By any standards the little known temple complex of Baalbek is world class. It was the largest religious complex ever built in the Roman world, it contains the largest single temple, the best preserved temple, the largest quarried stones used in a building – ever! – and it has a history that some say dates back 9000 years. And that’s just the start of the fascination of this world heritage site with its engineering marvels that we could not have even attempted until the last decade or so!
Baalbek is about 50 miles from Beirut towards Lebanon’s border with Syria. The first mention of the site comes from 332 BC, when the area was conquered by Alexander the Great. Some people have equated it with the biblical town of Baalgad from the book of Joshua, but this is no longer accepted.
Other scholars link it with the Book of Kings: “And Solomon built Gezer and Beth-Horon, the lower, and Baalath and Tadmor in the wilderness”, there is even a superficial resemblance in the style of stonework from Solomon’s temple, but again this is unlikely, (Solomon would have boasted about it!). What we see today is mainly a colossal Roman temple complex – planned by Julius Caesar, with building work lasting throughout the Emperorship of Augustus. The first phase alone took some 70 years and was completed around 60 AD. It was probably paid for by Herod the Great and the site and its oracle remained important even after the Roman Empire declined.
To put the site into context: it is widely believed to date from at least middle Neolithic times, though some commentators suggest a Palaeolithic date (ie before ten thousand BC). The German Archaeological Institute (and Wikipedia) date it to 9000 BC, but the earliest reliably dated evidence found so far comes from the middle Bronze Age between 1600 and 2300 BC. Some claims, said to be based on archaeological evidence, imply settlement from the early Bronze Age (2900-2300 BC). But as many critical areas of the site have not been excavated, we don’t know the full story yet.
The largest of the temples was dedicated to Jupiter who, in typical Roman style, was identified with the local god Baal-Hadad. It was built on a base of massive stone blocks from an earlier building known as the Trilithon temple. The size of this early stonework beggars belief, as does much from the later Roman temples. The site also includes the temple of Bacchus – said to be the best preserved temple from the Roman Empire, and a smaller temple of Venus. A fourth temple, dedicated to Mercury, sits on a nearby hill. It is a site for superlatives.
Built at a height of 1150m, Baalbek commands an impressive view over the plains below and includes a cornucopia of temples, platforms, fallen columns and sculptures. By far the largest of these ruins is the Great Court and its temple of Jupiter.
Both the earlier and the later temples have been equated to the Seven Wonders of the World, but let me deal first with the Roman site, before moving backwards to the even more staggering earlier temple.
The Massive temple of Jupiter
The temple of Jupiter at Baalbek is the single largest religious edifice ever erected by the Romans. Its enormous sanctuary was lined by 104 massive granite columns (all imported from Aswan on the southern border of Egypt), it enclosed a temple with an additional 54 columns, all 19m (62ft) high and weighing well over 100 tonnes each. Architrave and frieze blocks, each weighing 60 tonnes and corner blocks of 100 tonnes were erected on the top of these enormous columns!
The temple is at the end of the Great Court, which is the size of three football pitches and was the home of numerous religious buildings and altars. It is surrounded by a superb colonnade of 128 titanic rose-granite columns, also from Aswan. These magnificent columns, each 20 metres high, were even taller than those in the temple – but how these enormously heavy columns were transported, from sea level to 1150m, remains a mystery. Six of the columns still stand and, at the height of a six story building, dwarf the relatively few visitors that pass by. Three more columns toppled in the early 20th Century. Others were destroyed by earthquakes and some were taken to other sites – the Emperor Justinian took eight of them for his basilica of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which, in its own right, is one of the world’s biggest “Wow” factor buildings.
The temple was consecrated to a triad of deities: Hadad (Baal/Jupiter), the god of Heaven; Atargates (Astarte/Hera), the wife of Hadad; and Mercury, their son.
The temple of Bacchus
Built by the Emperor Antoninus Pius in the 2nd century AD, the temple was protected by rubble from the main ruins and so became the best preserved of all Roman temples. It is much smaller than Jupiter’s temple but, at 69 x 36 metres with massive 19m columns, its scale still overawes the senses.
There were no large public rituals associated with Bacchus and he did not have a major public following. Instead, the cult may have focused on the use of wine or other intoxicating substances, rather than the more usual sacrifices, to achieve mystical insight. It is strange that such a massive structure was built for a cult with a relatively small following.
Some scholars have tried to disassociate it from the god and say it was dedicated to Mercury. They claim it is only called the temple of Bacchus because a number of its fine sculptured reliefs have been interpreted as scenes from the god’s childhood.
The Amazing Stones
There is a great mystery at Baalbek. Under the temple of Jupiter and almost hidden by it, lay the remains of an earlier temple, probably dedicated to the heathen god Baal.
The mystery lies in its scale – the three biggest stones are known as the “Trilithons” and are the largest building blocks used by humanity – ever! Each is 70 feet long, 14 feet high, 10 feet thick, and at over 800 tonnes they are around 250 tonnes heavier than the spectacular Western stone in the Western wall in Jerusalem. By comparison, the biggest of the stones at Stonehenge is just 40 tonnes.
We have no firm date for these stones – but they are considerably more wind-eroded, and thus much older than the 2000 year old masonry that sits on top of them. Beneath the trilithon are several other courses of ancient stonework, which include at least six more huge building blocks which, though under half the size of the Trilithons, are also amongst the largest building blocks ever used. No one knows how these blocks were cut, or transported from the nearby quarry, or even how they fit together so precisely. It is likely that there are several more enormous stones under the unexcavated great court. No one knows what the temple they belonged to was like.
In the quarry they came from, some quarter of a mile away and somewhat downhill, are two yet more gigantic stones. The so called pregnant lady stone weighs between 1000 and 1100 tonnes and another un-named monolith weighs 1242 tonnes. The tiny people on the photographs show just how huge they are.
Naturally we wonder how the great pillars and trilithons of Baalbek were engineered, cut, moved and raised. Local folklore speaks of a race of giants, others mention aliens, magic and the handiwork of the gods. But perhaps the people who worshipped Baal were just onto something?
Some images courtesy of the Griffith Institute, University of Oxford, (its on-line archive is well worth a visit) www.griffith.ox.ac.uk.
By Gerry Palmer