In My Father’s Court: Baalbek
Pierre Tristam | June 19, 2011
We all have childhood memories that stand out with that mix of melancholy bliss. Mine of Baalbek are among those, probably because it’s in those memories that my father, now dead thirty years, seems so alive whenever I remember him from the rare times we went to Baalbek, his broad shoulders and dark eyes engulfing his Pentax cameras as he’d go about shooting the ruins like each Corinthian column was a supermodel: He was a professional photographer. Lebanon was his studio. We discovered the country’s Greek and Roman and Phoenician and Crusader and Byzantine ruins through his eyes.
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Growing up in Beirut, Baalbek seemed as distant and wondrous a place as Rome must have seemed to Romans living it up in Baalbek when they ruled the place and its palatial temples two thousand years ago. I think Baalbek meant something to my father more than other places. Maybe I’m imagining it only because Baalbek meant something to me more than other places, because there, Jupiter was my father.
It’s a shame that everything tender one says about these places—Baalbek, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut—must be prefaced by a disclaimer, distasteful merely for having to be part of the story: The affection recounted here shouldn’t be confused with affection for whatever militant faction controlled the place then or controls it now—Syria, Hezbollah, Israel, Palestinians. These memories span a long period dating back to a time when Hezbollah didn’t exist, all the way up to a time when I wish it never had. They span geography and time that stand apart from the effluence of the political and the ordinary, that particular mixture of sorry bedlam that keeps attaching to all things Lebanese like an invulnerable virus. Memory only redeems so far.
It’s only a two-hour drive from Beirut to Baalbek, but the roads are twisty, and distances in Lebanon aren’t what they are in Europe or the United States. A kilometer there has the texture of 10 kilometers here, maybe twenty. Lebanon’s roads, sometimes guessed more than paved, often unmarked or barely imagined, lengthen distances the way Scheherazade would lengthen her tales by coils and turns that could leave you exhausted by the time you reached your destination. So trips to Baalbek were rare. I doubt I went there more than twice or three times in all those years before I left Lebanon in 1978. We’d talk about a trip for months, and finally, we’d go. We looked forward to the drive my two brothers and I, in my father’s Citroën (one of those superb DS 21that could hydraulically rise a foot or so and become an all-terrain vehicle before the inelegant age of SUVs), with Radio Monte Carlo blaring in our ears and my mother’s mane-length hair in our eyes: there was no air conditioning, only wide open car windows, Tom Jones singing “She’s a Lady” and a stop or two along the way, to stretch out the pleasure of anticipation. And then, from a distance in the Great Plains of Lebanon that’s the Bekaa Valley, we’d glimpse the famous six columns of Baalbek against the blue sky and the snows at the crest of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, if it was still spring (“the turrets glittered from afar,” in Edward Gibbon’s words).
My trusty Columbia Encyclopedia sums up Baalbek’s two millennia in 92 words: “Originally it was probably devoted to the worship of Baal or Bel, the Phoenician sun god, although no traces of an early Phoenician settlement have survived. The Greeks called the city Heliopolis, city of the sun. It became very prominent in Roman days and was made a separate colony by Augustus. Both Greek and Roman architects employed their genius on Baalbek’s buildings. Among the most imposing Roman remains are the temple of Bacchus and the temple of Jupiter . The city was sacked by invaders and was destroyed by an earthquake in 1759.” But it’s Gibbon’s words that glitter as Baalbek still does:
[A]n ample space was covered with public and private buildings; and the citizens were illustrious by their spirit, or at least by their pride; by their riches, or at least by their luxury. In the days of Paganism, both Emesa and Heliopolis were addicted to the worship of Baal, or the sun; but the decline of their superstition and splendour has been marked by a singular variety of fortune. Not a vestige remains of the temple of Emesa , which was equalled in poetic style to the summits of Mount Libanus, while the ruins of Baalbec, invisible to the writers of antiquity, excite the curiosity and wonder of the European traveller. The measure of the temple is two hundred feet in length, and one hundred in breadth: the front is adorned with a double portico of eight columns; fourteen may be counted on either side; and each column, forty-five feet in height, is composed of three massy blocks of stone or marble. The proportions and ornaments of the Corinthian order express the architecture of the Greeks: but as Baalbec has never been the seat of a monarch, we are at a loss to conceive how the expense of these magnificent structures could be supplied by private or municipal liberality.
The ruins in Baalbek aren’t cordoned off in any way. Visitors can walk through them like it was a Roman version of the Hirshhorn Museum , freely touching whatever stonework they please. The site takes several hours to see, several days to appreciate. The grounds are littered with massive stones, what’s left of the earthquake and what hasn’t been worn away by time. Nothing but the Temple of Bacchus and the famous six columns of the Temple of Jupiter still stand. It’s a wonder these stand still. My father would linger about them, shooting from every angle, standing between the columns for the perspective they afforded on the Temple of Bacchus, the God of wine, roofless but so remarkably preserved that for many years it doubled up as one of the concert halls of the annual summer Baalbek International Festival (and does again). My father’s patience for the right light and angle exceeded ours but I don’t remember either him or my mother restraining us from running all over the many acred grounds. Where could we go? The gods were dead, the devils yet too slothful to care.
I had two absolute favorite places. My second-most favorite wasn’t actually on the temple grounds. It was some distance off, in town, in a cavity of ground befitting the monument: what its keepers then as now refer to as the world’s largest single stone. It is enormous, rectangular, jutting from the ground at an angle, as inexplicably as its size and chiseled frame. What it took to get it there, where it came from, how many backs it broke on its way there: mysteries, like that scene in Close Encounter of the Third Kind where the French scientist goes to the Mongolian desert or some such place to see an enormous ship that had inexplicably dropped there.
The stone was a photographic challenge for my father. How to shoot it to represent its scale and tonnage, its strength, its two thousand years of immobility? I don’t know if he was ever satisfied with his results. I like to think that despite my youth when he died, his photographs are part of my history, catalogued for the most part in my mind to this day for lack of more tangible memories of my father, like the sound of his voice or some of those shredded bits of counsel and wisdom a son is supposed to carry from his father’s lips. I don’t remember seeing pictures of the great stone of Baalbek . But now I have my own. A Lebanese flag flies from its crest, as if borrowing from the stone’s immovability. When I went back there in 2000, I walked the stone’s length, laid flat with my back against its smoothly weathered face, caressed it and, I think, kissed it a few times. It is my namesake, after all. Some things are wonderfully immovable and yet more moving than all the art in a roofed museum. I wouldn’t put it past one of these contemporary air raids to drop a 500-pound bomb on the stone, one more malicious attempt at humbling the region’s heritage, at breaking its back, spine by spine.
My most favorite place was on the threshold of the Temple of Bacchus. The entrance’s overhang is still there, intact. If you look up, you can see in distinct details Bacchus, god of wine, trailing a trove of grapes. The image, pointed to me by my father as he told me of the grapes and wines Bacchus would drink, stuck with me since then, wondrous and as indelibly etched in my memory as it is in that roman stone where, face down, it has weathered rains and snows and winds so well. When I returned to Baalbek during the winter of 2000, the entrance to the temple was the first place I wanted to see. To verify my childhood’s marker. I stood there a moment, not looking up: what if it had all been a jumble of the imagination, a trick of time and embellishments? Then I looked, and it was as if my father was standing with me, pointing all over again to Bacchus, who was there of course, trailing his grapes, the dark-shaded hue of the aged stone around him looking like the wine-dark sea of an epic memory not even Homer could have rhymed more poetically with my father’s breath.
A Baalbek Image Gallery