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.


  1. Hierapolis in Turkey, you mean?
    And Hera’s Temple (the two of them) in Paestum (Posidonia), Campania.
    And Sbeïtla (Tunisia): hopefully in a country that will be pleasant to visit ... again.
    I’ll put a question to you, with a far better artistic education than I (courtesy of Harley Davidson): why are older buildings, by and large, so much more attractive than the junk architects develop now? Surely, with our technicity, we could do better?
    When the banking tycoon Roquette built the splendid estate of Esporão in Alentejo, with modern building contractors and modern raw materials, he opted for traditional style and ... a marvel ensued. When one visits the restaured Royal Castle in Prag and St Guy’s Cathedral: breathtaking. I could go on for ages.
    When one looks at the new “Centre del Mon” in Perpignan (the new pharaonic shopping mall with the minute TGV railway station in the centre): throwing up is the only spontaneous reaction. Unfortunately, I can also continue for ages in that direction. The worst of them all is Tonton’s pyramid in front of the Louvre Museum.
    Poppy was indeed used to derive anaesthetic creams, ointment and beverages (the opium alcaloids can serve many purposes), but smoking opium is another matter altogether (chandoo needs a complex preparation and fermentation). It was clearly cultivated in many parts of the Middle-East during the Neolithic age (3000 BC), as “fields” have been described in the vicinity of many a living community.

  2. Luc, the dissolution of aesthetics is a major subject indeed, and about which I mainly agree with you. Yet I would argue to remove one of your examples, as I find the Louvre pyramid quite marvellous to look at and I enjoy the contrast between its transparency and the density of the stone that surrounds it. I will return to this in the context of the Lebanon and the total visual (and ecological) rape of that country which is taking place through horrendous and anarchical construction all over the place.

  3. Actually I was thinking of Thermossos, its amphitheatre and its huge field of sarcophagi. But I have not seen anough of Turkey to speak with any authority.

  4. Friends of mine used to attend Baalbek’s festival every year before it stopped existing in the mid-seventies, because of heavy shelling, I suppose. So what, will you say?
    Nothing as such, but for the fact that they drove (always a Volvo) from Brussels to the Lebanon (you see, I use the article) with the first stop in ... Istanbul, only eating sandwich in the car on their way. They were not short of money so don’t ask me why they did it?

  5. Were they Dutch by any chance, even if they were friends of yours and living in Brussels? I can think of no other rational explanation for anyone travelling all over Europe without eating some local food.
    Baalbek festival has restarted, you will be glad to hear, and is, I understand flourishing, with theatre and music. Must be amazing to hear, say, Jimi Hendrix there. Too late, you say? Well, if you have Jupiter on your side you can get anything, no?

  6. No, not Dutch. As much your classical “francophone” as you can imagine, but for the fact that the whole family goes to ... LATIN classes, holiday camps and courses. They all actually SPEAK latin together, except the youngest daughter, who also happened to be the prettiest -well, more than 20 years ago, that is. They normally eat at gastronomic restaurants, sometimes calling a special halt in order to achieve this. But there: no interest for – I suppose, have no detail about the exact route – wonderful Palatinate food and wine, the Souabian “Delikatesse”, the pastry and chocolate and exquisite coffee of Austria, Hungarian or – at the time – Yougoslav gulash, Bulgaria I don’t know ... Eventually, the best of Persian cuisine is available, there, on the Bosphorus.
    It seems the festival started again in 1997, but ... “a poor lonesome winemaker and a long way from home” cannot possibly attend.