(left) A view from the Hexagonal Court across the Great Court towards the Temple; (right) plate from "Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745": A) Temple; B) Great Court; C) Hexagonal Court; D) Propylaeum (monumental entrance)
There is another piece of antiquity in Baalbeck near the famous temple, which has been taken very little notice of by travellers; it seems to be part of a grand temple which never was finished; the entrance is very magnificent, consisting of two grand courts, encompassed with buildings. This temple, which seems to have been designed in a very fine taste, is sixty-eight paces north of the other, and extends farther to the west, very near to the city walls; a plan of the whole may be seen in the seventeenth plate. Pococke
External walls of the Hexagonal Court and of a side the Propylaeum
This temple stands on higher ground than the other, the bottom of its basement being near as high as the top of the other; the wall of the basement is left rough, and seems designed either to have been adorned with all the members of a pedestal, or to have been joyned by some other building. It is twenty-seven feet above the ground on the side next to the old temple. Pococke
are pedestals in the front of the grand entrance, which seem to have been designed for statues,
being too small for pillars. If there had been a colonade, this building
would have very much resembled the design of Bernini (actually by Claude Perrault), executed at the
Louvre in Paris. There is a square pavilion at each end, and the
rooms within are adorned with the same architecture as the walls in
the front. This magnificent entrance is at least twenty feet above the ground to the east, and without doubt a grand flight of stairs was designed to it, the foundation wall being left rough between the two pavilions. Pococke
The present stairs were added in 1905 at the initiative of German Emperor Wilhelm II, who promoted major archaeological activities after he had visited Baalbek in 1898.
There are many cities in Syria that retain their antient names;
which is a proof that the Greek names, introduced under the
Macedonian kings, were rarely received by the common people;
of this Baalbeck, or rather Baalbeit, is an instance, which signifies the house
or temple of Baal. This deity is supposed to be the same as the Sun; accordingly the Greeks in their language call this place Heliopolis, or the city
of the Sun. Pococke
The construction of an initial shrine is dated IIIrd century BC, but the temple was completed at the time of Emperor Nero. The Great Court was initiated by Emperor Antoninus Pius and completed by Emperor Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla who built also the Propylaeum. The Hexagonal Court was finished by Emperor Philip the Arab.
Hexagonal Court with evidence of "shops" or military shelters
This grand entrance leads to a court, which seems to have been
an octagon of unequal sides, as may be seen at C, in the plan; of which
there is very little remaining. Pococke
In this court worshippers most likely prepared themselves for the ceremonies which were held in the Great Court. They might have had to change their clothes and to buy perfumes or small animals for sacrifices.
Archaeologists have reconstructed two tower/altars at the centre of the Great Court which were not noticeable when Pococke visited the site. They believe their purpose was to allow worshippers to reach their top in order to perform sacrifices and to watch the cult statue inside the temple, the access to which was reserved to the priests.
Great Court: fragments of the decoration
But when you have gazed aloft till your eyes are weary, you glance at the great fragments of pillars among which you are standing, and find that they are eight feet through; and with them lie beautiful capitals apparently as large as a small cottage; and also single slabs of stone, superbly sculptured, that are four or five feet thick, and would completely cover the floor of any ordinary parlor.
Mark Twain - The Innocents Abroad - 1869
Baalbek is the triumph of stone; of lapidary magnificence on a scale whose language, being still the language of the eye, dwarfs New York into a home of ants. The stone is peach-coloured, and is marked in ruddy gold as the columns of St. Martin-in-the-Fields are marked in soot. It has a marmoreal texture, not transparent, but faintly powdered, like bloom on a plum.
Robert Byron - The Road to Oxiana - 1937 - Macmillan & Co. (read Byron's description of Shiraz and other Persian cities)
Great Court: inscriptions on pedestals of statues or tombstones: (left) of a priest (Sacerdoti IOMH) by a freedman; (right) of a "hastato", an infantryman of Legio XIII Gemina who most likely took part in Trajan's or Severus' campaigns against the Parthian Empire by his father, a centurion of Legio I Adiutrix
As the other temple was
dedicated to the sun, so it is probable this was erected in honour of all
the gods of Heliopolis, from an inscription which I
saw on one of the basements of the colonade at the front of the entrance. Pococke
Pococke conjectured about the dedication of the temple in the lack of clear evidence. Archaeological campaigns found a great number of Latin inscriptions bearing the initials I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo) H(eliopolitanus) (see them in the introductory page) which left no doubt about the god who was worshipped in the temple: Jupiter Heliopolitanus, a perfect example of syncretism which combined beliefs of the Greek/Roman world with those of the Egyptian/Phoenician one (you may wish to see the statues on the top of Nemrut Dagi in south-eastern Turkey, another attempt to merge different cultures).
