BAALBEK - LEBANON'S SACRED FORTRESS

Andrew Collins, investigates one of the world's greatest enigmas - the Great Platform at Baalbek in Lebanon and uncovers its links with giants, Titans and a previously unknown culture.

 

PART ONE

In the recent past the tranquillity of the Beqa'a Valley, that runs north-south between the Lebanon and Ante-Lebanon mountain ranges, has been regularly shattered by the screeching noise of Israeli jet fighters. Their targets are usually the Hizbullah training camps, mostly for reconnaissance purposes, but occasionally to drop bombs on the local inhabitants. It is a sign of the times in the troubled Middle East.

Yet the Beqa'a Valley is also famous for quite another reason. Elevated above the lazy town of Baalbek is one of architecture's greatest achievements. I refer to the almighty Temple of Jupiter, situated besides two smaller temples, one dedicated to Venus, the goddess of love, and the other dedicated to Bacchus, the god of fertility and good cheer (although some argue this temple was dedicated to Mercury, the winged god of communication).

Today these wonders of the classical world remain as impressive ruins scattered across a wide area, but more remarkable still is the gigantic stone podiums within which these structures stand. An outer podium wall, popularly known as the `Great Platform', is seen by scholars as contemporary to the Roman temples. Yet incorporated into one of its courses are the three largest building blocks ever used in a man-made structure. Each one weighs an estimated 1000 tonnes a piece.(1) They sit side-by-side on the fifth level of a truly cyclopean wall located beyond the western limits of the Temple of Jupiter.

Even more extraordinary is the fact that in a limestone quarry about one quarter of a mile away from the Baalbek complex is an even larger building block. Known as Hajar el Gouble, the Stone of the South, or the Hajar el Hibla, the Stone of the Pregnant Woman, it weighs an estimated 1200 tonnes.(2) It lays at a raised angle - the lowest part of its base still attached to the living rock - cut and ready to be broken free and transported to its presumed destination next to the Trilithon, the name given to the three great stones in ancient times.

The enigma is this - although the high-tech, computer programmed jet fighters that scream through the Beqa'a Valley possess laser-guided missiles that can precision bomb to within three feet of their designated target, there is not a crane today that can even think of lifting a 1000-tonne weight, never mind a 1200-tonne weight like the stone block left in the quarry. Confounding the mystery even further is how the builders of the Trilithon managed to position these stones side by side with such precision that, according to some commentators not even a needle can be inserted between them.(3)

So who were the supermen behind this breath-taking project? Surely the world is aware of their origins and history. Who were these people?

Unfortunately, however, nobody knows their names. Nowhere in extant Roman records does it mention anything at all about the architects and engineers involved in the construction of the Great Platform. No contemporary Roman historian or scholar commentates on how it was constructed, and there are no tales that preserve the means by which the Roman builders achieved such marvellous feats of engineering.

Why?

Why the silence?

Surely someone, somewhere, must know what happened.

And herein the problems begin, for the local inhabitants of the Beqa'a Valley - who consist in the main of Arab Muslims, Maronite Christians and Orthodox Christians - do preserve legends about the origins of the Great Platform, but they do not involve the Romans.

They say that Baalbek's first city was built before the Great Flood by Cain, the son of Adam, whom God banished to the `land of Nod' that lay `east of Eden' for murdering his good brother Abel, and he called it after his son Enoch.(4) The citadel, they say, fell into ruins at the time of the deluge and was much later re-built by a race of giants under the command of Nimrod, the `mighty hunter' and `king of Shinar' of the Book of Genesis.(5)

So who do we believe - the academics who are of the opinion that the Great Platform was constructed by the Romans, or the local folktales which ascribe Baalbek's cyclopean masonry to a much earlier age? And if we are to accept the latter explanation, then who exactly were these `giants', gigantes or Titans of Greek tradition? Furthermore, why accredit Cain, Adam's outcast son, as the builder of Baalbek's first city?

In an attempt to answer some of these questions it will be necessary to review the known history of Baalbek and to examine more closely the stones of the Trilithon in relationship to the rest of the ruins we see today. It will also be necessary to look at the mythologies, not only of the earliest peoples of Lebanon, but also the Hellenic Greeks. Only by doing this will a much clearer picture begin to emerge

Heliopolis of the East
Scholars suggest that Baalbek started its life as a convenient trading post between the Lebanese coast and Damascus. What seems equally as likely, however, is that - situated close at the highest point in the Beqa'a, and set between the headwaters of Lebanon's two greatest rivers, the Orontes and Leontes - this elevated site became an important religious centre at a very early date indeed.

