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The Monuments of Baalbek (6 October 2022)

The Monuments of Baalbek

Presented Online

Nicholas Hardwick

One of the most significant sights of Lebanon is the monuments at Baalbek in the east of the country in the Beqaa Valley in view of Mount Lebanon.  In the Greek and Roman period, it was known as Heliopolis, which means ‘Sun City’.  Similar to many sites in the Middle East, it had been occupied for a very long time prior to the Greco-Roman period, and, in this case, the area of the town had been inhabited since the end of the eighth millennium BC.

The origin of the name ‘Baalbek’ is unclear, although it contains the element ‘ba’al’, meaning ‘lord’ in the Semitic languages of the region in antiquity.  This word appears in the names of a number of Semitic deities.

The city was one of the most important and the wealthiest in the region, and its significance meant that important public monuments were built in order to demonstrate the city’s standing in the Roman Empire.  In 15 BC, at the time of the foundation of the Roman Colonia Iulia Augusta Felix Berytus, on the site of modern day Beirut, Roman army veterans were settled at Baalbek.  At this time, an existing sanctuary was rebuilt in a grand manner.  The Roman colony of Heliopolis is mentioned on coins of almost every emperor from Nerva (reigned AD 96-8) to Gallienus (reigned 253-68).

One structure and the most significant survival is the temple complex.  The temple complex is entered from the west through a Propylaea, that is, a gateway, a Forecourt and a Great Court, to the east of which is the Temple of Jupiter.  To the south of the Temple of Jupiter is the Temple of Bacchus.  The Roman god Jupiter, whose Greek equivalent is Zeus, was the king of gods in Greco-Roman mythology, and the Roman god Bacchus, whose Greek equivalent is Dionysos, was the god of wine.

The complex is mainly constructed from local stone, including rough white marble and white granite.  Due to variations from classical Roman design, local influences are apparent on the layout and the planning of the temples.

Since 1997, the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute has conducted excavations and research at the site in collaboration with the Lebanese government.

The Temple of Jupiter is probably dated to the late first century BC and the first half of the first century AD.  It is situated in the Great Court at the western end and built on a platform of stone raised 7 m above the foundations.  It is 88 m long, 44 m wide and 44 m high.  It is constructed in the Corinthian order of architecture, which originated in southern Greece and is derived from the Ionic order of architecture, the latter of which originated in Ionia in western Asia Minor in modern day Turkey.  The Corinthian order is characterised by column capitals which have elaborate acanthus leaves and scrolls, whereas the Ionic order has column capitals which have volutes.  Counting the corner columns twice, the temple has nineteen columns on each side and ten columns at either end.  Six unfluted columns of the southern colonnade survive with their entabulature, that is, the course of stones on top of the columns.  It was the largest temple of Jupiter in the Roman Empire, and its columns, with a height of almost 20 m, are the tallest surviving ones for any classical temple.

Three enormous passages, which are the size of railway tunnels, run under the temple, and currently house the site’s museum, along with the south tower of the mediaeval Arab fortress, and is discussed below.  

The temple is represented on the reverse of bronze coins of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who reigned AD 193-211, which were minted at Heliopolis, and have the portrait of the emperor on the obverse.  They show the front and the side of the temple on the podium viewed from a raised perspective from south-east, including the flight of steps at the front and details of the construction of the roof.  These coins are thus very important for reconstruction of the appearance of the temple in antiquity.

The Temple of Bacchus, which is much better preserved than the Temple of Jupiter, is probably dated to the second century AD.  The reason for its preservation may be because it was covered by rubble, which was created by the other ruins.  It was probably commissioned by Antoninus Pius, the Roman emperor who reigned AD 138-61.  This temple survives largely intact and is slightly smaller than the Temple of Jupiter.  It is 66 m long, 35 m wide and 31 m high, and is on a podium with an east-west axis.  It is also constructed in the Corinthian order of architecture, with the columns on bases of the Ionic order.

Counting the corner columns twice, the temple has fifteen columns on each side and eight columns at either end beneath each pediment, that is, the triangular structure at each end of the roof.  Of the forty-two original columns, nineteen remain upright, including eight on the western end and twelve on the northern side.  The columns are unfluted and were probably erected in a rough state when they were set up, after which, when in position, they were rounded, polished, and decorated.  Much of the pediment on the western end of the temple survives.

