I found myself along an empty promenade lined with an unknown flag, that hung from every street light and every building. The green symbol on the yellow background is a morph of armed weapons. Where was everyone? I’d left the hustle and bustle of Middle Eastern culture about a kilometre behind with my car, and the lack of people on such a huge walkway was slightly eerie and inharmonious. Aside from a camel looking incredibly out of place, the only sign of life was a young man selling souvenirs. Met by a huge grin, I think he was as eager to see me as I was to see him. I asked him what this symbol represented that was on his t-shirt, the same symbol on the flags.
“Miss, it is the flag of Hezbollah. This is the Hezbollah capital.”
How I ended up in Baalbek
The Tourism for Lebanon team should be pleased to know that their campaigns are very effective. Lining the airport’s arrival terminal are huge billboards boasting the country’s highlights. Everything from shimmering turquoise waters in the south, archaic chic harbour towns along the coast and untouched ancient ruins. I chose Baalbek.
Baalbek is a two hour drive north east of Beirut, sat on a peak of the Beqaa Valley, the northernmost point of the Great Rift Valley. A quintessential Middle Eastern city has built around an ancient oasis of fertile lands. Baalbek, or Heliopolis as it was previously known 8000 years ago, was the global epicentre for festivals, celebration and debauchery. I have no doubt that our ancestors enjoyed the hallucinogenic highs of opium that still cultivates in the Beqaa Valley and now feeds an illicit drug trade. It is evident from the euphoric carvings in the stones.
Baalbek is so much more than just another site of ruins. In its day it was the largest stone block construction found in the entire world, by far superior to the Parthenon or any other comparable site. I personally think it is the most impressive ancient site that I have ever been to in my life.
What was I expecting? Well I’ve never heard of Baalbek, so to be honest not much. This undoubtedly was a factor in why was I completely blown away.
It’s hard not to let your imagination run wild in a place that is so vast and still much intact, especially when you are the only person there. Walking up the thirty steps to the entrance, I could tell the site was large but as I walked through the golden archway the massive expanse of impressive monuments slowly came into view, and they just kept going on, and on, and on.
Walking through the entrance, the Temple of Jupiter in the background
I was so amazed by the massive columns of the Temple of Jupiter that stood in the background. As you step into the openness towards them, the true magnitude of the site unravels itself. You are on one of several levels, and behind the columns lie the Temple of Bacchus, another huge and largely intact structure.
Three of the largest stones in this complex, found forming the Temple of Jupiter, individually weigh over 800 tonnes. This place is truly a spectacle of engineering feat. How did the Romans build this?
Temple of Bacchus behind the column bases of the Temple of Jupiter
Baalbek is an 8000 year old city. It has been ruled by every ancient empire from Egyptian to Assyrian, Greek (Alexander the Great conquered the city circa 300 B.C) to Roman, followed by a succession of Islamic Caliphates. Even Mongolia had control over the city before giving it back to Damascus. Lebanon was created as part of the French Mandate in 1920, and since then Baalbek has belonged to Lebanon.
Al Khayam is an absolute must. A small cafe that continually tops you up wit mezzes, mixed grills, fresh falafel and fresh flat breads and the best aubergine that I’ve ever had in my life. All complete with a charming but toothless smile from the owner.
Given the proximity of Baalbek to what the West considers two of the worst terrorist organisations in the world, I wouldn’t be surprised in hindsight if my impromptu trip had been an utter disaster. What it actually was was a hypnotising myriad of wonder and hospitality. Every single person that I met was warm, welcoming and inquisitive.
Is it safe to visit Baalbek?
At the time that I went I was embraced with smiles by every single person. I didn’t feel unsafe in the slightest, but my insatiable curiosity does take over. I was one of maybe two tourists to visit Baalbek that month, which is probably worth pointing out. (Maybe that’s why it was so special?)
I wouldn’t want to give any false pretences of a dynamic political environment, so I would always urge anyone to do their research before visiting, looking further than the Foreign Office websites. I’d actually checked beforehand with my very reliable staff at the hotel whether it was safe to travel north before I realised exactly where Baalbek was. They have had us stay with them as crew for over 10 years so know exactly what to advise and not to advise us to do.
The ancient city is unique for a number of reasons. Aside from its colossal size it’s quite unbelievable how intact the entire temple complexes still are. It’s impossible not to imagine life here 8000 years ago. There is no surprise that it is an enigma to modern day engineers and archaeologists. They still question how anyone quarried, transported and then built a city to such a degree of preciseness. Only theories exist. It is beyond the technological ability of ancient civilizations let alone builders of today.
It truly is a wonder of the ancient world.
This article was originally published here