Modern Baalbek is a town in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon, altitude 3,850 ft (1,170 m), situated east of the Litani River. It is famous for its exquisitely detailed but monumentally scaled temple ruins of the Roman period, when Baalbek, known as Heliopolis was one of the largest sanctuaries in the Empire.
19th century Bible archaeologists wanted to connect Baalbek to the "Baalgad" mentioned in Joshua 11:17, but the assertion has not been taken up in modern times. In fact, this minor Phoenician city, named for the "Lord (Baal) of the Beqaa valley" lacked enough commercial or strategic importance to rate a mention in Assyrian or Egyptian records so far uncovered, according to Hélène Sader, professor of archaeology at the American University of Beirut. Nevertheless, it must have been the site of an oracle from earliest times, for oracles are not lightly founded. It retained its religious function during Roman times, when the sanctuary of the Heliopolitan Jupiter-Baal was a pilgrimage site. Trajan's biographer records that the Emperor consulted the oracle there. Trajan inquired of the Heliopolitan Jupiter whether he would return alive from his wars against the Parthians. In reply, the god presented him with a vine shoot cut into pieces. Theodosius Macrobius, a Latin grammarian of the 5th century AD, mentioned Zeus Heliopolitanus and the temple, a place of oracular divination.
The city Trajan was visiting was known as Heliopolis during the Hellenistic and Roman times. "Baalbek, with its colossal structures, is one of the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture at its apogee," UNESCO reported in making Baalbek a World Heritage Site in 1984. When the Committee inscribed the site, it expressed the wish that the protected area include the entire town within the Arab walls, as well as the south-western extramural quarter between Bastan-al-Khan, the Roman site and the Mameluk mosque of Ras-al-Ain. Lebanon's representative gave assurances that the Committee's wish would be honored.
German archaeological teams began the modern digs at Baalbek in 1898, but the colossal and picturesque ruins had attracted particularly intrepid Westerners since the 18th century. Wood and Dawson made engravings of the ruins (1757) that brought their details into the repertory of British and European architects, just coinciding with the first stirrings of Neoclassicism.
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Heliopolis, the City of the Sun
Heliopolis (there was another Heliopolis in Egypt) was made a colonia by the Roman Empire in 15 BC and a legion was stationed there. Work on this shrine lasted over a century and a half, and was never completed. The dedication of the present temple ruins, the largest religious building in the entire Roman empire, dates from the reign of Septimus Severus, whose coins first show the two temples. The great courts of approach were not finished before the reigns of Caracalla and Philip. In commemoration, no doubt, of the dedication of the new sanctuaries, Severus conferred the rights of the jus italicum on the city. Today, only six Corinthian columns remain standing. Eight more were disassembled and shipped to Constantinople under Justinian's orders, for his basilica of Hagia Sophia.
The greatest of the three temples was sacred to Jupiter Baal, ("Heliopolitan Zeus"), identified here with the sun, with whom were associated a temple to Venus and a lesser temple in honor of Bacchus (though it was traditionally referred to by Neoclassical visitors as "Temple of the Sun"). Thus three Eastern deities were worshipped in Roman guise: thundering Jove, the god of storms, stood in for Baal-Hadad, Venus for ‘Ashtart (known in English as Astarte) and Bacchus for Anatolian Dionysus.
Jupiter-Baal was represented locally (on coinage) as a beardless god in long scaly drapery, holding a whip in his right hand and thunderbolts and ears of wheat in his left. Two bulls supported him. In this guise he passed into European worship in the 3rd century and 4th century AD. The icon of Helipolitan Zeus (in A.B. Cook, Zeus, i:570–576) bore busts of the seven planetary powers on the front of the pillarlike term in which he was encased. A bronze statuette of this Heliopolitan Zeus was discovered at Tortosa, Spain; another was found at Byblos in Phoenicia. A comparable iconic image is the Lady of Ephesus (see illustration) (Robert Graves, The Greek Myths I.4)
The extreme licence of the Heliopolitan worship of Aphrodite was often commented upon by early Christian writers, and Constantine, making an effort to curb the Venus cult, built a basilica. Theodosius I erected another, with a western apse, occupying the main court of the Jupiter temple, as was Christian practice everywhere. The vast stone blocks of its walls were taken from the temple itself. Today nothing of the Theodosian basilica remains.