Great Court: (above) southern fountain; (below) detail of the decoration
German archaeologists were able to reconstruct two very long basins in the Great Court. Their decoration is based on a series of semicircular and rectangular recesses which is typical of the stage of a Roman theatre, e.g. that of Sabratha in Libya. The presence of the basins suggests that some form of lustratio, a purification ritual consisting in throwing some water with branches of olives or laurel or with a specific instrument, took place in the Great Court.
Great Court: semicircular portico
The south side of the two courts which lead to the temple, were
either never finished, or have been much ruined, but the other side remains so entire, especially that of the Great Court that it was not
very difficult to make a plan of them. The spaces on each side were doubtless designed for some apartments, of which there are remains
to the north. Pococke
It is not easy to blame Pococke for having called apartments a series of semicircular and rectangular gigantic recesses along the sides of the Great Court, because they are very unusual and their purpose is not very clear. Two columns in each recess ensured continuity to the architectural design of the court, similar to what occurs in the Pantheon of Rome.
The monumental aspect of this and other Roman public buildings in many provinces (e.g. the Baths of Carthage, the Temple to Annia Faustina at Sardis or the Aqueduct of Segovia) had an element of propaganda, but it also promoted a sense of collective identity. Even though the development of nationalist feelings in many modern countries led to the depiction of the Romans as cruel dominators, yet the ruins of their monuments continued to be regarded with admiration and respect and often as achievements to be proud of. In 1984 Lebanon asked UNESCO to include Baalbek in their World Heritage List. The proposal was accepted on the grounds that Baalbek, with its colossal structures, is one of the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture at its apogee.
Six standing columns of the Temple of Jupiter; (inset) detail of a fallen capital with a flying bird
About fifty yards distant from the temple, is a row of Corinthian pillars, very great and lofty; with
a most stately architrave and cornice at top. This
speaks itself to have been part of some very august
pile, but what one now sees of it is but just enough
to give a regret, that there should be no more of it
Henry Maundrell - A Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem at Easter- 1697
The Temple of the Sun is nearly three hundred feet long and one hundred and sixty feet wide. It had fifty-four columns around it, but only six are standing now, the others lie broken at its base, a confused and picturesque heap. (..) The columns and the entablature together are ninety feet high, a prodigious altitude for shafts of stone to reach, truly, and yet one only thinks of their beauty and symmetry when looking at them. Twain
Dawn is the time to see it, to look up at the Six Columns, when peach-gold and blue air shine with equal radiance, and even the empty bases that uphold no columns have a living, sun-blest identity against the violet deeps of the firmament. Look up, look up; up this quarried flesh, these thrice-enormous shafts, to the broken capitals and the cornice as big as a house, all floating in the blue. Byron
Archaeological Museum of Istanbul: sculptures from the frieze of the Temple of Jupiter
In the cult attaching to this temple divination is a strong point; and divination is regarded as the prerogative of Apollon, who is to be identified with the
sun. The image of the god of Heliopolis is carried on a litter resembling those
used for the images of the gods at the procession of the Circus Games. It is
usually borne by the chief men of the district. They shave their heads, purify
themselves by a prolonged period of chastity, and are moved by the divine
spirit, carrying the litter not according to their own inclination but where the
god impels them to go (..). Persons at a distance also consult
this god, sending documents folded and sealed: he replies in order to the
contents about which they express a wish to consult him. Thus, when the
emperor Trajan was going to lead an army from that district into Parthia,
certain friends of his, devout men whose faith in this deity was based on convincing proofs, advised him to consult the oracle about the issue of his enterprise.
Acting with Roman prudence, he first tested its trustworthiness, to make sure
that human guile had no hand in the matter. He began by sending a sealed
letter, to which he desired a written reply. The god bade paper be brought, sealed, and sent off, with nothing written on it. The priests, ignorant of the
real circumstances of the correspondence, were fairly amazed at this action.
Trajan, on receiving his answer, was deeply impressed; for he himself had sent
a blank sheet to the god. He then wrote and sealed another letter, in which he
asked whether he would return to Rome when the war was over. The god
thereupon ordered that a centurion's vine-staff, one of the offerings dedicated in
his temple, should be brought, broken into bits, wrapped in a handkerchief, and
taken to him forthwith. The issue of the thing became clear when Trajan died
and his bones were brought back to Rome. For the appearance of his remains
was indicated by the broken pieces, and the time of his approaching death by
the fact that it was a vine.
Macrobius - Saturnalia, a book written in the early Vth century (from Arthur B. Cook - Zeus: a study in ancient religion - Cambridge 1914).