Excavations in the vicinity of the Great Court of the Temple of Jupiter have revealed the existence of a tell, or occupational mound, dating back to the Early Bronze age (c.2900-2300 BC).(6) By the late second millennium BC a raised court, entered through a gateway with twin towers, had been constructed around a vertical shaft that dropped down some fifty yards to a natural crevice in which `a small rock cut altar' was used for sacrificial rites.(7)

In the hills around the temple complex are literally hundreds of rock-cut tombs which, although plundered long ago, are thought to date to the time of the Phoenicians,(8) the great sea-faring nation of Semitic origin who inhabited Lebanon from around 2500 BC onwards and were known in the Bible as the Canaanites, the people of Canaan. They established major sea-ports in Lebanon, northern Palestine and Syria, as well as trading posts across the Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic seaboard, right through till classical times. Indeed, it is believed that Phoenicia's mythical history heavily influenced the development of Greek myth and legend.

Following the death of Alexander in 323 BC, Phoenicia was ruled successively by the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt and the Seleucid kings of Syria until the arrival of the Romans under a general named Pompey in 63 BC. The first-century AD Jewish historian Josephus tells of Alexander's march through the Beqa'a on his way to Damascus, during which he encountered the cities of `Heliopolis and Chalcis'.(9) Chalcis, modern Majdel Anjar, was then the political centre of the Beqa'a, while Baalbek was its principal religious centre.

Heliopolis was the name given to Baalbek under the Ptolemies of Egypt sometime between 323 and 198 BC. Meaning `city of the sun', it expressed the importance this religious centre held to the Egyptians, particularly since a place of immense antiquity bearing this same name already existed in Lower Egypt.

Following a brief period in which Mark Anthony handed Lebanon and Syria back to Queen Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, Lebanon became a Roman colony around 27 BC, and it was during this phase in its history that construction began on the Baalbek temples.(10)

The principal deity they chose to preside over Baalbek was Jupiter, the sky god. He was arguably the most important deity of the Romans, taking over the role of Zeus in the Greek pantheon. Jupiter was probably chosen to replace the much earlier worship of the Canaanite god Baal (meaning `lord') who had many characteristics in common with the Greek Zeus. It is, of course, from Baal that Baalbek derives its name, which means, simply, `town of Baal'. Yet when, and how, this god of corn, rain, tempest and thunder, was worshipped here is not known, even though legend asserts that Baalbek was the alleged birth-place of Baal.(11) In the Bible Baalbek appears under the name Baalath,(12) a town re-fortified by Israel's King Solomon, c. 970 BC (1 Kings 9:18 & 2 Chr. 8:6), confirming both its sanctity to Baal at this early date and its apparent stragetic importance on the road to Damascus.

Some scholars have suggested that Baal (Assyrian Hadad) was only one of a triad of Phoenician deities that were once venerated at this site - the others being his son Aliyan, who presided over well-springs and fecundity, and his daughter Anat (Assyrian Atargatis), who was Aliyan's devoted lover. These three correspond very well with the Roman triad of Jupiter, Mercury and Venus, whose veneration is almost certainly preserved in the dedication of the three temples at Baalbek. Many Roman emperors were of Syrian extraction, so it would not have been unusual for them to have promoted the worship of the country's indigenous deities under their adopted Roman names.(13)

Whatever the nature of the pre-Roman worship at Baalbek, its veneration of Baal created a hybrid form of the god Jupiter, generally referred to as Jupiter Heliopolitan. One surviving statue of him in bronze shows the beardless god sporting a huge calathos head-dress, a symbol of divinity, as well as a bull, a symbol of Baal, on either side of him.(14)

The Temple of Jupiter
When the Romans began construction of the gigantic Temple of Jupiter - the largest of its kind in the classical world - during the reign of Emperor Augustus in the late first century BC, they utilised an existing podium made up of huge walls of enormous stone blocks.(15) This much is known. Academics suggest that this inner podium, or rectangular stone platform filled level with earth, was an unfinished component of an open-air temple constructed by the Seleucid priesthoods on the existing Bronze Age tell sometime between 198 and 63 BC.(16) Baalbek's great sanctity was well-known even before the building of the temple, for it is said to have possessed a renowned oracle which, according to a Latin grammarian and author named Macrobius (fl. AD 420), expressed itself through the movement of a great statue located in the courtyard. It was attended by `dignitaries' with shaven heads who had previously undergone long periods of ritual abstinence.(17)

As the temple complex expanded throughout Roman times, the existing foundations extended southwards, beyond the inner podium, to where the Temple of Bacchus (or Mercury) was eventually constructed in the middle of the second century BC. It also extended north-eastwards to where a great court, an observation tower, an enclosed hexagonal court and a raised, open-air altar were incorporated into the overall design. To the south, outside the Great Court, rose the much smaller Temple of Venus as well as the lesser known Temple of the Muses.

