In the 13th century, during Mamluke rule and the age of castle-building in the Levant, the Acropolis of Baalbek was turned into a fortified castle. Likely using stones from the site, a strong defensive wall was built around the temples of Jupiter and Bacchus. The unintended gain from turning the site into a castle was the preservation of the site itself from pillaging and dismantlement. Much of this wall is still standing, particularly on the eastern and southe-eastern sides of the Acropolis.
Surrounding the cella of the Temple of Bacchus is the Peristyle, a portico containing 46 majestic Corinthian columns. The Peristyle is covered with a highly decorated vaulted ceiling, parts of which have collapsed, but much is still in place. The fallen stones, lying around the temple, allow for close inspection of the incredible ceiling decorations: geometric shapes and curved vines filled in with statues of various divinities and mythical beings, along with the deified Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The south portico has not fared well, with most of the columns fallen, with the exception of one, albeit leaning on the wall of the cella (see attached photos).
Immediately outside the entrance to the Temple of Bacchus is a panel with a drawing made by German archaeologists in the 19th century. The sketch depicts what the interior of the temple might have looked like in 150 AD. A close examination of the drawing before and after entering the Temple of Bacchus could help the visitor to gain a better perspective.
Completed around 60 AD, during the reign of Emperor Nero, the Temple of Jupiter was the largest temple ever built in the Graeco-Roman world. It was dedicated to the god Jupiter, who was equated with the greatest Semitic god Baal (a.k.a. Haddad). Part of the reason for the extravagance in the construction was to impress the newly conquered Semitic people and to draw them closer to Roman gods and religion. The scale of the temple is unimaginable - measuring 89 by 50 metres and rising 25 metres - surrounded by 54 columns, themselves the largest ever made in the ancient world. The temple's importance faded with the arrival of Christianity, and in the 6th century AD, Emperor Justinian I (the Great) ordered the destruction of most of the temple to extinguish the persistent pagan cults. Most of the columns were shipped to Constantinople to be used in the construction of the Hagia Sophia. What was left standing was later destroyed in earthquakes, with the exception of the six columns still upright to this day. See the attached photos, and for more pictures take a peek at the travelogue: The Temple of Jupiter.
Two large rectangular pools run parallel on either side of the Great Court. Filled with water via a complex system of canals, the pools were used in important ablution rituals for religious ceremonies. The exterior of the pools is decorated with beautiful sculptures of mythical creatures - cupids, cherubs, nereids, medusas - many of which are clearly discernible to this day.
Within the colonnaded portico of the Great Court were twelve Exedrae. These Exedrae were built against the surrounding walls - eight were rectangular, and four were semi-circular, and each had a small portico with multiple red granite columns, likely imported from Aswan. Within the Exedrae and between them were carved niches that held Roman statues, some of which are now in museums around the world. At the western end of the Great Court, one semi-circular Exedra is in an incredible state of preservation (see attached photos). The rest, unfortunately, did not survive the test of time.
Accessed from the Hexagonal Court, the Great Court was one of the most important parts the Acropolis of Baalbek, where the purification rites were performed. The spacious courtyard was surrounded by a colonnaded portico, of which only a corner is still standing. Along the walls were twelve exedrae, four semi-circular and eight rectangular. In the middle of the courtyard stood two altars of different sizes and two beautifully carved pools filled with the water used for purification. Most of the structures surrounding the Great Court were completed in the 2nd century AD, but later, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius, a Christian basilica was constructed in the middle of the courtyard encompassing the two central altars, probably as an attempt to extinguish paganism. Archaeologists who excavated the site in the early 20th century decided to dismantle the early Christian basilica to expose the altars! At the time they thought it was a good idea to remove a 4th century church to restore a more ancient structure. But where did the Byzantine basilica go, I wonder...
Hexagonal in shape, this court was the first internal view of the temple complex upon arrival. It was surrounded by a colonnaded portico, which contained four exedrae. The Hexagonal Court was one of the last parts of the Acropolis to be constructed, completed during the reign of Emperor Philip the Arab, around 245 AD. Later, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius, the Hexagonal Court was converted into a Christian chapel. When the Arabs later turned the Acropolis into a fortress, parts of the court were incorporated into the fortified wall and overall has not survived through time. For this reason, it is hard to imagine what the Hexagonal Court might have looked in its heyday, and is also difficult to capture in photos.
