The ancient city of Baalbek Lebanon is located in the somewhat dangerous Bekaa Valley. In fact, when consulting the travel advisory websites of both the UK and Belgium we found that this ancient wonder is located in a red zone – advice against all travel. Yet we still visited and felt very safe – How did we visit Baalbek Lebanon in a safe and responsible way?
A short history of the ancient city of Baalbek Lebanon
Baalbek is an ancient city 85 km northeast of Beirut and close to the border of Syria – in fact, we saw Syria a few times when driving to Anjar and Baalbek. The dramatic backdrop of snow covered hilltops and the well-preserved archaeological ruins make this one of the most beautiful places to visit in Lebanon.
Alexander The Great turned what was a small yet ancient Phoenician city into the famous Heliopolis. Heliopolis was a large cosmopolitan trade hub due to its great location between the city of Damascus and the coast where the Phoenicians had built many trade posts in the past.
Later on the Romans would develop Baalbek considerably. They ‘’Romanised’’ it so to speak. They built the temple of Jupiter Baal which was widely considered to be the most beautiful and imposing religious building in the history of the Roman Empire.
The Byzantines – the spiritual successors of the Romans (they obviously were considered to be the Eastern Roman Empire) built a large Cathedral (Thing Hagia Sofia) on the Ruins of Baalbek which the Arabs destroyed and made into a mosque after they defeated the Byzantines at the battle of Yarmouk.
When the Ottomans took hold of the region the city was gradually forgotten. This was due to the fact that the Ottomans were not necessarily very interested in Baalbek, which meant the city and its ruins started to deteriorate.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century – after reconstruction works by German Archeologists, that the world became interested in Baalbek again. Especially the temple of Bacchus was considered to be an impressive masterwork and the most beautiful temple of the complex.
What to visit in Baalbek Lebanon
Baalbek is a vast archaeological site of which most is not even excavated. I still remember the guide tell us that beneath the bakery in the distance they found proof there was a large amphi theatre and that there were at least 5 other temples they had not yet excavated as they had been built on and over during the last few centuries.
But when we consider the current site there are 5 main temples or places to visit in Baalbek.
Remains of the Temple of Jupiter (Great Temple)
The grand Jupiter temple with its impressive entrance, high altar and huge square lined with many beautifully decorated side rooms was the main temple of Heliopolis (now Baalbek, Lebanon). Here, for centuries, believers and pilgrims came to consult Jupiter Heliopolitanus or ask him to take a look into the future. Among them also Emperor Trajan, who asked the deity a question by means of a letter.
Temple of Bacchus (small temple)
A second, slightly smaller temple was built south of this main temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus in the second century. Now it is one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world. Despite the wars, looting, and earthquakes that have ravaged Baalbek over the centuries, many columns still stand. Everywhere the stone is beautifully decorated with acanthus leaves, palmettes, egg moldings, flowers, small figures …..
The Great Court of the temple of Jupiter is 135 metres wide and 113 metres long – making it indeed a massive court. On the Great court you can see two towers which were deliverately built on the summit of the hill.
The Great Court is also surrounded by porticoes. These porticoes had facades of columns which were erected out of a very particular pink granite. This pink granite was imported from Egypt. This Great Court will be the very first thing you see when entering Baalbek.
Temple of Venus in baalbek lebanon
The Temple of Venus often is forgotten when visiting Baalbek. This is because it is literally situated on the other side of the road, essentially cutting it off from the rest of the archaeological park. This temple was dedicated to the Roman goddess of love: Venus.
Later on the temple was used as a church which was dedicated to Saint Barbara who was (according to legend) the daughter of a Heliopolitan (Baalbek) dignitary.
Can you go to Baalbek on your own
If you want to visit Baalbek I would strongly advise against setting off on your own. The streets to Baalbek are lined with military posts that ask everyone where they are going and what their business are. Military personnel does not often speak French and their English is not very good.
The Beqaa valley is also home to hundreds of refugee camps. Because people are living together in makeshift camps and in less than ideal situations the situation can quickly change. You do not want to be stuck in a battle between local law enforcement and hungry refugees.
Another good reason why you should not travel to the region on your own is because this is still Hezbollah controlled area. At Baalbek itself vendors, for instance, will want to sell you Hezbollah T-shirts.
Although I myself did not feel unsafe at any point when visiting Baalbek, it is important that you understand that the situation in the Beqaa valley can quickly evolve: whether it is very localised such as protests or a more widespread unrest. Because the Bekaa valley is in a red zone, the chance your embassy will be able to help you is very small as they advised against all travel.
How to safely visit Baalbek lebanon
Does this mean you cannot visit Baalbek at all?
No, luckily it doesn’t.
There are multiple tour groups who have been organising trips to Anjar and Baalbek for the past years. They set out with a big bus full of tourists every day and know exactly and precisely what to do and who to speak to when things go south.
It is this kind of tour Josh and I took to Baalbek, and we did not feel unsafe or in danger at any point during our trip.
I would highly recommend going with a tour when visiting Baalbek – even though it might be a bit expensive. The tour guide is a local who knows what she is doing. We were sat at the side of the road for 40 minutes as a woman on our bus took a picture from the bus of one of the checkpoints. An angry soldier wanted to arrest her (taking pictures of check points is not something they go over lightly) but our guide was able to talk him out of it. In the end she just had to delete the picture. It might have been a bit scary, but in the end our guide had our back and was able to make this all go away.
That is the kind of protection I am very happy to pay for.