Roman Heliopolis & Temple Site at Baalbek in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley

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Transforming the Semitic, Canaanite God Baal into the Roman God Jupiter

Baalbek, Temple of Jupiter Baal (Heliopolitan Zeus): Site of Worship of Canaanite God Baal
Baalbek Temple of Jupiter Baal (Heliopolitan Zeus) Baalbek, Temple of Jupiter Baal (Heliopolitan Zeus): Site of Worship of Canaanite God Baal. Source: Library of Congress

Temple of Jupiter, Temple of Bacchus, and Temple of Venus

Located in Lebanon's Beqaa valley, 86 km northeast of Beirut and 60 km from the Mediterranean coast, Baalbek is one of the best least-known Roman sites in the world. Based around temples to the developing Roman trinity of Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus, this complex was constructed upon an older sacred site dedicated to a triad of Canaanite deities: Hadad, Atargatis, and Baal. All around the temple complex of Baalbek are tombs cut into the rocks from the Phoenician era centuries earlier.

The transformation from a Canaanite to a Roman religious site began after 332 BCE when Alexander conquered the city and initiated a process of Hellenization. In 15 BCE Caesar made it a Roman colony and named it Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Heliopolitanus. That's not a very memorable name (which may be why it was more commonly known simply as Heliopolis), but it was from this time that Baalbek itself became more famous -- in particular because of the massive temple of Jupiter which dominates the site.

Trying to locate Baalbek in history and in the Bible...

Ancient records have nothing at all to say about Baalbek, it seems, though human habitation there is quite old. Archaeological digs reveal evidence of human habitation at least back to 1600 BCE and possibly going to 2300 BCE. The name Baalbek means "Lord (God, Baal) of the Beqaa Valley" and at one time archaeologists thought that it was the same place as the Baalgad mentioned in Joshua 11:

  • As the Lord commanded Moses, his servant, so did Moses command Joshua, and so did Joshua; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord commanded Moses. So Joshua took all that land, the hills, and all the south country, and all the land of Goshen, and the valley, and the plain, and the mountain of Israel, and the valley of the same; Even from the mount Halak, that goeth up to Seir, even unto Baalgad in the valley of Lebanon under mount Hermon: and all their kings he took, and smote them, and slew them. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gideon: all other they took in battle. [Joshua 11:15-19]

Today, though, this is no longer the consensus of scholars. Some also have speculated that this is the site mentioned in 1 Kings:

  • And Solomon built Gezer, and Bethhoron the nether, And Baalath, and Tadmor in the wilderness, in the land, And all the cities of store that Solomon had, and cities for his chariots, and cities for his horsemen, and that which Solomon desired to build in Jerusalem, and in Lebanon, and in all the land of his dominion. [1 Kings 17-19]

That, too, is not widely believed anymore.

The Baalbek complex of Roman temples is founded upon an older site dedicated to Semitic gods worshiped by the Phoenicians who were part of the Canaanite religious and cultural tradition. Baal, which can be translated as "lord" or "god," was the name given to the high god at nearly every Phoenician city-state. It's likely then that Baal was the high god at Baalbek and it it's not at all implausible that the Romans chose to build their temple to Jupiter on the site of a temple to Baal. This would have been consistent with Roman efforts to blend the religions of conquered people with their beliefs.

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Six Remaining Columns from the Temple of Jupiter in Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek Temple of Jupiter Baal (Heliopolitan Zeus): Two Views of the Six Remaining Columns
Baalbek Temple of Jupiter Baal (Heliopolitan Zeus) Baalbek Temple of Jupiter Baal (Heliopolitan Zeus): Two Views of the Six Remaining Columns. Left Photo Source: Jupiter Images; Right Photo Source: Wikipedia

Why did the Romans create such a large temple complex here, of all places?

It is fitting that for the largest temple complex in the Roman Empire, Caesar would have the largest temples constructed. The Temple of Jupiter Baal ("Heliopolitan Zeus") itself was 290 feet long, 160 feet wide, and surrounded by 54 massive columns each of which were 7 feet in diameter and 70 feet tall. This made the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek the same height as a 6-storey building, all cut from stone quarried nearby. Only six of these titanic columns remain standing, but even they are incredibly impressive. In the above picture, the right-hand color image shows just how small people are when standing next to these columns.