According to Professor H. Kalayan, whose extensive surveying programme of the Baalbek complex was published in 1969, the Temple of Jupiter and its east facing courtyard were planned simultaneously as one overall design.(18) Yet in the age of Augustus this should have meant that the temple be placed at one end of a courtyard that surrounded it on all sides; it was the style of the day. This, however, is not what happened at Baalbek, for its courtyard ceased in line with the temple fa !ade. This Professor Kalayan saw as a deliberate change of policy, even though `foundations' for an extension to this courtyard were already in place on the north side of the temple.(19)

The Trilithon
Did the Roman architects of Baalbek chop and change their minds so easily? Their next move would appear to suggest as much, for they decided that, instead of extending the courtyard, they would continue the existing pre-Roman temple podium behind the western end of the Temple of Jupiter. This mammoth building project apparently necessitated the cutting, transporting and positioning of the three 1000-tonne limestone blocks making up the Trilithon. Their sizes vary between sixty-three and sixty-five feet in length, while each one shares the same height of fourteen feet six inches and a depth of twelve feet.(20) Seeing them strikes a sense of awe unimaginable to the senses, for as a former Curator of Antiquities at Baalbek, Michel M. Alouf, aptly put it: `No description will give an exact idea of the bewildering and stupefying effect of these tremendous blocks on the spectator'.(21)

The course beneath the Trilithon is almost as bewildering. It consists of six mammoth stones thirty to thirty three feet in length, fourteen feet in height and ten feet in depth,(22) each an estimated 450 tonnes in weight. This lower course continues on both the northern and southern faces of the podium wall, with nine similarly sized blocks incorporated into either side. Below these are at least three further courses of somewhat smaller blocks of mostly irregular widths which were apparently exposed when the Arabs attempted to incorporate the outer podium wall into their fortifications.(23) Indeed, above and around the Trilithon is the remains of an Arab wall that contrasts markedly from the much greater sized cyclopean stones.

There is no good reason why the Roman architects should have needed to use such huge blocks, totally unprecedented in engineering projects of the classical age. Further confounding the picture is that the outer podium wall was left `incomplete'. Furthermore, the even larger 1200-tonne cut and dressed Stone of the Pregnant Woman lying in the nearby quarry (which measures an incredible sixty-nine feet by sixteen feet by thirteen feet ten inches(24)), would imply that something went wrong, forcing the engineers to abandon completion of the Great Platform.

Why?

Scholars can only gloss over the necessity to use such ridiculously large sized blocks. Baalbek scholar Friedrich Ragette, in his 1980 work entitled, simply, Baalbek, suggests that such huge stones were used because `according to Phoenician tradition, (podiums) had to consist of no more than three layers of stone' and since this one was to be twelve metres high, it meant the use of enormous building blocks.(25) It is a solution that rings hollow in my ears. He further adds that stones of this size and proportion were also employed `in the interest of appearance'.(26)

In the interest of appearance? But they don't even look right - the Trilithon looks alien in comparison to the rest of the wall.
Ragette points out that the sheer awe inspired by the Trilithon ensured that Baalbek was remembered by later generations, not for the grandeur of its magnificent temples, but for its three great stones which ignorant folk began to believe were built by superhuman giants of some bygone age.(27)

Was this the real explanation why giants were accredited with the construction of Baalbek - because na 9ve inhabitants and travellers could not accept that the Romans had the power to achieve such grand feats of engineering?

There is no answer to this question until all the evidence has been presented in respect to the construction of the Great Platform, and it is in this area that we find some very contradictory evidence indeed. For example, when the unfinished upper course of the Great Platform was cleared of loose blocks and rubble, excavators found carved into its horizontal surface a drawing of the pediment (a triangular, gable-like piece of architecture present in the Temple of Jupiter). So exact was this design that it seemed certain the architects and masons had positioned their blocks using this scale plan.(28) This meant that the Great Platform must have existed before the construction of the temple.

On the other hand, a stone column drum originally intended for the Temple of Jupiter was apparently found among the foundation rubble placed beneath the podium wall.(29) This is convincing evidence to show that the Great Platform was constructed at the same time, perhaps even later, than the temple.

So the Great Platform turns out to be Roman after all, or does it?

It could be argued that the column drum was used as ballast to strengthen the foundations of the much earlier podium wall, and until further knowledge of exactly where this cylindrical block was found then the matter cannot be resolved either way.

