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Baalbek is a town in the Anti-Lebanon foothills east of the Litani River (the classical Leontes) in Lebanon‘s Beqaa Valley, about 53 mi northeast of Beirut and about 47 mi north of Damascus. It possesses some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon, including one of the largest temples of the Imperium Rōmānum (Roman Empire), and is now home to the annual Baalbeck International Festival.
Heliopolis is the Latinization of the Greek Hēlioúpolis (Sun City) in reference to the solar cult there. It is the earlier attested of the 2 names, appearing under the Seleucids and Ptolemies. In Greek religion, Helios was both the sun in the sky and its personification as a god.
The local Semitic god Ba ‘ al Haddu was more often equated with Zeus or Jupiter or simply called the “Great God of Heliopolis”, but the name may refer to the Egyptians‘ association of Baʿal with their great god Ra. It was sometimes described as Heliopolis Syriae (Heliopolis in Syria) to distinguish it from its namesake in Egypt.
The gods that were worshipped there (Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus) were equivalents of the Canaanite deities Hadad, Atargatis. Local influences are seen in the planning and layout of the temples, as they vary from the classic Roman design.
The hilltop of Coelesyria (Tell Baalbek) shows signs of almost continual habitation over the last 8–9000 years. It was well-watered both from a stream running from the Rās-el-ʿAin spring SE of the citadel and, during the spring, from numerous rills formed by meltwater from the Anti-Lebanons.
During the Canaanite period, the local temples were largely devoted to the Heliopolitan Triad: a male god (Baʿal), his consort (Ashtart), and their son (Adon). The site of the present Temple of Jupiter was probably the focus of earlier worship, as its altar was located at the hill’s precise summit and the rest of the sanctuary raised to its level.
Heliopolis was annexed from the Greeks by the Romans during the Roman-Persian Wars. The settlers of the Roman colony Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Heliopolitana may have arrived as early as the time of Julius Caesar but were more probably the veterans of the Legio V Alaudae (Lark-crested Fifth Legion) and the Legio VIII Augusta (Augustus’ Eighth Legion) under under Emperor Augustus, during which time it hosted a Roman garrison.
The town is mentioned in Josephus, Pliny, Strabo, and Ptolemy and on coins of nearly every Emperor from Nerva to Gallienus. The 1st Century Pliny did not number it among the Decapolis (Ten Cities) of Coelesyria, while the 2nd Century Ptolemy did.
During Classical Antiquity the city’s temple to Baʿal Haddu was initially fused with the worship of the Greek sun god Helios and then with the Greek and Roman sky god under the name “Heliopolitan Zeus” or “Jupiter“. The present Temple of Jupiter presumably replaced an earlier version using the same foundation.
The Temple of Jupiter was constructed during the mid-1st Century and probably completed around AD 60. His idol was a beardless golden god in the pose of a charioteer, with a flagellum (whip) raised in his right hand and a thunderbolt and stalks of grain in his left.
Macrobius compared the rituals to those for Diva Fortuna at Antium. He stated the bearers were the principal citizens of the town, who prepared for their role with abstinence, chastity, and shaved heads.
Local cults also revered the Baetylia, black conical stones considered sacred to Baʿal. One of these was taken to Rome by the Emperor Elagabalus, a former priest “of the sun” at nearby Emesa, who erected a temple for it on the Palatine Hill.
Heliopolis was a noted oracle and pilgrimage site, whence the cult spread far afield, with inscriptions to the Heliopolitan god discovered in Athens, Rome, Pannonia, Venetia, Gallia, and near the Wall in Britannia. The Roman temple complex grew up from the early part of the reign of Augustus in the late 1st Century BC until the rise of Christianity in the 4th Century AD.
The Emperor Trajan consulted the site’s oracle twice. The original time he requested a written reply to his sealed, unopened question and was favorably impressed by the god’s blank reply as his own paper had been empty, while the next inquiry was whether he would return alive from his wars against Parthia and his reply was a Centurion‘s vine staff broken to pieces.
In AD 193, Septimius Severus granted the city Ius Italicum rights. His wife Julia Domna and son Caracalla toured Egypt and Syria in AD 215, having inscriptions in their honor at the site to date the occasion.
The town became a battleground upon the rise of Christianity. Early Christian writers such as Eusebius repeatedly execrated the practices of the local pagans in their worship of the Heliopolitan Venus.