What was the point of creating such large temples and such a large temple complex? Was it supposed to please the Roman gods? Was it supposed to enhance the accuracy of the oracles given there? Rather than a purely religious purpose, maybe Caesar's reasons were also political. By creating such an impressive religious site which would draw many more visitors, perhaps one of his intentions was to solidify his political support in this region. Caesar did choose to station one of his legions in Baalbek, after all. Even today it can be difficult to disentangle politics and culture from religion; in the ancient world, it could be impossible.

Apparently, Baalbek retained its religious significance throughout the Roman empire. Emperor Trajan, for example, stopped here in 114 CE on this way to confront the Parthians to ask the oracle whether his military efforts would prove successful. In true oracular fashion, his response was a vine shoot that had been cut into several pieces. That could be read in any number of ways, but Trajan did defeat the Parthians -- and decisively, too.

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Overview of the Temple Complex

Baalbek Temple Complex: Overview of Temple Complex, Temples of Jupiter & Bacchus at Baalbek
Temples of Jupiter & Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon Baalbek Temple Complex: Overview of Temple Complex, Temples of Jupiter & Bacchus at Baalbek. Top Image Source: Jupiter Images; Bottom Image Source: Library of Congress

The temple complex at Baalbek was intended to become the largest place of worship and religious ritual in the entire Roman empire. Given just how large many of the temples and temple complexes already were, this was an impressive undertaking.

Before Caesar instituted his plan, though, Baalbek was relatively unimportant -- Assyrian records have nothing to say about Baalbek though Egyptian records might. The name itself cannot be found in Egyptian writings, but Lebanese archaeologist Ibrahim Kawkabani believes that references to "Tunip" are actually references to Baalbek. If Kawkabani, then it looks like the Egyptians didn't think Baalbek was important enough to even mention in passing.

There must have been a strong religious presence there, though, and perhaps a widely regarded Oracle. Otherwise, there would have been little reason for Caesar to choose this place to put any sort of temple complex, much less the largest one in his empire. There was certainly a temple to Baal (Adon in Hebrew, Hadad in Assyrian) here and probably also a temple to Astarte (Atargatis) as well.

Construction at the Baalbek site took place over the course of nearly two centuries, and it was never really finished before Christians assumed control and ended all state support for traditional Roman religious cults. Several emperors added their touches, perhaps to more closely associate themselves with the religious cults here and perhaps also because over time more and more emperors were born in the general Syrian region. The last piece added to Baalbek was the hexagonal forecourt, visible in the diagram in the above image, by emperor Philip the Arab (244-249 CE).

An integration of both the Roman god Jove and the Canaanite god Baal, images of Jupiter Baal were created using aspects of both. Like Baal, he holds a whip and appears with (or on) bulls; like Jupiter, he also holds a thunderbolt in one hand. The idea behind such blending was apparently to convince Romans and natives to both accept each other's deities as manifestations of their own. Religion was politics in Rome, so integrating traditional worship of Baal into the Roman worship of Jupiter meant integrating the people into the Roman political system.

This was why Christians were treated so badly: by refusing even to offer superficial sacrifices to the Roman gods, they denied the validity of not just Roman religion, but the Roman political system as well.

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Transforming the Baalbek Temple Site into a Christian Basilica

Baalbek Grand Court: Transforming the Baalbek Temple Site into a Christian Basilica
Baalbek Grand Court, In Front of the Temple of Jupiter Baalbek Grand Court: Transforming the Baalbek Temple Site into a Christian Basilica. Image Source: Library of Congress

After Christians took control, it became standard in the Roman empire for Christians to take over pagan temples and transform them into Christian churches or basilicas. The same was true of course at Baalbek. Christian leaders Constantine and Theodosius I built basilicas on the site -- with Theodosius' constructed right in the main court of the Temple of Jupiter, utilizing stone blocks taken from the temple structure itself.

Why did they build basilicas in the main court instead of simply rededicating the temple itself as a church? That is, after all, what they did with the Pantheon in Rome and it certainly has the advantage of saving time because you don't have to build something new. There are two reasons why they would do this, both connected to important differences between Roman and Christian religions.

In Christianity, all of the religious services take place inside the church. In Roman religion, however, public religious services take place outside. This main court in front of the temple is where the public worship would have taken place; in the above image, we can still see the base of the main platform. A large, tall platform would have been necessary for everyone to see the sacrifice. The cella or inner sanctum of a Roman temple housed the god or goddess and was never designed to hold large numbers of people. Priests performed certain religious services in there, but even the largest weren't designed to host a crowd of worshippers.