Other Emperors enriched the sanctuary of Heliopolitan Jupiter each in turn. Nero (54–68 BC) built the tower-altar opposite the Temple of Jupiter, Trajan added the forecourt to the Temple of Jupiter, with porticos of pink granite brought from Aswan in Egypt. Antoninus Pius built the Temple of Bacchus, the best preserved of the sanctuary's structures, for it was protected by the very rubble of the site's ruins. It is enriched with refined reliefs and sculpture. Septimus Severus added a pentagonal Temple of Venus, who as Aphrodite had enjoyed an early Syrian role with her consort Adonis ("Lord," the Aramaic translation of "Baal."). Christian writers competed with one another to execrate her worship. Eusebius of Caesarea, down the coast, averred that 'men and women vie with one another to honour their shameless goddess; husbands and fathers let their wives and daughters publicly prostitute themselves to please Astarte'. Emperor Philip the Arab (244–249) was the last to add a monument at Heliopolis— the hexagonal forecourt. When he was finished Heliopolis and Praeneste in Italy were the two largest sanctuaries in the Western world.
When Abu Ubaida ibn al-Jarrah attacked the place after the Muslim capture of Damascus (AD 635), it was still an opulent city and yielded rich booty. It became a bone of contention between the various Syrian dynasties and the caliphs first of Damascus, then of Egypt. The place was fortified and took on the name Al-Qualaa ("fortress; see Alcala) but in 748 was sacked again with great slaughter. In 1090 it passed to the Seljuks and in 1134 to Gengis Khan; but after 1145 it remained attached to Damascus and was captured by Saladin in 1175. The Crusaders raided its valley more than once, but never took the city. Three times shaken by earthquakes in the 12th century, it was dismantled by 1260. But it revived, and most of its fine mosque and fortress architecture, still extant, belongs to the reign of Sultan Kalaün (1282) and the succeeding century, during which Abulfeda describes it as a very strong place. In 1400 Timur pillaged it.
In 1517 it passed, with the rest of Syria, to the Ottoman Empire. But Ottoman jurisdiction was merely nominal in the Lebanon. Baalbek, badly shaken in an earthquake in 1759 was really in the hands of the Metawali (see Lebanon), who retained it against other Lebanonese tribes. The English visitor, Robert Wood was not simply a tourist: his carefully measured drawings were engraved for The Ruins of Baalbec (1757), which provided some excellent new detail in the Corinthian order that Neoclassical architects added to their vocabulary. Even after Jezzar Pasha, the rebel governor of Acre province, broke the power of the Metawali in the last half of the 18th century, Baalbek was no destination for the traveller unaccompanied by an armed guard. The anarchy that succeeded his death in 1804 was ended only by the Egyptian occupation (1832). With the treaty of London (1840) Baalbek became really Ottoman, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911) reported, and since about 1864 had attracted great numbers of tourists. In November 1898, the German Emperor Wilhelm II on his way to Jerusalem, and passing by Baalbek was equally struck by the magnificence of the ruins projecting from the rubble, and the dreary condition. Within a month, the archaeological team he dispatched was at work on the site. The campaign produced meticulously presented and illustrated series of volumes.
The civil war in Lebanon cut off tourism for some years but, like the rest of the country, tourism to Baalbek is now recovering. It is once again possible to visit the ruins, which are now often used as the venue for large-scale concerts.
- UNESCO World Heritage Review describing Baalbek
- Photos of Baalbek's vast hewn monoliths and speculations on the pre-Roman builders