The Megalithic Temples of Lebanon
By Marco M. Vigato, on January 1st, 2023
Throughout much of ancient Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Palestine are found the ruins of ancient temples that may rank among the greatest megalithic structures on earth.
Who were the masterminds that created these structures? When were they built and why? Before we address any of these questions, this article wishes to provide an overview of the main megalithic temple sites of Lebanon, from the world-famous ruins of Baalbek to remote mountain temples far off the beaten track.
Baalbek, nestled in the Bekaa valley between the mountains of Lebanon and Antilebanon, is perhaps the most famous of the ancient Lebanese temples. It is the site of two colossal temples known as the Temple of Jupiter and the Temple of Bacchus, two smaller temples dedicated to Venus and the Muses and a temple of Mercury.
The temple of Jupiter, the largest in the Roman world, rests upon a colossal megalithic platform which is generally attributed to the late Hellenistic or early Roman period for its similarity with Herodian architecture from Jerusalem and Palestine (Lohmann, 2011).
This podium is in turn surrounded by a massive U-shaped, free-standing megalithic wall interpreted as the foundations of an unfinished expansion of the Temple's podium (Lohmann, 2009, 2014, 2017). It is in this wall that three of the largest stones ever employed in architecture are found, each weighing in excess of 800 tons (Adam, 1977). At least another twenty 400-ton stone blocks form the lower course of this megalithic wall.
Even more enormous stones are found in the quarries located a short distance (less than 1 km) from the temple site. One, called the Stone of the South or Hadjar el Hibla (Stone of the Pregnant Woman), is estimated to weigh over 1,000 tons. An even larger stone, estimated to weigh over 1,200 tons, is found in another quarry a short distance to the North. In 2014, a previously unknown 1,650 tons stone block, the largest from antiquity, was discovered in a rock layer immediately below the Stone of the South (Abdul Massih, 2015).
One presently enters the complex from a set of propylea flanked by towers, giving access to an hexagonal courtyard surrounded by porticoes and exedras. From this hexagonal courtyard, a triple doorway leads to the Great Courtyard of the Jupiter Sanctuary, an immense square of 135 by 113 meters bordered by colonnades on the north, south and east side and alternating semicircular and rectangular exedras once containing statues. The courtyard was once surrounded by 128 monolithic granite columns, each over 8 meters tall and weighting more than 20 tons. In its center stood two altars, a "small" altar, measuring approximately 7 meters on each side and a monumental altar of nearly cubic shape, with the enormous dimensions of over 20 meters on each side - itself a masterpiece of megalithic stonework and engineering.
Giant substructures extend underneath the courtyard, with vaulted tunnels running along its north, east and south side (one of these tunnels presently houses the Baalbek archaeological museum).
The Jupiter temple occupies the western side of the courtyard and is approached by a gigantic stairway equipped with three landings, also built of huge megalithic blocks. The temple itself measures 88 by 48 meters and boasts some of the largest and tallest columns from antiquity, each formed of 3 pieces weighing in excess of 40 tons. Unfortunately, only 6 of the temple's original 54 columns are still standing.
Colossal sculptures decorated the roof of the temple. One block from the temple's pediment, now liying amidst the rubble of the cella, has an estimated weight of over 75 tons and had to be lifted to a height of over 23 meters above the temple columns and entablature (Wiegand, 1921).
The Temple of Bacchus rises parallel to the Temple of Jupiter, below the level of the courtyard of the Jupiter sanctuary, and was once contained within its own separate enclosure wall, or Temenos. Larger in size than the Parthenon of Athens, at 69 by 36 meters this temple is nevertheless significantly smaller than the Jupiter Temple. It had 8 columns in the front and 15 on each side. Nowadays, it is one of the best preserved temples from antiquity, with much of its cella and the surrounding colonnade still standing to roof height
The wildest theories have been formulated to explain the origin of the Baalbek megaliths. While many questions remain on the origin of the Jupiter Temple's platform and megalithic enclosure wall, there can be no doubt that Roman engineers were responsible for the erection of the Temples of Jupiter and Bacchus and of the surrounding courtyards and propylaea, which once formed the greatest sanctuary of the Roman world.
TEMPLES OF THE BEKAA VALLEY
Also in the Bekaa valley, near the town of Zahlé, are located the temples of Niha, Hosn Niha and Qsarnaba, which all rest on colossal megalithic foundations.
Located in a valley famous for its wineries, the Great Temple of Niha, dedicated to the god Hadaranus, contains a beautifully preserved adyton and a vaulted underground crypt. Of the adyton and crypt, an exceptional architectural model has servived, which is presently on exhibit at the National Museum of Beirut. The figure of a priest is carved on a pedestal in front of the Great Temple. A second, smaller temple is located on the opposite side of a small creek. Of this second temple, only the podium and the foundations of the cella and the adyton remain.
Far less is known of the temple of Hosn Niha, located about 3 Km from Niha along a difficult mountain trail. Its massive, megalithic structure offers a stark contrast with the classical elegance and refinement of the lower temple.
At Qsarnaba, the podium, stairway and the lower walls of the cella are all that remains of another colossal temple, whose most notable feature is a monumental stairway formed of huge monolithic stone blocks with steps carved into them like at Baalbek.
Further to the Southeast, near Anjar and the Syrian border, lies the temple of Mejdel Anjar. Most of the stones that once formed the podium of this temple have now disappeared, so all that remains is the tower-like cella, also built of enormous stones, some over 5 meters in length.
DEIR EL QALAA (BEIT MERY)
In the outskirts of Beirut, the church and convent of Beit Mery were built in the 18th century over the ruins of a large Roman temple dedicated to Baal Markod, lord of dances and earthquakes, assimilated to Poseidon.
The temple podium and three of the six colossal columns of the pronaos are still standing. Some of the stone blocks employed in the podium construction are enormous, at over 6 meters in length, weighing perhaps in excess of 50 tons. Part of the temple cella and pronaos are incorporated in the substructures of the modern church.
The mountain sanctuary of Qalaat Faqra, situated at an altitude of 1500 meters above sea level, is the seat of a large Roman temple of Jupiter/ Baal Galassos.
The temple itself stands within a colonnaded Temenos with an altar. A second, smaller temple of Atargatis was later converted into a church during the Byzantine period.
A short distance from the Great temple is a set of curious tower-like monuments, the largest of which is known as the 'Tower of Claudius'. It is a square, two-story monument, with an internal stairway leading to the upper terrace. Its function may have been that of an altar or a treasury (Aliquot 2009). The lower courses of the tower are megalithic, whereas a set of two inscriptions above the doorway and in one corner of the structure commemorate its construction during the reign of the emperor Claudius (43-44 CE).
Two more altars face this tower, one surmounted by an Egyptian-style corniche and another surrounded by columns, of a type also attested at Qsarnaba and other temple sites in Lebanon and Syria.
The port of Byblos is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, as it is believed to have been first occupied between 8,800 and 7,000 BCE. Byblos is mentioned in Egyptian texts since the time of the 4th Dynasty and played an important role in the myth and cult of Osiris.
In addition to the ruins of the Phoenician and Greco-Roman period, Byblos hosts the remains of a massive Persian fortress dating to the 6th Century BCE, within which are the ruins of a great megalithic podium that may have supported a temple or palace. The podium is built of massive ashlars, up to 6 meters in length, some of whichwere reused during the XII Century by th Crusaders for the construction of the large castle that still dominates the site.