In the early 4th Century, Constantine, though not yet a Christian, demolished the goddess’s temple, raised a basilica in its place, and outlawed the locals’ ancient custom of prostituting women before marriage. Under the reign of Justinian, 8 of the complex’s Corinthian columns were disassembled and shipped to Constantinople for incorporation in the rebuilt Hagia Sophia sometime between 532 and 537.
The Tell Baalbek temple complex, fortified as the town’s citadel during the Middle Ages, was constructed from local stone, mostly white granite and a rough white marble. Over the years, it has suffered from the region’s numerous earthquakes, the iconoclasm of Christian and Muslim lords, and the reuse of the temples’ stone for fortification and other construction.
The nearby Qubbat Duris, a 13th Century Muslim shrine on the old road to Damascus, is built out of granite columns, apparently removed from Baalbek. Further, the jointed columns were once banded together with iron.
As late as the 16th Century, the Temple of Jupiter still held 27 standing columns out an original 58. There were only 9 before the 1759 earthquakes, and 6 still stand today.
The complex is located on a raised plaza erected 16 ft over an earlier T-shaped base consisting of a podium, staircase, and foundation walls. These walls were built from about 24 monoliths, at their lowest level weighing approximately 330 tons each.
The tallest retaining wall, on the west, has another course of monoliths containing the famous Three Stones: a row of 3 stone each over 62 ft long, 14 ft high, and 12 ft wide, cut from limestone. They weigh approximately 880 tons each.
Another still larger stone is called the Stone of the Pregnant Woman, which lies unused in a nearby quarry 2,600 ft from the town. Its weight is estimated at 1,100 tons.
The temple complex was entered from the east through the Propylaeum (Portico), consisting of a broad staircase rising 20 ft to an arcade of 12 columns flanked by 2 towers. Most of the columns have been toppled and the stairs were entirely dismantled for use in the nearby later wall, but a Latin inscription remains on several of their bases stating that Longinus, a lifeguard of the Legio I Parthica (First Parthian Legion), and Septimius, a freedman, gilded their capitals with bronze in gratitude for the safety of Septimius Severus’s son and wife.
Immediately behind the Propylaeum is a hexagonal forecourt reached through a threefold entrance that was added in the mid-3rd Century by the Emperor Philip the Arab. Traces remain of the 2 series of columns which once encircled it, but its original function remains uncertain.
The rectangular Great Court to its west covers around 3-4 acres and included the main altar for burnt offering, with mosaic-floored lustration basins to its north and south. A subterranean chamber and 3 underground passageways (17 ft wide by 30 ft high), 2 of which run east and west and the 3rd connecting them north and south, all bear inscriptions suggesting their occupation by Roman soldiers.
These were surrounded by Corinthian porticoes, one of which was never completed. The columns’ bases and capitals were of limestone, while the shafts were monoliths of highly polished red Egyptian granite 23 ft high.
Inscriptions attest that the court was once adorned by portraits of Marcus Aurelius‘ daughter Sabina, Septimius Severus, Gordian, and Velius Rufus, dedicated by the city’s Roman colonists. The entablature was richly decorated but now mostly ruined.
The Temple of Jupiter lay at the western end of the Great Court, raised another 23 ft on a 157 ft × 288 ft platform reached by a wide staircase. Under the Byzantines, it was also known as the Trilithon from the 3 massive stones in its foundation and, when taken together with the forecourt and Great Court, it is also known as the Great Temple.
The Temple of Jupiter proper was circled by a peristyle of 54 unfluted Corinthian columns (10 in front and back and 19 along each side). The remaining 6 columns along its south side, however, remain standing with their entablature and capitals staying nearly perfect.
The architrave and frieze blocks weigh up to 66 tons each, and one corner block over 110 tons, all of them raised to a height of 62 ft above the ground. Since individual Roman cranes were not capable of lifting stones this heavy, they may have simply been rolled into position along temporary earthen banks from the quarry or multiple cranes may have been used in combination.
The Julio-Claudian Emperors enriched its sanctuary in turn. In the mid-1st Century, Nero built the tower-altar opposite the temple. In the early 2nd Century, Trajan added the temple’s forecourt, with porticos of pink granite shipped from Aswan at the southern end of Egypt.
