Constructed over a sanctuary the Canaanites built in 1200 BCE on an ancient sacred site, the temples tower above the town and are by far the most magnificent the Romans ever built.




Baalbek is in the fertile Beqa'a valley in Lebanon, lying between Jabal Lubnan (the Lebanon Mountains) and Al-Jabal Ash-Sharqi (the Anti-Lebanon Range). The valley was part of Syria in Hellenistic times and part of Aram in Abraham's time. Joshua called Beqa'a the Valley of Lebanon and classical writers referred to it as one of the "Granaries of Rome." The narrow valley runs from north to south and is about 175 kilometers long, generally less than 25 kilometers wide and 900 meters or more above sea level. Baalbek is in the centre of the valley at an elevation of 1,150 meters, where the watershed of the Orontes River flowing north joins the watershed of the Leontes River flowing south. The name Beqa'a is derived from the Arabic word biqa', the plural of buq'ah meaning a place with stagnant water, alluding to the fact that the valley was covered with swampy areas when the first settlers arrived there. Baalbek is a Semitic name that refers to the great Semitic god Baal and signifies "Lord of the Beqa'a." Modern Baalbek is a district capital and has a population of 15,000 or more.

When Alexander the Great invaded western Asia, the importance of Baalbek as a religious centre was emphasized by the Greeks who called it Heliopolis, meaning the city of the sun, adding "in Phoenicia" or "in the Lebanon" to distinguish it from its famous Egyptian namesake. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BCE and the Beqa'a valley became part of the Ptolemaic Empire. After a lengthy struggle the Seleucid kings annexed Phoenicia and the Beqa'a valley in 198 BCE. When part of the Seleucid Empire the Beqa'a valley was called Coele-Syria meaning "hollow Syria." The Roman general Pompey the Great marched southwards through the Beqa'a valley to Damascus in 64 BCE, thence through Jerash to Jerusalem in 63 BCE. He conquered the Seleucid Empire, when Syria and Palestine became part of the Roman Empire. Except from 611 to 622, when Syria was a Persian satrapy, its allegiance to Rome continued into the Byzantine period that began in 306 under the rule of the Emperor Constantine the Great, who saw the Sign of the Cross in the sky and established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. However, Khalid ibn al-Walid's general Abu Obaida conquered Damascus in 637, when Syria became an Arab state and embraced Islam and Heliolopolis resumed its Semitic name of Baalbek.



Pastoralists of Canaanite origin were the first settlers in the Beqa'a valley who arrived there about 8,000 years ago. They were devotees of the moon, in whose cool light their flocks could graze comfortably during the summer months. The short though rich period of spring growth in the Beqa'a valley is brought on by a rainy winter, when water flows in torrents. The summers are long hot droughts when nothing can survive without the aid of irrigation. During the thousand years or so after their arrival, the pastoralists progressively introduced mixed farming. They constructed a maze of irrigation and drainage channels that converted the swampy terrain into arable land and supported their crops. As these agricultural pursuits were being established, the farmers realized that the sun's warmth was essential for the production of crops and they became devotees of the sun. This natural cycle is reflected in ancient beliefs that a sun god, an earth mother and a goddess of fertility were responsible for the climate cycle and the procreative process. The religion of the Canaanites was based on a theme of birth, life, death and resurrection, reflecting the cycle of nature in their harsh and unforgiving region. Like the Babylonians and Egyptians, they developed a distinct pantheon of deities and a religion that greatly influenced the lives of the people.