The eastern end of the temple, which has the entrance, has not been well preserved, and the columns of the outer colonnade are not in place.  Inside the propylaea of the temple, the Corinthian columns are fluted.  The entrance to the cella, which is the inner room of the temple, is elaborately carved with floral decoration.  The cella is decorated with fluted Corinthian pilasters, which are columns with one side attached to the wall.  On each side of the cella, these pilasters flank two levels of niches, the lower of which is topped by an arch and the upper by a pediment.

Associated with the construction of the temples are the ‘Baalbek Stones’, which are six large worked stones, including the largest worked stone known from antiquity, the ‘Forgotten Stone’.  Three of them, known as the ‘Trilithon’, which means in Greek, the ‘Three Stones’, are built into the foundations of the Temple of Jupiter, and each weigh an estimated 750-800 tonnes.  The other three are in the quarry, which is 900 m to the south-west of the temple complex.  They are the ‘Forgotten Stone’ (estimated weight, 1,650 t), which was discovered in 2014, the ‘Stone of the South’ (est. 1,242 t), excavated in the 1990s, and the ‘Stone of the Pregnant Woman’ (est. 1,000 t), which has always been visible.  Since the quarry is on higher ground than the temple, these massive stones could be moved without the use of lifting equipment.

To the south-east of the Temple of Jupiter are the Temple of the Muses and the so-called Temple of Venus.  There were nine Muses in Greco-Roman mythology, to each of which was attributed an area of the arts.  The Roman goddess, Venus, whose Greek equivalent is Aphrodite, was the goddess of love. 

The Temple of the Muses was built during the first century AD.  Its form, constructed on a rectangular podium with columns at the front porch and pilasters around the building, is of a type which popular in the western Latin speaking Roman Empire, such as the famous examples of the Maison Carrée in Nîmes in southern France and the Temple of Portunus in Rome.

The so-called Temple of Venus dates to the third century AD, but its attribution to the goddess is unlikely to be correct.  It is built on a horse shoe shaped platform, and it has a very unusual design surrounded by five niches, and thus does not have a square wall.  The doves and shells in the niches were once considered the evidence that it was dedicated to Venus. 

The temple was later used as a church, which was dedicated to Saint Barbara, a local saint.  This was one of several Christian churches which were constructed on the site during the fourth to seventh centuries AD.  Such use of former pagan temples as Christian churches, which emphasises the continuity of religious practice on sacred sites, despite the change of religion, was frequent not only in Lebanon but also in the Mediterranean region generally.  Its continued use as a church is a reason why the temple is reasonably well preserved.

The Colonnade in the Bustan el-Khan, which means the ‘Khan’s garden’, to the south of the temple of Jupiter, has been reconstructed.  The surviving remains, which probably date from the second century AD, are two rows of unfluted Corinthian columns and part of an arch over the path between the columns.  An arch exists in the centre of one of the colonnades.

In this area is the Porticus of Roman Baths.  Public baths were an important part of Roman culture and elaborately built bath houses exist throughout the Roman Empire.  This bath house was inspired by the Baths of Trajan in Rome, which were built between AD 104-9, by the emperor Trajan (reigned 98-117).  There are remains of the hypocaust of the baths, that is, the arrangement of small brick pillars, which supported the floor of the bathhouse, and permitted hot air to be circulated beneath the floor to heat the room above.  This is typical of Roman bath construction in all areas of the Roman Empire.

In AD 635, the town became part of the Islamic empire.  The temple complex was fortified during the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries AD as the citadel of the Arab town.  Near the Temple of Bacchus, there is a tower, which was built during this period as part of the fortress, as a stronghold against the Crusader states in the region.

On a nearby Sheikh Abdallah Hill is the great processional staircase leading to the Temple of Mercury, whose Greek equivalent was Hermes, the messenger god and the god of commerce.  This staircase and the temple are represented on the reverse of bronze coins of the Roman emperor Philip the Arab (reigned AD 244-9), whose bust is on the obverse.

