At at the foot of the fertile Bekaa Valley, a renown wine region of Lebanon, stands the Phoenician city of Baalbek.
Known as Heliopolis by the Greeks, Baalbek is one of the best preserved ancient cities in the Middle East, and its impressive constructions are one of the best examples of the Imperial Roman architecture.
During my last visit to Lebanon, I decided to explore this UNESCO Heritage Site, and visit on the way the Château Ksara, one of the most famous wine wineries of the Middle East.
Located only 10km away from the Syrian border and famous for being a stronghold of Hezbollah, is it really safe to visit Baalbek?
How to get there
Baalbek is located about 90 km northeast of Beirut, however, the roads aren't the best, so it will take you a good couple of hours to make it there. If you're travelling on your own, the best option is to hire a car or take a taxi, as public transport isn't the best in that area. You can still get a local bus departing from Beirut that will leave you in the modern town, just a few meters away from the ruins.
Even though tour operators in Lebanon have been severely affected by the ongoing conflicts in or with the neighbouring countries and it can be hard to arrange an organised visit, I decided to book my trip with Living Lebanon, a local company that organises both group and private tours.
For this specific visit, we booked a car with a private driver, and it was a fantastic experience. We also chose Living Lebanon for our visit to Qadisha Valley, Tannourine & Baatara Gorge, as well as for the visit to the Jeita Grotto and I can't praise them enough. If you want to join a group tour or prefer to customise your own, private itinerary, you're in good hands!
Originally, the city of Baalbek was a Phoenician settlement from the 3rd millennium BC. Its name comes from the temple to the god Baal, constructed in the 1st millennium BC.
Baalbek was a prosperous city that was located at the crossroad of some of the main trading routes of its time. Today, this glorious past has left countless archaeological remains that make Baalbek one of the best preserved ancient cities in the world.
This impressive archaeological site is located less than 10km away from the Syrian border; you actually can see the watchtowers up in the mountains. The modern city is also well known for being a stronghold of Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist group and political party considered a terrorist group by many countries, including the European Union, the United States and even the United Nations.
As soon as I reached the modern city, I went straight to the entrance of the archaeological site. Tickets cost about US$10 per person and give you access to the entire archaeological complex as well as a small museum containing some original artefacts.
Just a few minutes after I accessed the ruins, I started hearing the clear sound of shots and small explosions. It took me a while to realise what it was until I was struck by the thought that I was just minutes away from an area of conflict.
I'm not totally sure of whether those shots were coming from the other side of the Syrian border or from Lebanon, as apparently, celebratory gunfire is not uncommon when Hezbollah militants are giving a speech, or even when the locals are celebrating a wedding.
I will probably never know with certainty what was the origin of those sounds, but this was one of the most shocking experiences during my travels. Even though I wasn't particularly scared (it was evident that the shooting was quite far and all you could hear was the echo), it really made me realise how crazy it was that just on the other side people were dying in the Syrian war while I was enjoying my holidays visiting Lebanon.
As you enter, you'll come across a monumental staircase known as the Propylaea, which leads from the semi-circular forecourt to the entrance hall of the Roman temple of Jupiter. The entrance plan followed a widespread Roman prototype and consisted of a long rectangular hall with a row of 12 columns flanked left and right by two-story towers.
The decoration of the outer façade as well as the richly ornamented column capitals, which were covered with bronze and gold during the 3rd century AD, could be seen from afar and gave the entrance its impressive character.
The Propylaea gave access to the Hexagonal Courtyard, the only example attested in Roman architecture. Built in the 2nd century AD, it is the most recent element of the Jupiter temple.
It served as a forecourt to the main, sacred Great Courtyard. Around the central part of this courtyard, a colonnaded portico protected 4 exedras and 2 gates from the sun and bad weather.
During the Byzantine period, the courtyard was roofed and windows were opened in the outer walls of the exedras. Loopholes and covered ways were added during the medieval period when the temple was transformed into a citadel.
In 334 BC, Baalbek was conquered by Alexander the Great, who changed its name to Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. The subsequent Roman conquerors kept this name when in 64 BC the city was made part of the Roman Empire.
Its glorious time arrived in 47 BC, when Julius Caesar founded a Roman colony in Baalbek, connecting the city of Palmyra in Syria with the coast. The city was occupied by Roman soldiers and some of the main constructions were built, making Baalbek one of the main cities of Roman Syria.