So to answer the question about why Christian leaders would build churches outside of a Roman temple instead of rededicating the temple itself: first, placing a Christian church on spot of pagan sacrifices carried a lot of religious and political punch; second, there just wasn't room inside most temples to house a decent church.

You'll notice, though, that the Christian basilica isn't there anymore. Today there may only be six columns left from the Temple of Jupiter, but nothing is left of Theodosius' church.

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Baalbek Trilithon

Baalbek Trilithon: Three Massive Stone Blocks Beneath the Temple of Jupiter Baal at Baalbek
Three Massive Stone Blocks Beneath the Temple of Jupiter Baal Baalbek Trilithon: Three Massive Stone Blocks Beneath the Temple of Jupiter Baal at Baalbek. Image Sources: Jupiter Images

Was the Trilithon at Baalbek cut and placed by giants or ancient astronauts?

At 290 feet long, 160 feet wide, the Temple of Jupiter Baal ("Heliopolitan Zeus") in Baalbek, Lebanon, was created to be the largest religious complex in the Roman empire. As impressive as this is, one of the most impressive aspects of this site is almost hidden from view: beneath and behind the ruined remains of the temple itself are three massive stone block called the Trilithon.

These three stone blocks are the largest building blocks ever used by any human beings anywhere in the world. Each one is 70 feet long, 14 feet high, 10 feet thick, and weigh around 800 tons. This is larger than the incredible columns created for the Temple of Jupiter, which are also 70 feet tall but measure a mere 7 feet -- and they weren't constructed from single pieces of stone. In each of the above two images, you can see people standing by the trilithon to provide a reference for how large they are: in the top image a person is standing to the far left and in the bottom image a person is sitting on a stone about in the middle.

Beneath the trilithon is another six huge building blocks, each 35 feet long and thus also larger than most building blocks used by humans anywhere else. No one knows how these stone blocks were cut, transported from the nearby quarry, and fit so precisely together. Some are so amazed at this feat of engineering that they have created fanciful tales of the Romans using magic or that the site was created centuries earlier by an unidentified people who had access to alien technology.

The fact that people today are unable to imagine how the construction was accomplished is not license to make up fairy tales, though. There are so many things which we today can do which the ancients couldn't even imagine; we shouldn't begrudge them the possibility that they could do a thing or two which we can't figure out yet.

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What is the Origin of the Temple Site and Religious Complex at Baalbek, Lebanon?

Baalbek, Temple of Jupiter Baal (Heliopolitan Zeus): What is the Origin of the Temple Site Baalbek?
Baalbek, Temple of Jupiter Baal (Heliopolitan Zeus) Baalbek, Temple of Jupiter Baal (Heliopolitan Zeus): What is the Origin of the Temple Site Baalbek?. Image Sources: Jupiter Images

According to local legend, this site was first transformed into a site of religious worship by Cain. After the Great Flood destroyed the site (like it destroyed everything else on the planet), it was rebuilt by a race of giants under the direction of Nimrod, son of Ham and grandson of Noah. The giants, of course, made it possible to cut and transport the massive stones in the trilithon.

It should be noted that both Cain and Ham were biblical figures who did things wrong and had to be punished, which raises the question of why local legend would associate them with the Baalbek temples. It may be an effort to implicitly criticize the site -- associate it with negative figures from biblical tales in order to create distance between it and the people still living there. These legends may also have been originally created by Christians who wanted to portray Roman paganism in a negative light.

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Baalbek Stone of the Pregnant Woman

Baalbek Stone of the Pregnant Woman: Unbelievably Massive Stone in the Quarry Near Baalbek, Lebanon
Unbelievably Massive Stone in the Quarry Near Baalbek, Lebanon Baalbek Stone of the Pregnant Woman: Unbelievably Massive Stone in the Quarry Near Baalbek, Lebanon. Image Sources: Jupiter Images

The Baalbek trilithon is a set of three massive stone blocks which are part of the foundation of the Temple of Jupiter Baal ("Heliopolitan Zeus") in Baalbek. They are so large that people cannot imagine how they were cut and transported to the site. As impressive as these three stone blocks are, though, there is a fourth block still in the quarry which is three feet longer than the blocks in the trilithon and which is estimated to weigh 1,200 tons. Locals have named it Hajar el Gouble (Stone of the South) and Hajar el Hibla (Stone of the Pregnant Woman), with the latter apparently being the most popular.

