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Lebanon > Baalbeck Temple July 21, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Hellenic Light Asia.

Baalbeck, also known as Heliopolis, is an ancient Roman city in northeastern Lebanon. Most visitors see Baalbeck on a day trip from Beirut, which is a scenic mountain drive away.

Editor’s Note > See related photo at our Flickr Photo Gallery

Baalbeck is situated on the eastern slopes of Lebanon’s mountain range in a wide and fertile valley known as the Beqa’a. In ancient times, caravan stations developed in this valley, especially at places with a year-round water supply, and they became agricultural centers. Baalbeck was one such site. It occupied the especially favorable spot at the highest level of the Beqa’a valley, at the source of two important rivers and along the main inland transportation road.

Although it was in Roman times that Baalbeck achieved its wide fame, the site was of political and religious importance long before the Romans arrived. The name “Baalbeck” derives from the Canaanite god Baal, whose name means “Lord.” Few specifics are known about the early history of Baalbeck, except that it was inhabited in the Bronze Age and a Canaanite city connected with the cult of Baal was established on the site. Baalbeck was almost certainly a great religious center.

The supreme god of the Canaanites was El, the sun god, who was represented by a bull. El’s wife was Ashera, goddess of the sea. This divine couple could not be approached directly, but only through the mediation of their son Baal, the Lord of rain, storms, and thunder. His symbols were a thunderbolt ending in a spear, ears of corn, and the bull. Baal had a son, Aliyan, who was the god of springs and floral growth, and a daughter, Anat, who was Aliyan’s faithful consort. Set against these positive forces was Mot (Death), the god of summer and drought, who helped fruit to ripen but also killed the vegetation, if not supported by Aliyan’s springs. Another important deity was Astarte, the goddess of love and fertility.

Canaanite mythology reflected the cycle of nature. Baal and Aliyan ruled the earth in winter and spring with plentiful rains and thunder. When the dryness of summer arrives, Mot attains superiority and kills Baal (the rain) and his son Aliyan (the springs). Aliyan’s sister and lover Anat retrieves his body from the underworld and buries it, then searches for Mot and kills him (representing the harvest). With the destruction of Mot the summer heat recedes, and in late autum Baal and Aliyan reappear with the live-giving rains and springs.

Ball was adopted by the Assyrians as Bel, and he can be equated with the Egyptian Seth, the Phoenician Reshef and the Aramaean Haddad. The triad of Baal, Aliyan and Anat had its parallels in the Greek Zeus, Hermes and Aphrodite and the Roman Jupiter, Mercury and Venus. The sequence of life, death and resurrection was also central to the popular cult of Adonis and Osiris, which came out of Egypt and flourished well into Roman times.

Along with the rest of this part of the world, Baalbeck was Hellenized after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. The Greeks named Baalbeck “Heliopolis,” City of the Sun. To distinguish it from its important namesake in Egypt, ancient writers called it Heliopolis “in Phoenicia” or “in the Lebanon.”

The Roman general Pompey conquered much of the region in the 1st century BC, and Baalbeck became part of the new province of Syria. A few decades later, Mark Antony controlled of the East, and he gave Baalbeck and its surrounding region to Cleopatra. But in 31 BC Octavian (later known as Augustus) drove Antony and Cleopatra out of Syria and ushered in Rome’s golden age of stability known as the Pax Romana. It was in this context that the construction of the great Roman temples at Baalbeck began.

The Romans did not start from scratch. Archaeologists have discovered pre-Hellenistic remains of a sanctuary on the site, where Baal and the other Canaanite deities were worshipped. It centered around a natural crevice, which was probably the original sacred site before anything was built. Both the Ptolemies and the Seleucids added Hellenistic elements to the existing sanctuary.

The Roman Temple of Jupiter was constructed in the 1st century AD. An inscription on top of a column shaft indicates that it was nearing completion in the year 60. The Great Court was added in the early 2nd century. The temple was unique not only in its great size, but in its Eastern architectural influences and in its financing in large part by non-Romans, an indicator that the local people regarded the Heliopolitan Jupiter fully as their own. Construction of the Temple of Bacchus began in the later 2nd century under Antoninus Pius, after the cult of Bacchus had become popular in the empire. Construction of the great temple complex continued until the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in the early 4th century, when it came to halt with many details left unfinished.

Under Roman rule, the supreme god worshipped at Baalbeck/Heliopolis was Jupiter Heliopolitan, a complex fusion of a Baal and Jupiter. The statue that stood in the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbeck was described by ancient writers as holding a thunderbolt with ears of corn and being flanked by two bulls. He was part of a Helipolitan Triad of Jupiter, Mercury and Venus. The religious rituals at the temple were more Syrian than they were Greco-Roman, but the site did include an oracle that was consulted by emperors.

The most famous sight at Baalbeck is the Temple of Jupiter, whose six remaining columns are the largest anywhere in the Roman world. The famous statue of Jupiter Heliopolitan stood in the rear of the temple on a raised adytum (holy of holies), which only initiated priests could approach. The great temple was fronted by a hexagonal forecourt added by Philip the Arab (244-49), the layout of which can still be clearly seen.

The Temple of Bacchus is the best-preserved structure at Baalbeck, and in fact the best preserved Roman temple of its size anywhere. The Temple of Bacchus is larger than the Parthenon, with an interior span of 62 feet and a monumental gateway 21 feet wide and nearly 42 feet high. Although dwarfed by those of the Temple of Jupiter, the Bacchus temple’s stone blocks weigh tens of tons each. The temple’s size was matched by its quality in construction (the blocks fit together perfectly) and in elegant decoration. Some figurative reliefs depicting Greek gods have survived, though in a very damaged state. Yet, despite its clear importance, very little is known about the purpose of the impressive building. Even its dedication to Bacchus is far from certain. It is positioned oddly, a huge building that nevertheless stands in the shadow of the great complex of the Temple of Jupiter, pushed nearly to the end of the forbiddding wall that supports the Great Court.

The Temple of Venus is small and round, a major contrast with the giant rectangular temples of Jupiter and Bacchus. The Temple of Venus has six columns that probably once supported a dome. It is carved everywhere with niches, sculptures (now lost) and other elegant decorations.

The Hexagonal Forecourt is a six-sided area built between the Propylaea and the Great Court in the early 3rd century AD. It incorporated 30 granite columns. By the early 5th century, it had been covered with a dome and transformed into a church.

The Baalbeck International Festival of music and drama takes place among the Roman ruins of Baalbeck in July and August each year.

Related Links >

Baalbeck International Festival  http://www.baalbeck.org.lb/

Official site Lebanon Tourism  http://www.lebanon.com/tourism/baalbeck.htm

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