Between the Eastern and the Western Lebanon Ranges, the Bekaa Plain looms with its colorful, vivid and fascinating landscapes. Its land is typically agricultural (vegetables, vines, livestock) and embraces significant ruins among which the most important is Baalbek.
At an ancient cross-road connecting the coast with the Syrian interior and North Syria with North Palestine, Baalbek lays with its huge temples considered among the wonders of the Ancient world. Baalbek overlooks the Bekaa Plain and is a witness of an imperial project that embodies the Roman determination, wealth and power.
Earthquakes, wars and raids left their traces on these temples throughout the ages. As a result, they were destroyed and rebuilt in the middle Ages. Thanks to the efforts of archeologists and Lebanese, French and German architects, this site lost nothing of its beauty and glory.
Baalbek, which is 85 kilometers away from Beirut, can be reached by passing through el-Hermel and el-Arz. It is easier to reach it from Beirut via Damascus drive way, then turning to the left along Chtaura road into the agricultural lands of el-Bekaa.
With time, the temples of Baalbek turned into a fortress that had been buried under the ruins. Though they are mere ruins, these temples attract visitors and arouse their admiration. In 1898, a German archeological expedition was the first to undergo excavation and repair works. In 1922, archeological researchers and French architects continued to excavate; and after the Independence (1943), the General Directorate of Antiquities in Lebanon undertook the responsibility of supervising those works.
The construction of the temples dates back to the end of the 3rd millennium B.C. The date is not clearly stated; most probably it is the 1st millennium B.C. The site was a place of worship on a mound with an altar inside a gallery surrounded by a wall, as mentioned in the Semitic historical writings and in the Bible.
During the Hellenistic period (333 – 64B.C.), rituals changed and Sun worship was the main cult. Thus the city was known as "Heliopolis" (the City of the Sun) like the greatest Egyptian metropolis. The old gallery was enlarged, and at the eastern side a huge podium was erected in order to become the base of the temple. However, the temple was not constructed and the presence of some huge stones is a testament to this Hellenistic project. The construction of the temple began during Augustus' reign and at the end of Nero's reign (37 – 68A.D.) and was completed in the 3rd century A.D.
The great gallery was constructed during the 2nd century, replacing the upper galleries which had been built in ancient times. The temple of Bacchus was first constructed in that era and the construction work was continued in the 3rd century, during the reign of the Severan dynasty (193 – 235 A.D.).
In that era, the entrance, the hexagonal gallery and the circular-shaped temple of Venus were constructed. Construction works were discontinued after 313, when Great Constantine announced (publically) the Milano decree-law, stating that Christianity was to become the official religion in the Roman Empire. At the end of the 4th century, Theodosius put an end to paganism in Heliopolis by demolishing its sacred images and building a basilica in the place of the Great Temple. After the Arab conquest in 636 A.D., the temples were transformed into a "Qalaa" (fortress), and the place took its name. Later, the city was ruled successively by the Umayyad, the Abbasid, the Tulunid, the Fatimid, and then the Ayyubid dynasties. In 1260, the Mongols occupied it. Afterwards, it flourished during the Mamluk period.
The temple complex in Baalbek is made up of three edifices: The temple of Jupiter; adjacent to it is the Temple of Bacchus, and the circular shaped Temple of Venus. There is a fourth temple named after the deity, Mercury, from which remained only a pile of rubble and a big stairway sculpted in stones overlooking the hill of Sheikh Abdullah.
You move from the entrance, to a huge stairway which was built during the repair works in the beginning of the twentieth century. It leads to the Proplaeum which was constructed in the mid 3rd century, and is approached by a semicircular stair-cased courtyard as well as a stairway partially repaired, along with the semicircular wall of the temple.
This front is decorated with twelve granite columns at both ends. There are three doors that lead to the unroofed Hexagonal Forecourt, surrounded by thirty granite columns built in the first half of the third century. At the end of the 4th century or at the beginning of the 5th century, this space was transformed into a church and covered with a dome.
