On the edge of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, surrounded by mountain ranges, sits the city of Baalbek. Known as ‘Heliopolis’ (City of the Sun) in antiquity, the city is home to an impressive Roman temple complex, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984.
Evidence of human activity at Baalbek dates back 10,000 years, but the site’s development in the ancient world reached its peak in the early 3rd century AD. Baalbek Reborn: Temples, a new app created by the Ministry of Culture – Directorate General of Antiquities, Lebanon; the German Archaeological Institute (DAI); and Flyover Zone, offers a virtual tour around the religious centre of the city, with digital reconstructions of the temples in AD 215, and audio narration by DAI archaeologists (available in English, French, German, or Arabic) providing information about 38 locations around the site.
The Sanctuary of Jupiter
Your visit begins with a bird’s-eye view of Baalbek and an introduction to the city and its surroundings. The importance of water and the fertility it brought to the region was key to the development of the sanctuary at Heliopolis, which is situated at the highest point in the Beqaa Valley, near the sources of the Litani and Orontes rivers.
At ground level, you find yourself in the atrium before the Sanctuary of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Heliopolitanus (‘Heliopolitan Jupiter, the best and the greatest’). This is a wide, open space surrounded by a semicircular wall with deep steps on which people could sit and admire the vast propylaea (the grand entrance to the sanctuary) and the many altars, statues, and water features dotted around the plaza. Travelling up the huge staircase, rising almost 7m above the ground, to the covered portico of the propylaea – supported by 12 tall columns, each made from a single piece of rose granite brought over 1,000km from the quarries of Aswan in the south of Egypt – you pass through a large doorway into the Hexagonal Court.
The Hexagonal Court is an open space, c.30m in diameter, surrounded by a colonnade, behind which are several small rooms. Its hexagonal structure is unusual in antiquity, but this shape helps the court to serve two functions, acting as both a passageway and as a central space in its own right.
From the hexagonal court, you pass into the most important space in the sanctuary, the Altar Court. This is a large open area of over 10,000m², paved with bright white limestone, and surrounded by colonnades (comprising 130 columns made of dark red or grey granite) on three sides, with the great façade of the Temple of Jupiter towering above it on the fourth side. This space would have been a hive of activity in AD 215, with people offering prayers and sacrifices, consulting the oracle, and meeting to discuss business, education, or politics. In the middle of the court are two large altar towers with staircases leading to platforms at the top, unusual for a classical Roman sanctuary, and likely reflecting local Eastern traditions. Also found in the Altar Court are two basins supplied by running water. This is a considerable technological feat given the height we had to climb to enter the sanctuary, and a clear sign of the importance of water in the cult at Baalbek.
The central point of the sanctuary is the temple dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus Heliopolitanus, which sits above a further 7m-high monumental staircase. The temple’s façade is nearly 30m tall, with an ornately decorated roof supported by 54 limestone columns, each almost 20m tall and over 2.2m in diameter. The six columns that still stand are one of Lebanon’s most famous landmarks, but the reconstruction restores the temple to its full glory, even allowing you to climb to the top of the columns and see the details on the Corinthian capitals and the ornate entablature, as well as the surrounding view. The one area missing is the interior of the temple, of which very little is known as most of the cella, or inner sanctum, was lost when the area was converted into a fortress in the medieval period.
The temple seen from the Altar Court makes a dramatic impression, but its most impressive feature is not visible from the front. Standing behind the temple, you can see the three massive limestone blocks known as the ‘trilithon’ in the podium on which the building stands. These blocks are 19m long, 4m high, and 4m deep, and each of them weighs over 700 tons, making them the largest stone blocks quarried in human history.
Other sacred spaces
Standing alone next to the Temple of Jupiter is the Temple of Bacchus. This is one of the best-preserved temples in the entire Roman Empire, and the modern-day remains of the cella are in such good condition that the digital reconstruction is almost superfluous. The building is often referred to as Baalbek’s ‘little temple’, but at 83m long, 36m wide, and 31m high, it is actually one of the largest temples in the Eastern Roman Empire. Only at Baalbek, in comparison to the magnificent Temple of Jupiter, could this building be considered small. Although it is called the Temple of Bacchus, this name was bestowed upon it by archaeologists in the 1930s because of the decorations found around the structure. In fact, it is uncertain which deity was worshipped here.
Also shown in the app is another, smaller temple complex, referred to as the ‘Venus Area’, which is tucked away behind a colonnade on one of the city’s streets. Inside this sanctuary are two buildings. The first is the Temple of the Muses, a small building with an altar opposite, which represents the oldest core of the sanctuary, dating to the early 1st century AD. The second building is a round structure, generally known as the Temple of Venus, although its true function remains unclear. This is the only temple in the city that faces north, and there is some debate around whether it is a temple at all, as there is no obvious place for a cult statue to have stood.
Upon completing your journey around this magnificent site, you really do feel as though you have experienced ancient Heliopolis in its heyday. The audio narration and digital reconstructions vividly bring each area to life, while comparisons with the modern-day ruins clearly demonstrate how each section ties together and will doubtless enhance your appreciation of Baalbek’s temples, whether you are experiencing them entirely virtually, or using the app to complement a visit in person.
Further information Baalbek Reborn: Temples is available for desktop and laptops, smartphones and tablets, and virtual-reality headsets. Find out more here: www.flyoverzone.com/baalbek-reborn-temples.
TEXT: Amy Brunskill.