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The site was originally Phoenician and settlement here is thought to have dated back as far as the end of the 3rd millennium BC. During the 1st millennium BC a temple was built here and dedicated to the god Baal (later Hadad), from which the city takes its name. The site was chosen for its nearby springs and ideal position between the Litani and Al-Aasi Rivers. It was also located at the crossroads of the main east–west and north–south trade routes.

For all its outward serenity and grace, the site was, in its time, host to sacred prostitution, along with all manner of licentious and bloodthirsty forms of worship. According to ancient tablets from Ugarit, which describe the practices of the Phoenician gods, Anath, the sister and wife of Baal:

…waded up to the knees, up to the neck in human blood. Human heads lay at her feet, human hands flew over her like locusts. She tied the heads of her victims as ornaments on her back, their hands she tied upon her belt… When she was satisfied she washed her hands in streams of blood before turning again to other things.

Following the conquest of Alexander the Great, Baalbek became known as Heliopolis (City of the Sun), a name that was retained by subsequent Roman conquerors. In 64 BC, Pompey the Great passed through Baalbek, and made it part of the Roman Empire, instigating an era that would see the city rise and flourish. A few years later, in 47 BC, Julius Caesar founded a Roman colony here because of its strategic position between Palmyra, in the Syrian desert, and the coastal cities, naming the new colony after his daughter Julia. The town soon became occupied by Roman soldiers and building works began; it wasn’t long before Baalbek was recognised as the premier city in Roman Syria.

The construction of the temples was a massive undertaking. Work is thought to have begun in 60 BC and the great Temple of Jupiter was nearing completion only 120 years later, in AD 60, during the reign of Nero. Later, under Antonius Pius (AD 138–61), a series of elaborate enlargements was undertaken, including work on the Great Court complex and the Temple of Bacchus. His son, the hard-nosed and bloodthirsty Caracalla, completed them, but building work was still ongoing when Rome’s rulers adopted Christianity. When you stroll freely around the site, bear in mind that it’s estimated that some 100, 000 slaves worked on the project over the centuries.

The building of such extravagant temples was a political act as much as one of piety. On one hand, the Romans were attempting to integrate the peoples of the Middle East by appearing to favour their gods; on the other, they set about building jaw-droppingly immense and beautiful structures to impress indelibly upon the worshippers the strength of Roman political rule and civilisation. Even so, the deciding factor in building on such a massive and expansive scale at Baalbek was probably the threat of Christianity, which was beginning to pose a real threat to the old order. So, up went the temples in an attempt to ‘fix’ the religious orientation of the people in favour of pagan worship. By this time there were no human sacrifices, but temple prostitution remained, while Baalbek had become one of the most important places of worship in the entire Roman Empire.

When Constantine the Great became emperor in 324, pagan worship was finally suppressed by Rome in favour of Christianity, and building work on Baalbek was suspended. However, when Julian the Apostate became emperor in 361, he reverted to paganism and tried to reinstate it throughout the empire. There was a terrible backlash against Christians, which resulted in mass martyrdom. When the Christian emperor, Theodosius, took the throne in 379, Christianity was once again imposed upon Baalbek and its temples were converted to a basilica. Nevertheless, the town remained a centre of pagan worship and was enough of a threat to warrant a major crackdown by Emperor Justinian (527–65), who ordered that all Baalbek’s pagans accept baptism. In an attempt to prevent any secret pagan rites, he ordered parts of the temple be destroyed, and had the biggest pillars shipped to Constantinople, where they were used in the Aya Sofya.

When the Muslim Arabs invaded Syria, they converted the Baalbek temples into a citadel and restored its original name. For several centuries it came under the rule of Damascus and went through a period of regular invasions, sackings, lootings and devastation. The city was sacked by the Arabs in 748 and by the Mongol chieftain Tamerlane in 1400.

In addition to the ravages caused by humans, there was also a succession of earthquakes (1158, 1203, 1664 and most spectacularly in 1759), which caused the fall of the ramparts and three of the huge pillars of the Temple of Jupiter, as well as the departure of most of the population. Most of what remains today lies within the area of the Arab fortifications; the Temple of Mercury, further out, is virtually gone. By erecting walls around some of the buildings, the Arabs unwittingly preserved the temples inside the sanctuary.

During the period of Ottoman rule, Baalbek was slowly forgotten and in the 16th and 17th centuries, few visitors stopped to admire what was left of the once magnificent ancient site. In 1751, eight years before Baalbek’s biggest earthquake, English architects James Dawkins and Robert Wood rediscovered the ruins, at which point nine of the Temple of Jupiter’s columns were still standing. But it wasn’t until a century and a half later, when Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Baalbek in 1898 while on a tour of the Middle East, that a study of the ruins was seriously undertaken. The Kaiser immediately contacted the Sultan of Turkey for permission to excavate the site and for the next seven years a team of archaeologists recorded the site in detail. By this time Baalbek was once again frequented by visitors, who, instead of bowing in prayer, helped themselves to sculptures and inscriptions.

After the defeat of Turkey and Germany in WWI, Baalbek’s German scholars were replaced by French ones who, in turn, were replaced by Lebanese. Over the next decades, all the later structures cluttering the site were removed and the temples were finally restored as close as possible to their 1st-century splendour. In some parts of the site, work is still ongoing.