The Big Debate

The next problem is whether or not the Romans possessed the engineering capability to cut, transport and position 1000-tonne blocks of this nature. Since the Stone of the Pregnant Woman was presumably intended to extend the Trilithon, it must be assumed that the main three stones came from the same quarry, which lies about one quarter of a mile from the site. Another similar stone quarry lies some two miles away, but there is no obvious evidence that the Trilithon stones came from there.

Having established these facts, we must decide on how the Roman engineers managed to cut and free 1000-tonne stones from the bed-rock and then move them on a steady incline for a distance of several hundred yards.

Ragette suggests that the Trilithon stones were first cut from the bed-rock, using `metal picks' and `some sort of quarrying machine' that left concentric circular blows up to four metres in radius on some blocks (surely an enigma in itself).(30) They were then transported to the site by placing them on sleighs that rested on cylindrical wooden rollers. As he points out, similar methods of transportation were successfully employed in Egypt and Mesopotamia, as is witnessed by various stone reliefs.(31) This is correct, for there do exist carved images showing the movement of either statues or stone blocks by means of large pulley crews. These are aided by groups of helpers who either mark-time or pick up wooden rollers from the rear end of the train and then place them in the path of the slow-moving procession.

Two major observations can be made in respect to this solution. Firstly, this process requires a flat even surface, which if not present would necessitate the construction of a stone causeway or ramp from the quarry to the point of final destination (as is evidenced at Giza in Egypt). Certainly, there is a road that passes the quarry on the way to the village, but there is still much rugged terrain between here and the final position of the blocks. Secondly, the reliefs depicting the movement of large weights in Egypt and Assyria show individual pieces that are an estimated 100 tonnes in weight - one tenth the size of the Trilithon stones. I feel sure that the movement of 1000-tonne blocks would create insurmountable difficulties for the suggested pulley and roller system. One French scholar calculated that to move a 1000-tonne block, no less than 40,000 men would have been required, making logistics virtually inconceivable on the tiny track up to the village.(32)

Practically Impossible
The next problem is how the Romans might have manoeuvred the giant blocks into position. Ragette suggests the `bury and re-exacavate' method,(33) where ramps of compacted earth would be constructed on a slight incline up to the top of the wall - which before the Trilithon was added stood at an estimated twenty-five feet high. The blocks would then be pulled upwards by pulley gangs on the other side until they reached the required height; a similar method is thought to have been employed to erect the horizontal trilithon stones at Stonehenge, for instance. Playing devil's advocate here, I would ask: how did the pulley gangs manage to bring together these stones so exactly and how were they able to achieve such precision movement when the land beyond the podium slopes gently downwards? Only by creating a raised ramp on the hill-slope itself, and then placing the pulley gangs on the other side of the wall could an operation of this kind even be attempted.

And how were the stone blocks lifted from the rollers to allow final positioning? Ragette proposes the use of scaffoldings, ramps and windlasses (ie. capstans) like those employed by the Renaissance architect Domenico Fontana to erect a 327-tonne Egyptian obelisk in front of St Peter's Basilica in Rome. To achieve this amount of lift, Fontana used an incredible 40 windlasses, which necessitated a combined force of 800 men and 140 horses.

Based on an estimated weight of 800 tonnes per stone(34) (even though he cites each one as 1000-tonnes a piece earlier in the same book(35)), Ragette proposes that, with a five-tonne lifting capacity per drilled Lewis hole, each block would have required 160 attachments to the upper surface. He goes on: `Four each could be hooked to a pulley of 20 tons capacity which in the case of six rolls needed an operating power of about 3 tons. The task therefore consisted of the simultaneous handling of forty windlasses of 3 tons each. The pulleys were most likely attached to timber frames bridging across the stone.'(36)

Such ideas are pure speculation. No evidence of any such transportation has ever come to light at Baalbek, and the surface of the Trilithon has not revealed any tell-tale signs of drilled Lewis holes. Admittedly, the Stone of the Pregnant Woman remaining in the quarry does contain a seemingly random series of round holes in its upper surface, yet their precise purpose remains a mystery.

As evidence that the Romans possessed the knowledge to lift and transport extremely heavy weights, Ragette cites the fact that between AD 60 and 70, ie. the proposed time-frame of construction of the Jupiter temple, a man named Heron of Alexandria compiled an important work outlining this very practice, including the use of levers to raise up and position large stone blocks.(37) Curiously, the only surviving example of this treatise is an Arabic translation made by a native of Baalbek named Costa ibn Luka in around 860 AD.(38) Did it suggest that knowledge of this engineering manual had been preserved in the town since Roman times, being passed on from generation to generation until it finally reached the hands of Costa ibn Luka? Of course it is possible, but whether or not it was of any practical use when it came to the construction of the Trilithon is quite another matter.

