Rome in Lebanon

Greek portraits, Egyptian renderings, Islamic design in a full blown, forgotten, Roman city.


Heliopolis, now known as Baalbek, Lebanon, August 30, 2014


Here in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, close by the Syrian border, remains a full blown Rome in Lebanon. It’s remarkable that anything remains in this area torn by war and overrun by conquerors for 3000 years, but it stands. By no means complete, some in ill repair, some rebuilt, reconstructed in part, it stands.


It stands on top of other cities. Heliopolis is the foundation of this Roman city and, frequently, its columns and building blocks. Below that is another. And another. This is where ancient sun worshipers raised temples, administrative buildings, palaces and storage centers.


It’s where conquerors as famous as Alexander and Tamerlane swept through on their way to greatness. Lesser known Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians, and Romans seized her. The Arabs thundered out of their peninsula and took her in 632 AD. The Byzantine Christians and the Ottoman Turks each held her. And yet she stands.

Below, under layers of past civilizations are the artifacts of the Early Bronze Age. The largest stone buildings stood here once, made of blocks of stone which rival or surpass Machu Picchu in Peru. Scholars dispute the true meaning of the name Baalbek. The god Baal was prominent in this area. Bek could mean the Bekaa Valley (or bec qua in Arabic). Baalbek could be the valley of god or the city of god. The Greeks simply turned it to Heliopolis, the city of the sun.


I’ve walked the Roman ruins in Italy, of course. I’ve sat in ancient Roman arenas in Paris and southern France and walked across the famous Pont du Gard. I’ve wandered nearly alone in the Roman ruins of Tunisia and Morocco, of Sicily and Turkey and Greece. But here, in Baalbek, there is something which whispers at what this place has been with a history which stretches not centuries, but millenniums.

The current war, over in Syria a couple of miles away, can rarely be heard here anymore, my guide tells me. The sounds of gunfire have died down as battles have shifted to other places. Here in a ruin upon a ruin upon a ruin, largely surrounded by opportunistic building, erected during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war when building permits were easy to obtain if you had friends, money or guns, a strange peace settles over the old stone.


But what murmuring could possibly be heard under these stones, from layers down. These stones could speak of more destruction than most. More than Cortez in Mexico who pulled down the great Aztec buildings and used the stone for the cathedral and administrative buildings which stand today. The great Codex was burned by priests. More than Pizarro did in Peru. Napoleon raided Egypt and hauled huge columns to Paris for us to admire today. Britain’s Lord Elgin pried away extensive amounts of exquisite sculpture from Athens’s Parthenon and shipped it to the British Museum where you can spend part of a rainy London day admiring the beauty of plunder. Rome’s ruins have been the building blocks of the wealthy, and the poor, for twenty centuries. Vandalism on this scale is for the victors. It’s an old story which Baalbek knows well.

Old cities make the scrapheap from which new cities are built. And yet Baalbek stands today. A once-conqueror still astride three or four thousands of years of history hidden below. No one has toppled this version to the ground, and I hope they don’t. This is more extensive, grander, than what we see in today’s Rome. It’s greater than Sbeitla in Tunisia.


Greek portraits, Egyptian renderings of Cleopatra, intricate Islamic design work, graceful columns, vaulted ceilings, grand vistas and stonework stunning in its skill from such an ancient time all fill the eye. There are far more famous Roman ruins, but none which moved me more. Here is my full blown Rome in Lebanon.

One Comment on “Rome in Lebanon

  1. Nice read Gary. I haven’t heard much about Baalbek, which sounds like one of the better testaments to time and change. I hope it doesn’t get toppled too (at least so I can get there). Given that it’s been sitting in a tumultuous spot for a few thousand of years now, it seems to be a survivor. Thanks for this one.

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