29 April 2017
I joined Li Chin on this Lebanon-Jordan adventure. For the first day, we headed off to Anjar, a refugee camp for charity and then Baalbek. The drive from Beirut took us past many reconstructed and renovated buildings. Beirut, the center of the country dates back 5000 years ago and with a seaport, trade exists in the capital along with an air of openness. Tension lurks in the North (Tripoli) and the South yet the capital seems every bit of what it was some 60 years ago: cosmopolitan.
The first stop is Anjar, a town in the Beqaa Valley comprised of mostly Armenians. As an Umayyad palace city in the 8th century, Anjar was abandoned for some years before being resettled in 1939 by Armenian refugees. At the heart of trade back in the ancient times, Anjar was a city filled with wide avenues, mosques, bath houses, residences and other facilities.
Surrounded by large stone walls, the city that we visited is rectangular in shape and the architectural design based on the planning of Roman cities.
This is clearly reflected in two large North-South and East-West avenues which divided the city into four sections where tetrapylons (4 sided cubic structure with gates and ornaments) stood to mark the intersection.
Avenues and tetrapylons are features of Roman architecture and city planning. Visited by many excited local kids, they stopped for selfies while we were more focused on the design and the efforts that was required to construct this ancient city.
The car took us in a Northeastly direction to an UNESCO heavyweight- Baalbek or Heliopolis (Sun City). Due to the sun cult, Heliopolis is the other name of Baalbek. As a noted pilgrimage site, her classical name has a much more historical weight to it. It is an honor to have the chance to visit many “xxx-polis” around the world and I’m glad to add Heliopolis onto my list. As a well-preserved Roman ruins, the temple complex contains some of the finest temples dedicated to Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus.
As part of Beqaa Valley, the region has shown signs of continual habitation over the last 8-9000 years. Historians filed to find any historical records of the place which led some to believe that it wasn’t religiously or commercially important enough. However, one trade route from Tyre to Palmyr meant that in the early stages, the area was nevertheless wealthy. It was the battleground upon the rise of Christianity with several groups fighting over it and along with this, came destruction. The temple made from stones, white granites and marble witnessed numerous earthquakes, clashes and various occupation and uses by different groups. Rulers demolished temples and re-built basilicas and continued to fight over ideological differences. Around 634 AD, it was occupied by the Muslim Army then turned into a fortress but was sacked and dismantled in 748. It was sacked again by the Bryzantines in 974, raided in 1000, occupied in 1025, lost to the Fatimids in 1075 and was used as a jail for Crusaders around 1100-ish. Yep- history is filled with blood, guts and violence.
Earthquakes in the 12th Century destroyed the walls of Baalbek and it was subsequently repaired by successive rulers and granted to various emirs, Ottoman sultans, rulers, generals etc. Fast-forward to the 16th Century and like modern times, Baalbek became a tourist site for Europeans whose explorers we must thank for their careful documents of the temple complex which allowed us to have a better understanding of architecture, history, art and history. My favourite would have to be the lion carvings that used to be on top of the columns. Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany visited the site with his wife in 1898 and sent an archaeological team who produced thorough illustrations and documents of the temple complex. During the civil wars, bombs were dropped on Baalbek and although the complex escaped direct hits, cracks did show and stones were toppled.
I entered the temple complex via East through the portico which is directly in front of the symmetrical hexagonal forecourt. As the town’s forum, it offered a great view of the rectangular Great Court which includes the altar, mosaic basins, passageways, columns and the renowned temples.
At the Western end of this court is the Temple of Jupiter. Encircled by 54 unfluted columns, many fell during earthquakes and destructions. Only 6 remains so imagination is needed to restore the temple to its former glory. Given the size of the column at 22 m (height) and 2 m (in diameter), it was the largest Roman temple ever constructed. The altar in the Temple of Jupiter indicated that it was the focus of earlier worship since the altars found in other temples have all being raised to match that level.
The Temple of Bacchus (God of Booze) with its fine reliefs and columns is directly to the right of the Temple of Jupiter. From earlier drawings, the temple is home to intricately carved reliefs of various gods and spiral staircases.
The gate is impressive especially the three panels of carvings which gives clues to the temple being dedicated to Bacchus. Despite being a smaller structure, funny enough, it is much larger than the Parthenon in Athens.
Located outside the complex in modern time, the Temple of Venus, which was closed to all visitors due to renovation, is the third temple in the complex. Often called a circular temple due to its layout, there are carvings of seashells, doves and flowers which suggests that it’s for the Goddess of Love.
We ended the day in Beirut after huge portion of food at the local restaurant and a walk by the waterfront.
Interesting facts about Baalbek and her Temple
- 8 of the columns were shipped to Constantinople (Istanbul) for incorporation in the rebuilt of Hagia Sophia (532-537).
- Large stone blocks and monoliths are a mystery since many have debated on how it was transported to the site.
- Baalbek is home to mostly Shia Muslims followed by Sunni and Christians.