Built of stone blocks weighing up to a hundred tons transported to the site by muscular force alone, the temples of Baalbek have survived majestically to the present day. In the fifth century, historians listed them among the 'wonders of the world', referring to them, for the first time, as 'the temples of Baalbek' - the name by which they are still known today.

Baalbek means 'God (Baal) of the Beqaa', and refers to the fertile Beqaa plain. As Hélène Sader, a doctor in archaeology and professor at the American University of Beirut explains 'The fact that the name of that locality is not mentioned in Assyrian and Egyptian records proves it was not considered important. In the Seleucid (323-64 BC) and Roman (64 BC-312 AD) periods, the town was known as Heliopolis, the City of the Sun.'

The golden age of Baalbek began in the year 15 BC when Julius Caesar made it a Roman colony, Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Heliopolitana, and settled a legion there. The construction of the temple, dedicated to Jupiter Heliopolitanus and the largest religious building in the entire Roman empire, got under way, rising above an immense rectangular base measuring eighty eight by forty eight metres. Accessible by a staircase carved out of enormous monolithic blocks, and surrounded by fifty four columns with a diameter of 2.2 metres and a surprising height of twenty metres (the height of a six storey building), this massive construction is worthy of the god even a Roman Emperor might choose to consult. The historian René Dussaud relates how the Emperor Trajan inquired of the Heliopolitan Jupiter whether he would return alive from his wars against the Parthians. In reply, the god presented him with a vine shoot cut into pieces. Trajan met his death in this war, and only his remains returned to Rome. In the temple courtyard, fragments of cornices and capitals attest to the refinement of the sculpture adorning this building. Work on this shrine lasted over a century and a half, and was never completed. Today, only six columns remain standing as a reminder of its former grandeur. The rest were either destroyed by earthquakes or stolen. Justinian appropriated eight of them for the basilica of Hagia Sophia. As for the temple stones, they were used to build the Byzantine basilica of Baalbek, which was raised on the site and of which nothing remains today. Those same stones later served to consolidate the walls of the enclosure of the religious building which the Arabs used as a fortress. It was Nero (54-68 BC) who built the tower-altar opposite the Temple of Jupiter. It presumably allowed pilgrims to stand on the terrace for a few moments and see the figure of the god at the back of the temple. In accordance with a Semitic tradition adopted by the Romans, the poor were not admitted to the shrine. Nowadays, only the ground floor of that monument survives.

As emperors succeeded one another in Rome, the construction of new buildings in Heliopolis continued. Trajan (98-117) built the main courtyard leading to the Temple of Jupiter. Measuring 135 metres by 113 metres, it was decorated on three sides with twelve magnificent quadrangular and circular exedrae (benches) each preceded by a portico. 'The columns of those porticoes and facades are in pink granite from the quarries of Aswan in Egypt. Painted inscriptions on certain exedrae explain how they were used: Confraternities and communities took their sacred meals there, thus communing with the officiating priests', wrote Maurice Chehab, former director of the Board of Antiquities of Lebanon in his book Monuments of Baalbek.

Behind the great courtyard stood the Temple of Bacchus built by Antoninus Pius (138-161). This marvel of architecture, sculpture and ornamentation gives an excellent idea of what the overall religious site of Heliopolis looked like, since it is the best preserved building of the complex. This building, sixty nine metres long by thirty six metres wide, is smaller than the Temple of Jupiter. Forty two columns nineteen metres in height surround it, and the richly decorated entablature illustrates the skill and elegance of Roman art. The ceiling of the northern peristyle is graced with polygonal and triangular boxes decorated with foliated scrolls surrounding busts of such divinities as Mars, Victory, Diana, Hygeia, etc. Visitors have to look upwards as they walk along, running the risk of returning home with a stiff neck. The portal of the cella is exceptionally beautiful. Adorned with carved friezes and narrative scenes, it offers tantalising hints as to the identity of the god to whom this temple was dedicated.

The foliated scroll vine designs and the child suckling a nymph would ascribe this temple to Bacchus, but the eagle of the soffit (underside) of the same portal is shown clutching a caduceus, the attribute of Mercury. Since the last century, however, this temple has definitely been ascribed to the former. Its cella is decorated with Corinthian grooved columns forming pilasters and two-storey niches. Graffiti from the last century are still apparent on the upper part, indicating the level reached by the rubble that once covered it. The Temple of Venus stands a bit apart. Built by Septimus Severus (193-211), it is the only pentagonal shrine in Lebanon. Surrounded by columns and decorated with niches, it has been described by Mr Chehab as 'the most elegant monument in the entire Roman world'. According to Eusebius, in the worship of its divinity: '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'. Unfortunately, this monument is closed to the public because its surroundings have not yet been excavated.

