One would assume that the largest Roman temple ever built would be in Rome, but it is in fact the Middle East that is home to the biggest Roman temple complex in the world.
Perched atop a hill overlooking modern-day Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, Baalbek is one of the ancient world’s most important pilgrimage sites and a notable destination for thousands of pilgrims who flocked to venerate the three Roman deities Bacchus, Jupiter, and Venus.
Named after the Phoenician god Baal, the ancient Phoenician city of Baalbek was first inhabited as early as 9,000 BC.
After Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332BC, the city became known as Heliopolis (City of the Sun) and went by that name throughout the Greco-Roman period. The Romans, who annexed Baalbek to the Roman Empire during their eastern wars and later established colonies in the region, equated Baal with their own god Jupiter Heliopolitan, for whom they built the first temple in 1BC.
The ruins of the early Phoenician temple remain today beneath the Roman Temple of Jupiter, which has endured as the largest and grandest religious building in the history of the Roman Empire since its completion around 60AD. The Romans later built the ornate Temple of Bacchus and the smaller Temple of Venus nearby.The colossal structure, which boasts the world’s tallest stone columns, was built over a period of more than two centuries and became one of the most famous sanctuaries of the Roman world.
With the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, the site was Christianised and spared neglect and destruction. While the altar of Jupiter was torn down by Theodosius I who used the stones to construct a Christian basilica, the temples served as Christian places of worship until Muslim rule over the region.
Muslims renamed the area Al-Qalaa (the fortress) after defeating the Byzantine forces at the Battle of Yarmouk and built a mosque amid the ancient Roman temples which they had fortified. The site eventually came under Ottoman rule, having survived more Byzantine raids, the Mongols, and numerous military campaigns.
Most of the ruins were restored throughout much of the 20th century by European and Lebanese archaeologists, and in 1984 Baalbek was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Today, the site is a Lebanese national treasure and a spectacular backdrop to the Baalbeck International Festival which hosts captivating performances by global artists every year.
A trip to Lebanon would be incomplete without a visit to Baalbek to marvel at the ancient site’s magnitude, grandeur, and tremendous history.