The Great Court was built during the 2nd century covering an area of 134 ´ 112 meters including the installation of the cult. It is the successor of the ancient temples, built on the top of Baalbek Tell (hill). The court is enclosed with huge doors leading to eight rectangular and four semicircular recesses where there are niches decorated with statues. To protect the Tell from falling down, it was supported with vaulted substructures at the eastern, northern and southern fronts in addition to the podium at the western front. The vaulted substructures are underground Passages, as well as stores and stables forming the foundations of the doors and the court.
In the center of the Great Court lay the sacrificial altar and the tower, nothing of which remained except the lower courses. The tower dates back to the beginning of the 1st century A.D. It consists of two separate columns of grey and red granite. Most probably, it was built so as the worshippers could view the proceedings. These two structures were flanked by two Pools for ritual washing. Both were destroyed at the end of the 4th century, when a Christian basilica was built at their place.
After passing through the Hexagonal Forecourt and the rectangular Great Court, there lays the Great Temple of Jupiter. This consecutive way of approaching the sanctuary is the result of a thorough organization of the Semitic architectural style. The temple is of 88 meters long and 48 meters wide. It includes a monumental stairway that leads to a podium, 7 meters above the courtyard and 13 meters above the ground.
The Temple of Jupiter was destroyed, and out of its 54 columns which were 22 meters high, only six are standing. The foundations of the temple are made of large stone blocks the most famous of which are three ("Trilithon") on the west side, weighing around 200 and 1000 tons.
The Little Temple or the "Temple of Bacchus" was built during the 2nd century B.C. It is still standing and well preserved, in contrast to the Great Temple that was dedicated to the worship of the Sun. This little temple was consecrated to practice the rituals of those who were accepted as priests. The cult is centered on the young god of Baalbek, who was considered a solar god and a growth deity where birth and growth represent re-birth and immortality. Worshippers used to be addicted to wine, opium and other drugs to reach the highest degree of intoxication. Inside the temple there are carvings representing wine, and a huge stairway of thirty-three steps that leads to a five-meter high platform. Among the most beautiful historic elements of the site is the monumental doorjamb that is ornamented with the carvings of grapes, wheat spikes, poppies and metaphysical faces. At the southeastern corner of the temple there is a Mamluk tower dating back to the 15th century inside which a small museum has been founded to provide detailed information about the Islamic history in Baalbek. This tower was the residential place of the Fortress Commander because he was able to view the Fortress entrance from behind the Temple of Bacchus. There are also supporting columns that belong to a mosque.
Below the great court in the vaulted passage lays another museum that bespeaks the history of Baalbek site. At the southeastern side of the entrance lays the circular Temple of Venus, the gem of the Roman architecture, which was built in the 3rd century A.D. Its design, dimensions and orientation towards the Great Temple indicate that it was the Fortune of Baalbek and the divine protector of the city. The temple was transformed into a church in the Byzantine era, dedicated to Saint Barbara, who is still the patron Saint of Baalbek.
East north the Temple of Venus, are the remains of an Umayyad mosque dating from the 7th and 8th centuries. Most probably it was a Roman courtyard and a Byzantine church dedicated to St. John. At the corner of the northwestern side of the courtyard there is a square minaret built of old stones. Beside the mosque are the remains of "the Temple of the Nine Muses" (that Protects arts and literatures), which dates back to the beginning of the 1st century A.D.
In addition to these temples, there are Roman and Islamic buildings in the suburbs of Baalbek. South of the Qalaa, in "Bustan el-Khan", some public buildings have been repaired among which are public baths, a market and an assembly hall. To the West of Baalbek, lays the ancient spring "Ras El-Ain" which provides the town with water. There are also the ruins of a nymphæum, a small Roman shrine, and the remains of a Mamluk mosque that dates from 1277 AD.
At the southern entrance of the city, there is a quarry whose stones were used in building mosques. In the middle, there is a huge block of stone which is 21.5m ´ 4.8m ´ 4.2meters in size and weighs around 1012 tons. Most probably, it lays at either south or north of the Temple of Jupiter.