The Temple of Bacchus may have been completed under Septimius Severus in the 190s, as his coins are the first to show it beside the Temple of Jupiter. It is the best preserved of the sanctuary’s structures, as the other rubble from its ruins protected it.
The temple is enriched by some of the most refined reliefs and sculpture to survive from antiquity. The temple is surrounded by 42 columns (8 along each end and 15 along each side) nearly 66 ft in height.
The 1759 earthquakes also damaged the area around the soffit‘s famed inscription of an eagle, which was entirely covered by the keystone’s supporting column. The area around the inscription of the eagle was greatly damaged by the earthquake as well.
The interior of the temple is divided into a 98 ft nave and a 36 ft adytum (sanctuary) on a platform raised 5 ft above it and fronted by 13 steps. The screen between the sections once held reliefs of Neptune, Triton, Arion and his dolphin, and other marine figures but these have been lost.
The temple was used as a kind of donjon for the medieval Arab and Turkish fortifications, although its eastern steps were lost sometime after 1688. Much of the portico was incorporated into a huge wall directly before its gate, but this was demolished in July 1870 on orders from Syria’s governor.
The Temple of Venus, aka the Nymphaeum, was added under Septimius Severus in the early 3rd Century but was destroyed under Constantine, who raised a basilica in its place. It lies about 150 yd from the southeast corner of the Temple of Bacchus, and had been used as a Greek Orthodox church into the 18th Century.
The ancient walls of Heliopolis had a circumference of a little less than 4 mi. Much of the existent fortifications around the complex date to the 13th Century reconstruction undertaken by the Mamluk sultan Qalawun, including the great southeast tower.
From the 16th Century, European tourists began to visit the colossal and picturesque ruins. Misunderstanding the Temple of Bacchus as the Temple of the Sun, they considered it the best-preserved Roman temple in the world.
The Englishman Robert Wood‘s 1757 Ruins of Baalbec included carefully measured engravings that proved influential on British and Continental Neoclassical architects. For example, details of the Temple of Bacchus’s ceiling inspired a bed and ceiling by Robert Adam and its portico inspired that of St George’s in Bloomsbury.
During the 18th Century, Baalbek was not a destination for any traveler that was unaccompanied by an armed guard. Chaos ensued in the area until 1831, after which things calmed down and became safer.
Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany and his wife passed through Baalbek on November 1, 1898, on his way to Jerusalem. He noted both the magnificence of the Roman remains and the drab condition of the modern settlement.
The archaeological team Wilhelm dispatched began work within a month. Despite finding nothing they could date prior to Baalbek’s Roman occupation, archaeologists worked until 1904 and produced a meticulously researched and thoroughly illustrated series of volumes.
Later excavations under the Roman flagstones in the Great Court unearthed 3 skeletons and a fragment of Persian pottery dated to the 6th – 4th Centuries BC. In 1977, Jean-Pierre Adam made a brief study suggesting most of the large blocks could have been moved on rollers with machines using capstans and pulley blocks, a process which he theorized could use 512 workers to move a 614 tons.
UNESCO made 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 southwestern 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. Recent cleaning operations at the Temple of Jupiter discovered the deep trench at its edge, whose study pushed back the date of Tell Baalbek’s settlement to the PPNB Neolithic.
Finds included pottery sherds including a spout dating to the early Bronze Age. In the summer of 2014, a team from the German Archaeological Institute led by Jeanine Abdul Massih of the Lebanese University discovered another much larger stone (64 ft × 20 ft × 18 ft and weighing 1,820 tons) suggested to be the world’s largest ancient block.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Adam, Jean-Pierre; Mathews, Anthony. Roman Building: Materials and Techniques. Routledge, 1999. ISBN 978-0-415-20866-6.
Alouf, Michel M. History of Baalbek. American Press, 1944.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths, Vol. I. Penguin Books, 1955.
Hussey, J.M. “The Byzantine Empire”. Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. IV. Cambridge University Press, 1966.
Lohmann, Daniel. “Giant Strides towards Monumentality: The architecture of the Jupiter Sanctuary in Baalbek/Heliopolis”, Bolletino di Archaologia [Bulletin of Archaeology], Special Volume, 2010.
Smith, William; Anthon, Charles. “Heliopolis”. A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and Geography. Harper & Bros., 1862.
Wood, Robert. The Ruins of Balbec, otherwise Heliopolis in Cœlosyria. London, 1757.