On our big road trip from Saudi Arabia to Jordan and Syria (check my posts Petra Vs Mada’in Saleh, Market in Aleppo, Treasure Hunting at the souk in Damascus) there was a third country we could not miss, Lebanon! At the time the situation in Lebanon seemed to be calm and stable so we crossed the border from Syria and tried to visit as much as possible in just four days.
Baalbek had been a long time dream for me as it was one of the most famous and biggest sanctuaries of the ancient world. Its history dates back to 9000 years ago. During the Phoenician period a triad of fertility gods were worshipped here. These religious beliefs were later mixed with the Graeco-Roman pantheon and the most intricate and monumental religious Roman Imperial Architecture. The Romans arrived in Phoenicia in 64 BC and that is when Baalbek reached its apogee. The construction of the whole sanctuary took over two centuries and it was built on top of earlier ruins. The acropolis of Baalbek enclosed different temples, parts of the main ones are still standing and they are just beautiful. They are the temple of Jupiter which is the main temple of the triad, the temple of Bacchus (the most complete and my favorite) and the temple of Venus. Thousands of pilgrims visited the sanctuary each year.
We had asked at the our hotel in Tripoli and they advised us on the best route to get to Baalbek. Not once did they tell us it was dangerous or that we should not risk to visit it. That reassured us it would be fine.
We started off in the morning, direction Cedars. In ancient times there were big Cedar forests in these mountains. Throughout the ages these Cedar forests were depleted by different peoples. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Phoenicians and Egyptian all exploited the wood in great amounts. Egyptians built their boats with cedar wood and is believed Solomon used it in the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. Later the Ottomans exploited it to build the railway. Although it was April, there was still snow in the mountain road. A lot actually at certain points.
However, we didn’t think much of it. It was a warm, sunny morning and we thought that by the time we went back, the snow would have melted. The Bekaa valley is a beautiful place, the landscape, the nature, enchanted us. We were just happy to finally see it.
At some point we stopped to take a few pictures and got out of the car. When I looked down I saw some empty bullet shells from what looked like a big gun. That worried us a bit but to lighten the mood someone made a joke about target practice and the Hezbollah and we all laughed. Then I was assured that the shells looked very old so there was really no need to worry. The view was breathtaking and everything looked so peaceful that it was hard to believe anything could go wrong.
We almost didn’t see anybody on the road and just started seeing people and more cars when we reached the center of Baalbek. There were flags of the Hezbollah everywhere and in the back of my mind there was again fear of something going wrong.
When we got to the gate of the sanctuary, we could see the amazement in the faces of the guards. Apart from a backpack tourist, probably as crazy as us, we were the only ones in the sanctuary. It didn’t disappoint, it was as impressive as I thought it would be.
When you enter your eyes are drawn to the impressive 20 meters high columns of the Temple of Jupiter. Unfortunately there are only 6 columns left standing due to earthquakes or having been used in other sites.
The Grand Court enclosed several religious buildings and altars. You can imagine how it must have looked at its prime.
However, the most impressive temple for me is the Temple of Bacchus. When you get to the entrance you envisage partially what is to come.
Then you enter a magical place, where the intricate detailed decoration is exceptional and beyond any expectation I had. Here is a view of the altar.
It is one of the most complete Roman temples in the world and the finest example of the Roman Imperial architecture.
The rich decorative motifs were so special
Here is the representation of Cleopatra and the poisonous snake.
You can see how well preserved it is on the outside as well
The Temple of Venus is not as well preserved or complete but you can guess how beautiful it must have been through the decorative details it still displays.
Throughout the site there are certain pieces that hold your attention and just have been almost the only foreign visitors present was a privilege. We spent as much time we desired and could appreciate the sanctuary in a very special way.
We left feeling happy that we had been able to see this great sanctuary at least once in our lifetime. Had some food briefly at a local restaurant and left to return to Cedars and then Tripoli. Chance had it that we made a wrong turn and ended up on the wrong road back. We were stopped before we started ascending towards Cedars at an army checkpoint.
