Baalbek… a brief encounter with Lebanon
It was 10th November 2008, and I remember it because I was so excited that I was going to Lebanon. This was not really in my itinerary, but as I was travelling from Cairo to Khartoum it seemed like madness not to try and nip across the border from Syria.
Five of us had decided to take a break from the truck and pop across the border into Lebanon to go and see Beirut and the Roman ruins at Baalbek. We met our guide at 8am and headed for the border crossing which was easy enough, but involved a lot of waiting and it also proved pretty expensive ($600). I found out later that it was because we had an American with us!?
Baalbek is in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon which is the main arable land in the country, once famous for opium and hashish – now full of corn, cotton and vegetables. The valley was an important agricultural region for the Romans too.
Our first stop was to visit the Roman quarry from which the Baalbek stones were taken to build the temple complex. There is still one of the large cut stones in the quarry and it is massive – said to be 1000 tonnes and one of the largest monoliths cut by man. This monolith is known as “The Stone of Midi” or “Hajar al Hubla” which means “stone of the pregnant woman”. It was quarried, but never moved.
An attendant at the site runs a little souvenir shop and amongst the souvenirs are Hezbollah T-shirts. The Bekaa valley is a Hezbollah stronghold and the main road in was lined with posters of martyred fighters.
We moved on to Baalbek which was also known as “Heliopolis” or the “city of the sun”. What an awesome site… I’ve seen quite a few Roman sites now, but the monumental scale of the buildings at Baalbek blew me away. The gods that are were worshipped here were Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus. The Temple of Jupiter was said to be the largest in the Roman empire!
We moved on and the road took us up into the mountains then wound down into the coastal city of Beirut (once the ‘Paris of the Middle East’). It seems that Lebanon has an abundance of bananas and sheep skins judging by the numbers being sold all along the roads. There were stunning views across the city and some very large houses on the hillsides too. As we drove through the city we saw some bomb/bullet damaged buildings, and a few road blocks with tanks and armoured cars – though Beirut seems to be pretty peaceful these days…
By now it was getting late in the day and so there wasn’t much time to explore the city. I wandered around the Hamra Street area for a while – once famous for its cafes and theatres in the 1960’s and 1970’s and still a busy hub today. Took a quick stroll along the Corniche and the sea front, then all too soon it was time to meet up in Beirut’s Hard Rock Cafe for a cheese and ‘turkey bacon’ burger!
Here are some more pictures from Baalbek: