Although the two great temples of Jupiter and Bacchus are the main attraction at Baalbek, the rest of the site is important as it defines the purpose and function of the whole complex. Take some time to study a map of the whole area so that the parts you walk through on your way to the main platforms have meaning and context.
The ruins are all natural stone now - imagine what it must have looked like in its time, everything crisply carved and brightly gilded and painted. Most of us today probably would prefer the mellowed tones and worn texture of the old stones we see now.
Try to spend the night at Baalbek. Come in the afternoon - that way you can have a good lunch somewhere else before you arrive - Baalbek is no gourmet's ideal; visit the ruins; catch the effect of the changing light as the sun sets, bathing the ruins in a golden glow and turning the snow on the mountains behind to pink - ideally from the balcony of the Hotel Palmyra with a good bottle of Lebanese red; and wake to watch the light change again, this time from the cool, pale light of early morning to clear daylight; take a walk around the other ruins outside the main temple site and spend some time in the town before heading off to wherever you are going next.
The flight of stairs leading up to the entrance and the hexagonal court beyond were not considered sacred ground within the temple. Rather the court was the ante-room to the mysteries that lay beyond. Here in the small recesses around the side worshippers could prepare themselves for their visit to the temple as they sat and reflected on why they had come and what they wanted from the gods.
This space is still human in its scale but after this we enter the another world - that of the great gods themselves.
Carvings of grapes and vines, angels and nymphs are the main ornamentation of the Temple of Bacchus, celebrating his place in the Roman pantheon as the god of wine and excess - though there is some suggestion that the temple may in fact have been dedicated to Venus - the goddess of love.
Whomever it was for, it is the most stunning building. Remarkably complete, it stands lower than the Temple of Jupiter and appears to be dwarfed by that huge temple. Get up close though and you realize just how big it really is. You also realise how well preserved it is, even the roof of the peristyle, with its elaborate carvings remains in sections.
Crossing the threshold into the Great Court you enter into a place that was dedicated to the great Eastern god, Baal, when Rome was still a village.
The Romans were very pragmatic in their acceptance of local beliefs and cults, not only permitting worship of them to continue, but often adapting them into their own pantheon.
They saw a link between Baal and Jupiter and so when they began to build their own temple complex they did so in a place that was already identified with the mightiest of all the local gods.
But Jupiter was not the only god worshipped here - the niches around the court would have contained statues of many gods and goddesses and those who came to supplicate would have sacrificed here to the appropriate deity for their desires.
There is debate too about the little horseshoe-shaped temple outside the main complex. Known as the Temple of Venus, it seems more likely that it was in fact dedicated to Tyche, daughter of Zeus and the goddess of fortune.
Whichever it was, it is a very pretty little building, even in its dilapidated state. There is very little evidence remaining of the temple's conversion to a Byzantine church. You can only look at this one from outside a fence, one day it may be open to visitors.
...at the carving and decoration of the Temple of Bacchus. So much of it is very fine indeed. Twining vines, burgeoning grapes, intricate friezes, a honeycomb of carving filled with portrait of various gods in the roof of the peristyle, statuary niches in the walls, delicately fluted columns, gods and mythical creatures, dancing girls and - my favourite - little winged cherubs are all exquisitely rendered, making this one of the most lavishly decorated temples known.
Later visitors have felt the need to add their own touches. As in so many ancient ruins, there is graffiti dating back a hundred years and more. And then there are the two large plaques commemerating the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm to Baalbek in 1898 - kings must always leave their mark.
To think that the six columns standing on the enormous high podium of the Temple of Jupiter are the sole remnants of the 54 that encircled the cella, or interior hall, makes you realize just how huge this temple must have been. That these six are still standing, despite the several earthquakes that have rocked the region during the intervening centuries is nothing short of miraculous.
Very little else remains of the temple, the stones having been long ago used bt the Byzantines for the basilica they built over the Great Court, and the later Arab conquerers for their fortifications. No matter - these six pillars are the image of Baalbek you will take away with you, stand at their base and be awed.
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 temple complex, take some time to visit the museum. This is situated in a long vaulted tunnel that actually runs underneath the Great Courtyard. The museum contains some good archtiectural pieces and a few nice statues but most of these objects have been move to Beirut. There is agood model of the complex and lots of information on large boards. Having walked around the site and seen the ruins, the boards of information will have more meaning, I think, than trying to take it all in beforehand.
The lighting is very dim, and, this being Baalbek, there can be powercuts which force the museum to close. Should this happen, you can ask for a re-entry ticket to come back later or the next day if you are staying overnight.
Going out of town, past the Hotel Palmyra, you come to the Roman quarry that supplied the stone for the ancient city and the temples.
What you have really come to see here is a gargantuan hewn block of stone, still embedded in the ground, so enormous that it defeated any efforts to move it.
Local legend says a woman touching the stone will be made fertile, and one of its names is Haja el-Hubla (Stone of the Pregnant woman).
As you come down the stairs from the platform of the Temple of Jupiter you realize the huge scale of this structure - the gigantic blocks of stone used to build it are estimated to weigh more than 1000 tons each.
Along the terrace below is a section of the lion frieze that surmounted the pillars. Now you can get up close and see the magnificent art of the stonemasons who carved this decoration that was placed 20 metres up and yet is as meticulous in its detailing as if it were to be seen at eye level.
After passing throught the temple of Jupiter, down a flight of stairs, yu get to the most intact temple of Baalbeck: it's the temple of Bacchus, which is also referred to as "the little temple". Little only in comparison with the much bigger temple of Jupiter, but large otherwise. Let's only say that the little temple is much larger than the acropolis of Athens. The temple is finely decorated, and to enter its inner sanctuary you must walk up a flight of thirty steps with three landings. In the past the temple, inside, would have been dark and mysterious, lit by oil lamps which cast their light on the temple statues.
The Baalbeck site or Heliopolis (city of the sun) in the Beeka Valley has the most impressive Phoenician, Roman and Greek temple ruins of the Middle East.
Entrance to the ruins is via the monumental staircase leading to the Propylaea with a portico flanked by two towers and a collonade along the facade.
The first court, before entering the Main Court is the Hexagonal Court.
We entered early morning, when there were not many visitors yet and the temperature was just nice.
Entrance 4.000 LL
In the Great Court or Sacrificial Courtyard stood once a Byzantine basilica, but is cleared to show the original state with the monumental altar flanked by ornamental pools for ritual washing. In the past the court was surrounded by a collonade of 128 rose granite columns.
At the west end, the blocks of the great steps have been restored and lead up to the platform of the temple of Jupiter.
When we walked in the Great Court a schoolclass entered with a megaphone, so the early morning tranquility was gone.