After crossing the Hexagonal Courtyard, I reached the Great Courtyard, the heart of the Temple of Jupiter. Underneath lies the ancient settlement and most probably an older sanctuary.
During the Roman period, all the older remains disappeared under a high podium surrounded on 3 of its sides by a colonnaded portico. Semi-circular and rectangular exedras richly decorated with statues standing in their niches opened on the portico.
During important religious feasts, various cities built there their market stands. On the steps going down to the courtyard were placed several pedestals for statues with votive inscriptions mentioning the names of the donors.
Of utmost importance for the cult of Jupiter Heliopolitanus were the two high altars on the flat roof of which sacrifices were offered and the two ablution basins. These two elements played an important role in pre-Roman oriental cults as well.
On the site of a previous settlement dating back to the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages and the Hellenistic period, the Roman Temple of Jupiter was built during the 1st century AD. It consists of a cella built on a 12-meter high podium and a courtyard surrounded by a colonnaded portico.
Though previously planned, the monumental entrance (the Propylaea), the semi-circular forecourt and the hexagonal courtyard were added only later in the course of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. The sanctuary stood on an unusually high podium of 7 meters, and the underground galleries underneath served as cool rooms in summer
The remaining 6 standing columns of the temple are today the main symbol of Baalbek.
The Temple of Bacchus is the second main temple of Baalbek. Smaller than the Temple of Jupiter, it is thought to be dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine. There are no inscriptions to confirm the identity of the worshipped deity or to provide a clue as to the date of the building.
The temple of Bacchus is one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world. It survived without serious damage several earthquakes, religious changes from paganism to Christianity and Islam, as well as its transformation into a dungeon during the medieval period.
Its rich Corinthian ornaments suggest a date in the late 2nd century AD. Unlike the Temple of Jupiter, the Temple of Bacchus was completely finished. A monumental staircase leads to the stone podium on which both the temple and the colonnaded portico that surrounds it stand.
The ante-cella is ornamented with two rows of niches inside which statues once stood. Another staircase leads up to the cella, which was separated from the ante-cella by a canopy-like structure because common visitors of the temple were not allowed to look inside the Holy of Holies. On the right side of the cella there is a crypt where cult vessels were probably stored.
I found Baalbek a fascinating place. The archaeological site is much bigger than I thought, and the state of preservation is astonishing. I've been to Rome a few times, and I was still amazed by these incredible ruins.
To my surprise, the site was almost deserted, and you could count the tourists on the fingers of one hand. Just like during my visit to Beirut, I couldn't help thinking of the great potential that Baalbek could have if it wasn't for the unfortunate situation of this area. I've been to countless ancient cities, but Baalbek was something else.
If you're coming from Beirut, on the way to Baalbek you'll most likely pass by Château Ksara, Lebanon's oldest winery. Ksara wine is famous worldwide due to its quality and centuries of history.
Château Ksara was founded in 1857, and since then, it has led the wine production in Lebanon. If you're interested in learning about Lebanese wine, the winery offers guided visits totally free of charge.
Even though it wasn't part of my itinerary, I stopped at the winery on my way back from Baalbek.
The visit included a 20 minute documentary that explained the history of the winery and the production methods they use, as well as a tour of the historic two-kilometre Roman caves, where most of the wine is stored. At the end, you can join a tasting of a selection of their wines, all for free as well!
Is it safe to visit Baalbek?
I have to admit that in terms of security, my visit to Baalbek was a strange experience, but overall it went all right. Before I reached the city, there were constant checkpoints as you went from one region to another, increasing in frequency as you got closer to the Syrian border. Apparently this is quite common in Lebanon and unless they see something suspicious, they will just let you drive through without any issues.
The city of Baalbek is clearly more isolated and conservative that modern Beirut and the fact that my travel companions and I were the only group of western visitors made me feel a bit uncomfortable at some points, especially when we started hearing the sound of shooting in the distance right after we got into the archaeological site.
I would say that taking the necessary precautions, it should be perfectly fine to visit Baalbek. After my visit, I read some reports of very isolated incidents in Baalbek, as well as some arrests in the area of ISIS fighters, mainly coming from the other side of the Syrian border. However, I haven't heard of any recent attacks targeting foreigners.
That said, I didn't have any problems during my visit and could still enjoy my time in Baalbek and the Bekaa Valley region. As always, it might be worth keeping an eye on the recent events, as the situation can change quite quickly, but I wouldn't be put off visiting this wonderful heritage site.
All opinions are my own.
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