Not far from the "Stone of the Pregnant Woman" there is another block of stone about which Dr. Irwin Ruperchtsberger did some researches with specialists in Stad-Lenir Museum in Austria in 1996 and 1997.They came up with the result that it was the second largest stone. It weighs around 1248 tons. Probably it was intended to be used in building during the middle Ages, but this hasn't been achieved. There is also another quarry southwest of the city near the highway that leads to Homs, at a place called Al-Kiyyal.
On Sheikh Abdullah Hill there is the site of "Al-Amjad Dome": the remains of Sheikh Abdullah el-Younini, which was built during the reign of Al-Amjad, a grandson of Saladin and the governor of Baalbek between 1182 and 1230 AD. It contains the Sheikh's Tomb; it was constructed with stones brought over from the nearby Temple of Mercury.
At the northwest side, near an army barracks, there are the remains of a Roman gate which was a part of the fortifications in the city. Nearby is "Qubbat as-Saadin": a two-room mausoleum built in 1409 AD which was a burial place for the Mamluk governors in Baalbek.
At the Southern entrance of the city lays "Qoubbat Douris": an octagonal structure of 8 granite columns, designed as a cupola. In it lays an Ayyubid mausoleum dating from the 13th century. South of the city, there are the ruins of the Mercury Temple that was built in the 1st century B.C. above the remains of an ancient temple, dedicated to the deity who protected plants and livestock. It can be reached by way of a stairway sculpted in rocks.
Zahleh rests on the side of Sannin Mountain, reaching the BeKaa Plain. It is 945 meters high. In winter, the surrounding mountains are covered with snow, while in summer the climate is cold and dry. The city center stretches at the banks of el-Berdawni River, and the town lies at the eastern bank. At the northern side lays Wadi el-Arayish, which is known for its open air restaurants and cafés along the side of the waterway. The inhabitants of Zahleh are proud of their town being named "the Town of Wine and Poetry". In it more than fifty poets, thinkers and literary figures were born in the twentieth century; and from it the best kinds of wine and arack are produced.
Demographically, it is the third city in Lebanon (200,000 persons), besides being the economic and administrative center of Bekaa (Which occupies 42% of the Lebanese territories) and a thriving agricultural center (vegetables, fruits, grains, vines). It is separated from the coastal towns by the Western Lebanese Range. The residents of Zahleh developed their individual identity throughout history, and they have a distinguished accent.
It is 54 km away from Beirut on the Sofar and Chtaura highway, which leads to Baalbek. At six kilometers from Chtaura crossroad, there is a roundabout which leads to Zahleh. There is another road which leads to it by passing through Dhour el-Shoueir in Mount Lebanon, but this way is farther.
Zahleh was founded 300 years ago in an area rich in historic places and sites dating to pre-historical times. At the beginning of the 18th century, a lot of people from BeKaa, Mount Lebanon and Houran emigrated to Zahleh and took residence on the Berdawuni banks. The town was divided into three parts, each having its own governor. In the 19th century, Zahleh was depicted as being the first independent entity in the area with its own flag and anthem. It was burned in 1777, 1791 and in 1860, but it regained its prosperity in the Mutassarrifiyya period.
What made it more important commercially was the passing of the Beirut-Damascus railway through it in 1885, becoming the interior seaport of Bekaa and Syria, the main agricultural exchange and shopping center between Beirut and Damascus, in addition to its strong relations with Mosel and Baghdad. It was also the place where the Lebanese Army was first formed. Zahleh played a basic role at the national level.
The old houses of Zahleh are famous for their brick roofs, ornamented carved facades, high arches, and spacious reception rooms, as for example, the Jiha House with its garden, upper halls and its overall exterior shape (the best pattern for the architectural style in the beginning of the 17th century). This 24-room house was built by Sheikh Khalil Jiha, and today it is the residence of the 7th generation of the Jihas. Below it is a tunnel 1400 meters long, which connects the house with St. Elias Church. Zahleh is abundant with other houses that are known for their gardens, such as those owned by Joseph Aazar, Wadi' Skaff and the Hindi Family.