The supreme god of the Canaanites was the sun god El, usually represented by a bull, alluding to the agricultural basis of their society. El's wife Ashera, the goddess of the sea, represented the sea-oriented branch of their society later identified with the Phoenicians. It was believed that this supreme couple could only be approached through the mediation of their son Baal, signifying lord, who was the master of rain, thunder and tempest. Although Baal shared the bull with his father he also had his own symbol, which was a thunderbolt terminating in a spear and ears of corn. Baal had a son Aliyan, who was the god of springs and floral growth; also a daughter Anat, who was Aliyan's faithful lover. There also was Astarte, the goddess of love and fertility. The positive attributes of these deities were offset by Mot, signifying death. Mot was the god of summer and drought who brought all fruit to ripeness, but who also killed all vegetation unless sustained by Aliyan's springs. The characteristics that are represented in the father-son-daughter relationship of Baal, Aliyan and Anat are recognizable in Zeus, Hermes and Ahprodite of the Greeks and in Jupiter, Mercury and Venus of the Romans, although not identical with either of those relationships. The Assyrians adopted Baal as Bel, which is the equivalent of the Egyptian Seth, the Phoenician Reshef and the Aramean Haddad.

Clay tablets from Alalakh (now Tell Atchana) that date from about 1800 BCE, also thousands of clay tablets found in what apparently was a library between two great Canaanite temples at Ugarit (now Ras Shamra) that date from about 1500 BCE, give a full description of the Canaanite pantheon and tend to confirm Biblical assertions that early Canaanites' fertility cults and idolatrous worship were immoral and corrupt. The Ugaritic texts mention the sacrifice of cattle, rams, lambs and birds to the gods, but there is no archaeological evidence of any human sacrifice. Despite their apparently corrupt ways, the Canaanites were a very talented people who developed the arts and sciences and excelled in ceramics, music and architecture. When Joshua assumed command of the Israelites in about 1400 BCE, they entered Canaan and defeated the Amorites. Joshua then crossed the River Jordan with his army and destroyed Jericho. He conquered the whole of Canaan during the next six years, removing the threat of Canaanite practices to the monotheistic faith of the Hebrews. Notwithstanding their early paganism, the Canaanites appear to have developed a belief in an after life before the Achaean Greeks overran Palestine soon after 1200 BCE. Later invading Dorian Greeks expelled the Achaean Greeks from the Aegean Islands, after which they occupied the coastal areas of Lebanon and Syria until about 332 BCE, merging with the Canaanites who called them Philistines from which the name Palestine is derived. The Hellenic Greeks called them Phoenicians, from the Greek phoinix meaning purple-red, alluding to the dye industry for which they became famous. The Egyptians called them the "sea people" because they were renowned for their seafaring ability.

Excavations of stoutly walled Canaanite cities prove that their construction was far superior to the later buildings erected by the Israelites, which no doubt was the reason why King Solomon sought the assistance of Hiram King of Tyre when building the temple at Jerusalem, although it may not have been the only reason. Until fairly recently it had been thought that the temple at Jerusalem followed Egyptian patterns, but modern archaeological studies have shown otherwise. Although there is scant reference in the Bible to the prowess of the Canaanites, they had constructed many temples throughout Canaan long before the temple at Jerusalem. Some of their important temple remains are at Alalakh, Ebla, Emar, Moumbaqat and Ugarit in Syria and at Beth-shan, Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo and Shechem in Palestine, many of which have only been discovered or studied in detail during the last fifty years. The temples at Ebla and Moumbaqat were built 800 years before the first temple at Jerusalem and those at Emar are from 200 to 400 years older. Their ground plans and other features clearly show that the temple at Jerusalem was patterned on the Canaanite temples. A religious structure at Baalbek was contemporaneous with those at Emar.



Myths are stories that express primitive beliefs relating to the origin of a race or a religion, expressed in language comprehensible to ordinary people. The Greek word myth means words, from which is derived the Greek word mythos meaning a fable, although a myth is not the same as a fable or a legend. A myth conveys something of racial or universal significance of greater importance than the moral contained in a fable or legend. Even if a myth has an obvious link with actual events in ancient times, it should not be regarded as history in the accepted sense. Myths develop forms closely related to the type of society that creates them. Pastoral people, like the original settlers of the Beqa'a valley, often adopt a powerful and protective deity associated with the sky. Farming people, which the pastoralists of the Beqa'a valley became, usually emphasize a mother-earth deity and develop rituals concerned with fertility. Legends originally were chronicles of the lives of saints, to be read in religious houses, but although based on actual events their traditional histories were not necessarily authentic in detail.

