We had the place to ourselves.
It’s the off season, for one thing – tourists don’t usually show up in great numbers until April. Driving over the summit of the Lebanon Mountains, there was still plenty of snow on the ground. (Baalbek itself was fine, though – sunny and pleasant.) More to the point, there’s been some shooting along the border near Baalbek… supposedly the Lebanese Army squaring off against ISIS in Syria, though who knows. Anyway, in two hours of strolling around Baalbek I think we saw maybe three other tourists.
So Baalbek. As I noted in the last post, it’s this huge pile of ruins that used to be a pre-Christian religious site. It was big in Phoenician and Hellenistic times, and then the Romans made it bigger. At various times, almost a dozen different Emperors stopped here to sacrifice and take the omens. The scale of the place is impressive. For instance, there were dozens of granite columns that weighed sixty tons each. There’s no granite in Lebanon, so these had to be quarried in Egypt, floated down the Nile and overseas, and then hauled several thousand feet up and over the Lebanon Mountains. Our guide said that this was done by building two parallel “walls” – stone rails, basically – and rolling the columns along. There are also some ridiculous large solid limestone blocks – we’re talking slabs the size of a freight container, weighing hundreds of tons. There are a lot of theories about how they moved those, but apparently it’s still an open question.
(Our guide: it’s not required, but it is strongly encouraged that one takes a guide through Baalbek. Ours was pretty good. His price was reasonable – 35,000 Lebanese pounds or about $25 to guide the three of us for about 90 minutes – and he was knowledgeable and spoke good English. His patter was a bit rehearsed at times, but after the thousandth time that’s probably not surprising.)
Religion in the pagan world involved sacrifice, so the center of the complex was two sacrificial altars, one for large animals like sheep and cows and another for birds and other small stuff. Apparently the mechanics of this were fairly well known: there were basins of holy water for washing the animals in advance, flames in which to throw some of the meat, gutters (still intact) for carrying off the blood, and so forth. It does make one wonder: was the atmosphere like a slaughterhouse, all terrified bellowing and squawking and the thick reek of blood everywhere? Or did they keep it neat?
Mark Twain came through Baalbek in the 1870s, and was suitably impressed. "At eleven o'clock, our eyes fell upon the walls and columns of Baalbec, a noble ruin whose history is a sealed book. It has stood there for thousands of years, the wonder and admiration of travelers; but who built it, or when it was built, are questions that may never be answered. One thing is very sure, though. Such grandeur of design, and such grace of execution, as one sees in the temples of Baalbec, have not been equaled or even approached in any work of men's hands that has been built within twenty centuries past." Twain could get a little overheated, but Baalbek really is quite something; the intact Temple of Bacchus deserves to stand beside the Acropolis, and the ruins of the main Temple of Jupiter must have been ridiculously spectacular.
It did leave me wondering: was Roman Baalbek a purely top-down construction, a prestige project for various Emperors? Or was it funded and maintained by a huge stream of pilgrims over hundreds of years? And if the latter... what a curious thought, to think of large numbers of people in the Roman world traveling for hundreds of miles for religious reasons. Did the medieval pilgrim routes simply recreate something that had already existed a thousand years earlier?
There were no less than three museums in the grounds -- a Roman/Phoenician one, a Mameluke one, and a big general historical museum up by the front. The Mameluke one was there because the Mamelukes turned Baalbek into a fortress for a while, so a lot of the Roman ruins have medieval ruins on top of them, with arrow slits and Moorish arches. The Roman/Phoenician one contained a lot of sarcophagi, including one with a young woman's skeleton still inside. Scattered at her feet were a number of tiny glass containers. At first I thought they were candlesticks, but the guide said they were tear vials: mourners would collect their tears, and drop them into the grave.
In the Temple of Bacchus, there's a plaque commemorating Kaiser Wilhelm's visit to the site. It's in 19th century German on one side, Ottoman Arabic on the other. Apparently the Kaiser was a patron of the archeological diggings here. History doesn't have a lot of good to say about Wilhelm, but this was a thing.
I could have killed another hour or two wandering around -- I never did finish touring the third museum -- but then we would have ended up driving down the mountain after dark. So after about 90 minutes we moved along. There were a few touts hanging around the parking lot trying to sell us stuff, but there were so few tourists that they were pretty half-hearted. One guy was selling yellow Hezbollah t-shirts: the Hezbollah flag is bright yellow with a fist clutching an AK-47 on it. I admit that I briefly considered it. (When you work in development, you're tempted by the occasional conversation starter.). But, no.
Afterwards we stopped at a local restaurant and had roasted garlic chicken with mezze and arrack. “Mezze” is the term for all the little dishes, hummus and stuffed grape leaves and babaghanoush and such, that are brought as preludes or accompaniments to a meal. Arrack is wine alcohol mixed with aniseed; it is served cold, tastes like licorice and turns cloudy when you mix it with water.
Back in Ottoman times, there was a railroad that ran down the length of the Levant from Turkey, through Syria and Palestine, all the way to Mecca. Then someone – either the Ottomans or the French, I don’t know – built a spur going up over the mountains into the Bekaa Valley. As noted, the Lebanon Mountains are nearly a mile high and steep, so this was no small effort. Presumably the idea was to open up the immense agricultural potential of the Bekaa to export markets. So Lebanon used to have a functioning railroad system, with connections running north to Turkey and south to Egypt. But in 1947, the southern link was cut when Palestine became Israel; and then during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the whole network got broken up and destroyed. No train has actually run in Lebanon since the 1980s. And none will again for many many years, if ever; the tracks have been torn up in many places, and the rights-of-way have been built over.
I mention all this because it happens that our restaurant was next to an old rail yard. It was pretty big; I’m guessing it was the end-of-the-line yard for the Bekaa Valley branch. And sitting on the rusty tracks were several train cars, including three locomotives. Eating our garlic chicken while sipping our iced arrack, we could look out the window right at them. The locomotives were solid orange with rust, but looked otherwise pretty intact; they looked like coal-burning steam engines, built sometime in the first quarter of the 20th century. A couple of stray dogs picked their way around the old rail yard, but otherwise it was still and quiet, and obviously had been for a long time.
(Did I mention that garlic chicken, or garlic anything, is a rare treat? Claudia is violently allergic to garlic, so I gave it up when we got married. But when I’m on the road… Also, the Lebanese know how to make a good French fry! After years of soggy, greasy, tasteless Eastern European French fries, this is a tiny but real pleasure.)
On the way back to Beirut, we passed a camp of Syrian refugees. There are several hundred thousand Syrians in Lebanon right now, fleeing the civil war there, and it doesn’t look like they’re going home any time soon. The refugee camp looked like someone had put several hundred sheds down in the middle of a farmer’s field.
Going down the mountain, we ran into a a half hour of gridlock traffic -- that happens a lot, in Lebanon, and often for no visible reason -- and then, after we emerged, into a thick bank of fog: we literally could not see more than a single car length ahead. Somewhere in there our driver Jamil asked us if he could buy us a coffee, which turned out to be Lebanese for "I need to stop and get a coffee". So we did, at a little general store by the side of the road. And then we came down out of the mountains and emerged from the clouds, and drove into Beirut by the bright light of the sun setting over the Mediterranean.