The old Saraya was built in 1885, reflecting the European influence on the local architectural style during the Ottoman period. Today, the Saraya includes the Municipality Building of Zahleh.
At the beginning of the 20th century, several hotels were constructed to meet the growing tourist needs. Among these hotels are: "Es-Sahha" (built in 1878 and at present it is pulled down), "America", "Aql" and "el-Qadery". The latter was built in 1906. It was occupied by the Turkish army in 1914 and was used as a main center and a hospital in World War I. From this hotel the French Mandatory period was declared in 1920. It encompassed the territories which constituted later Great Lebanon.
"Souk el-Balat" is a commercial paved street that leads to the oldest area in Zahleh. It was the destination of the voyagers who roamed Syria, Iraq and Palestine. Some centuries ago, "Hosh el-Zara'ina" (near the post office at the left river bank) was a bloc of "Khans", craft shops and shops at which agricultural and industrial products (such as shoe industry, carpentry, weaving, brass industry, and saddling) are sold. During the Ottoman period, this place was along a road through which caravans used to pass, carrying crops from Bekaa to Mount Lebanon. It still includes old buildings famous for their decorated roofs, interior arches and ornamented facades.
Tell Shiha hospital (on the hill that bears its name) was built in 1948. It is crowned with red bricks, and it overlooks the whole area.
Saydet el-Zalzali Church (1700) is the oldest church in Zahleh, situated in what was regarded as the heart of the town.
St. Elias Church (1720) is beautiful with its architectural design, and it is known as "El Mukhallisa" (The Savior).
Deir Saydet el-Najat (Our Lady of Deliverance) (1720) that contains a beautiful icon of the Virgin offered as a present from Prussia's Monarch. On the dome, there is the hugest bell in Lebanon.
Deir Mar Elias el-Towaq ( i.e. the Monastery of St. Elias el Touiaq) (built in 1755, renovated in 1880 after having been damaged by a fire). It is a beautiful building with its arches.
The best spot to view Zahleh: "The Tower of Saydet Zahleh", which lies east of the town, and is 54 meters high. Visitors reach its top via an elevator so they can overview the town and the Bekaa Plain. On its top lays a bronze statue of the Virgin, which is 10 meters high. It was sculpted by the Italian artist Piarrotti. At the foot of the tower lays a chapel and a spacious basilica in the ground floor.
Berdawni River slopes from the top ranges of Sannine Mountain and passes through Zahleh. Its name calls to mind the traditional Lebanese foods in the open air in simple cafés that started to appear at the banks of the river one hundred years ago.
Later bigger cafés as well as restaurants called "Casinos" appeared. They competed to attract customers by setting water fountains, pools and shadowed corners in addition to serving the most delicious kinds of the traditional appetizers and Lebanese foods.
Zahleh organizes every year (between September10th and 20th) Zahleh Carnaval, el-Karma Festival and the Flower Feast. Since 1825, when the town was saved from an epidemy, Zahleh has been celebrating "Corpus Christy", on the first Thursday of June. In the evening, there is a tour with torches, and the Day prayer is performed in Saydet el-Najat Church (Our Lady of Deliverance Church), followed by a procession during which the celebrators carry the Cross and roam the city streets.
Bekaa Plain is an area that has been fertile since earlayst times. At the entrance of South Zahleh, there is a statue of a woman who represents wine and poetry. At the northern side, there are the mounds of Wadi Hadi, Haraqat, bir Ghazour, and Tell Zeina, which are planted with vines that are used by wineries in Zahleh to produce wine and "aracak". These vineyards are famous worldwide for their top quality. There are also wineries. The most famous winery is Ksara (at the southeastern exit of Zahleh to the right side and at 2 kilometers from Chtaura Rotary). Its caverns have been engraved in rocks since the Roman period. Its wineries date back to the 17th century. In 1857, the Jesuits bought the site and assigned a private company to produce wine in the 1870s.