An appreciation of the relationship between mythology, religion and pantheism is important for an understanding of the significance of the temples at Baalbek. Mythology reflects a people's search for the truth in relation to creation and their place in the universe. Mythology has a real place in religion and indeed is one of the foundations of all religions, both ancient and modern. Religion is a belief in and recognition of a higher unseen controlling power or powers, coupled with the associated emotions, morality and related rites and ceremonials of worship. The concept of a life after death seems to have developed in the Middle East by about 3000 BCE. Within the compass of religion, pantheism is the doctrine that identifies the universe with God, conceiving Him as wholly and in some cases exclusively immanent in all things. The Canaanites were pantheists who considered God to be omnipresent, the driving force of the universe and identical with the universe and all of nature, although apparently they were not animists who visualized objects as having spirits, nor did they deify humans.

Greek mythology derived directly from the Minoan mythology of Crete, dating from some time before 3000 BCE and passed down through the later Mycenaean civilization. The people of Crete appear to have come from the Middle East and their ancient religion reflected Middle Eastern and Egyptian influences. Religion in Crete probably began with a superstitious reverence for natural phenomena and was centered on an earth goddess. With the decline of the Minoan civilization and the rise of the more warlike and mobile Mycenaeans, the sky god Zeus supplanted the earth goddess. The Greek religion was tolerant, practical and closely related to everyday life, not demanding too much of the individual. Greek gods were believed to be superhuman, but they had human personalities and were seen to behave like ordinary people, not being regarded as creators of the world. Nor did mystical prophets claim to represent the word of God. The persecution and punishment of people on the grounds of their religion was completely alien to the Greeks. Their Eleusinian Mysteries, which originated in about 1800 BCE, culminated in a symbolic restoration from death to eternal life.

As the Roman gods originally did not have human personalities, but were as illusory as the supernatural forces that animists associate with natural phenomena, they had no myths attached to them. Roman gods had clearly defined functions, but having no families attached to them they had none of the usual attributes of the Greek gods. The chief Roman god was Jupiter, believed in from a time before the use of metals. Like Zeus, Jupiter was a sky god or god of light, primarily associated with the weather and especially with thunderstorms. However, by the time the Romans constructed the temples at Baalbek, they had developed a mythology that primarily was an assimilation of Greek mythology with some fragmentary elements of Latin and Etruscan myths. In contrast to the Greek religion, the Roman religion placed great emphasis on devotion to the state, in a much more complex way than is required in patriotism. Stoicism was essential and the individual was always subservient to the social group of which he was a member. The Romans put great value in the order and permanence of things, with stability and security of the state as their primary concern, which is reflected in the differences between Greek and Roman architecture.



The Greeks are renowned for their several orders of architecture, of which the Ionic, Doric and Corinthian probably are the best known. Although ancient Greek structures are outstandingly extrovert, their external magnificence is seldom matched by their interior decoration, which often seems lifeless. The structures on the Acropolis in Athens incorporate many of the orders of architecture and include some of the best examples of the Greek style, with the Parthenon taking pride of place. The Parthenon was about 115 meters long, with massive Doric columns that formed a colonnade completely surrounding the structure, decorated externally with a continuous series of sculptures. The Parthenon typified the monolithic unity of a Greek temple and was the ultimate expression of the Greek city-state. The Propylaea, or stepped gateway providing the main access at the western end of the Acropolis, had pitched roofs supported by massive Doric columns at the lower entrance level and slender Ionic columns at the higher level. The Erechtheum, a relatively small though highly adorned temple, had Ionic columns and also a series of sculptured figures as columns. These two buildings cast aside the monolithic unity of the Greek temple that had prevailed for centuries. All of these and the various smaller temples, sanctuaries and monuments on the Acropolis were constructed in less than fifty years and completed in 432 BCE, reflecting the ultimate in Greek architecture.

