Monday, 26 August 2013

Preview: Baalbek

The largest Roman temples ever built were not in Rome, but in a small town in Lebanon.

This is Baalbek, 53 miles from Beirut, containing the ruins of Roman temples dating back almost 2000 years. The town's name is usually given as a byword for the ruins, but more precisely our focus is on the Acropolis of Baalbek. This contains the gigantic remnants of the Temple of Jupiter, the well-preserved remains of the still-massive Temple of Bacchus, as well as other related ruins. Although far from the only ancient ruins in the world, they are what distinguish this small Lebanese town from other such Roman-influenced towns. Because they are gigantic. The Temple of Bacchus is bigger than the Parthenon, and it's merely the little brother to the Temple of Jupiter, which reaches 48 metres in height and has columns of 20 metres (second only in the ancient world to the columns of Karnak). Additionally, part of the temple's terrace contains blocks that weigh around 1000 tons, perfectly cut and fitted. The temples of Baalbek are on a grand scale: no wonder it attracted mythical references to being a town of giants, which persists even today among the vocal fringes of the internet which haven't yet figured out that the Romans were, you know, rather good engineers.

The Romans didn't build them on a whim, they were built as a kind of literally large-scale propaganda exercise. Baalbek existed as a religious centre well before the Romans came into being. Organised settlement seems to have occurred around 1200BC, under the Phoenician civilisation, when it became a convenient stop for trading caravans. Situated in the fertile Beqaa valley, with a year round water supply, the area developed into an agricultural centre. Early worship of gods developed around natural features, such as unusual rocks or springs, and in the case of Baalbek a crevice became the focus. This crevice, now 50 metres deep, can still be found to the south of the temple of Jupiter, with a small altar cut into the rock.

Baal was the name of the local god, simply meaning lord, thus the name Baalbek translates as "Lord of the Beqaa valley". Temples (now long gone) were built and the town became well known, both for its location and for its religious significance. Baalbek prospered. When Alexander the Great took over in the 4th Century BC, this status was maintained, with parallels drawn between the various local gods and the Greek ones. When the Romans, under Pompey the Great, came in, around 65BC, they saw no reason to shake things up too much.

The Romans flitted often between the enlightened and the barbaric during their long time as a superpower, but in Baalbek they chose the enlightened path of appeasing and collaborating with the local people. They took the existing religious site and cranked it up to 11. Local gods and customs were respected, and the Romans built upon the existing renown of the site to show off their own fantastic temples. This included raising the temples up to an elevated position for much greater prominence - the Temple of Jupiter is built upon an artificial mound for this purpose. The construction of the Acropolis of Baalbek that we see now was likely a carefully strategic political act, with the aim of absorbing the local religious traditions and then outshining them with the prowess of Roman engineering and construction. This way, Roman rule would be consolidated. Yet, this underestimated the spiritual depth of the local beliefs - it ended up being the Romans who began absorbing some of the religious ideas of the region.

Although it's a little vague, work began as early as 67BC, first on the acropolis mound, then the Temple of Jupiter's platform, and then on the great Temple of Jupiter itself. The temple was dedicated both to Baal and Jupiter, seen as equivalents of each other. There appears to have been no rush - 300 years later, finishing touches were still being made. Various emperors seem to have been involved: Trajan visited in around 115 AD to finalise the design for the courtyard, and Hadrian chipped in around 130 AD. At this stage, the temple was in active use, but many of the details were being added. This is indicated by inscriptions; oddly no surviving written accounts appears until the 7th Century, when the historian Jean Malalas of Antioch wrote that the Romans "built a large temple to Jupiter which was considered one of the wonders of the world".

No doubt, the temple of Jupiter was the centrepiece of the Acropolis, once with 54 giant columns supporting a temple that looked like the Parthenon pumped upon on drugs. Sure, it was built from limestone rather than the Parthenon's no-expense-spared marble, but in its heyday it must have been a truly dominant and spectacular sight. Not just the vast temple itself, elevated above the town on the man-made rock, but the courtyard too was grand, occupying a large area by the temple entrance and surrounded by a portico (a covered porch supported by pillars). In front of this was a hexagonal forecourt - a unique construction in the Roman world - and then a grand entrance, called a propylaea.

