Baalbek (Heliopolis)

Baalbek is an ancient Phoenician city in modern-day Lebanon, in the northern part of the Beqaa Valley, a fertile area with plentiful springs. First settled at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, Baalbek was an essential waypoint on the Phoenician trade route from Tyre to Damascus and grew into an important pilgrimage where the god Baal, the sun god, was worshipped alongside his consort Astarte, the Queen of Heaven. The city, renamed Heliopolis (City of the Sun) by the Greeks, is now famous for its exceptionally well-preserved colossal sanctuary built during the Roman period and for its three main gods: Jupiter Heliopolitanus, Venus Heliopolitana, and Mercury Heliopolitanus. Baalbek is one of the most remarkably preserved complexes in the Middle East and Lebanon’s most celebrated archaeological attraction. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.

Coordinates: 34° 0′ 22.81″ N36° 12′ 26.36″ E

The settlement history at Baalbek can be traced back to the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. This first settlement had been on the hilltop of Tell Baalbek, likely the focus of some worship. During the Canaanite period, the local temples were primarily devoted to the Heliopolitan Triad: Baʿal, his consort Ashtart, and their son Adon. The name Baalbek, probably Canaanite for “Lord of the spring” about the god Baal, may reflect the nature of the original cult. However, it appears only in the 5th century AD.

Baalbek was transformed into a fortification during the Hellenistic Period when the Seleucid Empire struggled for regional power against the Ptolemies of Egypt (198 BC). During this time, the town was probably renamed Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. This name was retained following the onset of Roman rule in 64 BC when Pompey conquered Syria and Palestine. Heliopolis became part of the first Roman colony in Syria, which was created in Berytus (Beirut), but under Septimius Severus, the city gained its independence and was renamed Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Heliopolitana.

The Baalbek Sanctuary with the Drawing locations; (Drawing: Lohmann)
Statuette of Jupiter Heliopolitanus.

The main construction campaign in the sanctuary complex lasted over 200 years, from the mid-1st century AD to the 3rd century AD. It began with the construction of a T-shaped terrace approximately 12 m high, a propylon and a small altar in the central courtyard. The colossal temple dedicated to Jupiter Heliopolitanus, a powerful god of agricultural fertility and the cosmos, was built in the 1st century AD during the second phase of construction. Constructed on a podium 7m above the surrounding courtyard, the temple followed a peripteral Greek design of 10 by 19 columns in the Corinthian order. However, only six of the original 54 columns remain, but they give no doubt as to the grandeur of this enormous structure. Covering an area of approximately 48 by 88 m, it was one of the largest temples dated to the Roman period.

The third phase of construction at the sanctuary was undertaken initially by Hadrian and continued through the Antonine period. During this phase, the courtyard was expanded and embellished with 128 red granite columns from Aswan in Egypt and additional rooms and semicircular exedrae. The Great Altar, built five meters east of the Small Altar, was about 14 m high and had a staircase leading to a sacrificial platform. The magnificent structures of the third phase remained unfinished.

A 1921 bird’s eye view reconstruction of the Baalbek temple complex, according to the 1901-1904 German excavation findings.

The final construction phase at the sanctuary in the early 3rd century AD under the emperor Septimius Severus reflects changes in the city’s political status and religious activities. The visit of Caracalla and his mother, Julia Domna, in AD 215 resulted in the construction of the Hexagonal Courtyard and the Propylaeum, which included three columns capitals in gilded bronze honouring them and inscriptions on column bases mentioning Caracalla. The so-called Temple of Bacchus was also added during this period. It was attributed to the god of wine, Bacchus, based on Dionysiac motifs decorating the temple. However, the temple may have been used for the imperial cult and gods such as Bacchus and possibly Venus. The last building constructed at the complex is a small round temple built on a tall podium.

Copper coin from Heliopolis of Septimius Severus with the Temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus on the reverse and the legend COLHEL (Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Heliopolitana).

Quarries located approximately 1 km south and west provided local limestone for the sanctuary’s construction, and granite was imported from Egypt and the Troad in northwestern Anatolia for hundreds of massive columns.

