This Middle Eastern Structure is One of the Best Preserved Roman Temples in the World

This Middle Eastern Structure is One of the Best Preserved Roman Temples in the World

Stephanie Schoppert - May 27, 2017

Towering over the surrounding buildings the Temple of Bacchus in the ancient city of Baalbek remains one of the most impressive examples of Roman architecture ever built. The city of Baalbek went by several names including Heliopolis or City of the Sun but it became known for its massive and elaborate structures which included three giant temples.

The city rests in what is now modern-day Lebanon in the Beqaa Valley but during the 1st century BCE it was part of the Roman empire. Over the next two centuries the Romans built the city into a towering metropolis that was designed to make the people of the region have a great respect for the rule of Romans. Three temples were built on the site with the largest being the Temple of Jupiter.

The Temple of Bacchus and the Temple of Venus were smaller and today only portions remain of the Temples to Jupiter and Venus. The six large remaining columns of the Temple of Jupiter are the largest anywhere in the Roman world and are one of the most popular sites in the ancient city.

This Middle Eastern Structure is One of the Best Preserved Roman Temples in the World
Temple of Bacchus column relief.

The Temple of Bacchus was sometimes referred to as the small temple because it was the smaller temple in the city but it is bigger than the Parthenon in Athens. The temple was built in honor of Bacchus the Roman God of Wine who had a large cult following at the time the temple was built. Bacchus was also very popular in the region and it was hoped that the temple would help to convince the people to follow Roman rule.

While the carvings and statues led most to believe that the Temple was built in honor of Bacchus it is still not clear whether or not that was the intended deity for the Temple. Despite so little being known about the Temple it remains one of the most treasured ruins of the Roman world.

The temple was commissioned by Emperor Antoninus Pius. It was designed around 150 A.D. by an unknown architect. It was built close to the courtyard of the Temple of Jupiter which may have helped with the preservation of Temple of Bacchus. Construction was believed to take place between 150 CE and 250 CE. The temple is massive at 66 meters long and 35 meters wide.

In order to increase the prominence of the temple and make it something that the people of the region would be familiar with, Pius built two towers on the eastern edge of the Temples’ entrance. This make it something that mirrored the design of the buildings of the region while the rest of the temple had the traditional design of a Roman temple.

It was not just the size of the temple that set it apart from all the others of the period and the Roman empire. The temple was also exquisite in its decoration and carvings. The walls are adorned by forty-two Corinthian columns, 19 of which remain standing today. Each column stood 19 meters high while the entire temple stands 31 meters high. Above the columns is a beautifully carved entablature though of much it is now crumbling.

The cella is decorated with “half-columns” which flanks two levels of niches on either side that show scenes from the birth and life of the god Bacchus. The reliefs and statues within the temple are some of the most refined to last through antiquity. The decorated stone carving includes rows of lions and bulls which were motifs that were associated with Bacchus.

This Middle Eastern Structure is One of the Best Preserved Roman Temples in the World
Temple of Bacchus Entrance. Flickr

The main entrance is decorated with grapes and vines which speak to Bacchus as the God of wine. There are also sculptures within the temple that show the rituals, practices, people and creatures that were associated with the god and the people of the region. The ornamentation of the temple served as an important model for Neoclassical architecture.

Everywhere you look inside the temple there are intricate and elaborate carvings that give the temple a lavish and elegant feel. Some of the carvings depict agricultural gods and there is evidence to support a mystery religion developing in the region and being worshipped at the temple. During the neoclassical period the temple was known more as the Temple of the Sun rather than the Temple of Bacchus.

The history of the temple and how it managed to remain in such remarkable condition while the rest of the city remains in ruins is as inspiring as the temple itself.

This Middle Eastern Structure is One of the Best Preserved Roman Temples in the World
Temple of Bacchus and the medieval fortifications.

The cult room of the temple is surrounded by columns that are attached to the wall. There are two levels of statue niches. There are two levels to the main room, a lower part and a higher part which is reachable by stairs. There are damaged parapets which are decorated with dancing Maenads which part of the reason why it is believed that this is a Temple of Bacchus. Underneath the higher part of the room is a crypt which is believed to be where the cultic vessels were kept. The

The Temple of Bacchus still stands today largely due to luck and because the temple was part of Baalbek’s medieval fortifications. Additions were made to the temple during the medieval period that changed the look and of some areas of the temple. There were also changes made to improve the temple’s function as a medieval fortification. A square tower in the southeast can still be found in part of the stairs leading to the temple and barracks can be seen in the southwest.

Centuries of earthquakes did some damage to the temple and the surrounding buildings. To some extent it was the crumbling ruins of the other buildings that helped to protect the prized temple. The temples at the site were subjected to theft and war in addition to the destruction caused by the earthquakes. The 1759 earthquakes caused extensive damage to the site with the keystone of the lintel sliding 2 feet.

In the 1860s a column of rough masonry was erected to support the keystone. The lintel is intricately decorated with an eagle (the symbol of Jupiter), holding the herald’s staff (the symbol of Mercury) situated between two cupids (the symbol of Venus). It is the lintel that ties the entire city complex together.

There is also evidence that the entrance to the temple was preserved as early at the 16th century. A German expedition to the site in the 1898 began to preserve and excavate the site. The German expedition began to reconstruct the ruins. There are inscriptions from German emperor Wilhelm II and Turkish sultan Abdulhamid II. In later years French mandate led to extensive clearings and repairs which further helped to improve the site. Eventually it was the Lebanese who would continue to restore and renovate the ruins.

In 1984 the ruins at Baalbek including the prized Temple of Bacchus were inscribed as a World Heritage Site. Today the modern city of Baalbeck which stands close to the ruins is the principal centre of Al-Biqa. The city is located in one of the area’s most fertile farming regions.

Tourism due to the ruins is now a major part of the city’s economy. In 1998 a museum was opened in the tunnels that are found below the courtyard of the Temple of Jupiter. The Baalbeck International Festival is held every year during the summer at the temple complex.

This Middle Eastern Structure is One of the Best Preserved Roman Temples in the World
Temple of Bacchus column detail.

Today there remains a conservation effort to continue to restore and protect the temple and the surrounding ruins. The conservation effort is supported by a world bank project and 70% of the workforce on the conservation project are Syrian refugees. In the summer of 2016 the 60th International Festival of Baalbeck was held. The festival attracted huge numbers of visitors from Lebanon and surrounding areas.