Baalbek: More Roman than Rome

There are Roman ruins and there’s Baalbek: the sheer size of it outstrips anything found in Rome itself. This isn’t out of place in Lebanon, a small country where you can barely move for ancient sites. But it can’t easily be explained away. Baalbek has the most mysterious ruins of the Roman Empire that sit atop an earlier site. The mystery is twofold: this was never an important town and its temples are way larger than they should have been. Baalbek also comes with few written records – from a people who thrived on paperwork.

From the 1st century BC and over a period of two centuries, the Romans built three giant temples in Baalbek: Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus, with the first one designed to be the largest in the Empire. Although now considered Roman, Baalbek was built on the foundation blocks of a much earlier, Phoenician site. Some of the blocks that make up the main temple platforms weigh around 1000 tonnes. The second largest Temple of Bacchus, close in size to the Athens Parthenon, is possibly the best preserved Roman temple in the world.

Although the Romans knew the site by its Greek name, Heliopolis (or the “City of the Sun”), Baalbek is named after Baal, the Phoenician deity which also refers to the sun. In matters of religion, the Romans were shrewd. When they took a country, they also appropriated its native gods. One way for the Romans to win over alien peoples was to make it up to their gods. So, along with the site, they adopted Baal, identified him with Jupiter who then took on the attributes of Baal and was worshiped at Heliopolis as Jupiter Baal.

Baalbek was never an important commercial centre, only a religious one. It had an abundant source of freshwater as well as a stockpile of natural stone. The quarry near the temple complex still has a huge limestone monolith, longer than a school bus and estimated to weigh more than 1000 tonnes. Carved by the Romans, the stone was intended for the temples but nobody knows how it came to be abandoned here. Now a Lebanese flag flies at one end of it and there’s also a sign with: “La plus grande pierre dans le monde.”

The ancient Romans were known for their bureaucracy where keeping lots of written records also explained how they kept their empire so well organised. They had detailed files on every Roman citizen, including their military service and marriages. They kept records of wills, legal trials and all decrees made by their government. They also recorded every kind of financial transaction. It’s a mystery therefore why no such records exist of the design, construction or cost of the Baalkek temple complex in modern-day Lebanon.

Baalbek is a two-hour drive to the northeast of Beirut. To get there, I booked a guided tour because, unnervingly, the Baalbek town is also the home of Hezbollah. Apart from the countless checkpoints and the green and yellow flags, this wasn’t an issue for anyone heading to the ancient site. I was also offered a Hezbollah T-shirt as a souvenir but it didn’t look like it would survive a single wash. By contrast, the monuments that slowly come into view and then keep going on and on have already done so for some 80 centuries.