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All Ruins Do Not Look Alike

July 18, 2013
This Is Not the Baalbek You Are Looking For

These Are Not the Ruins You Are Looking For

CNN’s “Inside the Middle East” ran a travel and tourism piece late last night on one writer’s trip to Baalbek, the site of the Roman imperial city Heliopolis. The ruins there are magnificent in both their scale and condition; indeed, Baalbek may be the best preserved ancient city in all of Lebanon.

The piece, by Adrian Mourby, is pretty poorly done. While one gets a sense, however misleading, of the surrounding town with its “broken” main road, “scruffy outskirts,” children playing in the streets “oblivious to passing cars,” and mentally ill tour guides who insist on wearing layers upon layers of clothing despite the boiling heat, a clear picture of the ruins themselves remains elusive in Mourby’s descriptions. That’s unfortunate–it really is an extraordinary place.

More unfortunate, however, is the cover photo included to illustrate the article–a wide angle shot of an empty ancient thoroughfare lined on both sides by archways and pillars in various states of disrepair. The road leads to what look to be more elaborate structures obscured in a hazy vanishing point. It’s a decent shot. Too bad it isn’t Baalbek.

The photo shows another site of ancient ruins in Lebanon: the spectacular Umayyad city of Anjar. This isn’t a case simply of sloppy photo editing–the photo was taken by the author himself, which suggests that the ball was dropped at least a few times during the production process. No matter.

Seeing as CNN didn’t do justice to grandeur of Baalbek, I thought I would take the opportunity to show you what the place actually looks like. What follows below are a selection of photos I took when I visited Baalbek this past June.

A run through the ruins begins with a staircase up to the city’s entry gates…

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…and leads into the propylaea:

Baalbek's entry portal.

The ancient city opens up into a hexagonal forecourt…

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…that then leads to Baalbek’s Great Court, which today is strewn with the wreckage of scattered columns and other detritus from structures destroyed long ago.

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You could spend hours investigating what’s left of the Great Court which, wandering through the various nooks and basins in and around what was once the city’s main basilica.

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From there, it’s just a few steps more to one of the ancient world’s great temples.

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As you ascend to the Sun Temple, it’s worth turning around for another look at the court below:

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The site is home to the now almost completely destroyed Temple of Jupiter which, given the floor plan which is still intact, must have been simply humungous. All that’s left of the original structure is this stretch of its eastern facade.

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Here it is seen from the southwestern edge of the old city.

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This close-up of one of the columns gives you a sense of just how orange they appear in the late afternoon sun:

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From Jupiter’s temple, you swing around through the city’s ancient gate, and then along a pathway to the old guardhouse, which today houses the smaller of the site’s two museums.  Along the way, visitors to the city encounter patches of perfectly preserved elegance such as this platform (which I am assuming once housed a statue) built into one of Baalbek’s many walls.

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No matter where you are, Jupiter’s surviving columns are rarely completely out of sight.  Here they peak over a partially destroyed lining to the staircase from the guardhouse to Baalbek’s main attraction.

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The Temple of Jupiter may have crumbled under the destructive forces of earthquakes, but the Temple of Bacchus continues to stand proud directly to the east of Jupiter’s great columns. To give you a sense of scale, keep in mind that this temple is bigger than the Parthenon in Athens.

The Temple of Bacchus

The Temple of Bacchus

Inside the Temple of Bacchus, the sheer scale of the thing is overwhelming and wonderful to take in, not to mention meditate upon.

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The temple’s interior seen from its western wall.

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Even a cursory glance around the temple’s insides…

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…gives one a sense…

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..of the extraordinary craftsmanship that went into the temple’s design and execution.

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And here’s a close up, looking up, at the temple’s exterior columns. Or, as my friend Jonathan Cooper quipped, what you’d see if you looked up a Transformer’s skirt:

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A quick run along the temple’s exterior to the southwest…

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…reveals a glimpse of the destructive impact of previous earthquakes, which shook some of the columns loose from their bases. This one came to rest against the temple wall.

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From the outside, one also gets some nice views of the interior:

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And finally, though it does not sit within the ruins of ancient Heliopolis, no trip to Baalbek–or really to the Bekaa Valley–is complete without taking in this gem of religious architecture, a mosque on the “scruffy outskirts” of the city leading to the ancient city. It’s exterior design is simply stunning. This photo gives you a taste of how spectacular the place is, but hardly does it justice just the same.

mosque baalbekCNN, if you’re reading this, feel free to use any of these photos of the actual Baalbek to accompany your piece on the ruins so long as there’s proper attribution. Oh, and compensation would also be nice!

Update: CNN finally got around to changing the lead photo to something more, er, accurate. Well done. I still think my pictures are nicer, though. 😉

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