There are no buses in Beirut. What they call a “bus” is actually a fifteen-seater van, with one sliding door, four functioning windows and a reckless driver. Traveling anywhere in them means squeezing into the seats with strangers, risking life and limb on the two-lane highways and not knowing when you’ll actually arrive at your destination. Still, the streets are full of these buses at Cola Intersection, ready to carry passengers into the towns outside of Beirut. Joachim, Clémence, Arnaud, Patricia, and I all jumped into one of these buses on a bright Tuesday morning, and headed east for the Beqaa Valley.
Only hours before the excursion into the hills, I arrived in Beirut, deposited my backpack at the hostel, and made my way into the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood. After one of the busiest summers I’ve ever had, I wanted to go someplace I’ve never seen, just to take pictures and write stories. I cut two weeks out of my calendar, set aside a little money, and bought tickets to Beirut, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. This is a part of the world I’ve always wanted to see. Since I was a teenager, I’ve dreamt about going into the desert, into one of the longest-inhabited parts of the world, and see the birthplace of civilization. The places I wanted to go were very much like the tip of the iceberg; I saw what I came there to see, but I saw more than I could have imagined.
And this started with a bus ride from Cola Intersection to Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. Or, as anyone born in the past 500 years would call it, “Baalbek.”
I like hostels, because they open doors that hotels don’t even know exist. Two beers into my first evening at Hostel Beirut, my roommate Patricia invited me to tag along with a small group to Baalbek the following morning. By 9 a.m., I was waiting outside the hostel with Clémence and Arnaud, who are both French, and Joachim, who is Swiss. All four of us were waiting on Patricia, who is Austrian, and was taking her sweet time. She eventually descended the stairs, and the five of us headed into downtown Beirut. If I had stayed at a hotel, with a room to myself, a lock on my door, perpetual air conditioning, and high-speed Internet, this excursion likely never would have happened.
After two hours of climbing the hills above and east of the city, getting swept up in countless traffic jams, and our driver getting his ID checked twice by the Lebanese Military, our bus spat us out into Baalbek, a 10,000-year-old town in the Beqaa Valley.
The origins of the name “Baalbek” are somewhat debated; Ba’al in the ancient Semitic languages translates into “lord,” which attached to Beqaa, would roughly translate Baalbek into “lord of the Beqaa Valley.” There’s another camp that believes the name is derived from the Roman god Bacchus, to whom a temple was erected in that town. Either way, the town has called itself Baalbek since at least 411 CE.
The Fertile Crescent of the Mediterranean features some of the oldest archaeological sites. Byblos, the sleepy beach town located just north of Beirut, is said to be the longest-continuously-inhabited city in the world. Syria, not to be outdone, boasts Damascus as the oldest capital city in the world. Neither spot can hold a candle to Göbekli Tepe, in Southeastern Turkey, which has a 12,000-year-old temple. Still, Baalbek is pretty old.
In the First Century CE, the Romans built one of the most impressive temple complexes in the empire, dominated by the towering Temple of Jupiter. The temple complex was built on top of the Greek Heliopolis, which was built during the reign of Alexander the Great. The site was likely used as a religious site long before even the Greeks arrived; the temple sits on a hill, and the altar of the temple is located at the the precise summit of the hill. There are a handful of Phoenician ruins just under the temple complex’s floor. As our little band of international tourists swung through the ancient stones, we were told that the site was probably settled by another, much older group, long before the Phoenicians. We’ll likely never know who they were– a lack of written language, or stone dwellings may have permanently hidden their identity.
As empires fall, so do their gods. Baalbek turned from paganism into Christianity under the rule of Constantine in the 4th Century, and with its conversion, came the fall of the Temple. Emperor Theodosius destroyed the complex in 379 CE. A Basilica was built in place of the temple, and the stones were carried away to other parts of the Empire. When the Byzantine Empire reigned over the Fertile Crescent, Justinian I used some of the pillars to build the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, present-day Istanbul.
Baalbek was then occupied by the Muslim Army in 634 CE, then snatched up by the Caliph Marwan II in 748 CE. From then, it was either invaded, besieged, sacked, or conquered by a dozen groups. The Fatimids, the Seljuks, the Caliphate of Damascus, and even the Crusaders all tried their hands at taking control of the region. It didn’t settle down until 1516, when the Ottoman Empire took control of Baalbek, and held on until the end of the Great War. In addition to the military conquests, the region has survived a handful of earthquakes, and a few floods. All of these have had an effect on the area, but none have permanently kept people from living here.
Today, the most prominent religious structure in the neighborhood is the Saieda Khaoula Mosque on the Southern edge of town, whose foundation goes back to the 1280’s. While the site is used for prayers and services, it also serves as a community center, just a part of life in the Valley. Even here, the space is in flux, never ceasing to change. New outdoor pavilions are under construction, opening some time in the next year.
While the control of the town changed hands over and over through the centuries, the town itself was always populated, regardless of which temples stood or got knocked down. I’m not supposed to make a direct comparison to my own hometown, but I can’t help but notice a couple similarities between Baalbek, a town that’s been effectively inhabited since humans developed agriculture, and the District of Columbia, a town that was only created a couple centuries ago. While Baalbek’s residents have some of the most bewildering and significant monuments and landmarks in their own backyard, most of the locals were focused on their day-to-day lives. Only a couple blocks from the some of the oldest ruins in the region, the winding avenues of Baalbek are alive with cars, trucks, merchants waving pedestrians into their shops, couples walking hand in hand, kids getting out of school, old men smoking hookah outdoors with a soccer game on full blast… it’s just like any other close-knit neighborhood.
Just as the sun began started to sink behind the old walls and stones of Baalbek, we climbed into the back of a bus, and headed south. Our climb through the mountains into the Beqaa Valley was mostly uphill, which meant the ride back was spent careening down the mountain highways. Rocking and swaying, back and forth in the backseat, through towns and traffic for an hour and a half, we finally arrived, with city lights looming overhead, into the center, the very heart, of Beirut.