At a considerable altitude, between the two mountain chains of the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon, running north-south and parallel to the eastern Mediterranean coast, there is a wide sweeping depression which is rich and fertile. This is the Bekaa valley, which from time immemorial has been a passage for the caravans of the Fertile Crescent. At its highest geodesic centre, at a height of 1,200 metres, there is the divide separating the streams of two rivers, Nahr el Assi, the river Orontes of the Greeks flowing northwards, and the Litani or Leontes flowing south. Here, around a gushing spring of abundant waters, a town has grown up, Ras el Ain, a town with prospering and generously irrigated gardens, for thousands of years providing relays and barter for the caravans. The amount of sunlight falling on the site led the place being called by the Greeks Heliopolis (Helio sun and polis city). But as for the inhabitants of the valley, they called it Baalbek, or God of the Valley.
Its early inhabitants, the Canaanites, were very religious, as indicated in Malachi, I, 10-14. Temples were built to the god El, later called Baal, that is to say the Lord, lord of the earth and the heavens (Genesis XIV, 18-20). When the Greeks under Alexander in 332 B.C. and the Romans under Pompey in 66 B.C. had conquered "all the East" (the Mashrek), throughout the second and third centuries A.D. they laboured at the construction here of an imposing religious complex, the most grandiose in all the Mediterranean, dedicated to the gods of the Semitic triad, El (later Baal, then Jupiter), his opposite number Ishtar or Atargis (later Venus) and their "child" Adoun, Adonis of the Greeks and Mercury of the Romans.
The most impressive of the temples, that of Jupiter, 88 metres long and 44 metres wide, stretched along an immense base of stones and earth rising thirteen metres above the adjacent ground level and was surrounded by a stupendous wall of stone blocks 10 metres long and 4x5 metres in cross-section. The cella or choir is backed by three enormous stones of 20x4x5 metres, each weighing some 750 tonnes; a fourth stone having the same dimensions remains unmoved in the nearby quarry. The peristyle around the nave had 54 columns, 20 metres high and of 2.2 metres diameter, constructed of three drum sections. They bore an entablature 5 metres high, a cornice and a frieze of lions, bulls, acanthus leaves and clusters of grapes and olives. Apart from six columns still standing, earthquakes and plundering for building materials have left ruin and disorder but at the same time have exposed the extraordinary sculptural richness with which the artists, whether out of religious devotion or personal interest, adorned the vast undertaking.
In front of the temple there is an immense courtyard 135 metres long and 113 metres wide, covering underground structures that raise it to a height of seven metres above the surrounding ground. Two great basins once served as sacred pools. All around the courtyard a richly decorated peristyle sheltered stone seats facing sculptured cornices. Before this court, more to the east, there is another smaller hexagonal court forming a monumental porch with an axis of 60 metres! This too was surrounded by a portico and seats. Access to this court is through a gallery of twelve columns reached through a monumental staircase.
The second temple, now called the temple of Bacchus because of bacchic motives carved at certain points, is in fact the temple of the female counterpart of Baal, namely Baalat, Ishtar or Artagatis. It is in a very good state of preservation and is greatly admired both by connoisseurs and by tourists. It is 70 metres long and is surrounded by a peristyle of 48 columns 20 metres high, bearing an entablature with a frieze of lions, bulls and acanthus leaves, all richly carved. Its entrance is truly monumental, 13 metres high by 7.5 metres wide, finely worked. The nave has fluted columns in relief on the walls. There is a cella or choir 27 metres by 22. The adyton or altar of the divinity, placed high, makes the building a religious monument of the highest order.
The third temple, a smaller one, placed further to the east and now named after Venus, is a work of wonderful good taste and delicacy. It has a door six metres high and three metres wide, which is approached through a portico with a double colonnade, and a cella or choir admirably adorned with sculptured garlands.
Every year this grandiose
complex of temples is the setting for festivals unrivalled
throughout the Middle East for drama, music and folklore,
with sun and lights, putting the whole site on the
highest level of culture and unforgettable emotion.
The monuments of Baalbeck: >> View
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