The military tried to warn us that the road was closed due to the snow. Convinced we were on the same road as in the morning, we told them the road was opened. They looked at us like we were a bit crazy, smiled and told us to proceed if we were sure the road was opened. They even joked about it saying we seemed to know more than they did and thanked us for the information. We were such in a good mood and still overwhelmed by what we had seen that not even then alarm bells rang. My companions even joked about how we seemed to be better informed than the Lebanese army.
When we started our ascent I started to notice the landscape looked different from that morning. When I told my husband and our companions, everybody dismissed me. They said that maybe with the ice melting the landscape looked a bit different but they were all completely sure we were on the right road. They were absolutely convinced there was only one road back up.
The doubts and alarm bells appeared when we saw them! Suddenly ahead we see a four wheel drive stopped at one side of the road and in front of it, a man dressed as a civilian holding a shotgun and looking straight at us. The tension in the car increased. We didn’t know what to do and what he was going to do. We went slowly and he looked very attentively inside our car and in particular to our Saudi number plate. He let us pass but when we did I noticed he was talking with someone further up on the other side. There was another car and another man with a gun. We all thought they could only be Hezbollah lookouts. All sorts of thoughts were going through our minds, we could be killed, maybe kidnapped. I know I was thinking how silly it was to have come so far and die or disappear in such a way. Except for the hotel nobody really knew where we were.
We were arguing what to do. My companions thought the worst was over. We had passed them and soon we would be back at Cedars. That until we reached a certain point and saw the road blocked by a huge snow wall and a snow plower stopped there, empty. Obviously, the shift had ended and they would only be back the next day. We got more tense and nervous. Just the thought of going back down and meet the Hezbollah men was overwhelming. Plus we had to turn the car around in a very dangerous point with a cliff on one side and a rock wall on the other.
Fear is an interesting feeling, it can either paralyze you or make you capable of anything in order to survive. I usually get very active when I fear for my life, I enter in command mode and try to encourage everyone around me to follow my lead. Make no mistake I was terrified but I wanted to survive even more. The first thing to do was to turn the car around. There was really no other way! We all got out of the car and my husband was left to drive. Little by little with our instructions, he managed to turn it around although there were a few moments I thought we wouldn’t make it.
Then we all got back inside and started our descent back. By then my companions had realized this wasn’t the same road as in the morning so we needed to find a way out of this one and get directions to the right one. Hopefully, not from the Hezbollah! We decided to put some music to lighten up the heavy atmosphere in the car. I don’t know who decide on ABBA but we had their greatest hits and we all sang to it. At least we would go singing! When we passed the same point where the men had been, they had disappeared but that didn’t really reassure us. Maybe they were hiding, waiting for the right moment or they were just waiting for reinforcements! Until we reached a workshop we kept singing but always wondering where they had gone to. We didn’t even know if we could trust people but we had no choice at this point. We stopped there and asked the owner for directions. He also looked a bit surprised to see foreigners there but he explained which road we should take to reach Cedars.
It was still far away as we had deviated quite a bit. We had wasted a lot of time and soon it would be dark. We had different ideas on how to proceed, two of us wanted to go through the Bekaa valley to Beirut instead of returning to Tripoli and the other two wanted to go back to Cedars and Tripoli. We managed to convince the others that going to Beirut in the evening through the Bekaa valley and Hezbollah land was too risky. We did not want to chance fate even further. So we decided to go back to Cedars. We had to stop once on the way, since we were all still shaking, open the windows a bit and just breathe. When I saw Cedars again I finally broke down. We were pretty starved, so we decided to stop and eat at a local lodge. Our hands were still shaking when we got out of the car. The restaurant looked closed and they were really surprised when they saw us there. I begged them for some food, they were so nice. Lebanese hospitality at its best! Opened the kitchen just for us and I don’t know if it was because we were just happy to be alive but the food was delicious! We relaxed and felt ourselves again.
Next day we met our honorary consul, a nice Lebanese banker. When he heard our story he was so upset. He confirmed the lookouts we saw must have been from the Hezbollah. We had our ears full how irresponsible we had been and that we could have been killed or kidnapped. He was right of course and it had been a mistake not to ask him before. I felt so blessed to be alive, God really protects the innocent and the fool! I guess the Hezbollah were not interested in us or maybe they also thought we were just crazy foreigners from Saudi Arabia insisting on going up a road that was blocked by the snow!