The great temple at Baalbeck or Heliopolis has
stood since the beginning of our era when it was one of the wonders of the
world. It and the second temple, with its cellar almost intact, make up one of
the most beautiful and famous of ancient monuments. Baalbeck is indeed a place
where the visitor can still recapture the fascination and atmosphere of the
Baalbeck suffered with the passage of time. Its history disappeared in legend and its temples became unrecognizable through Byzantine and mediaeval additions, ravages of war, earthquakes and vandalism. But now, thanks to the work of excavation, consolidation and restoration carried out since the beginning of the century, we can see the buildings of Baalbeck almost as they were in their prime with the later additions removed.
The way into the sanctuary is once more through the propylaea and hexagonal forecourt. The visitor now reaches the vast court of sacrifice, once encumbered by a Byzantine basilica, and now cleared to show its original state with the monumental altar and second altar flanked by ornamental pools for ritual washing. The court was surrounded by a sumptuous colonnade of 128 rose granite columns from Egypt set in front of a series of meticulously decorated exedrae. At the west end, the blocks of the great steps have been restored to their original position and now lead up the high platform of the temple of Jupiter. The six huge columns still standing with the entablature on top give a fair idea of the vast scale of the original building. Nearby, but entirely separate from the temple of Jupiter, is the temple of Bacchus complete except for its roof, part of the peristyle and the altar. The decoration of this temple is of an unparalleled richness and delicacy and is extremely well preserved.
Over the centuries these two temples, imposing, almost overwhelming in their grandeur, colossal and yet harmonious in design, have inspired fantasy and poetry to explain and describe their construction. Fancy has now given way to systematic examination and research which enable us to date the temples and to form a reasonably accurate idea of the spirit of the age that witnessed their construction.
The temple of Jupiter, the foundations of which are probably
pre-Roman, was completed soon after 60 A.D. The terrace which was planned to
surround the temple and to which the three famous blocks belong, dates from the
same period but was never finished. During the second century A.D. the grand
approach was planned and the great court built with colonnade and exedrae. The
temple of Bacchus was built about 150 A.D. The propylaea was added at the
beginning of the third century A.D. together with the small round temple and, in
the reign of Phillip the Arab (244-249 A.D.), the hexagonal forecourt.
What is most striking on first sight is, of course, the
western character of the architecture and decoration. ''One might think the
monuments had been made in Rome, labeled and packed for export, and reassembled
at Baalbeck like a jig-saw puzzle''. And yet, in spite of what looks like a
mania for columns, Corinthian capitals, western architectural devices and
classical ornament, the essential part of the ancient traditions is still
present. It is present in the representations of the deities, one of which can
be seen in the forecourt. It is present, too, in the layout of the sanctuary,
for in the succession of propylaea, forecourt and sacrificial court we are
reminded of the temple at Jerusalem with its sequence of courts for gentiles,
the faithful and priests. The great court, containing the main installations of
the cult, is typical of the Semitic tradition. The temple is western, the great
court itself is surrounded by a Corinthian colonnade, but there is no parallel
in the western world for the altar, which stood eighteen meters high facing the
entrance to the temple. The traditional rites and ceremonies forced the Roman
builders to accept its positions, and it is probable that the sacrifices on the
roofs mentioned in the Bible were performed on the platform of the great altar.
In the temple of Bacchus the stairs on either side of the magnificent doorway
may have fulfilled some ritual requirement. This temple has a dwelling of the
god, a holy of holies, raised as a separate part of the building at the end of
the cella, and visible as an edicule within the temple. This long-established
dwelling of the god or of his image did not disappear in Roman times. It became
the Lebanese adyton.
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