“You would have kicked yourself had you not got to Baalbek (or I'd have kicked you!!),” promised Nick who lives in the Middle East.
For anyone with any knowledge of Roman ruins and/or the Middle Eastern history, Baalbek is a must-see. For me, ignorant of Classical remains despite the best efforts of two Classicist parents, this was my first “real live Roman ruin” and, quite literally, it took my breath away. Relatively few man-made creations have that effect on me. The natural world, scenery and wildlife: yes; man’s efforts, generally no. Maybe it’s because the impact and scale of impressive scenery cannot be conveyed by even the best television cameras. Maybe it’s because our relatively higher exposure to the world’s great monuments makes them familiar long before we see them for ourselves: a film scene set in Paris will include a panoramic shot of the Eiffel Tower to make it blindingly obvious where the action is taking place; similarly the Coliseum in Rome, Capitol Hill and the Washington Monument in the US capital… the list goes on. But my first sight of the South Gate at Angkor Thom in Cambodia left me speechless and struggling for breath. The way that
the Great Wall of China ripples up and over and down mountains, like some now-dormant oversized serpent, is extraordinary. And the Taj Mahal really is utterly incredible in real life, an ethereal apparition when first glimpsed from Agra’s Red Fort, or, up close, dramatic in the ever-changing light.
Baalbek soon found itself added to my sketchy list. Standing at the bottom of the steps to the Propylaea, clutching my guidebook, I found myself incoherent in two languages as I tried to handle negotiations with a potential guide while absorbing my dramatic surroundings. I initially agreed to his showing me round in English, but his accent was strong and I struggled to concentrate as he rattled through his number- and date-littered opening spiel. A trio of Frenchmen appeared, and I could see my guide trying to work out how to maximise his commercial advantage. We agreed on a tour in French, with my contribution reduced accordingly, but following numbers and dates in another language has never been my forte so, when the guide paused to draw breath, I seized my chance and bowed out, more than content to explore this huge site on my own.
Despite the vast amount
of work that has been done here, both in terms of actual reconstruction and artists’ impressions, my imagination buckled under the effort of trying to visualise Baalbek in its original magnificence. Oh to have been a fly on one of those vast pillars, watching the next one being prepared and then raised into position. To have been an eagle above the quarry as these massive pieces of stone were hewn and then transported to the site. To have been a farmer on distant hills watching this truly historic monument take shape and expand over the years - make that generations of farmers, given the timescale concerned. The earliest temple here is thought to date back to the first millennium BC and to have been dedicated to the Phoenician god Baal (from which the nearby town took its name). After the conquest of Alexander the Great, Baalbek became Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, a name that remains appropriate to this day - the skies are often cloudless here and the sun is strong; I was warned to take lots of water and sunblock by a friendly Beiruti with whom I shared a “servees” that morning. When Pompey colonised Phoenicia in
64 BC, construction began of the massive temples whose remains dominate what we see here today. Constantine ordered the cessation of building in the wake of his conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, and the Arabs adapted the site into a fortress after 636 BC… And this says nothing of all the influences and developments along the way.
Yet, even now, I was hypnotised by the massive proportions in front of me. The wide, high staircase leading up to the huge artificially-created plinth on which the whole main complex rests. The towering pillars of the Propylaea, four still architrave-ed and their less complete but nevertheless vast companions on either side. The towers at each end, less dramatic from my initial viewpoint at the bottom of the steps but, at the top, I peeped inside and found tantalising hints of their erstwhile glory: a carved mantle high above, a partial doorway over there.
Through the Hexagonal Courtyard, itself stunning in its unusual angles and design, the Great Courtyard took my breath away a second time. Such an immense jigsaw puzzle that, from the number of pieces still lying around, seems barely to have been started. Here a guide would
have been useful to explain the purpose of the various alcoves and exedra, and, throughout the complex, to talk in more detail about how the various influences on this place are manifest in its design and decoration. Lacking that, I settled for an uneven scramble up the square tower in the centre of the Courtyard to get a better idea of its layout and perspective.
The steps leading up to the Temple of Jupiter are far less complete than those at the entrance to the Propylaea: both ascending and descending require a little route-planning and a lot of concentration. But the ascent is worth it. Before me towered the Temple’s six remaining pillars, arguably the tallest in the world. My imagination waved a white flag with the effort of imagining what it must have looked like when the original fifty-four pillars were all in place, eighteen on this side alone. At the one side lay a massive piece of the façade, long since tumbled from its proper position. Incredibly, it was created from only one piece of stone, despite its vast size. Behind the pillars, there was a faint view, through the trees, of the Bekaa Valley. The hills
(there is a human in the foreground for scale, if you look really closely)
were pale that day, no dramatic snow-line putting them in sharp relief against the blue sky.
From the pillars, I looked down on a very twenty-first century construction-in-process: a complex seating structure, reminiscent of that built each year for the Edinburgh Tattoo, was being put in place for Baalbek’s annual international music festival. I toyed with the idea of a return trip here one year. Imagine “Aida” with this backdrop… Entertainingly, I’d learnt from a local resident only hours’ earlier that Deep Purple had made an appearance last year. This year’s programme includes a celebration of Chopin’s bicentenary, a performance of “Anna Karenina” in ballet form, a pop concert by Mika and a jazz festival. Nothing if not an eclectic mix of tastes catered for here…
Disconcertingly, the construction masked the exit - and therefore also the route over to the Temple of Bacchus - so effectively that I found myself wandering around, as nonchalantly and un-appearing-to-be-lost-edly as I could, in search of it, before giving in to stop and watch exactly where other people went. My chosen “lab rats” for this purpose were a sheikh and his burqa-clad wife - usefully obvious amongst the European and Japanese
fallen facade - this is one piece of stone
(Boots waterbottle in the foreground for scale, if you can find it)
tourists. When they appeared to be descending the scaffolding below me, I followed suit, and found that the construction site had hidden the flight of stone steps back down to ground level.
The Temple of Bacchus is described as the “small” temple here. All things are comparative: it’s still bigger than Athens’ Parthenon. It is also built on a raised platform, but on one separate to the main temple complex. Being infinitely more complete than its big brother next door, it merited circumambulation. My camera was already concluding that pillars could be almost as photogenic as palm trees, and this was the perfect excuse for yet more pillar-against-blue-sky shots. When I found the leaning pillar on the Temple’s southern wall, I was even more enchanted. A photographer’s dream!
Finally, almost pillar-ed out, I entered the Temple itself, and wandered up to the altar-end to sit awhile and drink in my surroundings. My only regret was that there was no way I could have had my well-travelled-round-the-Roman-Empire mother at my elbow, explaining the basics of what I was looking at, and comparing them with what she has seen. There isn’t the wheelchair or walking aid in creation could safely
take her round this archaeological wonder.
For the nth time that day, I was delighted to have left Baalbek to the end of my trip. Truly, a massive high on which to leave, eclipsing the emotional ups and downs of the previous few days. A little weary, but very content, I made my way slowly and reluctantly out of the ruins as the sun began to descend in the late afternoon skies. I have to confess I hardly did justice to the small museum/exhibition on the way out. My information input pipe was clogging up, and I struggled to find much enthusiasm to shovel a few more morsels inside. Instead, a more basic appetite needed to be satisfied, and I stomped off in search of some sustenance. A falafel wrap would sate my appetite before I boarded a minibus to take me over the hairpin ups and downs of the road back across the mountains and down into central Beirut. There I would see out the last evening of this eventful trip in the company of an internet connection and a beer and a chatty barman at my Hamra hotel.
Tomorrow I would return to London, and, for
once, I was looking forward to going home.
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