Although Roman architecture owes much to Greek architecture, it is not simply an extension of it. Perhaps the two most significant differences are the magnitude of Roman buildings and the adornment of their interiors. All of the great buildings of the Roman Empire were larger than their Greek predecessors and were more elaborately decorated within. By comparison with the Greeks, the Romans aimed above all to create and adorn magnificent structures with interiors that would match their exteriors, reflecting their imperial pride and growing awareness of themselves. Although their great buildings were also very large buildings, they were designed with such finesse that their magnitude did not seem out of place, but blended into their surroundings even though they often overshadowed them. The Greeks knew the principles of the arch and vault, but they used neither, whereas the Romans used them to superb advantage. The value of the arch and vault was clearly demonstrated in the buildings housing the Roman baths, whose magnitude and interior grandeur was outstanding. They were centers for every kind of entertainment and incorporated halls to stage boxing and wrestling matches, theatres, libraries and galleries of shops that would compete with the best of the modern shopping complexes.

Many of the open-air amphitheatres constructed in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean were enormous. They were usually located on a hill to provide a wonderful vista of the city. A notable exception with regard to location was the huge Colosseum in Rome, which was constructed between 72 CE and 80 CE. It was as an ellipse 200 meters by 166 meters in plan and was almost 50 meters high. The exterior facade is in four tiers ornamented by columns graduated from heavy Doric at the bottom to the lighter and more decorative foliated orders at the top, with arched entrances between each pair of columns in the lower three tiers. The Pantheon of Rome, where Raphael was buried, is another remarkable example of Roman architecture. Its interior, with a superbly coffered dome and seven deep wall recesses each fronted with pairs of Corinthian columns, contrasts starkly with a less imposing exterior. Entrance to the Pantheon was gained through a gabled portico supported by sixteen Corinthian columns. Constructed between 120 CE and 124 CE, the Pantheon reflected not only the monolithic structure of the Roman Empire and its monarchy, but also what ultimately would become its monotheistic religious doctrine. Nevertheless, it also was an early example of the Roman tendency to become progressively more introverted.



The earliest forms of worship usually reflected ancient animistic beliefs and developed around distinctive natural features like unusual rock outcrops, crevices in rocks and springs. High places also developed special significance as the dwelling place of God, which in Mesopotamia crystallized in the form of a ziggurat with a sanctuary on top. These influences are evident in the earliest religious structure at Baalbek, where the place of veneration was located on a tel on the hill that defined the western boundary of the town. The sacred site itself was situated in a natural crevice about 50 meters deep, which was difficult of access and reserved for high priests only. It is not known when this site was first used, but it was very ancient. In about 1200 BCE the need for greater public participation apparently was felt, because a raised stone court about 230 meters square was built with a surrounding stone wall to create a sanctuary, which had a sacrificial altar in the centre, connected to the natural crevice by a vertical shaft. Access to the sanctuary was gained by a stairway at the eastern end, flanked by two massive stone towers. The arrangement of the sanctuary was typical of the cult terraces associated with many temples in Syria and Palestine, which had stone tables of offering near the sacrificial altar. The inner court, or court of the priests that was in front of King Solomon's temple, which was constructed about 250 years after the sanctuary at Baalbek, served the same purpose although its brazen altar, brazen sea and brazen lavers were much more elaborate.

When the Beqa'a valley became part of the Egyptian Empire, the Ptolemies decided to construct a temple at Baalbek. It was intended to be an embellished monument, towering in the west behind the sacrificial altar, clearly visible from all directions. Building of the temple was delayed by disputes between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, as a result of which it only began when the Seleucids won the Beqa'a valley under Antiochus the Great in 198 BCE. Because the sanctuary was at the edge of the hill, it was necessary to enlarge the tel to accommodate the temple. An artificial podium was constructed to extend the ancient sanctuary towards the west. When the Roman general Pompey occupied Phoenicia in 64 CE, almost four hundred years after the Ptolemies first proposed the temple, the podium was nearing completion, but the Temple of Jupiter had only been under construction for about four years.



