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Exploring Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley

4th April 2011

I have just been totally blown away by Baalbek today, c’est incredible!

Driving east up out of Beirut, we head up and over the hills to the Bekaa valley. The valley is 900m above sea leval, with two mountain ranges straddling it one from the coast and the other from Syria. It is the agriculture heart of the country and is fed by two rivers, one going south and the other north to Turkey.

First port of call is Aanjar, where Pierre and I were virtually the only people exploring the old ruined Umayyad City. Built in the early days of the Islam, around 705AD as trading post from the coast to Damascus it was a small compact walled city, with the 2 wide colonnaded avenues splitting into 4 quarters, one half for the royal residence, their gardens and baths and of course the mosque, one quarter for the citizens and the other quarter for the caravanserai. Sadly with the warring fractions of who would reign as Caliph the city was only occupied for a short time, 50 or so years.

From there we drove up the valley passing fields of vines and wheat, passing tented camps made of tarpaulin, plastic and canvas which are occupied by the seasonal workers, when at the end of the farming season they head north of Tripoli to the coast and the warmer climate, before returning the following year. Where are these people from I asked. The north, not Lebanon, with that typical French shrug came the reply from Pierre. Are they Kurds ? Maybe...there are gypsies, he responded after a pause.

On arrival to Baalbek, Pierre suggested I see an old Roman quarry where the stones where cut and there still remains one, which they claim is the largest in the world 21.5m x4m x4.5 to be precise. It is huge and was I impressed? Yes.

From there we headed straight for the famous Roman remains. Heliopolis, City of Sun as named by the Romans, its mind blowing in size and structure and preservation. Previously a Phoenician temple to the god Baal, hence the name Baalbek, City of Baal, where animal and human sacrifices were made and also “sacred prostitution” and Baal’s wife who was also his sister Anath to quote the guide book again if I may: “...waded up to the knees, up to the neck in human blood. Human head lay at her feet, human hands flew over her like locusts...” Gory stuff!

Anyhow a few thousand years later up pop the Romans and Julius Caesar decided to have an outpost here and the work began. 100,000 slaves were used in building the magnificent complex and it took only a mere 120 years to complete. Looking down from the great Temple of Jupiter you can see the size of the stones used to support and the structure and to protect it from earthquakes similar to the one in the quarry. Three tunnels run under the complex where they sacrifice animals (human sacrifices had stopped by then). The animals were taken up to the altar for the priests to cleanse them with a sprinkling of water before the final act, with the heart ripped out and then taken up to the higher altar where a fire burnt constantly and was offered to Jupiter.

Pierre had me enthralled with his knowledge and storytelling as I sat riveted gazing over this impressive place. The reason the Temple of Bacchus is so well preserved is actual thanks to the Muslims who centuries later turned it into a citadel and the temple walls were was bricked up to strengthen them. Of course my description is limited, you just have to come and see for yourself.

Dhala Campbell

Named after a Yemeni fort, Dhala was brought up in Scotland and spent her childhood mucking about on horses. The travel bug started when she found …

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