Baalbek: History, Mystery & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore Baalbek, an ancient city in modern-day Lebanon. The ruins at Baalbek contain large, manmade stones whose origins remain a historical mystery.

History's Mysteries

''Don't we already know everything about the past?'' is a question you often hear from students or other people regarding history. While the answer to that question is, of course, a resounding 'No!', it is also true that we don't even understand everything about the artifacts of the past that we do have.

Such is the case with the subject of this lesson, Baalbek, a city in present-day Lebanon containing intriguing ancient ruins. Ancient Baalbek has a history and several features that still have paleontologists and historians puzzling over them long after they were first discovered.

History

The land upon which Baalbek sits has likely been inhabited for nearly as long as humans have practiced agriculture and more sedentary lifestyles, or since around 9,000 B.C.E. What likely started as a small town or village grew over the millennia until it was one of the most prominent holy sites in the ancient Middle East.

Major construction in Baalbek first began under the Phoenicians, and it was the Phoenicians who erected an enormous temple to the Phoenician sky god, Baal. Baal was one of the most important gods in the Phoenician pantheon, making Baalbek a popular site for pilgrimages from across the region.

Baalbek and Baal both remained important in the ancient Middle East until European incursions brought destruction and new rulers to the area. The Macedonian king Alexander the Great was the first to conquer Baalbek, doing so in 334 B.C.E. Baalbek was renamed Heliopolis, a Greek term meaning 'city of the sun'. It retained this name through Roman times.

Under Roman control, the city remained an important religious center, but with Roman gods transposed atop the Phoenician ones who were previously honored in the city. For example, the Romans built a Temple to Jupiter upon the site of the great Temple of Baal, which was likely partially destroyed during various invasions. The Romans built several other temples and shrines, including the largest ancient temple still standing, the Temple of Bacchus.

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek
Temple of Bacchus

Even when Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire after 313 C.E., the temples in Baalbek largely escaped the fate of many other temples and shrines to pagan gods, though they were neglected or co-opted to be used as Christian churches. Baalbek continued to change hands as the territory did as well, being controlled by various Muslim rulers and the Byzantine Empire throughout the Middle Ages.

Today, Baalbek is a regional capital in the modern state of Lebanon.

Mysteries

Baalbek is a popular spot for historians of the Middle East due to questions that still remain unanswered surrounding the Temple of Baalbek. According to scholars, the site of the Temple of Baalbek was likely a holy place for ancient humans even before Baalbek was properly settled. Researchers have noted signs of earlier manmade constructions beneath the foundations of the temple, and it is possible it served as a ceremonial ground of sorts.

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