Baalbeck is the finest example of Roman ruins in Lebanon and is a must-see whilst visiting the country. The temple complex is also the best preserved of any found in the Middle East and is located some 85kms east of Beirut in the Bekaa Valley. It is easily accessible by public transport, car or taxi.
Baalbeck's origins date back to the Phoenician period, but very little is known of its history during this time. However, its position on the old north-south caravan route through the Bekaa Valley, the fact that it is surrounding by fertile earth on the watershed between 2 main rivers and has its own spring for providing water, means that it occupied a place of importance in the past.
During the Roman Period Baalbeck started to become a centre of real importance and development with work starting on the Temple of Jupiter in 60BC. From 138-161 AD work started on the Great Court Complex and the Temples of Bacchus and Venus and from 211-217 AD on the Hexagonal Court and the Propylaea.
It has been estimated that it took 100,000 slaves over 10 generations to carry out the work at Baalbeck with artisans from all over Lebanon coming to work on the stone carvings and statues. Locally quarried limestone was used to build the majority of the complex, but the granite columns came from Egypt.
Today, once you have purchased your entrance ticket you climb the stairs up to the Propylaea or monumental entrance to pass into the Hexagonal Court. After this you will come to the Great Court and then to the Temple of Jupiter before arriving at the Temple of Bacchus. There is also a museum to look around and you will find the ruins of the Temple of Venus on the other side of the road, opposite the main temple complex.
Baalbeck is open daily from 8.30am 'til around 30 mins before sunset. Entry costs LL12,000 and guides are available for an extra fee.
Just outside the entrance to the Temple of Bacchus is a well preserved square tower. It was built in the 14th century during Mamluke rule, as part of the fortification of the Acropolis. The tower now functions as a small museum showing some items from Baalbek. At its entrance is a beautiful mosaic of the god Bacchus found on the premises (see attached photos). This museum is much smaller than the main museum by the exit, but nevertheless has a few interesting objects.
Next to the Temple of Venus, in the archaeological area just opposite the entrance to the Acropolis of Baalbek, is a small ruined structure. It is thought to belong to yet another Roman temple, the Temple of the Muses. Unfortunately, only the foundation wall and a couple of standing columns have survived (see attached photos).
The way out of the Baalbek Acropolis passes through a long tunnel under the Great Court. At the end of the tunnel is along vaulted chamber that houses the main Baalbek Museum. It is thought that this chamber was once used for storage, but nowadays makes an excellent exhibition hall. The museum displays some of the objects found in Baalbek, and through old photographs and sketches, guides the visitor through the history of the rediscovery and excavation of the archaeological site. It is definitely worth making a quick stop here before exiting the site.
The columned corridor (peristyle) around the inner temple (cella) of the Temple of Bacchus is virtually complete. Only on the south side does it show the ravages of time and earthquake with virtually all of pillars missing or fallen. One column leans drunkenly against the cella wall. It looks precarious, but the Scottish artist, David Roberts, whose paintings sparked a huge revival of interest in the Holy Land in the 1840's, painted a view of the temple with the pillar just as we see it today.
The entablature resting upon the towering columns of the Temple of Jupiter was made of enormous blocks of intricately carved stones. The most striking feature of the frieze was the head of a lion on each block of stone, surrounded by more typical Roman decorative carvings of the cornice, including flowers and leaves. The head of the lion was not only decorative; a hole in the mouth of each lion allowed passage for rain water collected on the roof of the temple. A few blocks of these stones are now resting on the ground near the six standing columns, and the head of the lion is often featured in photographs from Baalbek (see attached). It isn't until one is face to face with the lion's head that one fully appreciates the size and grandeur of the Temple of Jupiter. One of the attached photos shows the size of people next to the fallen blocks of stone.
Designed in the Mesopotamian/Persian style, this beautiful new mosque is dedicated to Sayyida Khoula, the great grand daughter of the Prophet Mohammed. From its architectural design in this predominantly Shiite town, with a Hizbollah presence, the Sayyida Khoula Mosque clearly serves the Shiite population. The mosque was nearing completion in November 2005 and, given the spiritual connection, was likely funded by Iran.