By Willow Osgood The Daily Star

BAALBEK, Lebanon: Vendors selling broad-brimmed hats greet visitors as they pile out of their minibus, which has traveled the width of Lebanon from Beirut’s Cola roundabout to Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley (LL6,000, 2 hours).

It is wise to indulge in one, or bring along a lot of sunscreen. The name Baalbek is Phoenician and means “Valley of God,” but Heliopolis or “City of the Sun” is its Roman name and a fitting description.

The Baalbek temple complex (entry LL12,000), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits right in the town of Baalbek, providing patrons of a local coffee shop with views of Roman temples and columns.

The imposing stone structures invite newly arrived visitors into the best Roman ruins in the country. But the Roman Empire is just one of many world powers that have left their mark on Baalbek.

Luckily, there is Ali Outa, a guide with 47 years of experience, to help tourists navigate the expansive site. Ali, who sports a deep tan and white trainers, takes his guests through 3,000 years, pointing out the remnants and clues of bygone epochs, all in about an hour ($20). He also knows where to find a bit of shade.

Visitors begin at the entrance of the Temple of Jupiter, the largest of the three temples, where 12 columns stand. Unlike most of the stone in the temples, these are made from granite quarried in Aswan, Egypt. The well-traveled columns, each 8 meters high and 40 tons, made their way from Aswan down the Nile to the Mediterranean, over to Tripoli and Homs before reaching Baalbek.

The second part of Temple of Jupiter is a hexagonal complex used for religious dances. There are a few columns here as well but eight were dismantled and taken from Baalbek to Istanbul by the Byzantines for the construction of the Hagia Sophia.

Arab armies, who arrived in the 7th century, transformed the temple into a citadel. One wall of the hexagonal complex has narrow arrow slits and the local residents still call the ruins of Baalbek “the castle.”

The third part of the Temple of Jupiter is a great courtyard for sacrifices and sits atop a 3,000-year-old, partially excavated Phoenician temple dedicated to the god Baal.

On either side of the Phoenician temple are two long basins where animals were washed before being sacrificed on altars during Roman times.

While the Romans only sacrificed animals, Ali says that during the construction of the temples, from 100 to 300 AD, 100,000 slaves over six generations spent their lives building the complex.

From the sacrificial space, visitors reach the saint de saitoreum. This area was once reserved for Roman priests but on this visit, it’s crowded with European pensioners on tour. The columns here have stood for nearly 2,000 years without falling, but like the rest of the temple, nothing remains of its cedar roof.

The saint de saitoreum offers great views of the Temple of Bacchus as well as preparations – bleachers, chairs and a stage – for the Baalbek International Festival, which runs July 7 to 30 this year and will draw tens of thousands of visitors for theater, music and dance performances.

Back when Outa was just starting off as a tour guide, Baalbek attracted hordes of visitors from across the world on any given day. During one day, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in 1965, Ali says he counted more than 5,000 visitors. “Too many,” he adds.

Nearly half a century later, the site receives 50-150 visitors a day, and fewer this year than last, a drop that Ali attributes to worries about the popular uprisings and political unrest in the Middle East.

But those who do make the journey seem very glad they did. David, a well-traveled Brit who had popped over the border from Damascus for a short weekend visit, said Baalbek was “in the same league as Palmyra and Petra,” the legendary historical sites in Syria and Jordan.

Jana, a 16-year-old visiting from Escondido, California with her family, said that the visit is “good way to connect with the past,” but confessed that it was hotter than she expected.

From Jupiter it’s on to the Temple of Bacchus, the god of wine, an appropriate deity to worship in the Bekaa Valley, which is home to the country’s best wineries.

It is the best preserved of Baalbek’s temples, though leaning columns are evidence of an earthquake in 1759 which also knocked down pieces of stone roof. The fallen pieces afford visitors a close up view of carved busts of Anthony and Cleopatra.

Inside the temple, whose entrance is intricately carved with grapes, poppies, arrows and eggs, is a plaque high on a wall, a symbol of permission given by the Ottoman Sultan to Kaiser Wilhelm II to excavate the temple in 1898. There are signatures of German visitors from the era, six meters up on the wall, which are evidence of how much debris and dirt had to be cleared by the archaeologists.

Visitors then head toward the exit through a tunnel, where Romans once kept their sacrificial lambs and which now holds a museum.

Just outside the exit, Hezbollah has erected a display to commemorate the summer 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon. The small exhibit is a final reminder that over the millennia, Baalbek has attracted many groups – Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs armies, Germans – and all have left their mark.

It’s something to ponder during lunch time at Malek Falafel on the town’s main road, (sandwich, LL2,500), and then it’s back into the minibus to Beirut.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 01, 2011, on page 12.
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