As their first priority the Romans secured and fortified the town and developed all their usual civic facilities, including public administration buildings, a town hall, theatre, forum and necropolis. A solid defensive wall of stone enclosed the town in a lozenge shaped area about one and a half kilometers from east to west and a kilometer from north to south. The wall, in nine sections of various lengths from 150 to 750 meters, was about 3 meters thick and 10 meters high, with massive square defensive towers at about 30 meter intervals. There were only four fortified and elaborately decorated gates, one each in the north-east, south-east, south-west and north-west, so that the main axial roads between them intersected almost at right angles. The streets and roads were buried under 4 meters or more of dirt and debris over the centuries. The Romans constructed four temples on the tel and later, some time before 250 CE, another stately temple on the crest of the Sheikh Abdallah hill about a kilometer south of the town centre, called the Temple of Mercury. The Temple of Mercury, which had a single row of surrounding columns and was surmounted by a caduceus, was accessed by a monumental flight of stairs 10 to 12 meters wide cut into the rocky hillside.



The Romans constructed four temples of various sizes on the tel, of which three were typical rectangular colonnaded structures and the fourth, though not the smallest, was circular and of a distinctly different character. The largest was the Temple of Jupiter, often referred to as the Acropolis of Baalbek. It had pride of place and retained the orientation of the sanctuary established in pre-Roman times, facing 14 north of east. The rising sun shone directly into the temple in mid-summer, from about the middle of May until the middle of June, as well as at the autumnal equinox from the end of August to the end of September, echoing the influence of El the Canaanite sun god. The Temple of Jupiter stood 48 meters high and was surrounded by a colonnade of 54 columns. It was erected on a podium 12 meters high in a separate precinct that was only accessible from the Great Court. Construction of the Temple of Jupiter had begun by about 60 CE and was finished in about 70 CE, but embellishing work continued for many more years. The Temple of Jupiter had been in use for several generations when Emperor Hadrian visited Baalbek in 130 CE, but the embellishments were still incomplete. The temple stood in a compound that was 340 meters long and covered an area of 27,000 square meters, of which 10,000 square meters were open courtyards and stairways.

The Great Court and its surrounding walls and colonnades were not constructed until after the Temple of Jupiter had been completed. To maintain the local tradition of a High Place, a dominating monument was erected in the centre of the Great Court, a cubical tower 17 meters high and adorned with richly carved ceilings. There were separate flights of stairs for ascent to and descent from the observation deck, which provided a superb view of the god's statue in the rear part of the temple. Access to the Great Court was gained after passing through an elaborately colonnaded hexagonal Forecourt. The Forecourt could only be reached by ascending a long flight of stairs 50 meters wide, then entering through the colonnaded portico of the highly decorated Propylaea that was flanked by two square towers like the Babylonian city gates. The access stairway began in a ceremonial plaza that was semi-circular at the eastern end and 70 meters long, which was surrounded by a low stone wall and a continuous row of peripheral seating. It contained much statuary and seems to have been completed during the time of Philip the Arab (244-249), or very soon after.

The Temple of Bacchus, with 50 columns in the entrance and surrounding colonnade, was oriented parallel to the Temple of Jupiter. It was larger than the Parthenon of Athens, with a clear interior span of 19 meters and a monumental gateway that was 6.5 meters wide and 13 meters high. The Temple of Bacchus had an area of 2,800 square meters, raised on a podium that was 5.2 meters high and 10,000 square meters in area. The Temple of Bacchus, which was begun in about 150 CE and completed in about 200 CE, is the best-preserved Roman temple of its size anywhere in the world. Its incredible beauty is captured in the words of Dr Friedrich Ragette, once the Professor of Architecture at the American University of Beirut, who said in his book entitled Baalbek:

"The features that strike our eyes first are forms, colors and textures. . . . with its glowing, warm walls and generously bulging columns, its flamboyant Corinthian capitals and boldly projecting cornice, its superb contrast of plain and fluted column shafts and the infinite variety of carving, delicate when seen at close range and vigorous when looming high above us, a rich symphony of color, texture and form. Here is an architecture to be experienced by the senses rather than the intellect."

