Baalbek, The Twin Temples of the Lord of Springs
published by Minerva magazine, 2020
Baalbek, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, is the most magnificent temple in the entire Middle East, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It is the largest temple complex ever constructed by the Roman Empire, bigger than any of the shrines in the eternal city. Yet it sits in the middle of the Bekaa valley, equidistant between Damascus and Beirut, and must always have been a place of comparative quiet. What was it about this spot, guarded to the east by the Anti Lebanon mountains and to the west by the slopes of Mount Lebanon, that inspired such an extraordinary feat of construction?
Careful examination reveals that the site of Baalbek, occupied by mankind for the last 9,000 years, sits on the headland separating the two great river systems of the Levant. To its north, a series of springs slowly gather strength before flowing as the Orontes River through some of the most important cities of Syria. To the south, the Litani River flows through the wide Bekaa valley to reach the Mediterranean between Tyre and Sidon. These valleys would always have seen trade between the Egyptian kingdoms and the great cities of Antioch.
This was a complex in a constant state of renewal and enlargement. The earlier bronze-age Canaanite, the iron-age Phoenician and the Hellenistic temple lie buried beneath the vast masonry platform constructed in the Roman period.
To get some idea of the size and ambition of the temple complex, one of the foundations stones which would have been used in the next stage of construction can still be seen in a local quarry. Almost entirely picked clean of the bedrock, the Hajjar al Hibla (‘the stone of the pregnant woman’) is 21metres long, 4.5 metres wide and 4.2 metres high, and estimated at a thousand tons. When you clamber onto it to admire its splendid size, you imagine it destined to serve as a free-standing obelisk. So it is something of a shock, when you stand on the precipitous edge of the Temple of Jupiter, to spot dozens of similar-sized stones looking like mere marker bricks for the foundation of the next round of construction.
It is one of the many curiosities of the Temple of Baalbek, utterly magnificent as it is, that it was never completed. Like a medieval cathedral, it was always being added to, always being beautified with yet another planned colonnade, yet another imagined courtyard, an even grander entranceway. The writer Apuleius gives us some indication of how this might have happened, describing the itinerant priests touring the countryside and collecting donations by giving sacred concerts, performing ecstatic dances and enduring ordeals (probably that litany of poisonous serpents, walking through fire and being pierced by swords) before a representation of the Syrian goddess, veiled in silk and borne on the back of a donkey. The Christian writer Eusebius specifically links Baalbek with the rites of sacred prostitution, which took a number of forms. There was a seasonal fertility festival, wrapped around the sacred marriage of a god (linked with the bull) and a goddess (linked with the lioness), which was enacted either symbolically or physically by the priestesses of the temple with rituals and processions to sacred gardens. There also seems to have been a quite separate tradition, a once-in-a-lifetime ritual for all women of serving as a prostitute in honour of the goddess, of which Herodotus gives us a famous description. The temple may have benefited from donations given at these times, and may also have collected some sort of tithe, voluntary or otherwise, based on a percentage of the local harvest. These revenue streams would have supported not only a permanent staff of priests and door-keepers but also masons, sculptors, quarry-workers and engineers.
All pilgrims were to free to make sacrifices and offer prayers at the semi-circular sacred enclosure that stood before the outer temple courtyard. But not all these visitors would have been allowed, as today’s visitors are, to mount the stairs that led to the gateway to the temple courtyard. In their heyday the capitals of the red Egyptian granite columns which overlook the stairs were sheathed in gilded bronze, the personal gift of Longinus, chief of palace security at the time of the visit of the Emperor Caracalla and his mother, the dowager Empress Julia Domna, to the temple in 215 AD. It would have been a form of home-coming for the dowager, for she was the daughter of the hereditary priest of the Temple of the Sun at nearby Emessa.
