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Introducing Baalbek

Baalbek, the ‘Sun City’ of the ancient world, is home to the most impressive ancient site in Lebanon and arguably the most important Roman site in the Middle East. The ancient city has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the wonders of the world and mystics still attribute special powers to the courtyard complex. Its temples were built on an extravagant scale that outshone anything in Rome, and the town became a centre of worship well into the Christian era. Standing beneath the temple’s colossal columns, watching the setting sun turn the stone a rich orange, is a highlight of any visit to Lebanon.

Modern Baalbek is the administrative centre of northern Bekaa Valley and is home to one of the most historic, atmospheric hotels in the whole Middle East. There are numerous reminders of Hezbollah’s supremacy here (their yellow and green flags are everywhere), but the town’s population is mixed Muslim/Christian, and you won’t see masked militia men brandishing Kalashnikovs on the streets. According to locals, the armed wing is situated elsewhere; here, it’s long-term policies, rather than long-range missiles, that concern its party members.

Since Baalbek is, nevertheless, a conservative region of Lebanon, it makes sense not to wander around in shorts – both men and women – or any other kind of revealing clothing, though you’ll undoubtedly see a few Lebanese women from out of town strutting their stuff, and snagging their stilettos on Baalbek’s pavestones.

An internationally famous arts event, Baalbek Festival (www.baalbeck.org.lb) takes place here every summer (July and August) and features opera, jazz, poetry and theatre. In 2006, it was cancelled due to the Israel–Hezbollah war, but most years it strides on regardless of the political or economic climate.