The triad of gods at Heliopolis was Jupiter, Venus and Mercury, and this is reflected by the major temples in the city.  In the Roman world, gods were often worshipped in triads, that is, groups of three.  This follows the practice of one of the oldest triads in the city of Rome, that of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, whose Greek equivalents are Zeus, Hera and Athena.  These gods were worshipped in a temple on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.

The museum at Baalbek, which was opened in 1998, is located in the tunnels beneath the Temple of Jupiter and in the southern tower of the fortress.  The section in the tunnels describes the history of the site and the research about the Roman sanctuary.  The section in the tower covers the Roman tombs and the mediaeval period of the site.  A number of Roman sculptures form a significant part of the display.  The museum has been organised by a close collaboration of German and Lebanese authorities.

The remains at Baalbek can be considered in the context of other significant sites in the region, which date from the Roman period.  These include Palmyra in Syria, and Jerash and Petra in Jordan.  These cities became very prosperous because of their position on the edge of the Roman Empire, at the end of the overland trade routes to the east, and their proximity to the Mediterranean Sea.

Palmyra, which is in the centre of Syria, has significant temples, such as the Temple of Bel, which was dedicated in AD 32, the Temple of Baalshamin, which was largely rebuilt in AD 131, and the Temple of Al-Lat, which was dedicated in c.AD 123-64.  The Funerary Temple no. 86, which was constructed in the third century AD, has six Corinthian columns and a pediment.  The city is also famous for its colonnaded streets, including the Great Colonnade, with unfluted Corinthian columns, which dates to the second century AD.  This was the main street of the city and is over 1 km in length.  Located in the middle of the Great Colonnade, the Tetrapylon, which dates to the end of the third century AD, has four square platforms, each with four unfluted Corinthian columns. 

Its local sculptural school was significant, and many examples of portraits were used as headstones for tombs.  To the west of the city walls, the Valley of the Tombs has over fifty square shaped towers, which were funerary monuments.

In northern Jordan, in addition to the famous colonnaded oval plaza, Jerash’s monuments include the Temple of Artemis, whose Roman equivalent is Diana, which dates to the first half of the second century AD.  This temple has unfluted Corinthian columns, similar to those at Baalbek.  The Temple of Zeus, dated to AD 162-3, was a large building, which is well preserved and of which many sculptural pieces survive.  A long colonnaded street leads out of the oval plaza and the Arch of Hadrian was built in honour of the visit in AD 129-30 by the Roman emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-38).  It also has a well preserved circus, or hippodrome for chariot races.

Petra in southern Jordan was a city of the Nabateans, who were an Arab tribe in the region.  It is famous for its rock cut tombs, such as Al-Khazneh (‘The Treasury’), dated to the first century AD, and the rock cut edifice, Ad Deir (‘The Monastery’), dated to the mid-first century AD, and whose purpose is uncertain.  These rock cut structures copy Greek architecture of the Hellenistic period, that is, the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who reigned from 336-23 BC. 

In the centre of the city, it has the Great Temple, which dates to the first century AD.  The deity, to whom it is dedicated, is uncertain.  The best preserved temple is the Qasr al-Bint, whose date is probably from the first century BC to the first century AD, with further construction in the second and third centuries AD.  The deity of the temple is unclear.  The large temple complex, the Temple of the Winged Lions, is dedicated to a goddess, and is dated to the time of the Nabatean King Aretas IV (reigned 9 BC-AD 40).  The latter two temples are in the Sacred Quarter at the end of the Colonnaded Street.

Thus, these sites have monuments and temples which date from the same period at those at Baalbek and have stylistic similarities in their architecture.

The temples and other monuments of Baalbek are thus some of the most important surviving monuments from the Roman world.  They are a major world heritage site and a significant tourist attraction in Lebanon.


The German Archaeological Institute research at Baalbek: www.dainst.org/en/projekt/-/project-display/25868

For a coin with the image of the Temple of Jupiter: www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_1839-0919-584

For a coin with the image of the Temple of Mercury: N. Belayche, ‘Kyrios and despotes: addresses to deities and religious experiences’, in Lived Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World (2020), p. 97, fig. 2; https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110557596-006