Temple of the Muses was the smallest of the three typical colonnaded Roman temples at Baalbek. It had an area of about 340 square meters and was the first to be completed at the beginning of the first century of the Common Era. Nearby the uniquely shaped Temple of Venus was slightly larger, occupying an area of about 520 square meters. The Temple of Venus faced north-west and overlooked a common space in front of the three main temples. Its circular cella incorporated a domed roof and was fronted by a small rectangular portico supported by four Corinthian columns and accessed by a broad stairway. The circular wall of the cella was indented externally between its six surrounding Corinthian columns. The Temple of Venus probably was completed in about 150 CE. Its podium was raised 2 meters, partially superimposing that of the Temple of the Muses. These two temples shared a colonnaded courtyard some 10,000 square meters in area.



The Romans were well aware that sound foundations are vital for stable and durable buildings and therefore excavated down to solid rock, in many places as deep as 17 meters. They did not use mortar joints, but relied on perfectly cut stones locked together with iron or bronze clamps and dowels embedded in lead. Weak stones were reinforced with clamps if necessary. These methods provided an elastic structure better able to withstand earthquakes, although earthquakes contributed greatly to the destruction of the temples after the serious ravages of man. The final dressing of surfaces was accomplished by marginally draft chiseling towards the centre, followed by adzing in lines parallel to the edges of the stone. This technique was usual in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine where sandstone was common, contrasting with the chisel and mallet methods of the Greeks who frequently worked with granite and marble. The foundation stones used in the column bases were up to 20 meters long and were 4 meters square in cross-section, weighing up to 800 tons, the largest ever used in masonry construction. Except in the small temples, the smallest stones used in the buildings were the ceiling slabs over the external colonnade in the Temple of Bacchus. They were 5 meters long, 3 meters wide, 1.2 meters thick and weighed 45 tons each. Rough dressed stones were moved on rollers from the quarry sites, which were up to a kilometer away, then finished on site. Ramps were used to elevate some stones, all of which were hoisted into their final positions using multiple pulleys attached to Lewis cramps, with each cramp supporting up to 5 tons.

The columns in the Temples of Jupiter and Bacchus were pink granite brought from Aswan in Egypt. Rough-hewn square sections were transported from the quarry in Egypt down the Nile River, then by sea and land to the temple site in Lebanon. The columns were then rough dressed to shape up to 10 centimeters oversize before erection, then finished and polished after erection. The columns of the Temple of Jupiter had shafts 16.6 meters high, 2 meters in diameter and each weighed 135 tons. They were set on bases 1 meter high and were surmounted by capitals 2 meters high. Except for some of the columns in the Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Amon at Karnak, which are a few centimeters taller but comprise many sections, the columns at Baalbek are the tallest columns existing from antiquity. All of the corner columns had monolithic shafts, but the others were in three sections, the bottom section weighing 62 tons, the middle section 40 tons and the top section 33 tons. The shaft sections were joined together and connected to the bases and the capitals by inserting three bronze dowels set in lead, on a circle 1 meter in diameter concentric with the column at each joint. The columns of the Temple of Bacchus were 2 meters shorter.



The Emperor Constantine I "the Great" declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman state in 313 and a Christian church was built in the township of Baalbek. When Emperor Julian "the Apostate" succeeded Constantine in 361 he destroyed the church and reverted to paganism. Pagan worship seems to have continued at Baalbek until Emperor Theodosius I "the Great" (379-395) destroyed the altar of sacrifice and the observation tower in the Great Court and constructed a Christian basilica immediately in front of the Temple of Jupiter. The basilica, dedicated to St Peter, was 63 meters long by 36 meters wide, raised 2 meters above the level of the court. When Syria became an Arab state in 637, the basilica was used as a palace and the Temples of Jupiter and Bacchus were converted into a huge walled fortress. The Sultan Barquq (1382-1392) demolished the stairway to the Propylaea and used the stone to fill in between the portico columns, as well as constructing a surrounding moat. The fortress was abandoned when Baalbek became a part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517, but the precinct is still called the Kala'a by the Arabs, meaning a fortress.


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