The melting pot of civilizations at Baalbek

The road to the town of Baalbek, situated in the Bekaa valley, is a scenic two hour bus drive from Beirut. There are many mini buses covering this route and therefore getting there was quite easy.

Baalbek has a population of about 80’000 people. This place has been continuously been inhabited since the eight millennium BC. To see a place where history took place, look no further. The Romans called this city Heliopolis (not to be confused with the Egypt city by the same name). Trips to historic sites is one of my favorite activity when I am traveling. If I ever wanted to see a historic site, this definitely fits the bill. Over thousands of years, the political, religious and cultural environment changed serveral times. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, European Crusaders and Turks – among others – in turn dominated this territory. All the conquerors did rule for several centuries here, except for the Crusaders who barely made it for two centuries. All of these cultural influences left their mark.

Baalbek ruinsThis legacy of the past creates a unique mix of merged features, because every civilization would build on top of an existing one. Phoenician sanctuaries became first Greek temples, then Roman temples, then Byzantine churches, and finally Islamic mosques. It is believed, that in pre-Roman times, Baalbek was the melting pot of various religious ideas: Mesopotamian and Egyptian – as well as Phoenician. Some legends of the Old Testament are rooted here: Cain is said to have killed his brother Abel here. And Noah supposedly found his last resting place here.

Today, most tourists visit Baalbek because of the impressive Roman temple area located smack downtown. Taking a stroll within the temple park, reading historical accounts of the site was truly fascinating. The visible parts of the ruins leave fundamental questions open and archaeologists still have no conclusive answers for some of them.

Bacchus Temple in BaalbekOne of these unsolved mysteries is how the massive stone blocks in the temple grounds were transported over one kilometer from the quarry.

Another question addresses the construction techniques. Why did the Romans, who built at a relatively late stage on top of the existing infrastructure, use a much simpler and less evolved construction style than their predecessors? How and why did the more advanced ancient building techniques get lost?

Also, scientists still argue about the base foundation of the huge temple area. Whether these rocks are a natural feature or man-made. Fact is, they are of the size and shape of a cargo container and weigh over 800 tons each.

Within the Temple of BacchusThere was plenty to explore for a day and while waiting for a mini bus ride back to Beirut, I did stroll through the town of Baalbek itself – away from the temple ground. Sitting at a tea house, watching cars honking their way through narrow downtown streets, I did relax and smile. Maybe, in a couple of thousand years, archaeologists of our descendants will wonder how we managed to transport so many people through such narrow streets.