Sunday, 13 January 2008

Baalbeck and beyond

The Temple of Bacchus, Balbeck, Lebanon

Today was an early start for a trip to Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley. The Bekaa Valley isn't really a valley, its more of a plateau between high ranges of mountains and has been the corridor used for travel between Syria and the coast for thousands of years. The drive took about an hour and a half and passed through many areas that had been seriously damaged by both the retreating Syrians 3 years ago and aerial bombing by the Israelis last year. So sad, Lebanon is such a beautiful country but throughout history it's suffered constant pummelling from other countries/groups with their own agendas. There are lots of photos here.

The ruins at Baalbeck are extensive and some are still in remarkably good condition. Wajdee took us first to the Roman quarry to see where the stones for the construction of Baalbeck were cut. In the quarry is a huge block of stone that had been hewn and prepared to be one of the pillars in the Temple of Jupiter but was never used. The stone, which measures 21,5m x 4m x 4.5m, is estimated to weigh around 2,000 tons and is the largest cut stone in the world.

The Bekaa Valley is best known as the stronghold of Hezbollah (Party of God) and everywhere along the road Hezbollah flags hang from houses and shops. The whole area is very conservative and their politics are still anti-West which could explain the cool reception we received. Wajdee dropped us at the entrance to the Roman ruins and we were immediately beseiged by guys selling Hezbollah tee-shirts, flags and Hassan Nasrullah pillowcases.

The town of Baalbeck dates back to 3,000 years BC and was named for Baal, a particularly unpleasant god whose followers regularly sacrificed their own children to honour him. After the invasion by Alexander the Great the name of the town was changed to Heliopolis (City of the Sun). The Romans founded a colony in Baalbeck around 64BC and construction of the temples commenced shortly afterwards. After the Romans came Christianity and in order to stop the pagan rites that still continued in the area, many parts of the temples were destroyed and the biggest columns were sent to Istanbul to be part of the Aya Sophia. The Muslims invaded in 748 and I surprised to learn that the Mongols got to Baalbeck in 1400. The Mongol Mob certainly got around (a Kiwi pun there). The largest temples at Baalbeck were dedicated to Bachus and Jupiter and their worship ceremonies involved sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll or back then sex, wine and oud music. The Temple of Jupiter at Baalbeck was built on foundations over 300m long. The columns in the temple are apparently the largest in the world though only six now remain. Due to the enormous size of the columns and foundation stones it was once believed that the building had been constructed by giants. The remaining arches and columns are spectacular. It was very cold and the water that had gathered in depressions in the ruins had frozen solid.

Over to the Temple of Bacchus which is very well preserved and really only lacks a roof. Many of the carvings are still intact with several friezes of Roman gods and goddesses clearly visible and in good condition. Originally the temple's interior would have been painted in full colour which would have been quite a sight.

We spent a couple of hours wandering round the ruins, and spent a few minutes standing on the magnificent stairs leading up to the Temple of Bacchus listening to a particularly heartfelt call to prayer and soaking up the atmosphere.

From Baalbeck we drove over to Aanjar a small town which was founded by Armernian refugees fleeing from Turkey in 1918. The historic ruins in the town date to the very earliest years of Islam and were built by the Umayyads (the guys who built the Grand Mosque in Damascus, Syria) but is laid out in the same style as a typical Roman town. The major difference between the ruins in Aanjar and the other ruins we saw in Lebanon is the stonework. In Aanjar the walls are built with alternating layers of blocks and narrow bricks which is a Byzantine anti-earthquake method of construction. With the snow topped Anti-Lebanon mountains (that's their name alright) in the background, tall trees and a park like backdrop it was a lovely place to be.

We had a late lunch then headed back to Beirut. We had a few hours to spare so we headed off to the movies to see "Michael Clayton" the George Clooney movie. English sound track but subtitles in Arabic and French. Wajdee picked us up again and we headed out to Beirut Airport for our Air Arabia flight back to to Sharjah.

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