The Archaeologists' View
No one can rightly say whether or not the Romans really did have the knowledge and expertise to construct the Great Platform; certainly some of the Temple of Jupiter's tall columns of Aswan granite, at sixty-five feet in height, are among the largest in the world. And even if we presume that they did have the ability, then this cannot definitively date the various building phases at Baalbek. For the moment, it seemed more important to establish whether there existed any independent evidence to suggest that the Great Platform might not have been built by the Romans.

Over the past thirty or so years a number of ancient mysteries writers have seen fit to associate the Great Platform with a much earlier era of mankind, simply because of the sheer uniqueness of the Trilithon. They have suggested that the Romans built upon an existing structure of immense antiquity. Unfortunately, however, their personal observations cannot be taken as independent evidence of the Great Platform's pre-Roman origin.

There is, however, tantalising evidence to show that some of the earliest archaeologists and European travellers to visit Baalbek came away believing that the Great Platform was much older than the nearby Roman temples. For instance, the French scholar, Louis F licien de Saulcy, stayed at Baalbek from 16 to 18 March 1851 and became convinced that the podium walls were the `remains of a pre-Roman temple'.(39)

Far more significant, however, were the observations of respected French archaeologist Ernest Renan, who was allowed archaeological exploration of the site by the French army during the mid nineteenth century.(40) It is said that when he arrived there it was to satisfy his own conviction that no pre-Roman remains existed on the site.(41) Yet following an indepth study of the ruins, Renan came to the conclusion that the stones of the Trilithon were very possibly `of Phoenician origin',(42) in other words they were a great deal older that the Roman temple complex. His reasoning for this assertion was that, in the words of Ragette, he saw `no inherent relation between the Roman temple and this work'.(43)

Archaeologists who have followed in Renan's footsteps have closed up this gap of uncertainty, firmly asserting that the outer podium wall was constructed at the same time as the Temple of Jupiter, despite the fact that inner podium wall is seen as a pre-Roman construction. Yet the openness of individuals such as de Saulcy and Renan gives us reason to doubt the assertions of their modern-day equivalents.

A similar situation prevails in Egyptology, where in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries megalithic structures such the Valley Temple at Giza and the Osireion at Abydos were initially ascribed very early dates of construction by archaeologists before later being cited as contemporary to more modern structures placed in their general proximity. As has now become clear from recent research into the age of the Great Sphinx, there was every reason to have ascribed these cyclopean structures much earlier dates of construction.

So what was it that so convinced early archaeologists and travellers that the Trilithon was much older than the rest of the temple complex?

The evidence is self apparent and runs as follows:-

a) One has only to look at the positioning of the Trilithon and the various courses of large stone blocks immediately beneath it to realise that they bear very little relationship to the rest of the Temple of Jupiter. Moreover, the visible courses of smaller blocks above and to the right of the Trilithon are markedly different in shape and appearance to the smaller, more regular sized courses in the rest of the obviously Roman structure.

b) The limestone courses that make up the outer podium base - which, of course, includes the Trilithon - are heavily pitted by wind and sand erosion, while the rest of the Temple of Jupiter still possesses comparatively smooth surfaces. The same type of wind and sand erosion can be seen on the huge limestone blocks used in many of the megalithic temple complexes around the northern Mediterranean coast, as well as the cyclopean walls of Mycenean Greece. Since all these structures are between 3000 and 6000 years of age, it could be argued that the lower courses of the outer podium wall at Baalbek antedate the Roman temple complex by at least a thousand years.

c) Other classical temple complexes have been built upon much earlier megalithic structures. This includes the Acropolis in Athens (erected 447-406 BC), where archaeologists have unearthed cyclopean walls dating to the Mycenean or Late Bronze Age period (1600-1100 BC). Similar huge stone walls appear at Delphi, Tiryns and Mycenae.

d) The Phoenicians are known to have employed the use of cyclopean masonry in the construction of their citadels. For instance, an early twentieth-century drawing of the last-remaining prehistoric wall at Aradus, an ancient city on the Syrian coast, shows the use of cyclopean blocks estimated to have been between thirty and forty tonnes a piece.

These are important points in favour of the Great Platform, as in the case of the inner podium, being of much greater antiquity than the Roman, or even the Ptolemaic, temple complex. Yet if we were to accept this possibility, then we must also ask ourselves: who constructed it, and why?

Notes

Part Two