Bacchus Temple at Baalbek, Lebanon

Brief history of Baalbek, Lebanon


The town of Baalbek is located in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, approximately 85km northeast of Beirut and 75km north of Damascus (Syria). Nowadays the town is famous for its exquisitely detailed Roman ruins which attract thousands of tourists to the country each year and also plays host to the annual Baalbek festival.

The Baalbek site is thought to have originally been Phoenician, with settlement dating back as far as the 3rd millennium BC. In the 1st millennium BC the site was chosen as the site for a temple dedicated to the God Baal, from which the city takes its name. In the year 334 BC Alexander the Great conquered the Near East and the city was renamed Heliopolis, a name which was retained by subsequent Roman conquerors – Helios, Greek for sun and Polis, Greek for City – ‘City of the Sun’.

In the year 64 BC Pompey the Great travelled through Baalbek and made the city part of the Roman Empire – this act was one which saw the city prosper enourmously. Just 17 years later in 47 BC Julius Caesar founded a Roman Colony in Heliopolis and building works soon began. Just a few years later Heliopolis became known as the foremost city in Roman Syria. Construction of the temples was a huge undertaking which took many years. The Great Temple of Jupiter is said to have taken 120 years to complete, however under later rulers such as Antonius Pius and Caracalla a series of enlargements and elaborate extensions were added. An estimated 100,000 slaves worked on these construction works throughout of the centuries.

By the time that Constantine the Great came to power in the year 324, Christianity had reached Rome and Pagan worship was suppressed; as a result, construction at Baalbek was suspended. Later in 361, Julian the Apostate became emperor and reverted back to Paganism and attempted to reinstate this throughout the Roman Empire. This act saw mass martyrdom throughout the Christian community and when the Christian Emperor Theodosius took power in 379, Christianity was once again reinstated in Baalbek. This time the temples of Baalbek were converted into a Basilica but Baalbek continued to be the centre of Pagan worship. This was enough that during the reign of Emperor Justinian, all Pagan worshippers were forced to be baptised into the Christian faith to prevent any secret Pagan rites. Parts of the Pagan temples were torn down and some of the temples largest pillars were taken to Constantinople and used in the construction of Hagia Sophia.

When Muslim Arabs invaded Roman Syria they converted the temples of Heliopolis into a Citadel and restored the city’s original name – Baalbek. In the following centuries the city was invaded by many empires. In addition to the devastation caused by humans, a chain of earthquakes in 1158, 1203, 1664 and 1759 caused the fall of many buildings including 3 of the massive pillars from the Temple of Jupiter. Many of the city’s Roman ruins can now be found within the Arab fortifications – when the Arabs constructed their walls they inadvertently helped to preserve the Roman ruins found within.

Whilst under Ottoman rule, Baalbek was virtually forgotten and few people visited this once magnificent city. In 1751 two British Architects – James Dawkins and Robert Wood rediscovered this ancient site; however it wasn’t until 1898 when Kaiser Wilhelm II was on a tour of the Middle East that serious study of the site began. The Kaiser immediately contacted the Sultan of Turkey to request permission to excavate the site fully. The following seven years saw Baalbek begin to return to its former glory with continual excavations and documentation taking place and a steady stream of tourists coming to view this ancient city.

In certain parts of the city, work continues today!

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