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Baalbek: Roman City of the Sun

Baalbek's awe-inspiring temples and city ruins are among the largest and finest examples of Roman architecture in the world. Visitors can easily spend several hours, or an entire day, exploring the wonders of this ancient city – from the grandeur of the columned temples to the intricately carved stonework, and the sheer size of the stones used to construct the temples. Like many archaeologists and historians, you will be amazed at the ancient feats of engineering required to build these magnificent stone monuments.

Located in the fertile Békaa Valley, the city of Baalbek originated in Phoenician times as a place of worship to Baal, the Phoenician Sun God. During the Hellenistic period (333-64 B.C.), the Greeks named the city Heliopolis, or “City of the Sun.” However, Baalbek entered its golden age in 47 B.C., when Julius Caesar made it a Roman colony.

Perhaps because of the area's agricultural importance in feeding the eastern inhabitants of the Roman Empire – or perhaps because of its strategic location along the major east-west and north-south trading routes – the Romans selected this site to construct the largest religious temples in their empire. Over a span of 200 years (60 B.C.-150 A.D.), a succession of Roman emperors oversaw the construction of the magnificent temples to honor the divine Roman trinity: Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury. These temples also served as a monument to the wealth and power of Imperial Rome.

Modern-day visitors to Baalbek can enter the site through the majestic Roman propylaea (ceremonial entrance) and walk through the two large colonnaded courtyards to reach the complex's great temples:

  • The Temple of Jupiter was the largest Roman temple ever constructed. Today, just six of the original 54 Corinthian columns remain standing. Each column is 22 meters (66 feet) high and 2 meters (7.5 feet) in diameter, hinting at the temple's enormous size in the time of the Roman Empire .
  • The Temple of Bacchus is the best-preserved Roman temple in the Middle East. Although smaller than the Temple of Jupiter, the Temple of Bacchus is still larger than the Parthenon in Athens. The dedication and purpose of this temple, and its relationship to the rest of the temple complex, remain a mystery.
  • The Temple of Venus is a smaller, domed structure set apart to the southeast of the complex. During the Byzantine period, the temple was converted into a church honoring Saint Barbara.
  • Only part of the staircase from the Temple of Mercury can still be seen on Sheikh Abdallah hill, a short distance away from the main temple site.

Although the temples were closed and partially destroyed when the region was Christianized, the city of Baalbek lived on as other civilizations left their mark at the site. Byzantine Emperor Theodosius tore down the altars of the Temple of Jupiter and built a basilica using the temple's stones and architectural elements. The remains of this basilica can still be seen near the stairway of the Temple of Jupiter. During the Arab conquests, the temple ruins were fortified, and the area was given the Arab name Qalaa, meaning “fortress.” Remains of a great mosque, dating from the 8th century Umayyad period, can be seen in front of the acropolis entrance.

Much of Baalbek was later destroyed by earthquakes. However, in the 19th century, a German mission began to excavate and reconstruct the Baalbek ruins. Thanks to the efforts of German, French, and Lebanese archaeologists, visitors can now have a glimpse of what the site looked like in its original grandeur. Baalbek is truly a wonder of the ancient world and should not be missed by any visitor to Lebanon.



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