Temples built by giants: Nicholas Woodsworth examines the remains of Baalbek in Lebanon and longs for the day when milling crowds return to this part of the Middle East
Financial Times, Sep 1, 2001
From Beirut, the road to the great Roman temples of Baalbek climbs high into the rocky hills above the Mediterranean. Once over the mountains, the road veers north and, squeezed between the high ridges of the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges, runs along the flat, green farmlands of the Bekaa Valley. This is the westernmost tip of the Fertile Crescent which, 5,000 years ago, served as the cradle of civilisation.
Bright yellow wild flowers bloom in the hills in springtime. Higher up - before summer's heat becomes too intense - snow lies deep on the ridges above the Bekaa. Had I not been so concerned about the human geography around me, I would have found the route to Baalbek a pretty one. Of late, though, civilisation in the Bekaa is not what it used to be.

Climbing out of Beirut in a haze of blue exhaust fumes and endlessly jockeying traffic, my initial preoccupation was with drivers - specifically the driver of the taxi into which I and five other passengers were crammed. It was a battered old Mercedes, most likely stolen years ago, in common with so many cars here, from a supermarket parking lot in Hamburg or Cologne. But its present owner, a voluble Beiruti, named Mohammed, seemed to regard it as some sort of armoured vehicle.

"Where is brain in Lebanon? No brain!" was Mohammed's exclamation to me as he repeatedly attempted to overtake slower traffic while oncoming cars did the same thing. Lebanese drivers seem to insist on treating two-lane highways as having four lanes. It left me with white knuckles. The other passengers continued smoking, chatting and spitting pistachio shells out of
the windows. When you have as many troubles as the Lebanese, thrills and spills on the highway are mere trifles. As we left the coast and headed inland my preoccupations became more general.

Gone were the cheap concrete apartment blocks - some of them new and unfinished, others bombed out and abandoned during the civil war - that litter the hills behind Beirut. Gone, too, were the polyglot, cosmopolitan citizens of Beirut themselves. In their place, hunched in roadside fields with faces sun-burned brick-red, were roughly dressed peasant farmers. "Syrians," Mohammed observed sourly.

It was a complaint I had heard a hundred times. Syria has long been the bete noir of most Lebanese. A quarter of a century after they intervened in the Lebanese civil war and a decade after that war's end, the Syrians are still in Lebanon. Not only do 1m Syrian civilians - a quarter of Lebanon's population - work there, causing huge resentment among its job-strapped people; Damascus, the power that pulls the strings of government in Beirut, also maintains about 25,000 of its troops in the country.

There were as many Syrian as Lebanese military checkpoints along the road. They varied little, the black-and-red Syrian flag simply replacing the Lebanese cedar on sentry huts. But Syrian security forces do not always dress as soldiers. Somehow, it seemed more sinister being inspected by heavily armed young men in jeans and dark glasses than by heavily armed young men in uniforms.

At the Bekaa town of Zahale, where we dropped the other passengers, Mohammed found a new subject of feisty complaint. In a country of 17 mutually suspicious sectarian communities, one can never tell who is who. But, with the other Lebanese now out of the car, he could let go. He blasted not only Lebanese drivers and Syrian soldiers but Iranian-backed Hizbollah militants
as well. It happened to be the middle of Ashura, the 10-day mourning period when, each year, Shia Muslims remember the assassination of Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed. It was this event which led to the great schism in the Muslim world, the creation of the Sunni and Shia sects. Ashura is an emotional time and up and down the Bekaa Valley, long a stronghold of fiercely Shia Hizbollah partisans, black flags and banners with the image of Ayatollah Khomeini were flying.

On we drove, past Syrian army posts where long-range Howitzers sat dug in behind high perimeter fences; past Shia mosques where crowds of black-clothed mourners stood listening to sermons; past armed Palestinian refugee camps where tensions were rising as news of the intifada not far to the south filtered through. And, through it all, Mohammed continued his tirade. He was not happy. Lebanon was not happy. Why couldn't all these people just go home?

By the time he dropped me in Baalbek I was almost as distraught as he. Nor did registering at the Palmyra Hotel, a once- grand Victorian pile falling into disrepair, do much to restore me. For, if there were all sorts of foreign groups in Lebanon who refused to go home, there were other groups, tourists and lovers of archaeology, who had not bothered to come at all. I
was the sole guest.
Things had been looking better than they had for years, the manager sighed as I signed in. Then Ariel Sharon was elected in Israel, trouble had erupted in earnest, and almost all the summer's bookings had been cancelled. But never mind, he added lugubriously. Dinner was still being served in the dining room.
I wandered about the lofty, peeling hotel hallways, looking at Roman statuary, marble capitals and the photos of famous visitors displayed there. Charles de Gaulle had stayed at the Palmyra, as had Field Marshal Allenby, Jean Cocteau and the Empress of Abyssinia. Up on the second-floor terrace, I sipped arak and nibbled olives as the sun went down behind the six great stone columns left standing in the Temple of Jupiter. Like the adjacent temples of Bacchus and Venus, they can only be described by superlatives. The columns are the largest carved in the ancient world, as are the 1,000-tonne foundation blocks that lie below them. The locals long believed the Baalbek temples to have been built by giants. They are breathtaking and must be seen to be believed.
I sat in the twilight watching the bright snow fade slowly on the mountains. Below the balcony, crowds of Hizbollah mourners, accompanied by fervour-damping Lebanese soldiers in helmets and flak jackets, were streaming home from the mosque like wraiths, their lamentations over for the day. Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge, Machu Picchu and the Shining Path, Gondar
and the Eritrean Liberation Front . . . All over the globe, I reflected, trouble comes and goes. The great sites of the ancient world - themselves often built in the wake of advancing armies and great defeats - are one day accessible, then the next cut off by the whims of history.
I went down to a vast dining room and, attended by a retinue of elderly and shuffling retainers, ate dinner in splendid isolation. Would Baalbek be a place of milling crowds again, I wondered; the site of the great international music festival it once was?
One day, perhaps, when the Middle East is a calmer place. But I would examine the remains of Baalbek the next day, I knew, alone and at my leisure.

Copyright: The Financial Times Limited