The Temple of Jupiter also served as an oracle. The 5th-century Roman author Macrobius recorded that Trajan, before embarking on his second Parthian campaign, consulted the oracle at Heliopolis, who predicted his imminent death. Although it is not known if Hadrian ever visited Heliopolis, he spent considerable time in the region and contributed significantly to the completion and embellishment of the Temple.

The rise of Christianity changed the fortunes of Heliopolis-Baalbek. Much of the sanctuary was destroyed at the end of the 4th century by the emperor Theodosius I who constructed a church in the courtyard of the Temple of Jupiter. The round temple was also converted into a church. Baalbek was later incorporated into the Islamic Empire in AD 635, and in the 12th-14th centuries AD, the preserved temple areas were incorporated into a large fortress.

Scientific work on the ruins began as early as the 17th century, with detailed reproductions of the above-ground structures. However, systematic excavations were only launched in 1898 thanks to the journey of the German Emperor William II. Deeply impressed by the beauty and size of the monuments, he requested their proper investigation and documentation. Through the course of the 20th century, German and French scholars, archaeologists, and Lebanese professionals uncovered and recorded the main parts of the ruins. After the end of the civil war in 1991, archaeological investigations could again be envisioned; in 1997, a cooperation program was inaugurated between the DGA and the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (DAI).


The Propylaeum. The ceremonial entrance was completed in the middle of the 3rd century AD.
The Propylaeum was 48 m wide and 11 m deep. It was flanked by two massive towers and adorned in front by a row of twelve columns supporting the entablature.
One of the two towers flanking the Propylaeum, which still shows niches with seashells for statues.
The Hexagonal Courtyard, the only example attested in Roman architecture, was built in the 2nd century AD.
The Hexagonal Courtyard served as a forecourt to the main, sacred Great Courtyard.
During the Byzantine period, the Hexagonal Courtyard was roofed, and a covered way was added during the medieval period when the temple was transformed into a citadel.
Overview of the Great Courtyard of the Temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus with two monumental altars and two water basins within a porticoed enclosure. It covers a vast area of some 134m by 112m.
The northern portico and water basin in the Great Courtyard.
Architectural detail of the northern water basin; sea creatures and cupids are surrounded by two heads.
The porticoes surrounding the Great Courtyard were fronted by columns of pink granite from Egypt (84 in total). Behind this line of columns were several semicircular halls with two levels of niches for statues.

The two tower-altars in the Great Courtyard were platforms on which the sacrifices were performed. The Small Altar (right) was built at the beginning of the 1st century AD, while the Great Altar dates to the 2nd century AD. It must have been about 14m high.
The southern portico and water basin.

A dedication to the divine Vespasian by Antonia Pacata and her sister Antonia Priscilla.

The colossal Temple of Jupiter was constructed on a podium 7m above the surrounding courtyard. It followed a peripteral Greek design of 10 by 19 columns in the Corinthian order. Only six original columns remain standing.
Enormous in size, the Temple of Jupiter was 53m wide and 94m long and was reached by a flight of steps running the entire building width. This was one of the largest temples dated to the Roman period.
Fallen entablature from the Temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus.
Lion head gargoyle from the entablature of the Temple of Jupiter.
The so-called Temple of Bacchus was flanked on all sides by several 19m-tall Corinthian columns. It was built over a much earlier Phoenician structure.
Interior of the so-called Temple of Bacchus with its magnificent and extremely ornamental entrance door.
In addition to its remarkable state of preservation, the architectural decoration of the interior space of the so-called Temple of Bacchus is exceptional, including Corinthian columns and niches that originally contained statues.
Interior of the so-called Temple of Bacchus.
The Round Temple and the Temple of the Muses are located outside the sanctuary complex.

The Stone of the Pregnant Woman, one of the largest stone building blocks ever carved by human hands, it is 20.76 m long, 4 m wide, 4.32 m high, and weighs an estimated 1,000 tons. The stone block still lies in the ancient quarry near Baalbek.
The largest stone building block ever carved by human hands (still partly buried), it is 19.60 m long, 6 m wide, and 5.60 m high, and weighs an estimated 1,650 tons. The stone blocks were presumably intended for the nearby gigantic Roman temple of Jupiter.


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