Once temple construction was completed, the Roman emperors turned their energies to building courtyards and the main entrance to the religious complex. Caracalla (211-217) took charge of the latter and the propylaea (entrance ways) do indeed illustrate the grandeur of the ancient site. They consist in a portico with twelve columns, flanked by two towers and topped by a triangular ornamental facade. It is said that a chief legionary paid out of his own pocket for two bronze capitals in honour of the gods of Heliopolis and Caracalla. Emperor Philip the Arab (244-249) was the last to add a monument - the hexagonal forecourt - to that series of buildings. Joining the propylaea (entrance way) to the main courtyard, the forecourt is decorated with four exedrae (semi-circular benches) each preceded by four columns and decorated inside with two rows of niches.

More than two centuries were needed to complete the construction of the largest place of worship in the Roman Empire, built in a manner showing respect for the Semitic gods and rites. There were three temples for the three divinities, father, mother and son, who form the divine triad of Heliopolis. Jupiter, the great god of thunder, is identified with Baal, Venus with Astarte, goddess of fertility and water. As for Bacchus, he replaces a sun god who 'represented the vegetation spirit' according to Mr Chehab. Everything seems to indicate that worship took place out of doors. The altars were set up on the roofs of the temples, in a purely oriental tradition, as attested by the stairs leading up to them. Sacred prostitution is another example of the Semitic rites that unfolded in these Roman buildings.

These monuments were to serve as a place of worship until the empire was christianised. They were then destroyed by the Christian emperors. Theodosius had the tower-altar knocked down, as well as the statues, and built a great basilica with stones from the Temple of Jupiter. That was the end of Heliopolis. The city of the sun declined and lapsed into oblivion.

During the Arab conquests, the temple ruins were fortified and the entire area soon took on a new name: Qalaa, an Arab word meaning fortress. In fact, for centuries, the temples of Heliopolis were to serve as a refuge for the invaders, who also erected a mosque and a tower. The temples were completely forgotten by the authorities under Ottoman rule, but they were destroyed by successive earthquakes, especially the one of 1759.

Two centuries later, Baalbek was rediscovered, and the few vestiges emerging from tons of rubble sufficed to dazzle travellers and orientalists. But it was the German emperor, William II, who decided to restore the temples. He was on his way to Jerusalem for the official consecration of the Evangelical Church of the Saviour, in November 1898. One month later, in December that same year, the German mission sent to excavate and restore the monuments reached Baalbek. 'That team's work was not completed until six years later. The archaeologists put some order into the site which had been largely disfigured by rubble. They unearthed the temples and restored all that could be restored. The fruit of those years of labour became a reference work for future generations. All the maps and, especially, all the reconstitutions are contained in the three volumes they published', explains Henrich R. Reinstorm, ex-director of the Goethe Institute, the German cultural centre in Lebanon. The German missions were followed by French archaeologists, who pursued the restoration and consolidation work. The Board of Antiquities of Lebanon subsequently succeeded them.

Last year two museums were inaugurated in the ruins of Baalbek. The first of these, located in the base of the Temple of Jupiter, deals with the Roman period and the onset of the excavations, while the second is housed in the Mameluke Tower and presents small objects illustrating life in medieval Baalbek. 'Created to commemorate the centennial of the German kaiser's journey and the initiation of work by that mission, the museum was set up with Lebanese-German funding and is the fruit of a joint effort of a team from the Board of Antiquities of Lebanon and the German Institute of Archaeology in Berlin' Dr Hélène Sader points out.

The next stage will be to discover the location of the remains of the city of Baalbek itself. Archaeological surveys will be carried out in the entire surrounding area in order to determine the original town plan. Excavations are also planned to study the town's stratigraphy and such endangered vestiges as the Roman quarries will be protected by ministerial decree', stresses Assad Seif, the chargé d'affaires of the Board of Antiquities.

For over half a century the ruins of Baalbek have dazzled the world. Each summer, its famous festival is one of Lebanon's most important cultural events. On the steps of the Temple of Jupiter or inside the Temple of Bacchus, Herbert von Karajan, Mstislav Rostropovitch, Fayrouz and many others have enchanted entire generations. The beauty of the ancient site shines forth in the glow of the spotlights and, on starry nights, the applause of the crowd seems to awaken the very gods from their slumber.

Where time stands still

Joanne Farchakh