The end of our first week and the volunteer group chose Baalbek (the ancient city of Heliopolis) for our weekend outing, to see the temples of Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus. I am ashamed to say that until we were heading to Lebanon, I had never heard of Baalbek, or any of the other magnificent ancient sites here. We were not disappointed – it easily matched any site I have visited in Rome, Greece, Turkey or Egypt; regardless of the heat and a rather dispassionate guide, we were bowled over by the sheer size and scale of the place.
To a certain extent, evolution of the ancient site has mirrored the history of the country: the fertile and strategically positioned Bekaa valley has been subject to occupation over the millennia by Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim and Ottoman rulers. In addition to the odd earthquake, each invading new-comer stamped their own cultural, religious, economic and military mark on the place, including most recently plaques in the temple of Bacchus commemorating the visit of Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany in 1898, who initiated an archaeological team to carry out restoration work. This century, the site is said to have received collateral damage from air strikes on the region during the 2006 Lebanon war (more on this later). Against the trend, it seems that only the French (who ruled Syria and Lebanon from the 1st World War until 1943) left the site to its own devices.
Thankfully (for the time being) Baalbek remains a fitting tribute to Lebanese culture.