Fallen gargoyle of the Temple of Jupiter; (inset) the most famous postcard of Baalbek
There now remain but nine (today six) pillars, each consisting
only of one stone; they support an entablature, which is very grand,
but exactly of the same architecture as that of the other temple, except
that in the quarter round of the cornice lyon's heads are cut, as spouts
for the water (..). It is a melancholy thing to see
how the barbarous people of these countries continually destroy such magnificent buildings, in order to make use of the stone; they privately
chip the pillars in order to undermine them, and when they fall, the
stones are so large that they can carry away but very few of them. Pococke
Luckily a number of the fallen elements of the cornice were not shattered in a thousand pieces and we can admire how they were carefully carved even though they were meant to be seen from a distance.
(left) External wall of the Temple of Jupiter; (right) plinth of a column which was used to repair it
All these buildings in later times were turned into a castle; it is said this fortress
was demolished by Feckerdine (Emir of Lebanon in 1591-1635), and mounds of unburnt brick still remain in some parts, which were put up in the breaches, and against the
walls, as if they were designed to resist the force of cannon. Pococke
In the early Vth century the oracle was closed and parts of the complex were turned into a church. Sometime after the Arab conquest, the church was abandoned; it was dismantled when the site was converted into a fortress (similar to what occurred to the Theatre of Bosra and the Temple of Bel at Palmyra which are not too far away). Today it is still called qalat, castle by the locals.
Fragments of the ceiling with reliefs depicting Gorgons and the Sun; the image used as background for this page shows a rosette in another fragment of the ceiling
I can not conceive how those immense blocks of stone were ever hauled from the quarries, or how they were ever raised to the dizzy heights they occupy in the temples. (..) A race of gods or of giants must have inhabited Baalbec many a century ago. Men like the men of our day could hardly rear such temples as these. Twain
A lid and a box of sarcophagi
One of several underground galleries under the temple and the courts houses exhibits which were found in the archaeological area and more in general at Baalbek. Other exhibits are scattered about in the space between the two temples.
National Museum of Beirut - exhibits from Baalbek: (left) an elaborate capital; (centre) small statue of Jupiter Heliopolitanus (see a similar one at the Louvre Museum); (right) small statue of Venus wearing jewels
According to Macrobius, the cult statue in Baalbek came from Egypt and it was made of gold. The iconography of the god greatly departs from the traditional one of Jupiter/Zeus. It rather brings to mind statues of Ephesian Artemis with the legs wrapped up in a long gown full of symbols. The god wears on his head a kalathos, a basket shaped hat which is a symbol of fertility and abundance which can be seen also in statues of Artemis.
|Other ancient oracles/shrines in this web site:|
The Oracle of Delphi
The Shrine of Mysteries at Eleusis
The Asklepion of Kos
The Shrine of Dodoni
The sanctuary of Venus at Afrodisia
The sanctuary of Apollo at Hierapolis
The Artemision at Ephesus
The sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The sanctuary of Apollo at Delos
The Asklepion of Pergamum
The sanctuary of Apollo at Didyma
The sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace
The sanctuary of Leto at Letoon
The Asklepion of Epidaurus
The sanctuaries of Dion
The Shrine of Ba'al at Baetocece
The sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina
National Museum of Beirut: Mosaic depicting the Birth of Alexander the Great from a Roman villa near Baalbek; in the left section of the mosaic a serpent approaches Olympias, Alexander's mother
Once a serpent was found lying by Olympias as she slept, which more than anything else, it is said, abated Philip's passion for her. (..) Philip, after this vision, sent Chaeron of Megalopolis to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, by which he was commanded to perform sacrifice, and henceforth pay particular honor, above all other gods, to Ammon and was told he should one day lose that eye with which he presumed to peep through that chink of the door, when he saw the god, under the form of a serpent, in the company of his wife. (..) Eratosthenes says that Olympias, when she attended Alexander on his way to the army in his first expedition, told him the secret of his birth, and bade him behave himself with courage suitable to his divine extraction.
Plutarch of Chaeronea - Life of Alexander - translation by John Evelyn
The mosaic is dated IVth century AD and it brings to mind a mosaic depicting the Birth of Achilles which was found at Paphos on Cyprus. It was made during the transition from pagan to Christian beliefs. The subject, although being taken from the dying culture was unlikely to lead a Christian viewer to raise his eyebrows. Apart from Infant Alexander all the personages are fully clothed, no pagan gods are portrayed and the story foreshadows that of Jesus Christ.
This well preserved mosaic is dated IIIrd century AD and its execution is better than that of the previous one. Each of the sages, except Socrates, is identified by one of his most famous sayings (in a fresco at Ostia the sages were identified by sentences which were not appropriate for a philosopher).
National Museum of Beirut: Mosaic of the Seven Sages: details: (left-above) Calliope, the muse of epic poetry and the "Chief of all Muses"; (left-below) Gea, Mother Earth, is offered ears of wheat from Theros, the personification of Summer; (right) Socrates from Athens
Return to Baalbek - Introduction and Minor Temples.