In the two photos above you can see just how large it is - if you look closely, each image has one or two people on the stone to provide ​a reference. The stone is at an angle because it was never cut away. Although we can see that it was cut to be made part of the Baalbek site, it remains attached at its base to the underlying bedrock, not unlike a plant which still has roots in the earth. No one knows how such a massive stone block was cut so precisely or how it was supposed to be moved.

As with the trilithon, it's common to find people claiming that since we don't currently know how the ancient engineers accomplished this or how they planned on moving this massive block to the temple site, that therefore they must have employed mystical, supernatural, or even extraterrestrial means. This is just nonsense, however.Presumably the engineers had a plan, otherwise, they would have cut a smaller block, and an inability to answer the questions right now simply means that there are things we don't know.

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Exterior of the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek Temple of Bacchus: Exterior of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon
Baalbek, Lebanon Baalbek Temple of Bacchus: Exterior of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon. Source: Library of Congress

Because of its size, the Temple of Jupiter Baal ("Heliopolitan Zeus") receives the most attention. A second massive temple is located on the site as well, though, the Temple of Bacchus. It was constructed in the late second century during the reign of emperor Antoninus Pius, much later than the Temple of Jupiter Baal.

During the 18th and 19th century, European visitors referred to this as the Temple of the Sun. This was probably because the traditional Roman name for the site is Heliopolis, or "city of the sun," and this is the best-preserved temple here, though why this is the case is not clear. The Temple of Bacchus is smaller than the Temple of Jupiter, but it's still larger than even the Temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens.

In front of the Temple of Jupiter Baal is a massive main court where public worship and ritual sacrifice occurred. The same is not true of the Temple of Bacchus, however. This may be because there were no large public rituals associated with this god and thus also no large public cultic following. Instead, the cult around Bacchus may have been a mystery cult which focused on the use of wine or other intoxicating substances in order to achieve a state of mystical insight rather than the usual sacrifices which encourage public, social unity.

If this is the case, though, it's interesting that such a massive structure was built for the sake of a mystery cult with a relatively small following.

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Entrance to the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek Temple of Bacchus: Entrance to the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon
Baalbek, Lebanon Baalbek Temple of Bacchus: Entrance to the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon. Image Source: Jupiter Images

Consisting of temples to the developing Roman trinity of Jupiter, Bacchus, and Venus, the Roman temple complex at Baalbek is based upon an earlier, existing sacred site dedicated to another triad of deities: Hadad (Dionysus), Atargatis (Astarte), and Baal. The transformation from a Canaanite religious site to a Roman one began after 332 BCE when Alexander conquered the city and initiated a process of Hellenization.

What this means, in effect, is that three Canaanite or Eastern deities were worshipped under Roman names. Baal-Hadad was worshipped under the Roman name Jove, Astarte was worshipped under the Roman name Venus, and Dionysus was worshipped under the Roman name Bacchus. This sort of religious integration was common for Romans: wherever they went, the gods they encountered were either incorporated into their own pantheon as newly recognized deities or they were associated with their current deities but as simply having different names. Because of the cultural and political importance of people's deities, such religious integration helped smooth the way for cultural and political integration as well.

In this photo, we see what's left of the entrance to the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek. If you look closely, you'll see a person standing near the bottom center of the image. Notice just how large the entrance is when compared to the height of a human being and then remember that this is the smaller of the two temples: The Temple of Jupiter Baal ("Heliopolitan Zeus") was much larger.

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Interior, Ruined Cella of the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek Temple of Bacchus: Interior, Ruined Cella of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon
Baalbek, Lebanon Baalbek Temple of Bacchus: Interior, Ruined Cella of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon. Source: Library of Congress

The temples of Jupiter and Venus at Baalbek were the means by which the Romans could worship local Canaanite or Phoenician deities, Baal and Astarte. The Temple of Bacchus, however, is based on the worship of Dionysus, a Greek god which can be traced to Minoan Crete. This would mean that it's a temple integrating worship of two important gods, one earlier and one more recent, rather than an integration of one local and one foreign god. On the other hand, Phoenician and Canaanite mythology include stories of Aliyan, a third member of a triad of deities including Baal and Astarte. Aliyan was god of fecundity and this could have caused him to be integrated with Dionysus before both were integrated with Bacchus.

