19 Jan 2011

Baalbek, more than just Bacchus

For many (and this used to include myself until last Saturday, when I visited the place for the first time), the image of the fabulous Lebanese site of Baalbek, known in Greek times as Heliopolis and rebuilt by the Romans over hundreds of years as from about 200AD, boils down to the temple of Bacchus, shown above. And indeed this is probably the most complete of all Roman temples left standing today, despite the earthquakes that have partially destroyed much of the remainder of this gigantic sanctuary and city, including the larger Temple of Jupiter that lies above it and a whole lot more. Yet so much of this site remains clearly visible, with its incredibly rich and precisely carved hunks of architrave, frieze, cornice, columns and other elements scattered about like pieces of some giant, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Baalbec (you can spell it with a "c" or a "k" at the end) must be the most impressive classical site that I have visited, together perhaps with Delphes and one in Turkey and maybe the Acropolis. Unlike the Acropolis though, Baalbek is blissfully free of crowds, at least in the winter.

 As often with religious sites, this one super-posed current deities on those of civilisations that had gone before. Jupiter succeded Baal-Hadad, Bacchus the anatolian Dionysios, and Venus, who also had her temple, took over from Astarte. Other deities, such as Mercury, equally had sanctuaries in what was the largest religious complex of the Roman Empire.

Much larger (and earlier) than the temple of Bacchus is that of Jupiter, whose six remaining upright columns dominate the whole site. Almost all of the superstructure of this has been shaken to the ground and a lot removed, but the whole base and layout is visible and one walks up the steps with a sense of awe at the scale of the work. The marble columns as above were apparently hauled there from Egypt, which is a very long way. Eight of them were removed by Justinian in the 6th century and re-used in Hagia Sophia, in Constantiniople. Not very near either. I guess it helps to have a few slaves around when this kind of labour is required!

As to the motifs of the carving, these are extremely variable and retain, even today, a degree of precision that seems quite amazing. I imagine that the pure and dry mountain air (we are at around 3800 feet up here) has done a lot to preserve the stone in this case. Vines with grapes on them, as surrounding the damaged figure of Cleopatra above (she literally fell from the roof during one of the tremors) or, below, on the frame around the entrance to the Temple of Bacchus, are signs that this area was then, as now, producing wine. But the history of wine is much older in this area than either the Ancient Roman or Greek eras. In fact we are not far from the probable birthplace of wine around 6000 years ago.

Another plant that seemed popular was the poppy, as below, but we do not know whether the Romans used it to produce opium!

On the way to Baalbec (or on the way back, heading towards the south-west Beirut and the coast, or south and inland to Damascus) you will need to stop and eat some of the delicious mankouché, which is a pizza-like preparation, on a much thinner bread paste and using primarily thyme as an ingredient. Variants can contain a goat's milk cheese preparation (you can see the lady in the photo ladling this on for our lunch) and/or vegetables. They are cooked on dome shaped open metal hot plates that used to be heated by charcoal or wood and now use gas (there is precious little wood left in this area nowadays anyway).

(all photographs by David Cobbold)

Do not miss Baalbec. It is a very spectacular site.

I have to thank my guides for this opportunity: Aziz Wardy, whose firm produces two of the very best white wines made in the Lebanon; Muriel Rozelier, a French journalist who works for Commerce du Levant; and Diana Salamé, an enologist who consults for a few of the top small-scale wine producers in the Lebanon, including Wardy. All of them gave me much information to help lift my veils of ignorance.