Any fervent traveller will know the Forum Romanum, the Colosseum and the Pantheon in Rome. Or the remains of the Roman city of Pompei. And perhaps you have heard of the ruins of Herculaneum, near Naples. But did you know that the most breath-taking Roman ruins can be found outside of modern-day Italy, and even outside of Europe?
Let me introduce you to Baalbek, Lebanon. Yep, I had never actually heard of this place either until visiting it recently, but the Roman ruins here are more spectacular than any other I’ve seen before (and I have seen quite a few).
Located in eastern Lebanon, close to the border with war-torn Syria and in the heartland of militant organisation Hezbollah, Baalbek is not the easiest of places to get to. However, in contrast to some of the foreign advice you may find online, the area is currently (2018) quiet and very safe to visit (check out my other blog post about the safety situation in Lebanon for more deets). Taking the effort to go there will be rewarded with some of the most awe-inspiring historical sights you have ever seen.
Baalbek was founded by the Phoenicians (an ancient Middle Eastern civilisation) before the Greeks conquered it and re-named it Heliopolis, or Sun City. When the Romans arrived around 15 BCE they decided to keep that name and devote a temple to their sun god Jupiter here. The construction of the Temple of Jupiter was started by Julius Caesar and it would become the largest temple ever built in the Roman Empire. It formed part of a complex of structures that surrounded a vast central court. Today, only 6 of its original 54 columns still stand, but several porticoes and smaller altars in the central court are still in an incredible condition.
The most impressive remains, however, are those of the Temple of Bacchus, the Greek and Roman god of wine. Constructed in the third century AC, it is often considered to be the best preserved Roman temple in the world.
Alongside these two main temples are a number of other structures, including an hexagonal forecourt and a magnificent staircase and access gate as well as the Temple of Venus and the Temple of the Muses, both of which are not accessible but can be admired from the pavement.
The Temple of Jupiter is built on a huge raised platform, made of gigantic stones that weigh up to 1,000 tonnes each, making them among the largest building blocks in the world. In a nearby limestone quarry archaeologists recently discovered 2 more of these massive building blocks. It is still a mystery how the stones were carried to the temple site.
Although Baalbek is less than a 2-hour drive from the Lebanese capital Beirut and can easily be reached by car or public bus (from Beirut’s Cola Intersection), I decided to join an organised group tour. Operators such as Nakhal run guided group tours to Baalbek and surroundings a few times a week. At $95 per person it might seem a bit pricey, but the tour includes transportation from Beirut, a guide, entrance fees to temple complex and the quarry and a huge lunch and wine tasting at a nearby winery. Many tours also include a visit to the nearby historic site of Aanjar, an 8th century former Islamic fortified town.
If you’d ask me, Baalbek is one for the bucket lists. So, if you are planning to go to Lebanon, make sure this place is on the itinerary. I’m sure you will be just as stunned by its sheer size and beauty as I was.