The colonnaded gateway formed a rectangular hall, flanked by two towers. In the medieval period this formed part of a fortress and those with a sharp eye will be able to identify medieval battlements and windows added to the antique masonry. After the gateway lies an ornate hexagonal courtyard, added in the 2nd century AD. No-one knows the exact purpose of this space, though some worn bronze classical coins suggest it was used during a seasonal festival, celebrated with a tree or a garland of harvested corn. The whole area was roofed over in the Early Byzantine period and served as living quarters of a Mameluke citadel.
The settlement of discharged veterans from two Roman legions in this region by Augustus (63 BC-14 AD) may have been the initial spur for the extraordinary grandiose courtyard beyond, which buried the structures of previous civilisations beneath its pavement. It seems to have been completed by 60 AD and was the working heart of the temple complex. At its centre stand the low remnants of a pair of free-standing altars. The first may have served as a viewing tower, allowing privileged worshippers to look into the inaccessible sanctuary of the actual temple and also to observe the sacrifices. Corner staircases allowed access to the flat-roofed summit of the altars, which would also have been used for observing and reading the patterns of the stars.
We know that the temple also housed a famous oracle, and was visited by a number of emperors, especially those going off to fight on the Parthian frontier. The Emperor Trajan famously tested the oracle by submitting no question in his first sealed petition. When the oracle gave no answer, he dared to ask the gods about his forthcoming Parthian war. For answer he received an ominous broken vine staff, the swagger-stick symbol of authority for a Centurion, which proved prescient for he died during the military campaign.
On either side of the two altars are a pair of basins which, in the heyday of the temple, were independently fed by the two natural springs of Baalbek, which would have noisily cascaded their water here in a dazzling display of the generosity of the gods.
The inner face of the Great Court was enclosed by a colonnade of one hundred and twenty-eight columns of red Egyptian granite. A few of these survive to give an indication of the grandeur of the space. Behind it, a series of eight rectangular and six semi-circular side-chapels have survived the centuries in near perfect condition. The exuberant baroque carvings of these flanking chambers, their delicate cornices and the empty statue niches framed by scallop shells or broken pediments, are one of the aesthetic highlights of the whole complex. In the heyday of the temple, hundreds if not thousands of votive statues would have filled these niches. At the time of the great festivals, they were rented out by neighbouring cities and craft guilds and used as booths.
The actual Temple of Jupiter, represented today by six towering granite columns, stood above the great cascade of steps that climbs from this high terrace. Its original colonnade consisted of fifty-eight columns, ten at the front and back and nineteen on each side. When building work finally halted in the 4th century AD, there were plans to aggrandise the structure further by extending the Great Court below it right around the temple. It was a restless, dazzlingly ambitious project.
It is always a shock to remember that the interior of the temple was off-limits to all worshippers apart from the priests. From coins and statuettes we can visualise the cult statue of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Heliopolitanus which stood within. Here he was represented as a beardless youth, swaddled like a mummy in a robe upon which busts of the seven planets (the sun and the moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn) were carved. He was flanked by a pair of bulls, wore a woven basket hat (a Kalathos) and held the whip of a charioteer in one hand and a lightning bolt and a bundle of harvested grain in the other. This Jupiter of Baalbek was a universal god, embracing and incorporating cultural references to other deities of Mesopotamia, Persia, Anatolia and Egypt beyond. There are echoes of Baal-Hadad, the god of the sky, the lord of lightening, mountain summits and fertilising rain, who was widely worshipped in the Levant alongside his consort Atargatis, also known as the Syrian Goddess, or Baalat (‘the mistress’). By incorporating these local deities, the Roman cults became more palatable to their local populations. Two other famous ancient sanctuaries in northern Syria, dedicated to similar but slightly different versions of this cult, also became tremendously popular, the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus at Doliche and of Zeus Belos at Apamea. The Emperor Septimius Severus (who came from a Phoenician family long settled in North Africa) is specifically associated with both these sanctuaries. He was also married to a Syrian intellectual, the daughter of the high-priest of the temple of Sun at nearby Emessa, just downstream from Baalbek.