Aphrodite, the Greek version of Venus, was one of Bacchus' many consorts. Was he considered her consort here? That would have been difficult because Astarte, the basis for the Venus temple at Baalbek, was traditionally the consort of Baal, the basis for the Jupiter temple. This would have made for a very confusing love triangle. Of course, ancient myths weren't always read literally so such contradictions weren't a problem. On the other hand, such contradiction also wasn't always placed side-by-side in this manner and the efforts to integrate Roman with local Phoenician or Canaanite religious worship would have been a further complicating factor.

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Rear of the Small Temple of Venus

Baalbek Temple of Venus: Rear of the Small Temple of Venus at Baalbek, Lebanon
Baalbek, Lebanon Baalbek Temple of Venus: Rear of the Small Temple of Venus at Baalbek, Lebanon. Image Source: Library of Congress

The above photo shows what's left of the Temple of Venus where the Canaanite goddess Astarte was worshipped. This is the back of the temple ruins; the front and sides no longer remain. The next image in this gallery is a diagram of what the Temple of Venus originally looked like. It's interesting that this temple is so small compared to the temples of Jupiter and Bacchus -- there's really no comparison in size and it's located away from the other two. You can see a person sitting on the right-hand side of this image to get a feel for the size of the Temple of Venus.

Is this because the cult dedicated to Venus or Astarte originally located their temple at this separate location? Was it considered inappropriate to construct a massive temple for Venus or Astarte, whereas with male gods like Jupiter it was deemed fitting?

While Baalbek was under Byzantine control, the Temple of Venus was converted into a small chapel dedicated to Saint Barbara who today remains the patron saint of the city of Baalbek.

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Diagram of the Temple of Venus

Baalbek Temple of Venus: Daigram of the Temple of Venus at Baalbek, Lebanon
Baalbek, Lebanon Baalbek Temple of Venus: Daigram of the Temple of Venus at Baalbek, Lebanon. Image Source: Jupiter Images

This diagram shows what the Temple of Venus in Baalbek, Lebanon, originally looked like. Today all that's left is the wall to the rear. Although earthquakes and time probably did most of the damage, Christians may have contributed to it. There are many examples of early Christians attacking religious worship here -- not merely worship at Baalbek generally, but at the Temple of Venus in particular.

It appears that sacred prostitution occurred on the site and it may be that in addition to this small temple there were several other structures associated with the worship of Venus and Astarte. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, "men and women vie with one another to honour their shameless goddess; husbands and fathers let their wives and daughters publicly prostitute themselves to please Astarte." This could help explain why the Temple of Venus is so small relative to the Jupiter and Bacchus temples, as well as why it's located off to the side of the other two rather than integrated into the main complex.

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Colonnade of the Ruins of the Omayyad Mosque

The Great Mosque of Baalbek: Colonnade of the Ruins of the Omayyad Mosque in Baalbek, Lebanon
Baalbek, Lebanon The Great Mosque of Baalbek: Colonnade of the Ruins of the Omayyad Mosque in Baalbek, Lebanon. Image Source: Library of Congress

Christians built their churches and basilicas right on the spots of traditional pagan worship to discourage and destroy pagan religions. It is thus common to find pagan temples converted into churches or churches built on the forecourts of pagan temples. Muslims, too, wanted to discourage and eliminate pagan religion but they tended to build their mosques some distance away from the temples.

This photograph, taken in the late 19th or early 20th century, shows the ruins of the Great Mosque of Baalbek. Constructed during the Omayyad period, either in the late 7th or early 8th century, it is on the site of an ancient Roman forum and uses granite taken from the Baalbek temple site. It also re-uses Corinthian columns from older Roman structures found around the forum. Byzantine rulers converted the mosque into a church, and the succession of wars, earthquakes, and invasions have reduced the building to little more than what can be seen here.

Today Hezbollah maintains a very strong presence in Baalbek - Iran's Revolutionary Guards trained Hezbollah fighters on the temple grounds during the 1980's. The city was thus targeted by drones and air strikes by Israel during their invasion of Lebanon in August 2006 leading to hundreds of properties in the city being damaged or destroyed, including the hospital. Unfortunately, all of these bombs created cracks in the Temple of Bacchus, undermining its structural integrity which has withstood centuries of earthquakes and wars. A number of large stone blocks within the temple site also crashed to the ground.

These attacks may have strengthened Hezbollah's position because they were able to take over security in Baalbek as well as provide charitable relief to those who lost things during the attacks, thus raising their credibility in people's eyes.