Went to Baalbek today.
I'm in Lebanon for a few weeks, about which more anon. If you're in Lebanon, you really need to visit Baalbek, because it's amazing. It was original a huge Phoenician temple complex devoted to the worshop of Baal -- yeah, the guy from the Old Testament -- and then the Hellenistic rulers reinterpreted it as "we're really worshipping Zeus, Aphrodite, and Dionysus", and then the Romans came along and rebuilt it all into an even more immense and spectacular complex dedicated to Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus. It's just ridiculously huge -- acres and acres of ruins -- and there's enough left standing to give you some idea of how astonishing it must have been, back in the day. It was a major, major religious site, maybe the closest equivalent to a Mecca that the ancient world had.
We (my colleagues and I) were considering not going to Baalbek, because there'd been some shooting and shelling along the border nearby. Supposedly ISIS is present just across the border into Syria. (Lebanese may disagree with each other on a lot of things, but they almost all agree in despising ISIS.) But we discussed it and decided to go, albeit with care. I have a negative Life List of wonders of the world that I've managed to miss despite spending time nearby -- Angkor Wat, Petra (twice), Victoria Falls -- and I really didn't want to add Baalbek. Odds and ends from the trip:
- Jamil, our driver, was a little terrier of a man, well past retirement age but still an extroardinarily aggressive driver, and still gifted with a thick, glossy head of white hair. (Which he attributed to using only the local soap from his home village, instead of shampoo.) Jamil liked to stop and yell at people for directions. I know that casual interpersonal interactions in the Arab world can seem odd to Westerners, but seriously... Jamil just shouted at people. Everyone was pretty cool, though, and we managed to get everywhere eventually.
- To get to Baalbek, you have to climb up and over the Lebanon Mountains, which are nearly a mile high and really steep. Jamil's radiator immediately began overheating. (I don't know how old Jamil's car was, but it still had a tape deck. With a tape in it.) Jamil kept pulling over and putting water in. It didn't help. When he dropped us off at Baalbek he said he was going off to "get a new radiator". We assumed he meant a radiator hose or something like that but when we met him again a couple of hours later he said, no, he had bought a new radiator and had it installed.
- Baalbek is up at the northern end of the Bekaa Valley, which means it's about as far as you can get from Beirut without leaving the country. (This is not actually very far... maybe 100 km.) The Bekaa is a lush, gorgeous valley, just 20 miles from the sea but three thousand feet above sea level, that lies between the Lebanon Mountains and the imaginatively named Anti-Lebanon Mountains, a parallel range that lies ten miles further east and inland. So the Bekaa is about ten miles wide and it stretches for about a hundred miles, north to south. It's ridiculously fertile and is the reason that little Lebanon is actually a major exporter of agricultural products: wine, olives, dairy, you name it. The Middle East's largest potato chip factory is up there.
- One passes a lot of military checkpoints. Most of these had just a couple of bored-looking soldiers: you slow down, they glance at you and wave you through. I don't know what the purpose of these is. Maybe just to make clear that there's a military presence?
- The area around Baalbek is almost entirely populated by Shi'as. It's pretty easy to tell when you're in a Shi'a town. The women are suddenly wearing headscarves, for starters. (This is not the case in most of Lebanon.) The signs get a lot more Arabic, and English and French become less common. There are still plenty of billboards, but fewer female models and they're usually wearing more clothes. And big posters and cutouts of Shi'a heroes start appearing along the roadsides... pudgy clerics in black with bushy beards and glasses, beefy looking military men in camo garb.
- There's Baalbek the archeological site, and then there's the town of Baalbek -- about 100,000 people, almost all of them Shi'a. And the town of Baalbek also includes a huge Shi'a shrine. It's a shrine to Sayeeda Khalwa, who was a daughter of Imam Hussein. This gets into come complex early Islamic history, but here's the short version: Imam Hussein is a holy martyr to the Shi'a. He was the loser of a power struggle in the generation of Islamic rulers that followed Mohammed's death. You may remember reading or hearing about the big Shi'ite shrine in Karbala, Iraq? That's the shrine to Imam Hussein. So, after the battle, it seems that his family were marched captive back to Arabia. And during the trip, his youngest daughter -- who was just a tiny thing, less than five years old -- died.And she was buried in Baalbek the town, not half a mile down the road from the old temple complex. And so today there is a huge and beautiful mosque and shrine there. I mean, just gorgeous: all peacock blue and green with a shiny golden dome . And it particularly attracts Shi'ite women from all over the Middle East.
I suppose I should write something about Baalbek itself. But that may take a little while, and I don't want to start another blog post and leave it unfinished -- I've done that more than once over the last little while. So let's get this up, and I'll try to come back to Baalbeck shortly.