Originally named Baalbek after the Phoenician deity Baal, when the Greeks arrived to Baalbek’s location about 86 kilometers northeast of Beirut in the 3rd century B.C., they changed the city’s name to Heliopolis or “Sun City”. The Romans followed suit in 15 B.C., and under the rule of Augustus, soon built extraordinary temples dedicated to Jupiter, Bacchus, and Venus that still impress visitors nearly two millennia later.
VISITING THE MAIN TEMPLES OF BAALBEK
Upon arriving at the Baalbek’s ruins you’ll find the ticket office to the main site. From here you’ll be able to see the highly original design of the Temple of Venus, though it’s out of the reach of tourists. Constructed in the third century, it was built on a horseshoe-shaped platform upon which stood a circular shrine with a square entrance. The façade of the shrine is graced by five niches, and within each of these are representations of doves and shells, which many believe is evidence that the shrine was devoted to Venus.
Once you enter the site through the monumental gateway known in ancient Greek architecture as the “Propylaea” (which despite being 2,000 years old, is still in pretty good shape), you climb a set of stairs until you first reach the Hexagonal Court and then the Grand Court after it. At the top of the Grand Court, you’ll stumble upon the remaining six pillars of the Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek’s colossal Roman temple, the largest ever built in of the Roman world. The Temple was demolished in the 4th Century when Roman Emperor Theodosius I built a Christian basilica over it. Then, in 643, a great earthquake destroyed both what was left of the temple and the entire basilica. Soon after, the Arabs came in and conquered the area, building a fortress over the temples.
Along with its history, there is a certain Baalbek mystery that is attached to the Temple of Jupiter known as the Baalbek trilithon – group of three horizontally lying giant stones, which form part of the podium of Jupiter. Each one of these stones is 19 meters long, 4.2 meters high, and 3.6 meters thick, and weighs around 800 tons. (The pillars of Stonehenge weigh about 1/40 of that.) The supporting stone layer beneath features a number of stones which weigh an estimated 350 tons and are 11 meters wide. In the nearby limestone quarry, two Roman building blocks weighing 1,650 tons and matching those that support the temple are considered to be the largest stone blocks from antiquity. Their origin is more shadowy than one might expect of a three-million-pound megalith, however. Nobody seems to know who ordered the stones cut, nor does anyone seem know their intended purpose.
Going down from the Temple of Jupiter you’ll find the Temple of Bacchus on your left. Most of the pillars and walls are still standing. The ornamental frieze is superb and the temple, and its surroundings so beautiful that it’s used for events and other special occasions. So beautifully preserved and historically important are all of the temples, in fact, that in 1984, UNESCO even recognized the temples of Baalbek by placing them on its World Heritage List and serious reconstruction of the ancient city started soon afterwards.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Baalbek tourism professionals suggest you:
- be sure to bring a hat and some sunscreen, especially if you’re visiting in summer.
- bring your own water in a recyclable container.
- don’t forget your camera and take plenty of photos of the spectacular views from the top.
- hire a local licensed guide to give you a tour around the temples of Baalbek.
- don’t forget to bring a jacket, as it can get relatively cold if you’re visiting in winter.
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