Baalbek is one of the most mysterious archaeological finds on Earth. Located in the fertile Bekaa valley of Lebanon, Baalbek is usually referred to as temple ruins from the Roman Empire, but its history goes back to the dawn of civilization. The specialized construction found there in some ways more impressive than the pyramids, and leaves people still scratching their heads.
The history of settlement in Baalbek dates back about 9,000 years, but the we will focus on the last 4000. In about 2000 BC, Baalbek was inhabited by the Canaanites, also called Phoenicians by the Greeks, who constructed the first altar and courtyard dedicated to Baal. Baal was the God of the rain, thunder, fertility and agriculture. He was the God of the valley of Bekaa, which is today still a major agriculture source.
The Canaanites believed that they could control Baal’s rain by performing rituals such as temple prostitution, cannibalism, ritual homosexuality, orgies, drunkenness, and sacred games. They also alledgely sacrificed children in an attempt to ensure good crops and favors granted. They thought that these rituals could arouse Baal to bring rain to the valley of Bekaa and make it fertile.
In 334 BC, Alexander The Great conquered Baalbek and the process of Hellenization began. After the death of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies of Egypt invaded Baalbek and they renamed it to Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. They identified Baal with Zeus and the temple was mentioned as a place of oracular divination. During the Greek era, the court was enlarged and a podium was completed to support a classic temple that was never built.
During the Roman era, Baalbek entered its golden age. In 15 BC, Julius Caesar settled in Baalbek and began the construction of a temple complex consisting of three temples: Jupiter (God of sky and thunder), Bacchus (God of agriculture and wine), and Venus (God of love and beauty). On a nearby hill, the Romans built the temple of Mercury. The construction of the temple complex was completed in several phases over three centuries during the Roman Empire.
The Temple of Jupiter
The Temple of Jupiter consisted of 54 columns raised to a height of 19m above the ground. Today only six original columns are still standing due to earthquakes. The colomns are 65 feet (20 m) tall and 8.2 feet (2.5 m) in diameter, and weigh roughly 800 tons.
The Unsolved Engima
One of the greatest mysteries of the ruins of Baalbek concerns the foundation stones of the Temple of Jupiter. The Trilithon of Baalbek consists of three colossal stones measuring 19 meters long x 4.2 meters high x 3.6 meters wide and weighing about 800 tons each. These stones are placed at a height of 10 meters. In spite of their immense size, they are so so carefully joined, that it is almost impossible to insert a needle between them. No description will give an exact idea of the bewildering and stupefying effect of these tremendous blocks on the spectator, according to Michel Alouf.
It is still a mystery how these stones could have been moved from the distant quarry (1km away) and placed perfectly into their place. The Romans used to drill Lewis holes in the stones to be able to lift them with their cranes. However, the Trilithon stones do not seem to contain any Lewis holes.
The Trilithon is situated in the wall of the temple of Jupiter. According to many archaeologists, the Trilithon was part of a retaining wall. As a matter of fact, the area which surrounds Baalbek suffers from deforestation and soil erosion. Soil erosion is usually caused by the weather and elements such as wind, rain and ice. The absence of trees increases the rate of soil erosion because trees protect the soil from the impact of rain and conserve water. One of the solutions for preventing soil erosion is to build retaining walls: the heavier the stones, the more stable the retaining wall.
Unfortunately, there are no records from Roman sources concerning the construction of Baalbek. However, many archaeologists believe that the Trilithon actually dates to an earlier age. In fact, the Trilithon shows evidence of wind and sand erosion that is not found in the Roman temples.
“Finally, the great stones of Baalbek show stylistic similarities to other cyclopean stone walls at verifiably pre-Roman sites such as the Acropolis foundation in Athens, the foundations of Myceneae, Tiryns, Delphi and even megalithic constructions in the ‘new world’ such as Ollyantaytambo in Peru and Tiahuanaco in Bolivia” (sacredsites.com).
On the other hand, Jean-Pierre Adam suggested in 1977 that the transportation of the Trilithon stones had been accomplished by Romans using applied physics. He proposes that the large blocks could have been moved on rollers with machines using capstans and pulley blocks, a process which he theorised could use 512 workers to move a 557 tonnes block (approximately 243 tonnes lighter than the Trilithon blocks). Adam did not approach the problem of archaeological dating, suggesting that the maritime technology that may have moved the larger stones came from a pre-Roman era, concluding: “Knowing that the Egyptians knew about the pulley, it is not unreasonable to attribute the construction to a people of sailors, such as the Phoenicians or Minoans”. Archaeologists still date the temple to the Julio-Claudian period, the first two centuries CE.
The Stone of the Pregnant Woman
The stone of the pregnant woman is one of the world’s largest quarried stones. It still lies in the quarry at a distance of 1km from the Heliopolis temple complex and is still attached to the bedrock at one side. It measures 69 x 16 x 13 feet, ten inches and weighs around 1000 tons. The name of the stone refers to the story of a pregnant woman who used to ask the workers to feed her until she delivered her baby, and in return she would let the people know how to move the monolith. If this is the case, it certainly explains its mostly extracted condition. Another story tells that women who touched the stone experienced an increase in fertility.
It is still unknown if the stone is older or younger than the Trilithon, and it is still uncertain why the stone was abandoned in the quarry.
In the 1990s, a new monolith was discovered in the same quarry. It weighs around 1200 tons and it is considered to be larger than the Stone of the Pregnant Woman.
Much like with much other ancient construction, it remains hard to solve the enigma of Baalbek. The religious significance of the temple of Baalbek remains unknown. It is also still a mystery why the Romans built their greatest temple far away from Rome and why Roman emperors travelled to Baalbek to receive counsel from the oracles. Even though the quest for truth goes on, the answer will always remain in the hands of our ancestors.
Photos of Baalbek