The wine there is one of the best of its kind due to the caverns and hallways engraved in the rocks. Ksara has gained an international fame. Tourists and visitors head for these caverns and taste their wine.
It is 6 kilometers northeast of Zahleh toward Baalbek, and dates back to the Roman period. Since the 5th century, it has been an archbishopric center. In the center of the town there are the remains of a Roman temple (destroyed). It was built according to the Corinthian style named after the deity, Apollo.
One kilometer and a half from the elevated part of the town there is Wadi el-Habees", which contains Byzantine, Roman, and Canaanite tombs and stone temples. At its foot, there is a restaurant. Some grottoes are natural, and some are man-made. Their roofs are arched and they contain reservoirs carved in rocks.
Some were the residences of hermits, and others were used for funerary and religious purposes. There is no accurate date that indicates when they were used. After you pass through those grottoes, you see a carved stone representing a riding deity and a young deity carrying branches of grapes and dates near a palm tree. Facing the site and on a hill, there is a quarry. It is a beautiful landscape amid the rocks.
It is situated at 2 kilometers from Ablah Intersection. In its upper part, which is covered with pines, there are two Roman temples named after the god, Hadaranis, and Atragatis, the Syraic-Phoenician goddess. Both temples were constructed around a water stream during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The altar is renovated, but some components are not in their place. There are sculpted figures at the feet of the columns representing Narcissus as he is about to serve wine on the incense altar. There is also a small temple (from the 1st century) at the entrance of the site, in which there are foundations and parts of four columns at the main door.
The site opens from 8:00a.m. till sunset.
At the right side of the temples there is a paved road ascending to the edge of a valley. at 2 kilometers away, it is completed by a sand pathway leading to Roman temples "Hosn Niha" (1344 meters high), which are isolated from the village in a wonderful breathtaking frame amid hills and fertile lands. Entry is free. The foundations of the walls and the main gate of the temple are still clearly seen. The rest is a pile of stones. In front of the temple, there are the ruins of a completely destroyed Byzantine basilica, as well as the ruins of a small temple, east of the site.
It is 2 kilometers and a half away from the main highway towards the North. You turn left at the signboard of the Ministry of Tourism then toward the heights of the village where this Roman temple lays. Its measures are similar to those of Hadaranis Temple in Niha, and it retains its huge stairways and foundations. In front of the steps, there is the base of the Holy Umbrella: a square-shaped structure that was surrounded by ten columns. The triangular entrances as well as the ground have been re-built.
At a hill overlooking the region, there is a tower 26 meters high which is seen from several kilometers away. It was renovated in the early 1930s. Its facades are ornamented with hunting scenes. Most probably it is the burial place of a Syrian prince from North Beqaa in the 1st century, who died in a hunting trip. Its base is made of 3 black basalt steps. On top of the tower. there is a pyramid-shaped dome. The front part is decorated with the statue of a boar hit by three arrows, and attacked by three watchdogs; above which there is a huge cylinder surrounded with ropes or tiny rolls. Most probably the drawings were ornamented with calligraphy that is not used today.
At the northern side there are two deer facing each other, standing on a threshold below which there are two intersected spears. It seems as if the two deers escaped from a trap. The western side is ornamented with a huge bull attacked by two wolves behind which there are bows and spears. The southern side is graded and in it the body of an animal is seen. It might be a bear.
It is reached after crossing 2 kilometers north of Qamou' el-Hermel toward Hermel town, specifically Ain Zarqa Spring, (the most important spring of el-Aassi River), which flows from n the rocks. At the sources of el-Aassi lays Deir Mar Maroun: a group of grottoes carved in rock at three levels. It dates back to the 6th and 7th centuries; it was a temporary resort for the followers of St. Maroun, the founder of the Maronite Sect. Later Arabs fortified those grottoes.