Alas, all this is much ruined now, and has been for some time. Today, only six of the 54 giant columns stand, with a random scattering of different parts of the courtyard still in place. The decline set in very quickly, given a hefty start in the form of willful vandalism. After Constantine the Great had turned the Roman Empire to Christianity, Emperor Theodosius began to really take the conversion seriously, and he really did not like pagan temples at all. Reigning from 379-395, he was behind the wide-scale destruction of countless pagan temples, and he had much of the Temple of Jupiter torn down too and turned into a Christian basilica. This was all in the days before gunpowder and so was no simple task. The Temple of Jupiter was big, and used huge building blocks - you couldn't just bash away at the base and hope it would tumble. Not for health and safety reasons (there were always plenty of slaves and prisoners to take the brunt of a collapsing building) but because it simply wasn't practical. Instead, the Temple of Jupiter was systematically dismantled from the top down. Sculptures especially were removed - Theodosius didn't want pagan gods looking down upon him. Of course, the job was never complete - hence why some parts are still standing - but centuries of hard work were quickly undone.

Just as the first piece of dropped litter soon attracts lots more litter, a broken-down building quickly becomes more ruined. While it was Byzantine, the only consideration was for the small basilica built in the old courtyard, not the crumbling ruins of the temple next to it, and when the area came under Muslim control, more was torn down to become defensive fortifications. Defence can also mean attack, and a Byzantine attack in the 9th Century massacred inhabitants and caused further destruction. Suleyman the Magnificent, in the 16th Century is said to have used some of the courtyard columns for his Suleymaniye Mosque in Istabul. And like stamping on the victim of a stabbing, earthquakes finished things off. A particularly severe one in 1759 reduced nine standing columns to the six we see today.

So it's ruins we're seeing now, vast ruins. Of the Temple of Jupiter, at least. At a less elevated position and a little smaller (but still bigger than the Parthenon) the Temple of Bacchus is in great condition, and gives a good insight into how the Temple of Jupiter must have once looked. And much smaller, but also preserved well, is the circular Temple of Venus. A couple of other old temples - the Temple of the Muses and the Temple of Mercury - are ruined to the point of non-existence.

Such is the Acropolis of Baalbek: ruined, but spectacular. As a Wonder, I suspect, it may fall into the category of being past its best. Seeing the temples in their full 3rd/4th Century glory, coated in sculptures, colossal in their dimensions, it doesn't seem a stretch that they may have been a Wonder of the World to the travel writer of that era. But time can be a punishing beast, and Baalbek has been punished often and punished severely. It's like blowing up the Taj Mahal - would it still remain a Wonder if only fragments remained? That's something I can only really judge after visiting.

And I have no idea when this will be. Ideally, I'd hoped to travel overland from Egypt to Turkey, but the war in Syria makes this non-workable (and, as I write, Egypt is also strongly threatening to put itself off-limits). As the Lebanese-Israeli border is closed, and Lebanon is otherwise surrounded by Syria, a land route doesn't seem possible, and so I would likely have to fly from Jordan. Perhaps I'll do this, or perhaps I'll just wait until the situation in Syria has calmed, and visit both countries together, which I think would make for a better overall experience. So as it stands, it's possible I'll be visiting Baalbek at the start of next year, but more likely it will be at some undetermined point in the future. Regardless, when I do so I'll give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.

1 comment:

  1. It always saddens me when I know that a historical site has been wilfully and systematically destroyed simply for ideological reasons. Neglect, warfare, and unthinkingly recycling the stones to build something else are bad enough, but ideology is the worst, because they know exactly what they are doing and still go ahead. Sadly, it happens to this day.

    There's greed as well that annoys me. People knocking down a historic building, getting a small fine, and building luxury flats on top.