Do not leave Lebanon without paying a visit to its most famous ancient site, Baalbek. The temple of Baalbek was meant to be bigger and more lavish than the Acropolis in Athens itself. According to an Arab legend, ghosts and spirits came together to build this temple in the Beqaa Valley. However, and in spite of their efforts, they could never finish it. In reality, due to wars, earthquakes, and human negligence, Baalbek is now just a shadow of what it once was. Do not despair! What remains is truly beautiful and gives us an idea of how magnificent the temple must have been. The name Baalbek comes from the ancient god of fertility, Baal.
Day Trip to the Temple of Baalbek
Though I had been to Lebanon before, Eitan hadn’t and was dying to go. As you know, we plan our trips along a route of essential places and leave free time to discover new ones. A visit to Baalbek was guaranteed! However, we were not sure how to organize our day trip to Baalbek. Walking one day about downtown Beirut, we stumbled upon a travel agency. They offered us an organized day trip to Baalbek for 100 USD per person. Not only did it seem expensive, but it meant we would travel with a group of tourists on a tight schedule. To us, a private tour means just us and loads of time, so no, not our thing. Instead, we inquired how to get there by public bus. Luckily, several vans a day connect Beirut with Baalbek. These wait for passengers at Cola Junction, south of the center. We took a taxi from our Radisson Blu Martinez Hotel and got there in no time. Since the vans leaven when full, we waited for half an hour before our departure. No complaints, we like catching a glimpse of everyday life.
From Beirut to Baalbek
Though Beirut and Baalbek are just 80km away, the journey can take up to three hours. The road is completely congested, and vans stop pretty often. Both our vans on the way to and back from Baalbek were pretty old. We were delighted to be the only foreigners amongst locals! However, both drivers drove like crazy! It was very hot, so people would drink water and offer us some. Of course, the bottle got thrown out of the window! Some people were smoking. Everyone was busy, chatting amongst themselves or on their phones. We got the full experience and enjoyed it! Take note that most vans continue beyond Baalbek, so they don’t stop at the city center. Instead, they drop you off at a roundabout 5km away from the temple.
What is Baalbek Town Like
We took an inexpensive taxi to the city center and were there in 5 minutes. There is a large parking lot, a small square and a couple of churches and mosques. Both the Temples of Jupiter and Bacchus are in the main compound. The Temple of Venus is the centerpiece of the smaller ruins and temples that lie across. Tourist restaurants line up the pedestrian street leading to the temple’s entrance. They sell food and drinks, and torture horses and camels for your entertainment. Actually, it is the tourists that pay local people to torture horses and camels. They don’t have a choice but to oblige. Since we wanted to avoid tourists, we sat in a small restaurant on the square. We tried Lebanese delicacies and cold drinks. At all times we felt safe and taken care of. The Lebanese are great hosts!
Brief History of Baalbek
The Greeks arrived in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis in the 3rd century BC and discovered the remains of an older Phoenician settlement and renamed it Baalbek. Under the Rule of Augustus, the Romans arrived in the area around the year 15 BC. They built the Temples of Jupiter, Bacchus, and Venus in Baalbek. The Temple of Jupiter was demolished in the 4th Century when Theodosius built a Christian basilica over it. In 643 a great earthquake destroyed the rest of the temple and the basilica. Soon after, the Arabs conquered the area and built a fortress over the temples. Baalbek’s importance was recognized again in the 20th Century, and serious reconstruction started. Of course, UNESCO had to include the temples of Baalbek in its World Heritage List in 1984.
Visit to the Main Temples of Baalbek
Though the small area around the Temple of Venus is out of reach, you can see it from the outside. You will find the ticket office on the main site. You enter the temple complex from the monumental Propylaea which are in pretty good shape. As soon as you climb the stairs, you reach the Hexagonal Court and after it the Grand Court. At the top of the Grand Court, you’ll stumble upon the remaining six pillars of the Temple of Jupiter. You have to go down to get to the Temple of Bacchus, on the left. Most of the pillars and walls are still standing. The ornamental frieze is superb. The place is so pretty, that it’s used for events on special occasions. Finally, don’t forget to look for the remains of the Arab fortress and the small museum.
When to Visit Baalbek
Try not to visit Baalbek in summer, since it can get seriously hot, as in the rest of Lebanon. We visited in early July, and it was rather hot. Though high season had started, there weren’t many tourists. It was us, independent tourists, and a few small groups with a private guide. Since Baalbek is a historic site that charges an entry fee, don’t expect to see groups of locals even during the weekends. Consequently, you can visit Baalbek any time of the day, any day of the week, and enjoy the tranquility of this ancient beauty. There is no need to rush, especially in the heat. We had to stop frequently under a shadow to rest, and admire the temples.
If you are visiting in summer, be sure to bring a hat and some sunscreen. The best thing to do is to bring your own water in a recyclable container. If you don’t, you can always buy refreshments from the restaurants. Try not to take part in the abuse of cute animals. They have feelings just like us, so carrying people on their backs is not really their cup of tea. The temples and the views from the top are spectacular. Therefore, don’t forget your camera and take plenty of photos. If you wish, you can hire a local guide to give you a tour around the temples of Baalbek. Some of them are licensed and know a lot about their history. If you are visiting during colder months, don’t forget to bring a jacket, as it can get relatively cold.
Hotels in Baalbek
According to the British Ministry of Foreign affairs, it is safe to visit the city of Baalbek, but not its surrounding areas. Thus, for a total local experience, spend a night or two in the city. By doing so, you can be the first and the last one to visit the temples. There are two great hotels in the city of Baalbek. The Palmyra Hotel is a beautiful old house converted into a hotel. It is located in Baalbek’s city center, five minutes away from the temples. The Kanaan Group Hotel is a bit away, but you can still walk to the temples. This lavish ‘nouveau riche’ style hotel offers comfortable rooms with splendid views.