In 193 AD the Emperor Septimius Severus gave the city of Baalbek its freedom, making it independent of Beirut. It was he who built the exquisite little Temple of Tyche which stands just above the forum of the city, its presiding Fortune. To my mind he was almost certainly also responsible for the so-called Temple of Bacchus beside the Jupiter complex, although it has traditionally been associated with the reign of the Emperor Antonius Pius. Some fragments of a screen to Neptune have been found, but too much should not be made of this, for when it worked as a shrine I imagine dozens of deities were honoured in the two ranks of internal niches that line the interior.
The temple is a truly wonderful survivor, an architectural marvel that has been etched, sketched, surveyed and praised for centuries. Its influence has been traced in the work of Robert Adams and Nicholas Hawksmoor (especially at St George’s Bloomsbury) and was further disseminated in the 1751 drawings of Robert Wood and James Dawkins. The exuberant Corinthian interior, with its frame of pilasters and statue niches, reflects the glory of its exterior, once lined by forty-two columns. Nothing prepares you for the coffered ceiling that survives in sections of the outer colonnade, filled with dazzling inventive geometrical designs cut into the stone, which play confidently with themes that Christian and Muslim architects will grapple with over the next thousand years. The column that leans against the wall of the temple and the slipped keystone (partly dislodged by the earthquake of 1759) are instantly familiar from the works of David Roberts.
It is surprising that no positive date or attribution has ever been made for the temple, but the site as whole is shrouded in mystery. Baalbek appears in no ancient records (not even in the Old Testament) which is such an unlikely silence that scholars such as Warwick Ball, have begun to wonder if we should conflate it with the Temple of the Sun at Emessa, which merits lots of references but of which no physical trace has yet been found. The first textual mention of Baalbek comes in the Christian period, when the Emperor Theodosius sought to crush traditional beliefs by ordering the construction of a basilica right in the centre of the Great Court. This was completely dismantled in the 20th century by archaeologist to reveal the original altars of worship.
What most effectively preserved the Roman-era complex was that it was wrapped up in the walls of a Muslim medieval fortress, when Baalbek unexpectedly found itself on the frontline of fighting with the Crusader states. Saladin’s father governed the citadel of Baalbek in this period, and a century later it was reinforced by the Mamelukes, who not only had to watch out for the Crusaders on the coast but armies of Mongols and Turks descending on Syria from the north. The south tower of the citadel, with its elegant muqurna-embellished gateway, stands just beside the so-called Temple of Bacchus.
By 1874 there were enough foreign visitors coming to admire the temples to justify the construction of the Palmyra Hotel, which remains the last of the great Levantine hotels to survive with its dignity and its furnishings intact. In 1895, the Beirut to Damascus railway passed through the valley, as did Kaiser William, on November 10-11th 1898. The Kaiser was pleased to unveil a pair of plaques (thoughtfully commissioned by the Ottoman Caliph Abdul Hamid) in the temple. From 1900–04 a German mission cleared the site of houses and medieval architecture to make a clean image of classical antiquity, neatly mapped and tabulated for the first time, surrounded by a garden and guarded by a fence.
We need all the resources of our imagination to fill Baalbek with its original life. We need to paint the stones in the colours of old belief, catch the scent of meat being grilled for sacrifices, watch the flocks of doves and shoals of fishes sacred to the Goddess and catch the mournful tone of the flute and the swirl of rattles as cross-dressing Syrian priests, castrated by their own hand to prove their dedication, processed across the lands as medicant-dancers. They sang of the good gods, Atargatis and Baal ‘who listen to prayer’, set against such terrifying deities as Mut ‘with the appetite of a lion in the wilderness’. The very word Baalbek has been translated as Lord of the Springs and celebrates the miraculous gift of water from these dry mountains, the giver of life. Learned priests examining the sacred texts of the Phoenicians might conjecture that Baalbek might also be the location of Manbaa-Al-Nahrayn, the garden where the supreme deity El dwelt, at the source of the two rivers.
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