Baalbek is an ancient Phoenician city in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, about 85 kilometers northeast of Beirut. Baalbek means Lord Baal of Beqaa Valley. In ancient time, it was an important site for the worship of the Phoenician sky-god Baal and his wife, Astarte, the Queen of Heaven. Once there stood a grand temple in the centre of the city, dedicated to Astarte and Baal. Subsequently, the Roman temple of Jupiter Baal was erected on its ruins.
Alexander the Great conquered Baalbek in 334 BCE and re-named it Heliopolis (City of the Sun), and in 15 BCE it became a colony of the Roman Empire. The Romans vastly improved the site with massive building projects, and under the reign of the Emperor Septimus Severus (193-211 CE) the grand temple of Jupiter Baal was built. It was the largest and most ornate religious building in the entire history of the Roman Empire. The Temple of Bacchus, still extant, is larger than the Parthenon of Athens and all the other temples of the Roman complex (which includes the temples of Jupiter, Bacchus, Venus, and Mercury). It spared destruction during the rise of Christianity through their use as churches. However, the altar of Jupiter was torn down by Theodosius. The temples continued in their role as Christian places of worship until the invasion of the Muslims in 637 CE.
Following the victory of the Muslims over the Byzantine forces at the Battle of Yarmouk, the area was re-named Al-Qalaa (the fortress). A mosque was built amid the ancient Roman temples while the constructions by the Christian were torn down and destroyed. Ultimately, it passed into the Ottoman Empire, which largely ignored the city and allowed the ruins to crumble. A series of earthquakes over the centuries further damaged the site, and it remained neglected and unattended for quite a long time. Finally, it was in 1898, when the German Emperor Wilhelm II visited the area and sent a team of archaeologists to begin work there. Their efforts, combined with the efforts of other subsequent international teams, have saved Baalbek for the future generations.
The Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek was commissioned by the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius. It was built close to the courtyard in front of the larger temple of Jupiter-Baal. The period of construction is generally considered between 150 AD to 250 AD. When the temple complex became damaged and dilapidated, the Temple of Bacchus was protected by the rubble of the rest of the site’s ruins. The temple is slightly smaller than the Temple of Jupiter and is 66m long, 35m wide and 31m high. Its walls are adorned with forty-two unfluted Corinthian columns, nineteen of which still remain upright in position standing 19 m high. The inner chamber is decorated with Corinthian “half-columns” flanking two levels of niches on each side, which contain scenes from the birth and life of Bacchus. The inner shrine (adyton) stands above a flight of steps. The structure of this temple, along with that of the temple of Jupiter, was depicted in some of the historic Roman coins.
In 1984, several ruins of Baalbek, including the Temple of Bacchus, were inscribed as a World Heritage Site.