market where we bought fruits and vegetables. It was served as a round piece of dough rolled up / folded over for easy take out. The Baalbek style lahmacun are “mini” comparatively and the circle of dough is pinched and folded to make four corners. The general contents of this food are as follows: minced meat, minced vegetables, and minced herbs. Compared to what I ate in Istanbul, Baalbek style lahmacun has thicker dough and spicier meat. You also sprinkle more spice on top and squeeze lemon on them. You can also put pomegranate molasses on them, but this was only something Haydar added when we ate them with his family. In Baalbek they didn’t give us any sauce, just the spice and lemon. It is one of my favorite foods (I have so many….).
We also visited another site in Baalbek, but that is for another blog.