Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I have wanted to visit Baalbek since high school. And it wasn’t even because of the alien spaceships.
Mr. Hamel, my classics and art history teacher back in New Zealand, showed us photos of Baalbek as an example of Roman temple architecture. Mr. Hamel’s lessons, including on Baalbek, form a cornerstone of my education.
And now I have finally seen it for myself.
Baalbek is only a few miles from Lebanon’s border with Syria, so that the security situation, according to reports I’ve read, has fluctuated in the years since the war in Syria began. Luckily for me, right now the area is perfectly safe. Even so, it is a little jarring while standing atop the podium of the Temple of Jupiter to hear what sounds like distant gunfires. And just outside shopkeepers are trying to sell t-shirts printed with the Hezbollah flag, with the signature green and yellow color scheme and the alif in the titular Arabic word stretching up to form a raised fist clutching an AK-47.
A short distance away from the ruins is the quarry from which much of the material for construction was mined. One megalith leaning diagonally with a Lebanese flag planted on it particularly attracts attention. It is the largest stone block from antiquity ever discovered, weighing in at 1,650 tons, forty times the weight of the largest stone from Stonehenge.
The temples of Baalbek are made of such stuff. Past the Temple of Venus, small and much ruined in comparison, the monumental steps of the Temple of Jupiter welcomes me up to the outer colonnade. Inside, an enormous courtyard spreads out before me, large enough to encompass the entirety of some ancient cities.
Up a further platform at the far end of the courtyard, I approach the sanctuary where a statue of Jupiter would have resided. Jupiter, or really Baal. “Baal” was an ancient Semitic word meaning “lord.” As a title for a god, it referred to the Phoenician god Hadad, the god of storms. Ancient Phoenicians called him “Baal” to avoid referring to his true name, much as in the Hebrew tradition God is referred to as Adonai, “the Lords.” (Not to mention that the tetragrammaton YHWH or “Yahweh” literally means “I am that I am,” God’s answer to Moses asking for His name. Exodus 3:14.) When the Romans took over this area, they practiced an instance of interpretatio romana, whereby the gods of other religions were identified with existing Roman ones based on similar attributes. Hadad was the god of storms, as Jupiter was the god of thunder.
Of the sanctuary, a famous half dozen enormous Corinthian columns out of fifty-four original ones still stand today. I’ve heard that, in Lebanon, one way to praise a prominent individual is to call that person “the seventh column.” Unfortunately for me, they are under renovation, obscured by scaffolds. A few of the delicately carved lion-head capitals that were once atop these columns, however, now lie at ground level for me to examine.
Next to the Temple of Jupiter is the Temple of Bacchus, the best preserved of the lot. Its external colonnade, nearly as epic as that of the Temple of Jupiter must have been, is almost completely intact. On the awnings are carved reliefs of imperial figures. The one of Cleopatra with the snake that bit her has fallen and again offers the visitor an up close look. And perched above the entrance into the sanctuary, an astonishingly well-preserved relief of Jupiter’s eagle looks down at each visitor who crosses the threshold.
But oh yes, I’ve forgotten to tell you about the aliens. As I said, the rocks used at Baalbek are enormous. Indeed, everything is enormous at Baalbek. Everything is bigger than it needs to be. There is no temple more colossal than Baalbek anywhere in the Roman Empire, and yet its location was then a backwater near the Persian frontier rather than in Rome or some other center. In 1860, the Scottish traveler David Urquhart, so puzzled by Baalbek, wrote that it was “so enormous, as to shut out every other thought, and yet to fill the mind only with trouble.”
It is this puzzle that led one Zecharia Sitchin to propose that the Temple of Jupiter’s podium was actually a landing pad for alien spaceships. According to Sitchin, in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh learned from his mother, the goddess Ninsun, that as a demigod he could attain immortality. But to do so he must travel to where the gods, who were in fact aliens, came from. This, Sitchin claimed, was a planet called Nibiru, as yet unknown to astronomy, that orbited around the sun somewhere beyond Pluto. To make the trip, Gilgamesh had to go to “the Landing Place,” where ships from Nibiru could pick him up, which Sitchin located in Baalbek.
Needless to say, reputable archaeologists do not take Sitchin’s theory seriously. It’s clearly one entry in the pseudoscientific tradition of men like Erich von Däniken (Chariots of the Gods), wherein whatever is difficult for our modern minds to comprehend gets attributed to alien gods. Alien gods, let’s not forget, are creatures of fiction. H. P. Lovecraft invented the notion that gods worshipped on earth were aliens from distant worlds in stories such as The Call of Cthulhu.
Baalbek is a glorious mystery. Maybe we’ll never figure it out. But that’s no excuse to grasp for the straws of alien spaceships. Knowledge begins with knowing what it is we don’t know and learning to accept it.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."