Baalbeck, Lebanon

The Roman Heliopolis or "City of the Sun" as it was named by the Romans, lies underneath present Baalbeck, 85 km (53 miles) northeast of Beirut. The name originated in the ancient Semitic languages and is formed of two parts meaning "God of the Plains", or "God of Weeping and Mourning", that is God Adon or Adonis.

Baalbeck is Lebanon's greatest Roman treasure counted among the wonders of the ancient World. It is home to the largest and best preserved Roman temples ever built. Towering high above the Beqa'a plain, their monumental proportions proclaimed the power and wealth of Imperial Rome. The gods worshipped here - the Triad of Jupiter, Venus and Mercury - were grafted onto the indigenous deities of Hadad, Atargatis and a young male god of fertility. Local influences are also seen in the planning and layout of the temples, which vary from the classic Roman design. It is located on two main historic trade routes: one between the Mediterranean coast and the Syrian interior and the other between northern Syria and northern Palestine.

Over the centuries, Baalbeck's monuments suffered from theft, war and earthquakes, and were obscured by medieval fortifications and additions. But even in ruin, the site attracted the admiration of visitors, and its historical importance was recognized. Fortunately, the modern visitor can see the site in something close to its original form, thanks to work in the past hundred years by German, French and Lebanese archaeologists. In 1984, Baalbeck was placed on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

Baalbeck's temples were built on an ancient tell that goes back at least to the end of the 3rd millennium BC. Little is known about the site during this period, but there is evidence that in the course of the 1st millennium BC. an enclosed court was built on the ancient tell. An altar was set in the center of this court in the tradition of the biblical Semitic high places. During the Hellenistic period (333-64 BC), the Greeks identified the God of Baalbeck with the Sun God, and the city was called Heliopolis, or "City of the Sun". At this time the ancient enclosed court was enlarged, and a podium was erected on its western side to support a temple of classical form. Although the temple was never built, some huge structures from this Hellenistic project can still be seen. It was over the ancient court that the Romans placed the present Great Court of the Temple of Jupiter.

The Temple of Jupiter was begun in the last quarter of the 1st century BC and was nearing completion in the final years of Nero's reign (37-68 AD). The Great Court Complex of the Temple of Jupiter, with its porticoes, exedrae, altars and basins, was built in the 2nd century AD. Construction of the so-called temple of Bacchus was also started about this time. The Propylaea and the Hexagonal Court of the Jupiter Temple were added in the 3rd century AD under the Severan Dynasty (193-235 AD), and work was presumably completed in the mid-3rd century. The small, circular structure known as the Temple of Venus was probably finished at this time as well.

When Christianity was declared an official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 AD, Emperor Constantine officially closed the Baalbeck temples. At the end of the 4th century AD, Byzantine Emperor Theodosius tore down the altars of Jupiter's Great Court and built a basilica using the temple's stones and architectural elements. The remnants of the three apses of this basilica, originally oriented to the west, can still be seen in the upper part of the stairway of the Temple of Jupiter.

After the Arab Conquest in 636 AD, the temples were transformed into a fortress. During the next centuries, Baalbeck fell successively to the Umayyad, Abbasid, Toulounid, Fatimid and Ayyoubid dynasties. Sacked by the Mongols around 1260, Baalbeck later enjoyed a period of calm and prosperity under Mamluke rule.

The Shrine of Syeda Khawla

The striking mosque with its blue mosaic minarets, and an interior filled with mirrored tiles and a gilded mausoleum is worth the visit. The story goes that Syeda Khawla, the daughter of Imam Hussein, was somewhere between a newborn and two years old when she accompanied the caravan of women and children taken from Karbala to Damascus. She died en route in Baalbeck and was buried there by her brother, Iman Zainul Abideed. A tree was planted beside her grave. Three hundred years ago, Syeda Khawla spoke to a member of the Motada family in a dream, asking him to divert a stream away from her deceased body. The dream occurred numerous times. The family excavated the site and discovered Syeda Khawla's grave. A small shrine was built at that location in her honor. In 2005, the spectacular new shrine and the mosque seen today took its place, though the original cypress tree is still intact.